Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterley: A Tale of Race, Discrimination and Achievement in the Modern World

Hidden Figures was a book I discovered after its story had been made into a film. It tells the true-life story of African-American women who worked in aeronautics and their role in helping America win the space race.

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Hidden Figures talks about these female mathematicians who worked in a white, male-dominated sector. They faced challenges such as having a segregated bathroom and not being allowed to participate on certain tasks because they were women.

They were pioneers in their field, occupying positions that black women had not previously worked in. In the past, black women with mathematics degrees mainly worked as teachers in underfunded segregated schools. When roles opened for black women at NASA,  it gave black female graduates the chance to work in a different sector and earn more money.

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These female mathematicians faced challenges such as having a segregated bathroom and not being allowed to participate on certain tasks because they were women. However, with persistence and delivery of excellent work, they were able to progress. There was a particular woman, Katherine Johnson who had asked to participate in editorial meetings. She was told she couldn’t because she was a woman. By persistently questioning this, she was finally allowed to attend. This was in 1958. There’s been a progress in that, sexual discrimination in the workplace is becoming more unacceptable.

The story also explores the social situation in America during the time, Katherine Johnson and her peers were working at NASA. Margot Lee describes this well in this section of the book.

So much money spent so that between 1969 and 1972 a dozen white men could take the express train to a lifeless world? Why, Negro men could barely go to the next state without worrying about predatory police, restaurants that refused to serve them, and service stations that wouldn’t let them buy gas or use the bathroom.

While some were glad that America had made into space, there were difficult conversations being had on how there were no black astronauts at the time. People also challenged the fact that a lot of money was being spent on the space programme while people were poor and dispossessed in the United States. Was this the right way to spend government funds? Although, I felt the good side about the government spending money on the space programme was that it created jobs that helped some black families move up the income ladder.

I enjoyed reading Hidden Figures but I must say some sections were quite technical. There were areas where Margot Lee wrote about the work being carried out in NASA and it was a bit hard for me to follow. Besides that, it was quite readable.

Technology is mainly seen as an industry dominated by men. Reading Hidden Figures helped me realise that women, including black women, made contributions to technology in the middle of the twentieth century and this should be recorded in history.

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I would recommend this if you’re looking for something inspiring to read and if you’re interested in the experiences of African-Americans. These female mathematicians worked in challenging circumstances and made a difference in their families and in the workplace.

*I got my copy of Hidden Figures at WhSmith at St Pancras Station. You can get the book on Amazon, Book Depository, Waterstones and WhSmith. 

Literature At School and Its Influence on my Reading

Reading through my last post where Damilola spoke about books and reading, I realised that she liked some of the literature texts we read at secondary school. Damilola mentioned that she liked Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Both are books we read at school. I remember struggling to get through these books for my IGCSE literature exam.

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I preferred the poetry section in literature at school. One of the poems I studied that stuck with me was The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

-Robert Frost

I don’t know if it was the thought that I had to read a book to pass an exam that made me not like literature. I wonder at other times if it was the selection of books that didn’t appeal to me. Primary school and junior secondary school literature was fine. I enjoyed reading Without A Silver Spoon by Eddie Iroh which was about a young boy from a poor background in Nigeria. Oliver Twist was also good.

I think a few of the books I read at school between ages of 8 and 13 had a common theme on how a family’s income can influence a child’s life chances, from Oliver Twist to Without A Silver Spoon.  I read Mother’s Choice by Agbo Areo when I was 11. This had a similar theme. It was about a young boy from a rich background in Nigeria and his parents send him to boarding school in England at a young age. He becomes wayward when he starts school in England.

The books at senior secondary school were the ones I struggled to read. It was at this stage that my class read Things Fall Apart and Romeo and Juliet. I feel because I was in a large literature class, it was hard for me to learn during classes. We usually had about 30 people in an average class. However, for literature, we were over 40 students in a class that was meant for 30 people.

If I were to suggest an improvement to my secondary school literature class, it would be that the teacher breaks the class into small groups. People can then discuss each book as though they were in a book club. That would have aided my understanding on each book. We could have had these book discussions in small groups during the many prep times we had. I went to boarding school and we had a lot of prep (periods in the afternoon and evenings meant for personal study).

I got through school and did well in literature but I think I should have taken more time to read the books. When it came to choosing subjects for my A Levels, I thought of doing Literature but I ended up choosing Sociology in place of English Lit. I also did French and Economics.

Although, I didn’t carry on studying literature at A Levels, I still enjoyed reading. I volunteered last year as a tutor in a secondary school in London and I assisted with their English lessons. The Year 7s read The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas and I read that with them. It’s about a boy who lives near a concentration camp in the Holocaust but he didn’t know what was going on in the camp. It was an interesting read and I also watched part of the movie adaptation.

Given that I didn’t really understand some of the literature texts I read at school, I’ve decided to re-read Things Fall Apart and I picked up a copy from my local library.  I think I might prefer reading it as an adult. Damilola recommended it and I’ll let you know my thoughts when I’ve read it.

Let me know if you studied literature at school and what books you enjoyed.

Exploring Books with Damilola

I interviewed my friend, Damilola for the blog. I’ve known Damilola from secondary school. We discussed books, reading and accessing books in Nigeria.damilola_mini

How did you get into reading?

I like to believe I learnt to read pretty fast. As a child, I read mostly storybooks with the popular children’s fairytales like The Princess and The Pea and Cinderella. The primary school I attended used to give us storybooks as birthday presents. Through my adolescence, I wasn’t much of a reader as most of my classmates were, but when I started doing literature in high school, I began to really like reading fiction mostly because of all the places I could go to through different books, and even then I was very picky. One of the first books I remember really enjoying was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

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What were favourite books as a child?

As a child, I had this collection of books with some of the Grimm’s fairytales and a bunch of other children tales which I loved so much because there were many books in it. I can’t pick a favourite there. I don’t remember what I spent my childhood doing but I don’t think I read a lot.

Do you have a favourite genre of literature?

I do have a favourite genre of literature. Prose over all! To be more specific, I really like historical fiction. I read a few historical fiction books last year and I really enjoyed them.

*If you love Historical Fiction, you would like Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and The Book of Harlan by Bernice McFadden, I wrote briefly about The Book of Harlan in this post.

How do you balance reading alongside other interests? For example, I like podcasts and sometimes it’s a struggle for me to decide whether to spend my time listening to a podcast or to a pick up a book instead.

Hmm. Balancing reading with other interests can be tricky sometimes. I love music, and I’ve found that reading while listening to music is not a bad idea. Especially, relaxed or wordless music. I find it hard sometimes to read while I’m commuting because I like to just look at the road, the other vehicles, the billboards and people walking on the street. Generally I just like to be aware when I’m in a moving vehicle. So sometimes it’s hard to make a decision between people-watching and picking a book from my bag to read. But when I’m at home or by myself, I’m usually drawn to read something.

Which authors stand out to you?

There are a lot of authors I’d like to read more from particularly because of the topics/issues they portray. I’d read anything by Chimamanda N Adichie, Marlon James, Taiye Selasi, Sefi Atta and many others I can’t remember right now. I’d definitely read anything they write or listen to any speeches they give.

What books would you recommend to people who are new to reading or want to read more but don’t know where to start?

The books I’d recommend are based on my taste and books I’ve really loved. One book I’ll always recommend is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It’s one of the most widely acclaimed books by an African writer, and for very good reason.

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If you’re not really into African Literature, Gillian Flynn has brilliant thrillers and Jodi Picoult is also very good. You should read Dark Places. I’m trying to read more non-fiction this year. One non-fiction book I would recommend is Freakonomics by Stephen J Dubner and Steven D Levitt. It’s one book that has really opened my mind to a different way of thinking and of viewing human behavior and incentives.

*If you’re looking to read more non-fiction, I recommended some in this post

Has living in Lagos affected your ability to access books you are interested in?

Because I’m a lot more interested in African Literature and writers, it hasn’t really been difficult finding the books I want to read in Lagos. Publishers like Kachifo and Cassava Republic are here in Nigeria and they have taken on the job of publishing the works of talented writers from across Africa. Also there are a few, but still well-stocked bookshops in Lagos that sell ‘African fiction’. Even when I can’t find a book I want, there’s such a large community of readers and writers in Lagos that there’d definitely be someone who can lend or barter a book with you.

Do you read e-books? Do you feel reading e-books in Nigeria would provide more people with access to reading books in Nigeria? 

Yes I read e-books. I’m hardly against it, but I also really love the smell and feel of physical books. I feel publishing e-books will give a lot of people access and exposure, especially to books from countries or writers who aren’t as popular over here. There are a few sites that sell e-books and many people download books using torrents.

What books do you hope to read in the near future?

Towards the end of last year, I made a list of books I was looking forward to reading as soon as I can get my hands on them. There’ll be more through the course of the year but here is my list for now.

Where can we find you on the internet?

I run a blog with a very good friend, Aramide. On the blog, you’ll find a few book reviews and stories about our personal lives as millennials living in West Africa. I’m also on twitter!

Book Review: Radio Sunrise by Anietie Isong

Radio Sunrise is about a radio journalist, Ifiok who loses funding for his radio drama on a public station in Nigeria. The government stops the funding the programme so he starts to look for alternative funding. The fact that the government cut the funding for the programme made me question whether we can rely on the government. One minute, they are helping the people and the next minute, the help stops. He is then called to work on a documentary about ex-militants in his hometown and the story follows his experience while he’s there.

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Ifiok is a journalist so he chats often with people and discovers new stories along the way. The novel ignited my interest in journalism and how it can expose things going on in society.

Ifiok’s interest as a journalist meant that sometimes he was more interested in recording a story than helping at an incident.  A fire started in Ifiok’s neighbourhood once and  he quickly brought out his tape recorder to record the event, rather than helping his neighbours who were trying to get water to quench the fire. You may wonder why people had to stop the fire themselves. It’s because the firemen arrived without any water and only came to record the incident.

One of the conversations that stuck with me from the book was Ifiok’s conversation with a woman who’s a street food seller. She mentioned how KFC’s arrival in Lagos had affected her business negatively. I remembered how I only thought about buying crispy fried chicken and chips in Lagos when KFC arrived. I didn’t think about the livelihoods it affected.

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In all, I enjoyed reading Radio Sunrise. Anietie writes in a way that talks about society in a funny way but questions important parts of society. I laughed a couple of times while reading Radio Sunrise. But, it also made me think a lot about the government, journalism and what it’s like being a young man in Nigeria facing societal pressure.

If you’re looking for a book that is easy to read, definitely pick up Radio Sunrise. It’s quite quick to get through too; it’s less than 200 pages long. This is Anietie’s first novel and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work.

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*I received Radio Sunrise as a gift from Jacaranda Books but all views are mine.

Best of 2016: Books and Podcasts

I wrote a post a few months back where I mentioned my top podcasts at the time. Since then I’ve discovered more podcasts and I’ll be mentioning my favourite podcast episodes.

I bought speakers this year so I could listen to podcasts while I’m cooking. I struggled to listen to podcasts without speakers in the kitchen because the sound of water running from the kitchen tap prevented me from hearing my podcasts. Buying the speakers helped me realise that my interest in podcasts was real.

The podcasts I enjoyed are written in no particular order of preference.

  1. Melanin Millenials podcast episode on homelessness in Britain: It’s hosted by two black British women, Imrie and Satia. This episode got me thinking about housing and what the government can do to address this. They mentioned how the government is intending to spend £370m to refurbish Buckingham Palace while the homeless lie on the streets with nowhere to sleep. melanin-millenials
  2. The Startup Podcast: It’s a podcast on business and entrepreneurship. I like the storytelling on the podcast. My favourite episodes from Startup were the series of episodes that followed the life of Dov Charney, the founder of American Apparel. He went from starting a great company to being fired by the company board. The episodes explored the mistakes he made such as having sexual relationships with his employees and his style of running a business. startup-podcast

I walked past the American Apparel in Nottingham, where I live and saw that it was closing down. The first thing that came to my mind was Dov Charney has left the company and I wonder what’s become of American Apparel.

Beyond podcasts, I’ve read more books this year from non-fiction to romance literature. It was hard for me to choose my favourite books this years but I ended up choosing two.

Favourite work of Nonfiction: Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge

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It’s a book that explores what happens when there is no gun control. The book looks at the lives of ten young people who died from gun wounds on a particular day in America. Each chapter focuses on one young person who was killed by a gun and tells the story on the life that they lived.

Favourite work of fiction: The Book of Harlan by Bernice McFadden

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The Book of Harlan falls into the historical fiction genre. It is set in the period from 1917 to about the late 1960s. Harlan is a young black musician who is caught up in Europe during the Nazi era and ends up in a concentration camp. The book opens with the birth of Harlan in Georgia and follows the experiences of his family move from Georgia in other parts of America in search of a better life.

It’s an amazing story about family and the challenges Harlan’s family faces an African American family in that time. The story also explores Harlan’s experience in the concentration camp which I feel was important because as Harlan’s mother thought “Every time the news reported on the Holocaust, they talked about the Jews and no one else.”

Both Another Day in the Death of America and The Book of Harlan were set in America and explored the lives of minorities within the country. I understood more about the black experience in America. Previously, I didn’t understand much about the Black Lives Matter protests and the books let me know why these protests matter. Both books didn’t specifically mention Black Lives Matter but their themes on violence and race can be linked to the protests.

I also realised how much I enjoyed African American literature while reading both books. Gary Younge is a black British writer but his book, Another Day in the Death of America has chapters on African American young boys who died from gun violence. These books helped me develop empathy for others and not to say, “I live faraway from this place so it’s none of my business what happens there.”

Have a lovely new year. Let me know what your favourite books or podcasts were this year and what you’re looking forward to reading in the new year.

Three Lessons I Learnt on Black British History From Evelyn Dove’s Biography

This year has been my year of understanding more about the black British community. I moved to England six years ago and I feel knowing more about the people in my community is important. Evelyn Dove’s biography was one of the books I read this year that helped me learn more about the black community in Britain.

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You may be wondering who Evelyn Dove is. She was the first black female singer on BBC radio and the first black British female singer to work in America.

Here’s the blurb about her biography, Evelyn Dove: Britain’s Black Cabaret Queen.

A pioneer and a trailblazer, Evelyn Dove left a mark in the arts industry. She was the first black female singer on BBC Radio and the first black British female singer to work in America, a quarter of a century before Shirley Bassey.

In a career lasting five decades, from the 1920s to the 1960s, Evelyn Dove embraced the worlds of jazz, musical theatre and cabaret. Refusing to be constrained by her race or middle-class West African and English backgrounds, she thrilled audiences around the world, courted admirers and fans wherever she performed and scandalized her family by appearing on stage semi-naked. Her mesmerising movie star looks and grace captivated those in her presence, yet her extraordinary career was one of many highs and lows.

Evelyn Dove – Britain’s Black Cabaret Queen is illustrated with over fifty rare and unpublished photographs from Evelyn’s private collection, now in the possession of the author.

There isn’t a lot of literature on black British musicians from her time and the author of her biography, Stephen Bourne mentioned in the book, “When I was growing up in the 1970s there weren’t that many books about black British history and next to nothing about black British singers and entertainers.”

I feel this book is necessary because it’s helped me understand the diversity of the black British experience. My grandmother was a Nigerian nurse in the England in the 1960s and I would hear stories from her perspective but reading this helped understand others who worked in other professions like the arts.

What did I learn about black British history from Evelyn Dove – Britain’s Black Cabaret Queen?

Black British history did not begin when the Empire Windrush arrived in England in 1948. I knew quite a bit about the migration from the West Indies and Africa in the 1940s to 1960s but I didn’t know much about earlier migration before this period.

Evelyn’s father, Frank Dove was a man of West African heritage, born in Sierra Leone. He trained as a lawyer in England in the late 1800s. Stephen Bourne describes Evelyn’s father and other Africans who had a similar experience to him as middle class West Africans who were more at home in England than in their home countries.

Frank Dove married an English woman, Augusta Winchester. Frank and Augusta were Evelyn’s parents. Their marriage was interracial but was not illegal. I wondered if their marriage was accepted in English society.

Leading roles for black actresses on British television in the 1950s were almost non-existent. Directors would not cast Evelyn as a middle class English woman, even though she could act the part. Times have changed now and black actresses can apply for mainstream roles.

However, there is a lot of discussion on the under-representation of black and minority communities in the creative industries. That was why I was happy when I was able to support the Black Ballad crowd fund which is a media platform tailored to the black British female audience. I didn’t just want to talk about the under-representation of black people in the media but I wanted to do something about it.

It was difficult for black people in Britain in Evelyn’s time to run arts organisations to represent their work. One of the organisations in the biography, the Edric Connor Agency was set up to represent actors, artists and writers of colour but struggled to convince casting directors that black actors could act.

Our pioneers faced challenges and black arts and media organisations continue to face their unique challenges in the 21st century. I’ll give the example of Black Ballad. Their major challenge was funding and having to depend on advertisers for revenue. They have now created a membership platform where you pay to subscribe to their content.

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Evelyn Dove faced her challenges working in the arts and left a mark in the industry. I would recommend reading her biography if you are interested in black British history. Plus, it has pretty pictures from Evelyn’s life in it.

*Evelyn Dove: Britain’s Black Cabaret Queen was sent to me from Jacaranda Books. 

Books on my Christmas Wish List

I created a mental list of the books I wanted to get at the end of the year. But because, it was a list in my head, I would add new titles each time. This was making it difficult for me to decide what books to get. Also, it wasn’t going to be good for my bank account. Writing the list on the blog should help with my book shopping at Christmas and help me not go overboard with my spending on books. (Click the book titles to read the blurbs of each book on my wish list on Goodreads).

Not Working by Lisa Owens is a novel I first heard about on Emma Gannon’s podcast Ctrl Alt Delete. It’s a book about a young lady who quits her job to find her purpose. I am interested in this as I’ve always thought about the idea of work and our career interests. I’ve heard the book is really funny and it’s been compared to Bridget Jones so I’m looking forward to reading this.

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi was one of the most talked about books by an author of African descent in 2016. I read blog reviews about Homegoing, listened to a podcast on Homegoing and watched a YouTube review of Homegoing. I also came across a twitter chat about the novel too. Having heard so much about the novel, I want to read it for myself. Darkowaa from African Book Addict recommended that I read Homegoing before any of the books on my wish list.

Homegoing is a novel that tackles a big topic- slavery as it explores a family that is split by slavery where one sister is sold as a slave and ends up in the United States and the other sister stays in Ghana. It traces the experiences of the descendants of each sister in Ghana and in America. It’s a book I’m looking forward to reading based on the great reviews it has received.

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The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell is a  non-fiction book on my wish list. Jen Campbell is an author and booktuber. I watch her videos on books on YouTube from time to time and would love to read her work. The Bookshop Book is a book about bookshops around the world. As I love books, I would love to read the bookshops and how they have survived over the years. I also see it as a way of supporting Jen’s channel.

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My Name is Leon by Kit De Waal is about a young mixed-race boy whose white brother is adopted and Leon isn’t. Leon family is falling apart and the book explores their experience of social services and foster care. Leon’s experience on not being adopted is an important issue as sometimes white babies are preferred in adoption over black children.

I think reading My Name is Leon would help me understand what it’s like to require social services. Most of the discussion I hear on social services are from documentaries on people depending on benefits and I want to listen to a different perspective from people who genuinely need the social support that the state provides.

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While compiling the list, I went on Book Depository to gauge whether my budget would be able to cover all the books. Hopefully, I’m able to get all the books on the list.

Let me know in the comments what books are on your Christmas wish list.