Why “Hidden Figures” matters

Katherine Johnson.jpeg
Katherine Johnson- Physicist and mathematician who was instrumental in NASA’s journey into space and their landing on the moon

I’ve long since become accustomed to seeing leading black women in movies as slaves, love interests and/or maids. Other times, I’ve become accustomed to seeing them as caricatures; either they are women who do too much or too little, women who act but don’t inspire because their characters are one dimensional and overdone.

For years, we would ask for not only minority representation but strong minority representation that doesn’t reduce us to either eye-candy, sassy black woman and/or a mammy characters. We were told that what we wanted just was not possible. Our underrepresentation in films were not a result of some active and implicit bias but simple Mathematics. We were told that movies with lead black women would just not do well at the box office. Only movies focused predominantly on white heroism, pains and struggles would. So, they would give us things like Madea, The Help and so on, not yet knowing that their argument would soon be riddled with holes as “Hidden Figures” (based on the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly), has even beaten Rogue 1 (as it well should because Star Wars is crap) at the box office while having far fewer theatres available to it. Now that their argument is demolished, I hope that this movie will represent a tide of changes to come within the film industry.


Mary Jackson- Mathematician and aerospace engineer at NASA. She was the first black black engineer at NASA

I went into the movie the day it opened at Giftland, excited but slightly skeptical. Would this movie fall prey to the common trope of the tiara syndrome and that of the white savior? Would this be NASA’s version of ‘The Help’?

While on surface level there might have appeared to be elements of both, there weren’t, not really.

Harrison, the leader of the mission in a nice scene breaks down segregated washroom signs. I was a bit dubious about this part until I realised that he did not do it because he feels particularly sympathetic to Katherine, he did it because it was in his and NASA’s best interest to do so. They could not have their lead mathematician running off everyday for close to an hour because she did not have access to bathrooms close by. Meanwhile, the women are not silent persons waiting to be recognised, but actively pursue and adapt themselves to achieve what they want and that is highly refreshing.

People often shirk at the idea about positive representation in the media. Entertainment is entertainment and in the larger scheme of things it doesn’t matter. While that may be true to an extent, seeing not only one but three trailblazing women who look like you accomplishing so much in a much more oppressive system, does wonders on the minds of little black girls everywhere and lets them know that they too can do great things.


Dorothy Vaughn- Mathematician who was the first black woman to supervise staff at NASA

Within five minutes, I was in tears. This silly tear spilling over the women, their triumphs and their struggles continued sporadically throughout the film. I was thankful that it being day, not many persons were in the theatre, but I did gain a strange look from the ticket collector on my way out because of how red my eyes were. If such a movie can matter to me, someone who has by and large been very privileged and grew up hearing that I could be whatever I wanted and throwing away my family’s lofty ambitions and aiming to become a writer, then imagine what it means to those less privileged and who are told that their stories and lives do not matter. Just imagine.

I liked that the movie was not this idealogical pipe dream which saw the white people all realising that, “Oh, they’re just people like us and as such we should treat them equally.” No, it is a movie rooted in reality and as such, the evolution of the central white characters are subtler and one gets a sense once again that they are not being accepting because they particularly like these women, but because it is in their best interest to have the best minds working for them. The movie offers a very sobering question about equality, biases and the implications these have for our advancement as a people. While we see the barriers the women face with regards to advancement due to their race and gender, we begin to wonder how many persons never got a chance to make their genius known due to the prevailing biases surrounding them.


The Orlando shooting


With every mass shooting, bombings or acts of hate and terror in countries such as the U.S and U.K, the world watches in grief as the often-grisly murders are explained to them. Often, these killings overshadow similar ones in continents such as Africa and Asia as mainstream media decides who gets our sympathies and who does not.

Whether it is acknowledged or not, the attitudes and opinions we hold on certain tragic matters are largely influenced by the media and the stories they harp upon.

This is one reason why we hardly heard a peep about the 49 persons who died in Syria and the 35 others who were injured in shooting and shelling and hardly anything about the rise of Boko Haram and their countless victims.

Before I go on, I should say that I am in no way trying to undermine the brutality of the act of hate mixed with self loathing which resulted in the death of 49 persons and injuries of over 50.

The speculated reasons behind the assault are many, with the most popular one of late being that the shooter himself was gay and was struggling with an identity he was conditioned to hate from childhood.

To an extent, it can even be considered an act of terror, which was very particular in its nature, as was the case with the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

It should be noted that the shooters ghastly act not only wounded the gay community but also served to add fire to the proverbial flames of anti- Muslim sentiments in a time when followers of Islam have been singled out for hateful political rhetoric.

Whatever the reason behind the work of that deranged mind however, I know that the attack has caused LBGT persons in the U.S and around the rest of the world to feel less safe than they had just a few days ago.

Even here in Guyana the tension and unease amongst the gay community can be seen and felt as many persons openly share their sentiments which are largely urged on by religious views, that the man’s act was justified.

For every one of these bible thumpers however, there are maybe five who are sympathetic to the shooting. The sympathy and expressions of condemnation have been so overwhelming that it has caused me to wonder whether us Guyanese would have the same sympathetic response had such a shooting against LBGT members occurred here.

While we have never had such a mass shooting, over the years there has been a continuous rise in violent attacks often resulting in death against homosexual men, particularly those who are transgender.

Despite the deaths of these men, public response to these murders were miniscule at best with only a selective few seeing the clear trend of hate driven crimes that was forming. The years, 2013 through to 15 saw these targeted murders rising but yet, the larger public remained oblivious and even the police force did not seem to see the significance in the crimes nor the need to actively pursue and solve them.

In 2014, there was even a march against the slothful way in which the police were attempting to probe into the murders of several homosexual men with several citing the reasons for sloth as being trans-phobia and homophobia deeply ingrained within the psyche of the police officers.

While it is no laughing matter, I cannot help but find it amusing when I heard some of our nations leaders protest against the shooting and comment upon the need for tolerance and acceptance when nothing substantial is being done to protect those belonging to the LBGT group in their own country and removing outdated and dangerous legislation which makes criminals out of otherwise law abiding citizens.

If nothing else, this tragedy has offered us at home and abroad the opportunity to confront the often-unchallenged anti-gay rhetoric and actions touted and carried by friends, family and acquaintances. When these views remain unchallenged all they serve to do is contribute to the acceptance of hatred and violence against those in who their distaste lies with. Too often, these messages of hate and discrimination come from our churches pulpits and podiums when there is an urgent need for messages of love and acceptance. Too often, these messages of hate are passed down to the minds of our children. Regardless of what religion one belongs to, efforts should be made to ensure harmful ideologies, which discriminate against each other are not adapted.

Religion and the public sphere


Before Guyana was acknowledged as a pluralistic society in the 1970’s, most public schools were run by Christian denominational faiths. This was done in an effort to promote the spread of Christianity across the country as it was considered the “superior” religion. While these schools are no longer run by these denominational faiths today, the lack of plurality which existed during the colonial period is still evident in their names such as St. Stanislaus, St. Josephs and St. Margaret’s.
Years after and there still remains remnants of British colonialism within our public school system with regards to the prayers being said. Due to social and religious conditioning however, this is often overlooked as it is considered a trivial matter. Its reason for being considered trivial is important as the majority of those against the removal of Christian prayers belong to that specific religion.
In countries such as the United States of America, Canada and the European Union, the place of religion within the public school system was questioned and has resulted in several states banning the practise in these countries. In Guyana, Minister of Education, Dr. Rupert Roopnaraine has recently also caused many to question the place of religion within the public school system. This comes as a result of the Minister’s recent statements regarding his intent to review Christian prayers within public schools.
Reverend Patricia Sheeratan-Bisnauth, of the Guyana Presbyterian Church, expressed her surprise that the official prayers in most public schools are Christian oriented as Guyana has been acknowledged as a pluralistic state since the 1970’s. She assumed that as such, prayers would reflect this plurality.
“It should never be about competition to see whose God is better, but it should be about encouraging respect between these different beliefs systems,” Bisnauth said.
President of the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha, Dr. Vindhya Persaud had also expressed her support for the change.
“It has always been a belief of mine that we should have universal prayers within our schools. By using such a prayer, it promotes tolerance and respect for each other’s cultures, especially in a country such as ours,” said Persaud.
An interview with a young woman who spoke on the condition of anonymity however, stated that the Government’s interference in religious practises contradicts its intentions of creating a tolerant state. She stated that “many laws are from the bible and we just have to live with them.” When asked whether she would feel the same way if she belonged to another religion she said “yes” and went on to add, “What’s the big deal to whisper your own prayer? Pray when you go to your temple, I wouldn’t go to a Hindu school.”
While various religious groups may be in support of the removal of Christian prayers, observations made through social media, casual conversation and interviews revealed the disagreeing views of the “grassroots” people. Many are of the opinion that the removal of Christian prayers within schools is an encroachment on basic human rights and an attack on religious freedom and free speech.
According to several atheists and agnostics interviewed from Guyana and two other Caribbean countries, specified religious prayers can often promote feelings of alienation within other religious groups.
Recent University of Guyana graduate, Salima Husain, revealed that during her time at La Grange Primary School, she and children of other faiths were allowed to say their own prayers. She related that as a Muslim she was happy to say her own prayer but had to do so quietly as the Christian prayers would be said loudly. She subsequently moved to a private Islamic school which had Muslim prayers. She related that even in the Islamic school, students of other faiths were allowed to say their own prayers also.
Subraj Singh, a spiritualist, who is also a University of Guyana graduate and comes from a Hindu background, stated that he believes Christian prayers within the school system are wrong for several reasons.
Singh pointed out that compulsory Christian prayer excludes other religious groups in the schools system and as such, coerces students to partake in religious acts regardless of their beliefs. He stated that while in school he often saw Muslim children cup their hands to say their own prayers. It remains an issue however as to why these students had to quietly say their prayers while listening to Christian prayers. He opined that prayers in school are purposeless as they become routine after a while and are just there for tradition.
Aside from the issue of prayers within schools, the belief of religious superiority can also cause religious prejudice. A young child previously from the New Guyana School at a very young age became a victim of religious prejudice. Due to the fact that she came from a Hindu background and the school is predominantly Christian, she was often teased by other students. “You’re not a born Christian, you don’t belong here,” was just one amongst the many things they would reportedly say to her. Teachers of the predominantly Christian school were said to have encouraged this prejudice as they never uttered a word of reprimand against the students. The young girl’s mother stated that many days she would drop her child off to school crying and would pick her up crying as school had become a place of torment for her due to her religious background. After several months of putting up with the ridicule directed at her, the child asked to be moved and subsequently enrolled in Success Elementary and finally to School of the Nations.
The general consensus amongst those from the non-religious group was that having to partake in praying and singing hymns at school often resulted in feelings of isolation and confusion for them as children. The practise was said to make them feel as if their freedom of disbelief had in some way been compromised and due to the fact that they are a minority, would ultimately be taken away.
This feeling of alienation, atheist Adelle DeNobrega intimated, can often foster feelings of depression as it can cause the irreligious to believe they do not belong in any part of society. There is also the case of these persons being othered by peers due to their disbelief, thus causing unhealthy social relationships and shame towards one’s choice of conscience.
While there are some calls for a completely secular environment which would see public schools free of religion, as “Guyana is an indivisible, secular, democratic sovereign state,” Roopnaraine said that the Ministry’s aim is to implement interdenominational prayers which will serve all religions.
President of the Guyana Teachers Union, Mark Lyte while in support of the Government’s initiative to place interdenominational prayers in public schools, admitted that they are very hard to coin. “Interdenominational prayers typically reflect one religion over another as the structure of prayers for different religions are all different.”
The idea of structured personal reflection seems to have garnered a lot of public support as a suitable alternative to interdenominational prayers within schools as it allows freedom of choice. Instead of students only quoting the Bible, structured personal reflection will allow them to quote the Holy Quran, Bhagavad-Gita and maybe even Marx or Plato.
However, founder of the Guyana Secular Association, Ferlin Pedro is of the belief that prayers in the public sphere, whether limited to one religion or universal, are acts of imposition and threatens constitutional principles.
With regards to the proposed interdenominational prayer, Pedro related his belief that “it is more of a governmental prayer.”
“We don’t want to have a dictatorship where a set of values, morals and beliefs are dictated by a selected few and handed down to us as mandatory,” he said.
He also stated that there are denominations such as the Jehovahs witnesses who would not partake in universal prayers due to their beliefs. As such, he raised the question as to whether these prayers are being coined for the majority alone.
Pedro also expressed his opposition to the idea of structured personal reflection, labelling it as a “lazy” alternative and further suggesting that it is a sly way of keeping prayers in schools.
“While our group had considered this as an option as it is one step forward to making Guyana a secular state, the problem with that reasoning is that it is a lazy response to the real issue.”
Secularism, according to Pedro, is the best stance the Government can take as any other option would see it yielding to a majority to the exclusion of minorities. He stated that what people need to realize and what the Government should try to get across is that, “Government neutrality is not Government hostility towards religion.”
The reasoning, although sound can bear fruit to many problems as it may actually threaten the country’s state of being a democracy, this is according to Ruel Johnson, Cultural Policy Advisor to the Ministry of Education. He stated that people often confuse secular with godless or devoid of religion when in fact, secular means decisions are not made with a religious basis.
“Democracy means representation of the people. If there is a democratic consensus that there is a capacity for inclusion of religious elements in the public sphere, then it is an undemocratic thing to remove that merely in the interest of what is supposed to be secular.”
While Guyana is legally secular, it recognizes the needs of its multi-cultural and multi-religious people within that state. “If one seeks to impose an absence of religion, you are denying the right to religious freedom. The only states which operate like that are communistic ones. One needs to recognize in the spirit of tolerance that people will have faith and in a liberal democracy what we do is accommodate. What we do need to do however, is ensure that there is no primacy of any religion as that will move us towards a theocracy.”
According to the Constitution of Guyana, the practise of having Christian prayers in public schools across the country is in contravention to laws set out in relation to the separation of church and state. Constitutionally, structured personal reflection is the only form of prayer permissible as the private voluntary student prayer does not interfere with the school’s educational mission.
In our constitution “freedom of conscience” is guaranteed under our fundamental rights in Article 145 (3). While many can continue the debate for and against Christian prayers in schools, the constitution leaves no room for debate on the issue as it states-
“Except with his own consent, no person attending any place of education shall be required to receive religious instruction or to take part in or attend any religious ceremony or observance if that instruction, ceremony or observance relates to a religion which is not his own.”