Maybe it’s the input

I have the book  Hidden Figures, which the movie is based on. There’s a part in the book where Mary Jackson (the person played by Janelle Monae in the movie) was given an assignment to work through some calculations.

John Becker gave Mary Jackson the instructions for working through the calculations. She delivered the finished assignment to him just as she completed her work for Dorothy Vaughan, double-checking all numbers, confident that they were correct. Becker reviewed the output, but something about the numbers didn’t seem right to him. So he challenged Mary’s numbers, insisting that her calculations were wrong. Mary Jackson stood by her numbers. She and her division chief went back and forth over the data, trying to isolate the discrepancy. Finally, it became clear: the problem wasn’t with her output but with his input. Her calculations were correct, based on the wrong numbers Becker had given her.

John Becker apologized to Mary Jackson. The episode earned Mary a reputation as a smart mathematician who might be able to contribute more than just calculations to her new group. …The best of the women made names for themselves for accuracy, speed, and insight. But having the independence of mind and the strength of personality to defend your work in front of the most incisive aeronautical minds in the world – that’s what got you noticed.

To me, this is what stands out about Black History Month. There were people, some extraordinary and some ordinary, who did the work based on what they had to work with, based on the inputs. Sometimes the inputs they were given weren’t the best. Sometimes the inputs were flat out bad. But either way, they did the calculations, they did the work, they produced results. The names of who they were and are is endless. Truly. Many will never get credit for what they did. Many will always be hidden figures and they knew that they probably wouldn’t get credit when they were working. They did their best anyway.

There is plenty of history from many years ago but there are also current figures making history right now. They are working with inputs but also creating the input so they don’t just have to wait for someone else to give them data to calculate. I found an informative podcast on some current day women STEM “visible figures.” They are three women with PhDs who graduated from Spelman College. Get familiar with some of today’s Black History: And, if you would like to read more information on black astronauts, there have been more than a dozen. Sadly though, not much more than a dozen ( But, if this country wants a robust contribution to the space program, maybe it’s the inputs. Maybe the pipeline needs to be larger.

Although the Hidden Figures movie did not win any Academy Awards (it did win Golden Globes and SAG awards), it is a magnificent story about Black History. It is a magnificent story about how “maybe it’s the inputs” and when the inputs are corrected, the outputs are better. When smart, capable women were included in the rooms to do the calculations, the outputs were better and our country was able to put an astronaut into orbit.

Black history is American history. When the inputs were segregation, inequality, separate and not equal, and discrimination …our country was not at its best. When the inputs changed, the outputs got better. When the intellect and capabilities of people of color was added to the mix, the outputs included carbon filaments for the electric incandescent lamp, the gas mask, the clothes dryer, a laser to vaporize cataracts, and open heart surgery. To listen to some podcasts about many achievers and their achievements, check out:

On a note about the end of the award season now that the Oscars are over, I think the same theme, “maybe it’s the input,” applies. Last year, there was great discussion about the lack of diversity in the Academy Award nominations. For this year, there was a big difference. The number of nominations of people of color, the diversity that included Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ, and talent at every level for director, producer, lead actor, supporting actor, supporting actress, screen adaption, etc. This year a big turnaround with much better nominations … inputs. And so, the outputs, the winners showed record-breaking results. From the Golden Globes to the SAG Awards to the Academy Awards, 2016 nominations pretty much proved the point, maybe it’s the input.

Our country should celebrate the historical significance of what blacks have contributed to the progress of America. Those celebrations can happen every day, every month and can prove that enlarging the pipeline, creating more opportunity, embracing the capabilities of many can all add up to improved inputs. When that happens, we all win with better outputs.


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