Friday Musings: Hidden Figures
On February 20, 1962, John Glenn was strapped into the spacecraft he’d named Friendship 7 and launched into space where he went on to orbit the earth three times as part of the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission. It was a triumphant day for the United States, and the nation swelled with pride. The goal of the space program, both literally and figuratively, was to push against the unseen boundaries of the earth’s atmosphere and find opportunity and recognition in what lay beyond. The irony was, of course, that the greatest limitation that existed in America in 1962 was not located at the edge of the atmosphere, but could be found 50 miles beneath it where both blacks and women struggled every single day in their own search for opportunity and recognition. In the 2016 movie Hidden Figures, based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, we learn the stories of three black women who made phenomenal contributions to the space program during this time period. Mary Jackson was NASA’s first female engineer of any background, Dorothy Vaughn was the first black supervisor, and Katherine Johnson’s trajectory computations for the Mercury mission were so precise and significant that John Glenn would not launch that February day without her reviewing what the new IBM computer had generated. All three women went on to have long careers at Langley where the success of their work helped to dismantle both racial and social boundaries. Johnson lived to be 101, dying just two years ago after she’d received the Presidential Medal of Freedom back in 2018.
As I watched Hidden Figures in preparation for this post, there was one thought in particular that began to take shape in my mind. Whenever we contemplate the vastness of space, we quickly discover that it does not lend itself to any real form of containment, definition, or measurement. Yes, there are sizes and distances that we can look up on our phones or read about in books, but because they are so far outside of the realm of what is relatable to us, we struggle to grasp and process them. This leads us to conclude that the universe is infinite, even though there are multiple scientific theories that suggest that just the opposite may be true. The concept of infinity holds both solace and excitement for us. Does that seem like an odd juxtaposition of words to you? It does to me too, but I am still comfortable making that statement. I think that we are soothed by the idea that there is something so much bigger than us, and we are stimulated by the thought that such vastness allows anything to be possible. It is at the intersection point of these two opposing energies that we plant the seeds of our dreams. And yet the intuitive powers that nurture dreams seem as though they would be unable to share space with the analytical skills that translate science. The language that scientists and engineers use to express the unseen forces of the universe is mathematics, after all, which seems far removed from anything dream related. Hidden Figures, however, proves this to be incorrect. As Katherine Johnson fills the chalkboards at Langley with equation after equation as her male colleagues look on in astonishment, John Glenn’s dreams move from a place of reverie into one of reality.
But what were Katherine Johnson’s dreams? For the most part, they remained hidden as did the dreams of many women who lived in the 1960s. As a child of that decade, I can tell you that I never knew what my mother’s dreams were. I knew that she cleaned our house until every inch of it was gleaming, and she had dinner on the table every night when my father walked through the door, but I never knew what she wished for in the deepest part of her heart. My mother lived in a distinctly finite world where the words practical and possible were synonymous. Could contemplating the universe have provided her with a way of knowing there could be more? I’m certain of it, but that is a conversation we never had a chance to have. How many of us still live in this space of being unable to dream, whether we long for something for ourselves or hope for more for the world? In her poem Let There Always Be Light, astronomer Rebecca Elson tells us that because we spend our lives focusing on darkness, we often struggle to see the light: “For this we go out dark nights, searching / for the dimmest stars, / for signs of unseen things…” Even the smallest glimmer of light offers us a glimpse of immortality and is enough “to bring us all so close we ignite / the bright spark of resurrection.” The women of Hidden Figures refused to be held down by the darkness; instead, they persisted no matter what difficulties they encountered. Their accomplishments illuminate the path for us and convince us that there is every reason to remain hopeful. They inspire us to seek the boundaries of our own universe, to push against them until they yield, and to discover the possibilities that lie on the other side.
For today’s cocktail, I began with lemongrass and white peppercorns, two ingredients that are rich in symbolism and have a natural affinity for one another. Lemongrass is said to clear obstacles and bring openness, especially to those who are surrounded by negative conditions. It is associated with the element of air and the planet Mercury, whose elliptical orbit allows access to places in the universe other planets cannot reach. For this reason, it is said that lemongrass sheds light in our darkest corners and reveals what we have hidden there. Peppercorns have a similar meaning in that they also remove obstacles, but they do so through the element of fire and the energy of Mars, thus reminding us that our dreams are often best manifested through our boldest actions. I infused these two ingredients into Recklesstown’s Dust Settler vodka and then created a cordial by echoing the flavors in the syrup I used to sweeten the infusion. For the other component of the drink, I decided to go with a Butterfly Pea Flower Tea simple because I needed a way turn the cocktail a deep space blue. Symbolically, it represents a person, usually female, who cannot be conquered or defeated, and who possesses inner strength, perseverance, and spirituality. This was a wonderful bonus, as was the cocktail glitter stirred in to create a sky full of stars! The overall flavor of this drink is both bold and nuanced, which I felt spoke perfectly to the stories of the women in Hidden Figures. This is the last of the Women’s History Month cocktails that I’ve created for Recklesstown Distillery and the final weekend our March menu will be running. Here is our link for more information about us. Come in and see me this Sunday when I’ll be working from 11-3! Cheers everyone. Happy Friday! Thank you so much for reading.
2.25 oz Lemongrass Peppercorn Cordial
1.5 oz Butterfly Pea Tea simple
2 drops saline solution*
Long, long stir in a mixing glass with ice.
Single strain into a Nick & Nora glass.
Garnish with cocktail glitter, stirred in.
*Brightens the flavors of the drink.