Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The 1960s: Mine, and Hidden Figures

Last night I went to the movies to see Hidden Figures, the blurb for which reads:
The incredible untold story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson - brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation's confidence, turned around the Space Race, and galvanized the world. The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big.
I was born in 1951. So the 1960s, the time in which the movie is set, covered, in today's terms, my school years from Year 5 to 13 plus my first year at university.

I remember the excitement surrounding the space race, the excitement and fear of the Cold War. I remember lying awake in bed, looking out my window at the stars, wondering if tonight would be the night the atomic bombs came. I remember that fear, nay, terror, which filled me especially strongly after my Standard Six (Year 8) teacher, Mr Thomas, taught us about the Cold War.

I remember the amazement and excitement, but also fear, when the Russians got to space first: Sputnik was a fabulous monster. I remember the excitement and pride when the Americans got there too, and the huge joy that surrounded the moon landing by the 'free world'. We didn't have tv, but were invited to watch it at friends of my parents.

At school, in those days, 'history' meant European history - British history plus, as described by my text book title, 'Europe Since Napoleon'. We learned little about colonialist New Zealand history, even less about Maori history, and what tiny bit I learned about America was mostly in relation to Britain, or to WWII (the Boston Tea Party, the bombing of Pearl Harbour in the Pacific.)

In my mid-teens, my mother bought me a magazine subscription one birthday or Christmas: the american 'Seventeen' magazine. Mostly for the fashions, so that she, and I with her help, could make clothes that were fashionable before other kiwi teens knew they were fashionable. But these also had articles in them that I read with complete bewilderment. Why were people upset about some people catching buses to school? I asked questions, which were mostly shrugged off, with, 'oh things are different there.' I couldn't seem to find out what 'desegregation' meant. I thought America wasn't like South Africa with it's apartheid system, yet there was obviously something weird happening.

You have to remember that back in the 60s in New Zealand only a few people had tv. In our house, we got our news from the NZ Herald, the pink-covered, picture-filled Auckland Weekly News, the NZ Broadcasting Corporation (National Radio), and the once a week, several weeks out of date, News of the World at our Friday movie night, held in the Te Kauwhata Town Hall. (Saturday afternoons in winter, the hall turned into a roller-skating rink.) There was no internet - hell, we still had a phone that hung high on the wall so I couldn't even sit down when talking, and no privacy - even if no one was around home, there was still the other people on the party line - Mrs Kearney for sure - and the exchange operator listening in! The local library was in a room about the size of our laundry, and no non-fiction. Information was hard to come by.

Racism was deeply embedded in our culture, and not recognised as such. Racism, back then, was what South Africa had, and the idea that Blacks there (I cannot use the words used for them back then) were lesser creatures, sub-human even, was only just starting to be questioned among the general population. Maori were regarded proudly as the most advanced of the 'native peoples'.

But gradually the ideas of the American civil rights campaigners, the feminists, the anti-apartheid campaigners, the anti-Vietnem War people, the 'make love not war' hippies started spreading, and in my years at university I absorbed many of those ideas.

Then came travel and children and homeschooling and depression and joy and So. Much. Learning!

When I look back at how much my ideas, and the world, have changed over my life, it astounds me. When I look at how much I am still learning and thinking and changing, it excites me.

But when I went to see Hidden Figures, it overwhelmed me. I re-experienced the excitement, the fear, the joy of those days. I remembered the terrible tears and fear when JFK was assassinated. I rejoiced in the lives of those amazing, brave women who stood up and created a doorway to a new world. And I cried all the way through, realising that all through those cruel and difficult times, I was living a life of white, privileged ignorance. Was? I still am! I am aware of it, but only when I think of it, and I can easily avoid thinking about it if I want. Some days I do just that - retreat into a media-free day and make art or garden or go to the beach. I don't HAVE to feel it all the time. That's a huge privilege.

In the era of Brexit and Trump I am increasingly aware that I need to stay aware, to stay in the world, and to do what small things I can to keep our world from the new Dark Age that seems to be threatening to eclipse our sun.

(ps - those amazing women learned FORTRAN and how to put it onto punch cards! I failed that three times at university! And I'm still clueless about hoe to work a computer properly!)

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