Fayetteville State University welcomed Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the New York Times best-seller Hidden Figures, which was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film, as part of the Chancellor’s Speaker series
on Tuesday, February 6.
Guests arrived as early as 2 hours ahead of the event’s start.
Among these was a retired pediatrician named Deborah Chapman, who secured her seat an hour early. “I’m a scientist!” she said, explaining her interest in Margot Shetterly’s work. “I would not even know about these
women if it weren’t for this author. And I’m sure it’s just the tip of the iceberg. These women, they are not the only hidden figures in our history.”
And Deborah Chapman’s sentiments, like many guests, foreshadowed the theme Shetterley’s discourse.
“This is wonderful, that these women did what they did at the time they did it. I mean, how can you not be inspired by them?” Chapman said.
Shetterly began her discourse describing the many childhood inspirations which prompted her to delve into the story that is Hidden Figures.
Speaking of her mother, Shetterly shared, “She nurtured my love of the written word.”
“My father, who worked as a research scientist at NASA Langley in Hampton, Virginia (where Hidden Figures takes place), he pushed me into math and science classes,” she said.
Shetterly went on to take inspiration from both of these influences although she ultimately chose a career in investment banking.
“If someone had told me that someday I’d be making my living as a writer, and not just as a writer, but a writer of history, I would have said to that person: you are out of your darn mind,” she shared.
She was unaware as a child that the everyday people who at the time seemed “normal” would turn out to be significant figures in history.
“It never occurred to me growing up that Black people could not be scientists because the veryfirst scientist that I knew was a Black man and the first Black man that I knew was a scientist. We lived in a community where many people worked for NASA, including the women I write about in my book.”
Shetterly’s childhood reality was what she considers to be “abnormal,” in the sense that she saw Black persons and women working diligently in STEM fields despite the prejudices and racial climate of the ‘60s – ‘80s.
“It’s simply a matter of fact for me that Black women, that all women for that matter could be scientists or engineers or mathematicians,” she explained.
Shetterly went to expound on the idea that she, at the time, did not understand the significance of the work being done by her father or of the four women she writes about in Hidden Figures.
“I knew Katherine Johnson growing up, but I knew her as one of the people that my mother saw on the weekends at her sorority meetings or somebody who worked with my father. I did not know her at that time as the mathematician who wrote the trajectory equation for John Glenn’s 1962 orbital space flight,” Shetterly said.
In discussing the powerful influence of her writing, Shetterly shared that many of her audiences meet the story of Hidden Figures with a wide spectrum of reactions: sometimes joy, confusion, and even anger. Readers so often ask Shetterly: “Why haven’t I heard this story before?”
“The more time I have spent trying to answer that question, the more that I come to believe there is another, much more important question that we should be asking ourselves when it comes to stories like Hidden Figures, and that question is: What else have we missed?” Shetterly responded.
And as response to this question, Shetterly emphasized the importance in finding and telling these stories that somehow go untold. Not only did Shetterly urge the audience to seek out hidden truths, but also to view history
through a holistic lens.
“We tend to see Black history or women’s history to be somehow removed from Ameri- can history. Hidden Figures is a Black story and it’s a Virginian story. It’s a women’s story. And it’s a mathematician’s story. Because of those things. Not in spite of them. Because of those things, it is most fundamentally, an American story.”