Symbols in Hidden Figures
Symbols in hidden Figures shows “colored” signs representing the injustices of segregation against the West Computers. Butler decided to hire black women. “Butler then took the next step and added another item to Sherwood’s seemingly endless requisitions list: a metal sign for the bathroom that read COLORED GIRLS.” These signs were not removed from Langley until many decades later. Miriam Mann takes the “COLORED COMPUTERS” signs from Langley’s dining hall. The signs will remain there until the NACA stops replacing them. Hidden Figures mentions these signs strategically to illustrate the small reminders that black computers faced: They might be great mathematicians but are still not allowed to use white toilets.
The “COLORED” signs displayed by the women at West Computing in the cafeteria and on doors to restrooms remind that regardless of what Black people achieve, many white peers will still define them solely based on their race. Langley managers are also compelled by segregation to break apart people based on race, which is still the norm. This is both demoralizing and dehumanizing. Langley’s Black women are still treated second-class regardless of how hard they work, how organized, or how stylish they dress. The women all eat at the same cafeteria, but the Black women have their table marked “COLORED COMPUTERS.” Miriam Mann perseveres in her efforts to get rid of these offensive signs. Her efforts have helped other women to gain dignity, and she has won a small victory. As the signs are removed, the management symbolizes the beginning of an integrated workplace.
Some signs indicate where black employees can and cannot go in Langley’s offices. These signs are stark symbols of the oppression and inequality black computer workers at the NACA face while working for the United States government. Miriam Mann, a member of the first generation black computer, steals the “Colored Computers” sign in 1940 and places it in her purse. She then continues to steal the sign until it stops reappearing. This is what Mann is doing. It allows the NACA’s black women to regain some dignity in the face of discrimination and prejudice they are subject to every day. Her persistent, nonviolent action is reminiscent of the protests and sit-ins that would characterize the Civil Rights movement in the South throughout the second half of the 20th century. The black computers ate at their table after the sign was removed. However, it was a constant reminder that they were inferior to white women and not worthy of sharing the same bathroom or table. Mann’s little rebellion is a small step towards equality for all black women and men, not just those with a certain status or who are willing to defy the rules. NACA chief officials removed the “Colored” signs from the bathrooms. This marks the moment when true integration at NACA begins.
Virginia is home to the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, a stronghold for Jim Crow laws. Although President Roosevelt had officially de-segregated the defense sector, states still enforced social separation between blacks and their white counterparts. Jim Crow laws still prohibited segregation of public places like buses, drinking fountains, and bathrooms. After the end of Reconstruction, the South saw the beginnings of the system in 1877. It was evident in the segregation of human computers according to race during the 1940s when Langley’s first black female mathematicians arrived. The computers of black people were assigned to West Area Computing, while the computers of white people were assigned to East Area Computing. The presence of “Colored” signs indicating where black employees could eat and go to the toilet was a more obvious sign of Jim Crow. These signs were a reminder of the second-class status of blacks. The gradual decline of the signs to benign neglect over time demonstrates the integration that was taking place in Langley. In 1958, the West Area Computers Unit was disbanded, officially ending Langley’s segregation. The “Colored” signs vanished once and for all.
Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite launched by the USSR in 1957, was called “Hidden Figures”. Sputnik is the symbol of America’s fall from space. Langley is struggling with COLORED GIRLS’ bathroom signs. The USSR achieves space flight. This presages a decade of one-upmanship, in which the US is restricted by its inability to maximize its resources, namely women of color and people of color whose brilliant minds are not being acknowledged.
The term “The Double V,” which is shorthand for “The Double Victory”, was first mentioned in a letter that an activist sent to The Pittsburgh Courier. “Let colored Americans adopt double VV for double victory,” the letter stated. The first V stands for victory over enemies from within, while the second stands for victory over enemies within. These people are attempting to destroy our democracy just as surely as the Axis. The Double V represents the struggle against America’s enemies worldwide and against Americans whose prejudices undermine America from within. The Double V is the guiding principle of the Langley black female computer scientists. They are dedicated to their country’s defense during wartime and helping others. The Double V is not just for black computer users at Langley. It also applies to progressive whites who integrated the Civil Service and black families involved in the war effort.
The nation’s ideals for equality and freedom were highlighted by America’s participation in World War II. In his 1941 State of the Union Address to the American People, President Roosevelt stated that “men of all creeds and races” had the right to freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and freedom from fear. Blacks living in segregated America wondered when the long-awaited “Four Freedoms” would be granted. These rights were promised to them as a reward for military service in World War I. However, the forces that “opposed the Negro’s drive towards equality” prevented them from getting their way. The result was that the American identity of black citizens was not respected. They believed in equality but were still stuck in a system that kept blacks “at the bottom” of American society. Many started questioning their war participation and asked, “What are you fighting for?”
Blacks regrouped after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. They moved forward “in sync” with America and acted as one community. They were reenergized by patriotism and a deep belief in American democracy’s possibilities. They embraced the idea of a double victory: first against America’s enemies without, then against its enemies within. This prejudice will end America “just like the Axis forces”.
The mindset of black female mathematicians from West Area Computing embodies the Double V. Although the meritocracy in the U.S. Civil Service was flawed, it allowed women to be equal to or better than their white counterparts in intelligence, skill, professionalism, and patriotism. The Double V symbolizes faith in the nation’s founding ideals for each group.
John Henry and Katherine are a great example of the triumph over low expectations. John Henry is a folklore hero who used his strength against a steam-powered drill to win. Katherine declares victory when John Glenn asks her to verify the computer’s work. Like John Henry, Katherine displays nearly superhuman abilities throughout Hidden Figures. These talents help Katherine succeed despite the discriminatory practices of her era, making it difficult for Black women to achieve success.
The symbol for the veil is
A “veil” generally symbolizes black politeness in Hidden Figures and American literature. Shetterly writes on page 109: “Most Africans put on a mask around whites. It protected them from the constant reminders that they were at once American and the American dilemma.” It obscured the anger that blacks knew could have life-changing–even life-ending–consequences if displayed openly.”
Breaking barriers (Motif)
The theme of breaking down barriers is repeated throughout the novel. Through the novel, both social and physical barriers are broken. Chuck Yeager breaks through the sound barrier, and Neil Armstrong steps on the moon. Mary Jackson’s son Levi Jr. is the “first colored boy in history” who wins the soapbox derby. Jackson eventually loses his engineering job, and she takes on an administrative position. She dedicates the rest of her professional career to breaking the “glass ceiling” barrier to women who follow her.