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Blind Side, Remember the Titans, Hidden Figures: Hollywood Truth

The "reel" and the "real"

Blind Side has been in the news lately. Blind Side is the story of Michael Oher, a left tackle in football. The term “left tackle” comes from the offensive linemen who protect the quarterback. Most quarterbacks are righty so when they turn to throw, their back is to the left side of the field. Hence the exposure from the blind side of the quarterback and the need for an offensive lineman on the left side, to protect the quarterback.

Blind Side was a book, Sunday magazine article, and a movie. The movie is a very uplifting one. It tells the story of a young male from the wrong side of the tracks being adopted into the family from the right side of the tracks. Most of the movie is about the senior year of Michael Oher’s time in high school. The narrative ends with his first day at college. The ending credits show the real Michael Oher being drafted by the NFL and posing in pictures with his real family and not his Sandra Bullock/Tim McGraw movie family.

Therein lies the rub. It turns out he was not adopted into the wealthy Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy family after all. Instead he was in a conservatorship, shades of Britney Spears, and not a member of the family after all. Now it has become a legal issue particularly over the issue of money, the money earned as a result of the book and movie, and the money he would inherit as a child in the family.


The movie is a very entertaining and upbeat one. It certainly did well for Sandra Bullock. But now that I have become aware of the legal issues involved, the scenes seem different, as if a fog has been lifted from in front of me. I took the movie to be a true story with the real names of real people acting out real scenes from the life of Michael Oher. That turns out not to be the case.

For example, some of the most enjoyable scenes involved Sean Jr., the pipsqueak-size 11 year-old Tuohy son, putting the giant lineman through his paces to learn how to be a football player. The contrast between the two contributed to the developing of a family within the movie. But were the scenes real or were they Hollywood?

Did the son help Michael Oher learn how to play football using kitchen implements like a bottle of ketchup, to represent the football players? Watching Sean Jr. move the kitchen items to teach the overgrown teenager was a funny scene in the movie. But is it really true that the teenager had so little knowledge of football that he had to be instructed in the fundamentals of the game? From another perspective, there is a King Kong aspect to the training session. The large ape is being civilized into the ways of America not by Fay Wray but by a white child who clearly is in the dominant position. Did this really happen or did Hollywood invent it?

Another touching scene involves Michael Oher’s decision to attend Ole Miss. There already had been an adoption scene around the family table where Oher is invited to join the family. Now the NCAA is investigating the decision by Oher to attend Ole Miss, the school of his adopted parents. When questioned as to why he decided to attend a non-football powerhouse like Ole Miss instead of one of the traditional football powerhouses (some of the coaches played themselves in the movie), Oher replied because that’s where my family has gone. Isn’t that a great answer? Did this really happen or did Hollywood invent it since Oher had not been legally adopted?

Some scenes require more investigation. For example, Oher attended a private school for one year along with his “brother and sister.” The school was not a public school. It was a private school created in response to the desegregation of public schools. The exception is made at these white private schools for athletes who can bring fame, glory, and championships to the school. That is not in the movie.

So here we have an example of the white savior syndrome. Thanks to the efforts of well-meaning white people, kids from the wrong side of the tracks are rescued from the disastrous life that awaits them. There even is a scene at the end of the movie about a promising athlete from the same neighborhood and age as Oher who instead of going off to college lies dead due to street violence. Sandra Bullock is even shown venturing across this line into Oher’s neighborhood at some risk to herself. Not to worry. She is packing, a member of the NRA, and friends with people in high places. The contrast between the world Michael Oher grew up in and the one year spent with the Tuohys is stark.

Even if Oher had been adopted, even if Oher receives his fair share of the earnings from Blind Side and the estate of Tuohys when they die, there still are these structural and systemic problems not addressed in the movie. One can argue that the movie is meant for entertainment which is true. But since real people are involved, it’s as if the movie also needs footnotes identifying the real scenes from the Hollywood scenes. Suppose all one had was the movie as an historical source, look how much would be missed.


Hidden Figures has been the subject of several blogs already so I will not repeat them. It is the story of three female computers meaning people who compute in the precomputer era. That new era is fast approaching as one of the sub-stories in the movie is the installation of an IBM computer at NASA. These three women are “colored people” and “Negroes” in the movie. The movie focuses on their early careers at NASA culminating with the aborted mission of John Glenn. Again, some real clips from the Kennedy era are spliced into the Hollywood narrative ending with the real Glenn’s triumphal parade with real President Johnson.

The movie touts many of the important features to the American way of life without being sanctimonious about it. It is a story of family, church, education, well-kept middle class homes, and service to the country.

One of the problems with the movie is that many of most memorable scenes never happened. For example, Kevin Costner, who figures so prominently in the movie, is not a real person.

So while the story of these three decorated computers is true, that does not mean the individual scenes are. That does not detract from the enjoyment of the movie or the truthiness of the movie. It does mean, one needs be careful citing it as a source just as one would movies about Spartacus or William Wallace who were real or from Gladiator which mixes real people with fictional ones.


Remember the Titans is another tear-jerker blockbuster sports movie. This one is about the real integration of two Virginia school systems told through the lens of a football team that goes on to win the 1971 state championship. Again at the end, the credits suggest that real people are involved, both the high school players and the coaches. Information is provided on what their lives were like in subsequent years which, of course, may be outdated by now. And, yes, a star player was injured in a motor vehicle accident and died.

Putting aside the fact that some of the actors may have been a bit too old to pass as high school students, the story rings true. It does bring people to tears.

But now one has to ask, exactly how much of it is true beyond the basic format? I do have vague recollections of seeing on a talk show the “reel” figure and the real figure from the movie. One can look now and see who went on to be in the blockbuster TV series Yellowstone and who went on to be “Ken” of Barbie fame. There are interviews with some of the real people that undercut some of the dramatic scenes in the movie. For example, the white quarterback won the job in preseason and was not a midseason replacement. Still, the scene of his calling his first play leading to a “roughing the quarterback” call by the opposing coach is one of my favorite movie sports scenes.

So even though the details are fudged, the overall story line rings true and the people involved were and are alive to call the movie to task if they are not.

Care must be taken when watching Hollywood-true films. With Inherit the Wind there are made up characters (the girl friend and her Fundamentalist father) along with the characters where the name has been changed. Still Williams Jennings Bryan did not dramatically die in the courthouse at the conclusion of the Scopes Trial as Frederic March did in the movie.

Disinformation moves much faster and more maliciously now. Creating a Hollywood movie still takes a great deal of time and effort to be produced. With the Internet and AI, it is much easier and faster to create an alternate reality. In fact, sometimes no technology at all is required.

January 6, 2021: Blacks, Jews, and the American Dream

January 6, 2021 may join December 7 and 9/11 as dates that will live in infamy in American history. Right now it is too early to tell. Many Americans already don’t know those earlier dates anyway. So far January 6 is like the other two in that it was a one-time attack on America. That could change on January 20 or in scattered state capitols throughout the country. It also differs in that it was an attack on America led by the American President and the attackers themselves were American and not foreign. Now the President is being impeached for a second time and the attackers are being arrested as may the current President may be once he loses his immunity.

But January 6, 2021, is an historic date for other reasons as well. It was a date when the deaths from the coronavirus exceeded 4000, a milestone. It also was the date the results of two Senate elections on January 5, 2021, in Georgia became known. That event would have been front-page above-the fold-news in other times. It was big news in the morning but by the afternoon it had become eclipsed. This blog is dedicated to those elections.


The movie “Hidden Figures” already has been the subject of blogs (Hidden Figures, The Right Stuff and the Coronavirus: Who Will Tell the Story?, April 30, 2020 and Negroes and the American Dream: Hidden Figures, Open Dreams, March 11, 2018). It is regrettable that so many of the movie’s great moments turned out not to be literally true The Kevin Costner character was not a historically-real person. One powerful scene in which he did not participate also was not literally true although it was symbolically true.

Karl Zielinski: Mary, a person with an engineer’s mind should be an engineer. You can’t be a computer the rest of your life.

Mary Jackson: Mr. Zielinski, I’m a negro woman. I’m not gonna entertain the impossible.

Karl Zielinski: And I’m a Polish Jew whose parents died in a Nazi prison camp. Now I’m standing beneath a spaceship that’s going to carry an astronaut to the stars. I think we can say we are living the impossible. Let me ask you, if you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?

Mary Jackson: I wouldn’t have to. I’d already be one.

The Polish Jew who encourages her in the movie is fictional, but apparently the real life NASA engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki did encourage her to pursue advanced training and became her longtime mentor.

So here we have this episode of a “negro woman” and a “Polish Jew” exemplifying the American Dream in a positive and optimistic setting. Life as it should be.


Jon Ossoff (L) and Raphael Warnock (R) bump elbows on stage during a rally with US President-elect Joe Biden outside Center Parc Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 4, 2021. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

The Georgia Senate elections demonstrate the exact same upbeat message as the movie scene. While Ossoff is not a Polish Jew (Russian/Lithuanian descent), the parallel is close enough.

The importance of the Georgia Senate elections transcends the election itself. If either candidate had won individually, the election would have been historic for Georgia. The unusual circumstance of a having two simultaneous Senate elections only added to the historical significance.

The national implications magnify the historic importance of the elections. The very same person who instigated the insurrection on January 6 was the person who affected the results of the Georgia Senate elections to his own detriment. He had sought to “find” votes which would have made him the winner of the state in the presidential election. He had sought to disqualify votes which would have had the same effect. The U.S. District Attorney would not comply with the request to do the latter and is now gone from his job. The Georgian Secretary of State did not comply with the request for the former. He still has his job. But he has had to spend some time in hiding and has been threatened over his re-election prospects. The Republican Governor similarly has been threatened. Undoubtedly these assaults within the Republican Party along with the claim that the voting system was rigged and could not be trusted contributed to the Democratic victories.

As a result of his self-inflicted wound, the Democrats now have control of the Senate. These two votes are not sufficient to ensure that the impeached instigator of the January 6 insurrection will be removed from office and prohibited from running in 2024. In fact, by the time the Senate votes to remove him from office, he already will be out of office and quite possibly facing criminal charges. Still, it will be quite an introduction to the Senate for the two Georgians.


At first glance, one would have expected that the “Stop the Steal” rally would focus on the presidential election. Certainly the actions to reverse the results by having the electors from various states be disqualified were the major focus. However, the participants communicated interests that were not directly connected to the election. Instead they relate to concerns that predate even the 2016 election.






These images involve longstanding hatreds in the United States that will not disappear January 20, 2021.

One inadvertent benefit from the insurrection is that it flushed people out of the woodwork. Instead of white racists and anti-Semites restricting themselves to various websites, they appeared in open in the light of day clothed in their hatreds. Not only did they appear in public, they took selfies, posed for pictures, sent texts and emails and otherwise broadcasted their white racism and anti-Semitism. At first, it may have seemed like a lark to them. They occupied the Capitol and took souvenirs as if they had signed up for a tourist extravaganza. Now their pictures of them in the action of committing a crime are available to law enforcement organizations across the country. The people with the Confederate flags and the concentration camp T-shirts apparently never thought through the consequences of the public display of their white racism and anti-Semitism.

In these two actions on January 6, 2021, one may see two faces of America. One embraces the future, the other is scared of it. The Warnock/Ossoff elections represent an optimistic view of America’s future. The insurrection represents a fear of it. The Democrats do not have a monopoly on that future. They do not own it. It is possible the Party of Lincoln will abandon Trump and embrace the future as well. The vote in the House of Representatives in support of his effort to steal the election and the polls show a split party. The Trumpicans support the attempted coup as a great victory to be celebrated whereas the Republicans do not. At this point, it seems unlikely that the Lincoln Republicans can regain control of their Party. In that case, one can anticipate more elections like the Georgian Senate elections and more widespread violence. In other words, both aspects of January 6, 2021 will continue for better and for worse to be on display (see my comments in Grand Ol’ Prospects: Republicans abandoning Trump lick their wounds and plan their future by Leonard Greene, The Daily News, January 10, 2021).

John Lewis and “the Sad Demise and Eventual Extinction of the American Negro”: Erasing History

National Award-Winning Play (2019) by Stacey Rose performed at the Barrington Stage Company

“The “America v. 2.1: The Sad Demise & Eventual Extinction of The American Negro” was a play performed at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA, from June 14 to June 30, 2019. The Barrington Stage Company had sponsored a national new play contest. The winner received a reward of $25,000 and a World Premiere production at its theater. Stacey Rose was the winner for this play. I saw the final performance. Some of the shows had audience discussions afterwards with members of the cast or the playwright but not at the performance I saw. I did speak very briefly with the playwright but nothing of significance that I recall. I thought of this play about the sad demise and eventual extinction of the American Negro with the death of John Lewis.


In a review of the play, Barbara Waldinger, Berkshire On Stage (June 23, 2019) wrote:

This play, a futuristic dystopia, is decidedly not typical summer fare.  In a play-within-a-play, a troupe of four African-American actors perform a revisionist history of the American Negro in four chronological parts, which essentially maintains that the “demise of the American Negro was brought about by his own hand” and “by his own actions,” despite the loving care and “noble efforts of the American government and American culture.”  Resurrecting the minstrel show style of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the playwright deploys outrageous caricatures ostensibly to demonstrate, using song and dance, how the Founding Fathers saved the African savages. Minstrelsy, a sad chapter in the history of the American theatre, has been put to ironic use in the recent past. 

In chilling voiceover announcements the presumably white audience is warned against documenting what is seen onstage, and, what is worse, advised when to disengage the safety locks on their firearms.

Speaking of firearms, as I recall the NRA figured prominently in the closing scenes.

That reviewer attended one of the post-performance discussions. She reports the playwright

Deplor(ed) the fact that history is taught in the U.S. through a white supremacist lens, asked the audience to share their memories of the first time they realized there was a split between how whites versus blacks experience America.  Acknowledging that it is uncomfortable to do the right thing, Rose clearly wants to encourage us to not only talk about this issue but hopefully step up and do something about it.  If this play helps to begin that conversation, it will have succeeded.

The play was performed roughly one year prior to George Floyd’s murder. Presumably it would be different if it had been written now.


Although, set in the near future, the play does raise the question about the demise and extinction of the American Negro. The issue need not be raised solely in a physical sense. It can be asked in a cultural sense related to the meaning of “Negro” in American history. For example, as a subscriber to The New York Times, I receive weekly emails about articles and events (in addition to the multiple daily notices). On June 27, 2020, the message from Marc Lacey, the National editor of The New York Times, was:

My father was born a Negro. Then he was black. Late in life, much to his discomfort, he became an African-American.

Everyone in this country who traces their ancestors back to Africa has experienced a panoply of racial identifiers over their lives, with some terms imposed and others embraced. In the course of a single day in 2020, I might be called black, African-American or a person of color. I’m also labeled, in a way that makes my brown skin crawl, as diverse, ethnic or a minority.

In an online presentation Historical Perspectives on Whiteness: An Intersectional Conversation with Nell Painter (July 8, 2020) by NYU, historian Nell Painter commented on this issue in passing. She said she had been raised with the word “Negro” as a respected term. She made this point after referring to Lift Every Voice and Sing as the “Negro National Anthem.” She then politically-corrected herself to say “Black National Anthem” and explained her “politically incorrect” language. These examples are part of the “sad demise and eventual extinction of the American Negro.”

Like Lacey’s father and Nell Painter, John Lewis, (1940-2020), was born a Negro. He was a Negro during the formative years of his life. His values derive from this period. Even if he did not use that term to refer to himself anymore, from a historical and cultural perspective, like Lacey’s father, being a Negro defined who he was in his own mind. What did that mean? How did it differ from the other terms used? Lacey doesn’t identify who imposed the racial identifiers on the Middle Passage people or how they were able to do so. They do not appear to have been white. He does not seem have been enamored of all the name changing which has occurred.

To help understand the use of and the sad demise and eventual extinction of the American Negro, I propose that the time from 1865 to 1965 be considered the Negro Century. These are not hard and fast dates, just guidelines.


Two dates have figured prominently in recent national news. First in 2019, the year 1619 marked the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of Middle Passage Africans to a British colony, Virginia, in what became the United States. Second in 2020, Juneteenth for the end of slavery in Texas and therefore in the country in 1865 became unexpectedly prominent.

By 1865, many states already had ended slavery. Therefore it would be incorrect to ignore that Africans in the United States could be free prior to then. For example, in New York where I live, the legal end to slavery was 1827. I have a copy of the manumission lists culled from the Town of Rye records where I live showing freed people from the 1790s to 1820s. Presumably, these actions were partially a result of the American Revolution. There also was a Negro Point in the 1800s. I do not know the basis of the name. I know approximate area along the Byram River separating New York and Connecticut where it was located. It is not great agricultural land. I wonder if the freed people lived near the docks where they worked. In 1868, the Village of Port Chester would be created within the Town of Rye. But the area had served as a port of Westchester before then. I mention all this to show there is fragmented information available in this one town and village but it is hard to know for sure what the history is. I suspect many other communities have a similar experience.

Several questions come to mind about this period of freed Africans.

Where did they live?
Where did they pray?
What did they do?
Where were they buried?
What if any was their connection to the Underground Railroad?
What if any was their involvement with the Civil War?

To determine if this information is extinct or not, one may also ask:

What history signs are there to mark these sites, people, and actions in American history?

What information is there in the municipal history organizations/libraries to document this pre-1865 freed African experience?

Recently, I have come across of three examples of historical research into the Negro Century. These examples are from email lists I belong to and did not require research on my part. They show that interest in this time period still exists.

1. Candacy Taylor, author of Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America

I saw her speak at the Schomburg Center in January for the book launch and then online through a program arranged on July 21, by the National Council of History Education (NCHE). The Green Book was more than an AAA guide. It listed many non-tourist business as well. Taylor travelled the country looking for these sites.

What history signs are there to mark these sites in American history?

What information is there in the municipal history organizations/libraries about the Green Book sites in their own communities?

2. Sarah Elizabeth Ray: The Rosa Parks of SS Columbia

The SS Columbia is a steamship being restored in Buffalo, NY. Before that it had operated in Detroit as part of the Boblo Excursion Company which ran an amusement park. People boarded the company’s boats in Detroit to travel on to the park. Sara Elizabeth Ray joined her white classmates for this graduation excursion in June 1945. She was denied passage ten years before the more famous Rosa Parks event. It became a successful lawsuit involving Thurgood Marshall. The people restoring the SS Columbia discovered this unexpected piece of history during their investigation into the history of the ship. They now have a story to tell and are working on how to do so. The video I just saw about her also shown July 21 is not yet ready for public showing.

3. Why Isn’t John Donaldson in the Hall of Fame? (NYT 8/1/20, print)

This op-ed piece describes the efforts to have this pitcher in the Negro Leagues be recognized for his achievements. If successful, Donaldson would join 35 other Negro League players in Cooperstown.

These examples to remember people, places, and events from the Negro Century illustrate efforts to resist the sad demise and eventual extinction of the American Negro in American history and culture.


As to the values of the American Negro, consider this declaration:

We have a great dream. It started way back in 1776, and God grant that America will be true to her dream. Martin Luther King, Jr., speech at Ebenezer Baptist Chapel, Atlanta, Georgia, 4 July 1965

Critical to fulfilling that dream is the vote. John Lewis and voting will forever be paired together. His success in the 1960s contributed to the demise of the Green Book. The Negro Leagues already had ceased operations post Jackie Robinson. Lewis’s success also led to the Southern Strategy and voter suppression. The upcoming election may signal the death of those two actions as no longer being politically viable.

I conclude with two examples representing the efforts to recognize the Negro Century in the American experience and the challenge in preventing its sad demise and eventual extinction.

On a positive note there is the movie Hidden Figures (2016) which has been the subject of previous blogs (Negroes and the American Dream: Hidden Figures, Open Dreams, March 11, 2018). It represents a fulfillment of Martin Luther King’s dream noted above. It is a story of family, education, church, and service in helping Americans land on the moon.

On a negative note there is an incident at Columbia University also the subject of a previous blog (History at Columbia University: Report from a Battle Front in the Culture Wars, April 10, 2018). An article in the Columbia Daily Spectator recounted a student taking exception to a professor using the word “Negro” in a class about the 1960s. The professor responded:

It is in fact true, as a matter of historical record, that African Americans in the ‘50s and ‘60s wanted to be called ‘Negroes.’ Denying that practice would be a falsification of history.

Contrary to the play, the sad demise and eventual extinction of the American Negro in American history and culture won’t be due to white people.

The last words go John Lewis.

Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.

Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it. (Final words of John Lewis published posthumously July 30, 2020)

Hidden Figures, The Right Stuff and the Coronavirus: Who Will Tell the Story?

"A Great Success Story" (AP / Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The movies Hidden Figures and The Right Stuff offer related but distinctively different views of the Mercury Space program in the early 1960s. They both tell the story but they are not exactly the same stories. The Right Stuff based on a popular book of the same name focused on the astronauts themselves. The very title of the book and movie has become part of the American culture. The subjects and events of this book and movie tended to be known to the general public with a special shout out to ace pilot Chuck Yeager who did not become an astronaut.

By contrast, Hidden Figures portrays a less known facet of the space program. Its subjects are three women, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who work as “computers,” people who do computing. More importantly they are Negroes or colored people. Black people had not yet become first Afro-Americans, then African Americans, and people of color. These changes in terminology are part of American history.

Like The Right Stuff, Hidden Figures reveals a very American way of life, just a different one. The lives of the three lead characters and the people with whom they engage are stories of family, education, church, and service to country. It is a story of people who embrace the American dream as much as the astronauts in The Right Stuff do. The difference, of course, is the opportunity to live the American Dream. In the movie, one black woman gains access to the previously restricted education system for the graduate credits she needs to qualify for a NASA position. A second black woman learns to master the new IBM mainframe computer which uses keypunch cards. For some people, that computer may seem like something from the Stone Age when dinosaurs roamed the earth. The third black woman, naturally gifted even as a child, calculates critical flight plans. All three succeed without becoming public figures until the movie.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie occurs when an off-screen voice calls out that astronaut John Glenn is in trouble in his mission. Everyone rushes to see a TV set in a storefront window in their rural community. “Everyone” means all the people of the community, black and white, standing together as one.  This scene is a marked contrast to the newsreel shots from both movies of people lined up along the beaches in Florida. These views are often distant shots but the overwhelming impression is that the people are white. It turns out black people cared about the American space program too.

Whether or not everyone would even gather today to witness what was occurring live in space or on earth today is more problematical. I think of those stock movie scenes where everyone is shown simultaneously reading the latest issue of local paper with the headlines about the subject of the movie. Now many of those newspapers don’t exist (see Spartacus, Local History, and Local Newspapers) and people tend to look down at their palms holding a device instead. I think of the scenes of the people in the Times Squares of the world watching and cheering as Matt Damon is rescued from Mars and wonder if the world could really gather as one anymore.

Other questions occur. Is the Kevin Costner character real or a Hollywood (composite) creation? I don’t know. He has a lot of good lines and is of almost to-good-to-be true character. My favorite scene follows the one when he learns there are no colored bathrooms in the white complex. That necessitates Katherine Johnson having to go a half-mile, sometimes in the rain, to the colored complex to relieve herself.  When she has to explain to Costner why she disappears for so long during the day, she explodes in a tirade. That scene may be great Hollywood, but even if the Costner figure is real, an extended impassioned one-sided tirade by a subordinate, a subordinate female, a subordinate black female seems more Hollywood than real. I could be wrong.

The tirade isn’t my favorite part. It is the scene afterwards where Costner takes a crowbar to “Colored Women” bathroom sign. After knocking it down, he walks away announcing the new NASA policy eliminating the separate and unequal bathrooms (missing paper towels in another scene) by race. He walks away uttering the immortal lines, “At NASA we all pee the same color.” It’s not quite “If you build it, he will come” or “the right stuff,’ but I like it all the same. It reminds me of the scene in To Sir with Love, where Sidney Poitier is cut during a fight and bleeds. One student observing the bleeding teacher says something to the effect of “Did you think he bled ink?” Sometimes you can deliver strong messages with just a few words about body fluids. But did this scene really happen?

Another great scene where I wonder if it is true or not occurs during a briefing. Katherine Johnson impresses on Costner her need to attend the briefing. She is the only female and the only black in the room. The question stumping people is the calculation to determine precisely where the decision has to made for the go-no point of re-entry and where the capsule will splash down so the navy can be in position to recover it. The image of Costner handing Johnson chalk to perform the critical calculation live before an audience of big shots including John Glen is identical Michelangelo’s painting at the Sistine Chapel of the hands of God and Adam. That parallel is not coincidental.

Kevin Costner handing Katherine Johnson chalk to calculate John Glenn’s trajectory (Amazon)

That scene starts a sequence. When the issue of landing coordinates arises in the preparation for Glenn’s flight, Glenn asks Costner to have “the smart one” check the numbers. Johnson has just been reassigned back to the Colored Computer Building and been married, two status changes. Now a white male has to make the run to the Colored Computer Building and not to relieve himself but to have her, the black computer, verify the landing coordinates that the IBM apparently erred on. Both the black female and the white male run back to the white area (why couldn’t the white male run back alone?). Once there, Costner gives Johnson access to the Mission Control Center. As best I recall, there were no females or blacks in the Control Room in The Right Stuff.  Both were present and more when Matt Damon was rescued.

So, how much of this is real and how much is Hollywood? I don’t know if any journalist or historian has compared these two movie versions of the specific incident of John Glenn’s flight. It certainly would be interesting to know.

“Who will tell the story” presumes there is one story to tell. In the real world, that often is not the case once one goes beyond some very precise details: yes, John Glenn did orbit earth and his mission was aborted. At that point, people then start making choices about what to include in the story they want to tell and how they will tell it. The coronavirus provides a current example of the challenge of “who will tell the story?” What story will be told and who will tell it?”

A long long time ago back on April 5, I wrote a blog Current Events and Local History on the challenge to history organizations to collect the history of the coronavirus as it was occurring around them.

         Historians Investigating the Coronavirus Pandemic

I did not send this blog to the media or political distribution lists. I noted the efforts of some European museums to gather this information. I reported on the initiative of the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS) to request that the municipal historians in the state collect such information. These gatherings did not mean simply collating government press releases or clipping articles where local papers still exist, it meant asking people to journal or express in some way, even daily, their experiences during this crisis. I sent this blog to my history lists in New York and New England close to four weeks ago now.

I also sent a revised version of this history blog to the New York State Board of Regents. I received two replies. One a brief thank you. The second was an email not only to me but to Chancellor of the Board, Interim Commissioner of Education/President of the University of the State of New York, and the Deputy Commissioner of Cultural Education among others.  In the email, the Regent notes the “request for students to offer journal documentation of their experience living through this pandemic crisis, from their perspective, for history.” The Regent specifically asks these three individuals for suggestions on how to reach out to teachers and students to go about achieving this ends.  I don’t know what will come of this effort, but I am sure once students do return to school they will have stories to tell about what they did last summer and spring.

But what about for American as a whole? Who will tell the American story(ies) on the coronavirus? Yes, there will be a White House version touting the great success of America’s greatest President of successfully winning this war and we will be rockin’ by July. Yes there will be a Congressional Commission documenting the complete and total failure of the inept, incompetent, self-centered, ignorant, simpleminded immature child who was the worst President in American history. That’s quite a range of options. We are witnessing the battle to tell the story of the coronavirus in the United States and there is a good chance at least 405 of the country will believe two completely contradictory stories. If you think teaching the Civil War can be challenging imagine the dilemma for teachers and school districts who have to choose between the pond-scum-slime and our Lord and Savior, the Chosen One Blessed Be his Name versions. So the questions for the country isn’t simply who will tell the story but what story(ies) will be told and how will they divide America even more.



Negroes and the American Dream: Hidden Figures, Open Dreams

The story of middle passage blacks in New York now moves to the 20th century. So far various posts have covered

* the diminishment of the story of middle passage blacks during the two centuries time of slavery until 1827 and some of the efforts to recover and tell the story (see Forgetting July 4, 1827 and  Undoing the Whitewashing of Black History in New York)

* the time of free black history in New York after 1827 which also tends to be ignored unless it is related to the Underground Railroad (see Twelve Years a Slave – What about the Other Years?)

* the shortcomings of the efforts by New York State related to the Underground Railroad especially in contrast to the recent initiative by former Confederate States to promote civil rights sites from the 20th century (see The Underground Railroad in New York State: Black Lives Still Don’t Matter and The Confederacy Trumps New York on Civil Rights Tourism)

* the shortcomings of the efforts by New York State through its Amistad Commission intended to be about slavery in the United States (meaning the South) while ignoring or minimizing the New York State story (see The New York State Amistad Commission: Do Black Lives Matter?)

At this point there are many people, often volunteer researchers and archaeologists, laboring to recover and tell this history.

In the 20th century, the situation changes drastically due to the Great Migration. With this movement of people from the South to various northern states including New York, the local middle passage blacks were overwhelmed by the huge numbers of new arrivals involved. Instead of the small-scale Seneca Village, there was Harlem. Instead of Weeksville there was Bed-Stuy. Instead of the Hills in Harrison, there was Mount Vernon. While the newcomers may have had ancestors dating back to colonial times, they were newcomers in New York, they had no roots to the centuries of middle passage black history in the state prior to the Harlem Renaissance.

These people from the South weren’t the only newcomers in large numbers to New York, especially New York City. Roughly at the same time, newcomers not just to New York but to the United States were arriving via Ellis Island. These Italians, Jews, and ethnics from eastern and southern Europe first saw the United States through the Statue of Liberty and a poem about the tired and the poor. They were here to live the American Dream. So were the people of the Great Migration who now had their first real opportunity to live that dream outside the agricultural southern economy .

These worlds operated somewhat separated and somewhat together. At this time, middle passage blacks were called Negroes. The word was simply the name of one demographic group with no value associated with it. It was a word everyone used including the Negroes themselves (see The Negro Name Game: My First Step Trying to Make Sense and Have Hope in a Racially Tumultuous Country).  When I was growing up in New Rochelle, the four leading demographic groups were the Jews, Irish, Italians, and Negroes. Intermarriage was between Irish and Italian (Cuomo-Kennedy). The first three of those groups are still called by those names.

With Negroes, a change would occur, the subject of a future post. For the moment, consider this recent announcement about an upcoming lecture:

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many whites believed that African Americans were inherently ill and doomed to extinction. To challenge this stereotype and demonstrate the race’s health, Booker T. Washington launched a public health campaign in 1915: National Negro Health Week. This talk examines the changes in, and challenges to, medical authority and public health in African American communities that the Week caused. The goal is to show how African American definitions of health differed from those of the medical establishment and the implications such differences created for the social control over, and empowerment of, African Americans.

Or this description of Negro published by the Encyclopedia of African-American Education:

The Journal of Negro Education (JNE), a scholarly refereed journal, was founded at Howard University in 1932. It is one of the oldest continuously published periodicals by and about Black people. At the time of its inception, however, there was no publication that systematically or comprehensively addressed the enormous problems that characterized the education of Blacks in the United States and elsewhere. The mainstream educational journals only occasionally published articles or studies pertaining to Black education, but no publication focused specifically on this area.

These name combinations anticipate the change which would occur in the Negro quest to live the American Dream when they stopped calling themselves Negroes.

In many ways, Negroes created an alternate reality from the dominant white world but one still imbued with traditional American values. In 1931, The Star-Spangled Banner became the official anthem of the United States. In an editorial (11/21/17, NYT) about “Colin Kaepernick and the Legacy of the Negro National Anthem,” Brent Staples wrote:

Well before then, however, black communities across the Jim Crow South were instead embracing the soaring, aspirational lyrics of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — otherwise known as the Negro National Anthem — which was sung in churches, at civic events and even in schools, where substituting the song for “The Star-Spangled Banner” was a quiet act of rebellion against the racist status quo….

James Weldon Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in 1900 to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday at a time when the government seemed to have abandoned altogether the promise of Reconstruction. Four years earlier, the Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, had validated the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

So while white America took a song that had been around since the War of 1812, black America created a song to celebrate Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War. How many monuments to America’s greatest president do you think there are in the former Confederacy today?

During this time, Negroes began to tell there own story. In 1934, journalist and historian Joel Augustus Rogers’ columns were consolidated into the book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro with Complete Proof: A Short Cut to The World History of The Negro. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. produced his own version under the same title in 2017. The exhibition, The Negro Artist Comes of Age was shown in 1945 at the Albany Institute of History & Art. Just this month, a lecture was presented at the same institution on the exhibit. When the exhibition first opened it was reviewed in The Journal of Negro History but the comments aren’t what you might expect:

The aim is to lift the Negro artist from the patronizing sphere of a group set off by itself and regarded as Negro artists rather than as artists who happened to be Negroes. The very exhibit itself left upon one of the artists invited to participate this very undesirable impression and for that reason he refused to exhibit.

One observes here in the post-WWII era, a desire not to separated but to be included – why should there be separate art exhibits based on race?

Yet separation was the way of the world. In 1936, the first edition of the Negro Motorist Green Book appeared. Annual editions would be printed until 1967. It drew on the Jewish experience of the need to identify where it was safe to be what you as you traveled throughout the United States.

So during these decades, Negroes had their own history, art, and hotels. If they had their own anthem, they also had their own sports events as well. These decades were the highpoint of the Negro Baseball League. All these differences came to a point in Brooklyn with Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers. The Dodgers already were the most integrated team in baseball. Part of their mystique in Brooklyn was that they were everywhere. They were in every school, neighborhood, and ethnicity in the borough of immigrants. In some way adding Negroes to the mix was a logical next step given all the other ethnicities on the team and in the stands. It brought to the forefront the issues of the national anthem, travel, and separate but equal. In some ways, the Dodgers signified that yes, Negroes could live the American Dream and play in America’s pastime with everyone else.

In a previous post (Twelve Years a Slave – What about the Other Years?), I wrote about the movie Brooklyn. It tells the story of an individual Irish immigrant to Brooklyn in the 1950s during the glory era of the Dodgers. Through education, marriage to an Italian, and the promise of a home in the new Long Island suburbs, she came to live the American Dream. My question in that post was where is the movie about the Negro who lives the American Dream…not a movie about slavery and the white savior or the Underground Railroad, but a movie about individual blacks who live the American Dream just as so many other people did.

Then I saw Hidden Figures with Kevin Costner of Field of Dreams and Whitney Houston fame. He appeared in a movie where he was not the star but delivered one of the most memorable lines of the movie: “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.” It reminded me of the line in To Sir with Love when Sidney Poitier is cut and bleeding red blood. One of his English students says “Did you expect him to bleed ink?” (or words to that effect, it’s been a while). The bathroom scenes in Hidden Figures really do a superb job of illustrating class, race, and sex divides without being heavy-handed about them.

The movie is set in Virginia in the early 1960s when the space race heats up. The time and location are about the same as the movie Loving about an interracial marriage and just before the 1971 integration of a Virginia high school and football team in 1971 depicted in Remember the Titans. Hidden Figures itself is about three colored (not people of color) women, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, NASA scientists, and how they live the American Dream. Like the movie Brooklyn and the traditional stories of white Americans living the American Dream, it is a story of family, home, church, education, service to country, and hard work where black and white together shared the fears and pride in the American quest to go to the moon.

The movie seems to herald a better day for Negroes. The proclamation “I have a dream” meant that the arc of history was bending towards a time when blacks and whites both would be able to live the American Dream together. That didn’t happen. Fifty Years an African-American will be the subject of the next post on what happened instead.