By Stan Wise
Farm Forum Editor
My wife and I recently saw the movie “Hidden Figures.” (We loved it.) It has an apt title because it profiles the black, female mathematicians who performed some of the intense mathematics required by NASA’s early missions. This was before NASA got their IBM computers. In fact, the women who performed the calculations were actually called computers.
Though for a time I thought I wanted to be an engineer and I took more higher-level math classes than most other English majors encounter in their worst nightmares, I had never heard the story of these women.
And that’s a real shame because they literally helped send the first American astronauts into space.
I grew up in Mississippi, and as you might imagine, certain unfavorable attitudes toward black people were common among people I knew. I might have ended up thinking the same way had it not been for two people.
The first person is Dwight Cummings, a black student who always challenged me.
In school, I was used to being the smartest kid in my class, and most of the time I was — except for grades seven through nine when Dwight attended my school. No matter how hard I tried, he seemed to score just a little bit better than me in every subject. If I made a 99 on a test, he made 100.
We couldn’t have been more different. I was a nerdy farm kid. He, on the other hand, was a popular athlete with a sharp wit and a wicked sense of humor. His social standing was definitely higher than mine.
There was no denying that Dwight was smarter than me. Because I knew him, there was no way I could go around thinking that I was better than all black people. Denying reality has never been one of my flaws.
The second reason my attitude toward minorities stayed positive was my grandfather. I idolized him. I followed him everywhere on the farm. I worked with him, and I listened to the things he said, both to me and to other people.
This is what he told me about his thoughts on black people: “I’ve never met anyone I couldn’t learn from.”
He told stories of the black people he employed to pick his cotton before mechanical cotton pickers became popular. He talked about how hard they worked. He told a story of one black woman who had two children who were too young to work. They followed her to the field, and the elder child looked after the younger while their mother performed the back-breaking task of picking cotton. On one occasion, the children were playing in the cotton wagon, and the younger child fell off the wagon. The older child ran to her mother and told her that her youngest had fallen off the wagon. The mother asked, “Is he crying?” The daughter said, “Yes, he is.” The mother said, “He’ll be all right, then,” and she kept on picking cotton.
That story stuck with me because I understood how important the money that woman earned for each bale of cotton was to her and her family. It was so important that she dared not leave the field to check on her crying child.
How could I hate any people who were willing to work so hard?
You might wonder why I’m mentioning this. This week I saw a truck in Aberdeen, S.D., with an unusual decal in the back window. It was a skull painted like the Confederate battle flag.
I thought this brand of hatred was firmly stuck in the fringes of our society, but instead it is trying to multiply into the mainstream. You only have to log on to social media or watch cable news to see that.
February is Black History Month, and I’m writing this column to ask any white nationalists in the audience to think about one question. Through their intelligence and hard work, black women helped us reach the stars. What have you done that’s worth making a movie about?