This isn’t an in-depth article or a traditional essay. It’s a post on reddit. But we love the connections it makes between Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti and Hidden Figures by Margo Lee Shetterfly.
Those of you who are familiar with Okorafor’s three-part space odyssey titled Binti know that it stars an African girl who goes on an epic inter-galactic journey and who happens to be a math wiz. Shetterfly’s book, which is currently a wildly successful feature film, is similarly built around the intersection of black femininity, space, and mathematics.
Okorafor who shared the reddit post on Facebook has this to say about it: “This write up makes some connections I wish more would make between Hidden Figures and Binti and other works about blacks and space. It also locates most of the central themes in Binti very nicely, which made me happy.”
The other day I took my overdue copy of “Hidden Figures” back to the library and sat and finished the last few chapters before handing it back. For those who don’t know, it’s about a group of black women, spread over two or three generations, who worked at NASA and made major contributions to both the advancement of military tech in WW2 and then later the race to the moon. It moved me, especially in the epilogue. It got me thinking about all kinds of things with race and the power of narrative, of visibility and erasure. Here is a quote from the author:
“What I wanted was for them to have a grand, sweeping narrative that they deserved, the kind of American history that belongs to the Wright Brothers and the astronauts, to Alexander Hamilton and Martin Luther King Jr. Not told as a separate history, but as part of the story we all know. Not at the margins, but at the very center, the protagonists of the drama. And not just because they are black, or because they are women, but because they are part of the American epic.”
She achieved that. You should read it. Anyway, after I turn in “Hidden Figures,” what should I see on the SF section’s display shelf but “Binti,” a novella I’d heard a lot of good things about, by an African-American author who I’d heard was brilliant and uncompromising. Sweet serendipity, I had an hour to kill. So I sat down and read it.
Without spoiling too much, it was so fitting to the track of my thoughts when I picked it up that it was uncanny. Referenced in “Hidden Figures” was a central figure’s love of Star Trek, for Lt Uhura, an officer on TV who was black and who was a woman but was also just the right person for the job. The importance of that fictional portrayal to the real life person was hammered home. And here was Binti, a fictional black woman in space who was the right person for the job.
Now “Binti” actually has very little connection in terms of content to “Hidden Figures,” of course, beyond it involving black people and space. Even in theme, “Binti” is more to do with immigration and culture shock, the complex social snarl of identities inhabited by a person who belongs neither here nor there. The premise of the book seems to be founded in the question “what could that kind of person offer that someone else could not?”
That question is relevant to me as a reader, too. What Okorafor offered me was what another author could not: a culture and ethnicity not my own bound into the kind of genre narrative and setting I’ve always loved. Part of the story we all know. It’s needed, guys. As “Hidden Figures” shows us, not being part of the narrative means invisibility, no matter how worthy. One of my favorite musicians working right now is rapper Killer Mike. He’s a social activist, and I’ve seen him say in numerous interviews that the one most important thing we need to do is meeting and getting to know and understand people different to us. I’d argue it’s just as important we meet them in our books.