In Plain Sight: Reclaiming the Work of Hidden Figures by Judy Pryor-Ramirez


As February’s Black History Month comes to a close and we gear up for Women’s Herstory Month in March, I am struck by this particular juncture. This annual moment on our academic calendars illustrates my life — moving through the world at the intersection of race and gender. Because of this juncture, it is no surprise that a Black womens’ feminist agenda formed in response to mainstream second wave feminism. For example, in the 1970s, the Boston area feminist group Combahee River Collective issued a manifesto, which named the interlocking systems of oppression that Black women face.

“The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.”

Legal scholar and critical race theorist, Kimberlé Crenshaw furthered this notion by coining the term intersectionality. This historically academic term can now be seen discussed in the mainstream on MTV. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins also theorized about this notion of interlocking oppressions in the seminal text, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. Third Wave Feminists of Color continued to push further for transnational and intersectional feminism as narrated in the 2002 anthology, Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. Women of Color feminist projects have persisted in multiple forms and have advanced with the advent of social media. New media technologies like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram memes allow women of color histories and present day narratives to be captured.

Earlier this month the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University published an exciting women of color feminist project – A Seat at the Table, a crowdsourced syllabus under the curatorial direction of scholar and journalist, Melissa Harris-Perry and Candice Benbow. Benbow, doctoral student at Princeton Theological Seminary and lecturer in Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, is the genius behind the Lemonade Syllabus along with several Black feminist scholars who contributed to its creation in May 2016. Both reading lists use the 2016 albums by the Knowles sisters, Beyoncé and Solange, to spark a conversation about Black women’s experiences and contributions. Syllabi projects existed before and have continued since these including ones focused on Ferguson, Black Disabled Women, and more recently Trump. In the spirit of celebrating learning and connecting to moments in popular culture, the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, & Research at Emerson College has created our own: the Hidden Figures Syllabus Project.

Our syllabus project is inspired by our predecessors and by the recent film adaptation of the non-fiction book Hidden Figures, about three Black women mathematicians who were instrumental in NASA’s early operations. The film won the 2017 Screen Actor Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture and was nominated for three Academy Awards. While the film is noteworthy and rich for deeper analysis, I am most struck by the film’s title. The concept of a hidden figure is compelling because it is an opportunity to uncover the histories of individuals who have been obscured by history. Yet at the same time, I can’t help asking: hidden to whom?

Elma Lewis: Boston’s Hidden Figure?

Let’s take a poll. Did you know about Elma Lewis before reading this blog post?

Born in Boston on September 15, 1921, to parents from Barbados, Elma Lewis was an accomplished woman. She graduated from Emerson College in 1943 and went on to complete graduate studies at Boston University. An arts institution builder for the city of Boston, she established the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts for Black children and youth in 1950, and by 1968 created the National Center for Afro American Artists. She also established the Museum of the National Center for Afro American Artists in 1969. These institutions were crucial to the formation of several Black musicians, dancers, performers, and artists of all stripes. Miss Lewis also contributed to the development of two Boston traditions: the summertime Playhouse in the Park and the annual holiday production Black Nativity. For her commitment to community and vision for the Black Arts Movement, Lewis received numerous honorary degrees, citations, and awards. In fact, she was one of the first women to receive the inaugural MacArthur Genius Award Prize in 1981, and in 1983 she received the National Medal for the Arts. Despite her many esteemed accomplishments, I still find that many students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the general public, including native Bostonians, don’t know about the life and legacy of Miss Lewis. As such, I could argue that Elma Lewis is a hidden figure. But how can someone with such a rich legacy be hidden? While Miss Lewis’s intellectual, creative, and civic contributions are vast, it seems that she has been obscured by history. I find this ironic because in her 1976 Independence Day speech at Faneuil Hall she said,

“The true patriot, the new patriot, has committed his energies not to the preservation of old myths, but to the development of new truths. He has committed himself to the task of rewriting the history books. The true patriot has determined not only to record and use as examples the exploits of John Hancock…George Washington, and Peter Faneuil, but also to record and use the stories of such brilliant and industrious men as Amos Fortune, a black slave who by his own industry secured his freedom and became a prosperous merchant. It is essential for every resident of this country to understand the size and quality of contribution that every other American has made before all can feel a shared responsibility and a common purpose. Let us work with a passionate will to develop true historic records.”

Miss Lewis reminds us about our own history and the importance of documenting it. In the age of “alternative facts” and digital media, we need to be even more determined about documenting our histories and experiences to keep them from being erased or not even considered. I see our Hidden Figures Syllabus Project as a direct response to Miss Lewis’ call to “develop true historic records.” As such, this project will celebrate her and other Black women of the African diaspora.

Hidden Figures: A Misnomer?

Now, I want to briefly complicate the notion of a hidden figure because I am not entirely comfortable with labeling Elma Lewis, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and the many women of color in our history as hidden. While a catchy title for a book or Hollywood film, the idea of being hidden is centered on a politic of erasure. Black women and women of color are often not the first mentioned when the heroes of Black History Month (think: Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr.) and Women’s History Month (think: Eleanor Roosevelt and Gloria Steinem) are heralded. The premise of a hidden figure is someone who is not seen at all or even kept a secret. As a critical pedagogue, I must ask the question: seen by who? Whose gaze is upon these women that classify them as hidden? Contrary to the book and film’s title, these women were seen. In a recent interview, Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures,comments:

“I grew up in Hampton, Virginia, in the neighborhoods where these women lived, raised families, went to church and worked at NASA’s Langley Research Center like my father did. It was all very normal to us…I went to school with Katherine’s daughter; my mother was in the same AKA sorority with one of them.”

These women were employees, mothers, friends, mentors, sorority members, and role models. It is clear, however, because these mathematicians did not fit what Black Feminist writer and activist, Audre Lorde calls the “mythical norm,” that their contributions were obscured by NASA’s historic records. As a result, these women and their work were rendered invisible. What if we de-centered the way whiteness and maleness influence our society’s understanding of a leader or hero? We would have a new center entirely where these women are no longer in the margins. Instead, they would be in the middle. What if we re-examined history from this new center? How different would it look? And what if we, as Black women, were in control of our narrative as opposed to being at the mercy of others? I am suggesting we shift our epistemic system from one that centers heteronormative, imperialist, capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy to one that centers the lives, histories and personal narratives of trans, queer, women, children, indigenous, people of color. Imagine the kind of world that would be? Oh to see the day! Society must shift its center and widen its gaze so that we are not erasing the stories that make up the tapestry of this country’s rich history. Ordinary people are not hidden. They are very much seen and are seen every day by me and you. It’s up to us to tell the stories.

In her acceptance speech last night at the Oscars, Viola Davis, said something that resonated with me and this syllabus project. She remarked,

“People ask me all the time, what kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola? And I say, exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories. The stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition… So, here’s to August Wilson, who exhumed and exalted the ordinary people.”

In the spirit of exhuming stories, I invite you to participate in the Elma Lewis Center’s syllabus project. Today, we officially launch the Hidden Figures Syllabus Project to recognize and celebrate powerful Black women from across the African diaspora, whose work is often erased from history. This project is inspired by The New York Times Best-Sellers book and Oscar nominated film, Hidden Figures. The syllabus will consist of a crowdsourced list of texts, films, and audio materials by and about Black women and their incredible contributions in the form of a blog. We will then compile all the resources as a single document that we can share widely on social media and among our networks, in a similar fashion to other syllabus projects before us. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter with our hashtags #ElmaTaughtUs and #HiddenFiguresSyllabus to keep up with the project and visit to contribute!

Elma Taught Us is a new addition to The Luminary blog where members of the Elma Lewis Center staff contribute posts that connect contemporary issues to Miss Lewis’s life and legacy. Posts will highlight women of color feminisms as well as broader ideas related to civic engagement and social justice. Follow #ElmaTaughtUs on Twitter and Facebook for weekly notations related to these themes.

Judy Pryor-Ramirez is executive director of the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, & Research. She is the co-author of Voices of Mixed Heritage, a digital curriculum for teachers about race, cultural hybridity and mixed race heritage. Follow her tweets about #BlackGirlMagic and other musings at @JPryorRamirez.