The Forgotten Few

In his article on the Serena cartoon debate Gary Younge attacks not just the creator of the cartoon, Mark Knight, but also the judgment of the newspaper in allowing a centuries old racist image of black women to be publishes. He argues calling out racism is not censorship. In a parallel media,ie film, Hidden figures, a film launched in 2016, told the true story of 3 Black women who helped America put their first man on both moon and space and the difficulties faced by them in this task. These two texts in question are very different from each other in many regards. One is a movie while the other is an article. One deals with racism and segregation in the U.S in the 1960s while the other deals with a tasteless cartoon and the issue of right to offend. The only overarching similarity seem to be the characters in them I.e black women.A first look at these pieces throws up immediate connections, that of black women and the discrimination faced by them, but a deeper analysis of both these pieces leads to the identification of a core problem, a proposition that: Black Women are deliberately not given due credit or recognition for their contributions to society in history.

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The movie Hidden figures features 3 black women who faced extreme odds:

Katherine, a single mother, battles extremes odds to be a part of Nasa’s mission to send astronauts to space. She is a prodigy in mathematics who solves the hardest equations involved for the space program. She is a human computer who even designs the equation which guides the space capsule’s re-entry into earth’s orbit. Despite all this she faces extreme hostility from her co-workers, her name is not included in the finals reports, is forced to run 800 meters to the racially segregated bathroom each day, and is even re-assigned just before the launch of the rocket is to take place. In the end when the rocket faces problems because of computational errors caused by a computer she is called back in, at the behest of the astronauts, to recompute all the data so the astronauts can land safely.

Dorothy Vaughn the unofficial manager of the colored women defies authorities and odds to teach herself and her fellow colored people the language of computers so that they are not laid off. When Dorothy learns about the impending installation of an electronic computer that could replace human computers, she visits the computer room to learn about it, and successfully starts the machine. She visits a public library, and illegally enters the whites-only section, to borrow a book about coding.. She steals the book and begins studying on her own. She teaches herself programming and trains her West Area co-workers. She is then is officially promoted to supervise the Programming Department, bringing 30 of her co-workers with her.

Mary Jackson is an aspiring engineer who dares go against her husband and society by trying for an engineering position at NASA. She is a prodigy who immediately identifies and solves a heat shield problem on the rocket. She convinces a white judge to grant her access to a nearby all white college so that she can take the courses required for an engineering degree. She does so and becomes the first black woman engineer at NASA.

These three women played a pivotal role shaping one of the defining moments of history and yet they seem to have been forgotten in history. Despite all the odds they overcame and the way their brilliance lighted the path forward they have been more or less forgotten by history. Very few people today even know that such a group of people existed. Their contribution has been forgotten. In fact in a survey taken by Encyclopedia Britannica only less than 0.02 percent of all those surveyed knew who these women were. This is a clear indication that despite actively performing in national duty and sacrificing so much Black women’s contribution in history have been forgotten. The film itself acknowledges this reality in the beginning and end where it mentions that these women should not have been forgotten.

While this phenomenon seems isolated or elitist in practice the fact is that it was and is institutionalized. According to research between 1880 and 1930 there were at least 2,018 reported incidents of lynching, in which some 2,362 black men, women, and children were murdered.  These lynchings soon became monthly affairs, where colored people were mutilated and burned at the stake in carnival-like atmospheres. At the same time, the practice of white-capping spread, in which black landowners and sharecroppers were tortured via intimidation and violence till they fled their land, making way for white tenants and owners. Urban areas were a bit better in this regard, however a series of riots—Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898, Atlanta in 1906, Springfield, Illinois in 1908, Chicago and East St. Louis in 1919—saw the white rioters, with the sanction and even assistance of law enforcement officials, beat blacks indiscriminately, destroy their businesses, and force them to leave their homes and abandon their possessions. These riots destroyed the first and possibly the last early spot of black women entrepreneurship. Black women who had set up shops in cities Chicago found themselves out on the streets, an event which seriously weakened the colored women’s community’s resolve to engage in further such ventures.

This attitude of disregarding Black Women and their contributions might seem archaic and something which doesn’t belong to the 21st century. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. If today you think of one woman who is the epitome success and represents the black woman’s society it is Serena Williams. However recently there was an attack on her in the form of a racist cartoon which aimed to dehumanize her and tarnish her reputation as a sport-women so that she would not be remembered by history. This is where Gary Younge’s article on the Selena cartoon comes to play. While many people from Martin Luther King’s daughter to Nicki Minaj to Jk Rownling have slammed the cartoon Gary Younge points out that its not just the inherent racism which he is drawing attention to but also the caricature of black people especially women which he is referring to as the worst aspect. It is this caricature which not just affects and harms black women mentally in terms of how they view their own physical aspects but also in terms of how they view their place in society. The caricature clearly aims to snatch away the significance of Serena Williams achievements in sport by casting her as non human with massive lips and lolling tongue so that she is dehumanized and the common men and women do not identify with her or remember her.

Despite the different approaches of the two mediums we can find several examples in them to support the current proposition. In Hidden Figures Stafford’s name is printed on the official documents while Katherine’s name never figures on official reports. This is a deliberate attempt to make sure that people ,in the future, who try to prove to the world that black women have achieved something of worth and have contributed to society in general fail. In fact a research study by Harvard scholars has led them to the conclusion that 38% of Black Women in academia are never given due credit to this day. In the case of the Gary Younge article he points out how by exercising his right to offend the cartoonist has forgotten to take into account people’s right to be offended. This seemingly banal statement actually refers to the fact that the cartoonist and all those who have stepped up to support him ,such as Herald Sun and News Corp as well as a gaggle of white men on twitter, are actually trying to mask their real intent of demonizing and belittling a current champion so that future generation do not remember her, a black women, who dominated an entire era of this sport of tennis. Any rational human can in this case thus conclude that the excuse of freedom of expression, by Mark Knight the cartoonist, is therefore just a facade. The fact that the world wants black women to be forgotten can also be learned by looking at the list of the rock and roll hall of fame inductees. Since 1986, when the list began, only 5 black women or groups that feature black women have been inducted. Out of these 5 only one has been inducted after 2000. The last exposition clearly proves that attitudes towards black women is only worsening and that they are increasingly forced to fight for their due credit. In the light of this it is easy to see why Gary Younge reacts so angrily at an attack on a black woman icon such as Serena. If even current legends are not written down in history due to such attacks then all the sacrifices by black women in the past as well as the current eras will be seen as futile. More importantly erosion of the image of current black women icons will ensure that future generations of black women do not aim to emulate such feats. This can be clearly realized by the lines in his article: “And so it is that we once again enter the culture wars, stage right, with aggressors posing as victims, bigotry masquerading as satire, free speech condemned as censorship; and any calls for sensitivity, historical context, moral responsibility, equality, accuracy, decency, fairness or accountability dismissed as “political correctness”. Rhetorical straw men are pummeled to within an inch of their lives and, in this case, a real black woman is deprived of her dignity.”

One thing that is sure to strike careful readers of these particular media is their difference in tone. Hidden Figures, despite being a dark commentary on the racism and segregation in the us in the Nineteen sicties, is positive in the terms of progress made. It mentions how towards the end Katherine Goble gets her name on some re ports so future generations can know part of her contribution. How segregated bathrooms are torn downs so that black women at NASA are remembered for more than their morning dash to the racially segregated bathroom separated 800 meters away. Mary gets an engineering degree and her contributions are noted down. Dorothy Vaughn become one of the first computer geniuses whose contributions as the supervisor of the Programming department at NASA goes down in History. Katherine is awarded the presidential medal of freedom in 2015 and NASA dedicates the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Building in her honor.
On the other hand the article bemoans the fact that even in the current era all it takes to destroy the image of black women legends is a few casual potshots taken by racists who in the end end even that such an act was racist in nature. He talks bout how the issue is not about editorial freedom but editorial judgment and propagation of racial stereotypes which are damaging to the en masse morale of all black women as a community.

Clearly by analyzing both texts and the current meta we can conclude that either something went wrong from the sixties to the two thousands or that any promises made of progress in the movie were clearly in part just a fantasy. While black women these day are actually given some recognition in tersm of public recognition and historical remembrance they are still nowhere to be found. When we look at the current age and the recognition the three black pioneers in NASA actually have in terms of public we have to wonder as to why such an event came to pass. However, by looking at the first media and the current reaction we can however understand the author’s reaction in the second text. He is after all trying to safeguard the future historical impact of a current icon so that she too is not forgotten like here predecessors.

One counterargument that people come up with to this proposition is that many black people are given due recognition and that they aren’t forgotten by history. Most people point towards Martin Luther King as an example. Here as a conclusion the author of this synthesis would like to point out that this piece is about black women in particular and not the black community as a whole. As a case in point we can look at Coretta King the wife of Martin Luther king. A celebrated community leader in her own right according to a survey less than 4% of Americans even know who she was and less than1 percent know her contributions to the civil rights movements.


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