Films can teach us what we already know. That focusing on specific particularities of the human story can help us better understand certain universalities of the human condition. For me, Black History Month and the study of Black History is important because it gives us a chance to explore the stories of people across time and space whose lives teach us leadership lessons, and whose stories can bear resonance to certain aspects of our lived experiences.
Perhaps the main character was a different age than you or lived in a different world than you, be it fictional or non-fiction. Perhaps their lives unfolded on a different continent, a different universe, or perhaps even a different time. Perhaps your favorite movie explores their world, hopes, fears, ambitions, or challenges. Despite differences, there was some part of their story in that movie that made you love it, that bore resonance to your own.
This February, I found myself re-watching the 2016 film Hidden Figures. Director Theodore Melfi brings to the big screen the lives of three African American mathematicians integral to the success of the U.S. space program from the 1950s to 1980s, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Gobels Johnson. I found myself particularly interested in the life of Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monáe. To learn more about her life I bought the book that birthed the film, Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.
Before working as a computer for the U.S. space program, Jackson was as a secretary and event organizer in her community in Hampton, VI. Later, Jackson became NASA’s first Black female engineer, authoring and co-authoring more than a dozen reports. In Hidden Figures, we see Jackson appealing before a judge in segregated Virginia to be able to take classes at the local high school to be able to become an engineer. The film shows the outcome of the case led to her winning the right to take the math classes, albeit at night. To reach her destination, Jackson pushed back against segregation, went up against the glass ceiling, and crossed the race line while working and going to school. At the end of the film, viewers see a note that she ended her career as a Program Manager.
However, Hidden Figures does not explain that the title of Program Manager was a demotion for Jackson. After rising to the rank of engineer and seeing the lack of women being able to be promoted and brought into NASA, Jackson took a demoted rank into human resources, leaving the title of engineer behind to bring up other women into the organization. Jackson’s decision, and indeed her entire life, speaks to her resilience, tenacity, and leadership. It reflects her vision for herself as well as her ambition. While Jackson faced a glass ceiling herself and could have stayed where she was, she chose to bring up more women from all backgrounds, and to relinquish the job title of engineer that she spent so much time and effort to achieve. Her life reveals her humility and her heart to serve others.
Jackson’s mindset reflects the idea that the work one does at every level of an organization is important, regardless of the accolades surrounding that work. While we might not live in Virginia in the 1960s, perhaps this Black History Month, Mary Jackson’s life and legacy can serve us all.