Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Study Period

When it comes to what constitutes "women's work," I don't know whether to be insulted or complimented.

If you were one of the brilliant black women hired by NASA's Langley Research Center in the 1940s, it was to be one of their human "computers" doing the mathematical calculations for the male engineers trying to win the space race.

That's right, they were doing one kind of women's work (incredibly complex math) so that the engineers could utilize it and hog all the glory for their accomplishments.

This means that some of these women wrote the trajectory equations for putting a spacecraft into orbit around our planet, a feat which boggles my mind. More correctly, it shuts it down entirely since the notion of math making space (or even air) travel possible is beyond my scope of understanding.

Don't forget, I'm the one who freaked out when I was told that Neptune was discovered by mathematical predictions rather than by observation.

Tonight's reading at the Library of Virginia featured Margot Lee Shetterly, author of "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race" (easily the clunkiest book title ever) sharing bits of the story of women who, until recently, languished in the shadows of American history.

Which is crazy given that these women were trailblazers in their field during a key period of the development of air travel safety and the space program. I'd call that way more than a big deal.

One of her best anecdotes concerned, of all things, "Star Trek" and Martin Luther King ("He was a Trekkie," she informs us as if she's letting us in on a secret).

Seems that the actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura, was ready to quit the show for Broadway when she ran into her uber-fan.

King told her she couldn't quit because of how important her role was. He saw the inclusion of her character as significant because it meant that whites saw blacks as equals and part of the future, at least by science fiction standards.

"This is the kind of role we've been fighting for," he supposedly told her, changing her mind about quitting. "Keep doing what you're doing because you're our inspiration."

Shetterly's research showed that when the first five black women showed up at Langley in 1943, they were in a separate office with a bathroom and cafeteria designated for "coloreds," which isn't much of a surprise given that Jim Crow still flourished outside of the military base.

Needless to say, it was a fascinating peek into the story of women with brilliant mathematical minds who did calculations most of us can't begin to understand at a time when they had no role models for black women going into such a field.

Leaving behind tonight's history lesson, I walked five blocks down Broad for a civics lesson.

The Bijou was holding its third salon, this one with mayoral candidate Levar Stoney as its focus and since I'd missed the first two - Jack Berry and Jon Baliles - this one I intended to make.

When Stoney arrived from his last candidate obligation - a house party - he wasted no time in removing his tie, rolling up his sleeves and inquiring if the beer was free (it was).

Then he sat down in the hot seat to talk to 9 people curious about what he had to say.

Although I was a salon newbie, I'd heard that they all begin with grilling the candidate on the Shockoe stadium issue and this one was no exception, an easy segue into the ballpark miasma (he wants the city and VCU at the table to discuss any future plans) and the challenge of getting the counties involved ("Attendees at baseball games don't look like city residents").

There was a polish to his patter, a sense that he's been well-schooled in numbers and talking points that made him feel very much like a professional politician, which he more or less is.

Humor still showed through occasionally (when someone joked that the Coliseum was "built to last," he quipped, "Yea, that's what Bobby Ukrop said," and laughed) but even it seemed practiced.

Assuring us that he'd be a mayor who could bring money into the city, he also insisted that the mayor's role is to be a visible cheerleader for development and new programs, selling business start-ups to the citizenry.

Additional fun facts: he's not a Redskins fan, Chuck Richardson told him to be patient and wait his turn to run and when told he seems "tight as ticks" with Governor McAuliffe, assured us that the guv did not put him up to running.

After he told a forum audience that he'd explore increasing the cigarette tax, he got a call from Altria the next day and he's meeting with them tomorrow.

And while I know that politicians have to play the game, a lot of his answers involved finessing the deposits and withdrawals of political capital, which to me just sounds like typical good old boy backroom negotiating.

One point he was clear on was that with a median age of 33 years old in the city, it's time to pass the baton to the next generation and employ newer, younger voices to run Richmond. That he would also be the youngest mayor (35) of a mid-size city also seemed to sit well with him.

My issue is not his age, it's his tenure in Richmond and his mostly appointed job experience. As one salon participant commented after he left, "This guy intends to be President someday."

With at least ten years before that can happen, I'm more concerned with his fitness to run my city, a place I've lived for three decades now and come to love. I never thought I'd say this, but I'm with Chuck Richardson, at least on this one. It's not quite Stoney's time.

I need to feel like my mayor truly knows the city, not just how politics works.

For what it's worth, that's how this woman's mind works.


  1. I agree with "how your mind works".

  2. Thanks!Bottom line, I just don't think Stoney has enough Richmond experience to run our city yet and that's a major isue for me.