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Double victory, at home and abroad

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We know how racial prejudice began. We can attempt to guess how it can end. The need to employ every hand to fight the First World War must have suggested the solution. If all hands joined to fight and defeat prejudice in Europe, the united hands will join to get rid of it in the United States of America. But no sooner had the First World War than the second came along. The same argument was brought forward especially in combatting the German attack on the Jews. All hands once more joined and Allieds won the war. Personal memories of American minorities told them that they had not died in vain had they died fighting the Germans in support of the Western world war effort.

Read the autobiographies of African Americans and you hear the same unfortunate lament. Does it mean that we deceive ourselves when we speak of defeating prejudice abroad and at home with joined hands?

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From where did the notion of double victory emanate? That African Americans, along with other minorities would join hands to defeat the enemies of prejudice and the glorious victory at home and abroad will end prejudice forever.

Once more, it did not work out that way. Then the pandemic arrived and once more all humans were not just equal. Our chances were back to the same level. If I don’t survive you don’t survive either. Months before the vaccine was developed it was sobering to listen to everybody pontificate on the equality of all life and if one is lost all is lost.

As soon as the vaccine are available, distribution has become difficult, especially to the poorer places on earth. Which made my encounter with this book such a fortunate one for me. HIDDEN FIGURES is written by Margot Lee Shetterly, “a writer who grew up Hampton, Virginia, where she knew many of the women featured in HIDDEN FIGURES.

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The daughter of a NASA research scientist, she is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow and the recipient of a Virginia Foundation of the Humanities grant for her research into the history of women in computing. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.” This is the true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space.

“With two strokes of a pen — Executive Order 8802, ordering the desegregation of the defense Industry, and Executive Order 9346, creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee to monitor the national project of economic inclusion — Roosevelt primed the pump for a new source of labor to come into the tight production process.”

This was in 1941. In a May 1943 telegram to the civil service`s chief of field operations. “This establishment has an urgent need for approximately 100 Junior Physicists and Mathematicians, 100 Assistant Computers, 75 Minor Laboratory Apprentices, 125 Helper Trainees, 50 Stenographers and Typists.”

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In no time at all men and women, more women were being delivered to Laboratory and, once sworn in “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…so. Help me God,” they went to work.

That was all it took: executive action, request for persons and black women to become Computers and Engineers.

There was nothing Heaven-ordained in black people being whatever they wanted to be. It was. The system that decreed so. And that same decree can be cancelled. “NOTHING IN THE APPLICATION INDICATED ANYTHING LESS THAN FITNESS FOR THE JOB.”

The book has, besides the author’s Note and Prologue, 23 chapters: a door opens, Mobilisation, Past is Prologue, the Double V, Manifest Destiny, War Birds, the Duration. Those who move forward, Breaking Barriers, Home by the Sea, the Area Rule, Serendipity, Turbulence, Angle of Attack, Young, Gifted and Black, What a difference a day makes, Outer Space, With All Deliberate Speed, Model Behaviour, Degrees of Freedom, Out of the Past, the Future, America is for Everybody, and To Boldly Go. In addition, there is an Epilogue, an Acknowledgement, Notes, Bibliography and Index.

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Boredom or De ja vu? Somehow a book such as this ought not to be boring. On its cover, it carries statements such as “The untold story of the African American women who helped win the Space Race”. “Genius has no race. Strength has no gender. Courage has no limit.”

And finally this: “Before John Glenn orbited the earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, some of the brightest minds of their generation, known as ‘human computers, used pencils and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.

Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War and the Space Race, Hidden Figures is a powerful, revelatory tale of race, discrimination and achievement in the modern world.”

In the Epilogue, the author raised three issues – why the story of these women remained untold for so long, the fate of the double V and class action on unequal pay. Why did the story remain untold for so long? After the end of apartheid in South Africa is legalised discrimination worth telling except the story of its end?

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The Double V is true in the points it makes. No more and no less. As for a class act legal contestation, they paid what they promised to pay. End of story.

The problem with the story and its telling are that it is not told as part of the global narration of discrimination. If it had been told in that kind of orbit, the embarrassment of such a simple process to correct global misbehaviour would have been avoided.

The lesson of South Africa was never digested properly and understood. If it had been understood, it would have told everyone that discrimination was misbehaviour never to be tolerated again. In which case, this story would not have been told as a story to alarm. Rather, it should have been told in addition to the other unheard stories of discrimination from different parts of the world.

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