As the Senate hearings for Jeff Sessions’ nomination as attorney general ran into their second day, I kept thinking about the movie Hidden Figures, which my wife Judith and I saw three days earlier. The film is based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly about three African-American women in the early 1960s who lived in the segregated South while working on NASA’s first manned space missions.
These women were educated engineers and mathematicians — one a prodigy with an extraordinary capacity for calculating numbers and theorems in her head. When astronaut John Glenn prepared to become the first American to orbit the Earth, calculations for his re-entry into the atmosphere require an urgent adjustment. Glenn knows whom to ask for: “the smart one,” he says of Katherine Johnson, played in the movie by Taraji P. Henson. Sure enough, she gets it exactly right — in the film just as she did in real life.
Yet for all her skill and talent — for all her genius — Johnson and the other black women are routinely subjected to humiliation and insults, to the condescension and cruelty that were the common lot of black Americans when “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” signs — and burly state troopers enforcing Jim Crow laws — maintained strict segregation between the races.
Despite several white restrooms in the NASA control center where she works, whenever nature calls Johnson has to run half a mile to the colored bathroom in another building. She is the only black and the sole woman among an all-white team who will not even allow her to share the coffee machine. When she is called out for taking such lengthy breaks, her suppressed anguish at the second-class treatment suddenly erupts. You can feel her pain — and then the shame of her boss, played by Kevin Costner.
While her friend Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) oversees 30 or more black “computers,” as the women officially were identified, she is consistently and rudely denied the title and pay of white supervisors. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), the third woman, is barred from attending engineering courses at the town’s all-white school until a judge reluctantly agrees she can attend — the night class. Somehow these three survived the malice, meanness and pervasive oppression of everyday life to carry on successful lives with dignity intact.
Washington, DC in the mid-’60s glowed with pride over America’s besting of the Soviets up in the heavens, and there I got to know NASA Administrator Jim Webb. I attended meetings on space policy over which he presided, shared in moments of celebration at the agency’s successes and relished his boisterous remembrances of the first thrilling but precarious days of the space program. I never heard these women mentioned. There were no shout-outs to them, no newspaper features, no official recognition. They were swallowed back into anonymity and invisibility — into the suffocating holding pen that was American apartheid.
The civil rights movement was then beginning to gain force, a power that would bring change, and at the end of Hidden Figures, we see photographs of the real women and learn they finally earned recognition through intelligence, skill and hard work. As we left the theater we saw tear-stained faces throughout the auditorium, and we ran into several friends who had unabashedly wept both in joy for the three women and their “ultimate triumph,” as one said, and in sadness at “the long neglect through which they had to pass.”
I thought again of those photographs later that evening during the Golden Globe Awards, when Tracee Ellis Ross of the TV series Black-ish dedicated her award “for all of the women, women of color and colorful people, whose stories, ideas, thoughts are not always considered worthy, and valid and important. But I want you to know that I see you. We see you.”
If he could, Jeff Sessions would take back all the racial progress. Now he will at last have the chance to turn the clock back, which is why Donald Trump chose him. I watched Sessions feint and evade during the hearings and thought what an insult his appointment is to a half-century of history in which the civil rights movement helped end overt oppression and won for Johnson, Vaughan, Jackson and countless others the standing and recognition they earned and deserved as citizens. As Americans.
So much struggle and sacrifice over the years, so many burning churches, mutilated bodies, ticking bombs and bloodshed — so much venomous human behavior before we finally began to get it right. Racism still remains a powerful toxic stream flowing through American life. Too many people are still unseen.
Through his career as a prosecutor in Alabama and as a US senator Jeff Sessions has done what he could to frustrate the gains of all the “hidden figures” among us by attempting to disenfranchise or suppress their votes. He called the Voting Rights Act of 1965 “an intrusion” before cynically voting to reauthorize it and then quickly signing on to a Republican effort to undermine it. When the conservative Supreme Court eventually gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Sessions said it was “good news… for the South.” Since then he has championed voter-ID laws and remained indifferent as Republican state legislatures undertook a massive campaign of repression against black voters.
In the 1980s he prosecuted civil rights activists on dubious charges — behavior that when coupled with an allegation that he’d called a black colleague “boy,” cost him a Reagan-era appointment as a federal judge. The NAACP, which Sessions once called “un-American,” describes his record on voting rights as “unreliable at best and hostile at worst,” and also notes “a failing record on other civil rights; a record of racially offensive remarks and behavior; and [a] dismal record on criminal justice reform issues.”
And he opposed reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act.
Benign in manner, soft of voice but hard at the core, Jeff Sessions is the perfect figurehead for the resurgent white nationalists who now aim not to make history but reverse it — by a hundred years or more if they can. This is the man to whom Donald Trump is handing the enforcement of our laws from civil and voting rights to environmental protection, antitrust enforcement, housing, employment and all the rest.
Expect new laws but little justice, and be vigilant as America’s shadows become ever more crowded with hidden figures of every shade.