We just experienced a "totality" eclipse…the moon and sun rolled across the sky, locked in an embrace, entrancing and spooking a new generation of sky-watchers. This celestial happening is the perfect onramp for my final August discussion and premiere cross-century duet: The Hall in the Grove (1881) and Hidden Figures (2016).
If you’ve been under a (moon) rock for the past year, you might not be familiar with Hidden Figures, an inspiring chronicle of NASA’s heretofore unknown black women mathematicians who helped the US win the space race. Their story is a contemporary echo of the social-barrier-busting power of education that’s celebrated in The Hall in the Grove. Isabella Alden’s Hall in the Grove examined the elite-fostered social pressures that kept ignorant slackers and illiterate factory workers firmly entrenched in their “proper” places; Hidden Figures author Margo Lee Shetterly deftly explores the tragically familiar phenomenon among 20th-century African-Americans who struggled their way up academic and government corporate ladders towards respectability and peer-recognition.
(We interrupt this post for a brief shout-out and testimonial: Huge thanks to the author of Isabella’s tribute page blog…she suggested this book would be the perfect counterpoint to The Hall in the Grove and she was dead right! I LOVED this book and highly recommend it to anyone—it’s wonderfully well-written, truly inspiring, and offers a peek into a hitherto unknown chapter in aerospace history. Run out and read it! Now, onto our regularly scheduled blog post…)
Both books drive home the crucial role played by social advocacy champions. Isabella’s CLSC scholars and Shetterly’s “unlikely” math whizzes were sponsored by superstar advocates for higher education for previously ignored populations. Isabella makes real-life Chautauqua founder Dr. Vincent a character in her book; he tirelessly promoted equal-access higher education in Chautauqua’s open-air, lakeside forums and campaigned vigorously for “daughter Chautauquas” across the nation to open even more doors. Shetterly introduces us to dozens of fascinating, unsung black advancement advocates and activists like 1868 teacher Mary Peake, who taught freed slaves in the open air under the shade of antebellum Virginia’s majestic Emancipation Oak.
Emancipation, the release from spiritual, mental, or physical bondage is winsomely embodied by plucky, attractive females in these volumes. The first of Shetterly’s cohort of amazing women we meet is sloe-eyed, brilliant Dorothy Vaughn (pictured above). Dorothy is remarkably akin to Caroline Raynor, Isabella’s educationally ambitious, humbly bright maid-of-all-work. Both are encouraged by wise and watchful mothers to take advantage of every open door. A virtually illiterate washerwoman mother gives Caroline her life motto; “Pick ‘em up, Car’line” when she urges baby Caroline to learn the alphabet from the discarded blocks of a wealthy playmate; it’s the beginning of Caroline’s catch-as-catch-can “pick up” education. Dorothy’s stepmother, also a charwoman, encourages young Dorothy to go as far as possible with her education. Shetterly’s description of Dorothy’s trademark characteristics: “…her intelligence, her work ethic, her naturally kind disposition, and her humility” are shared by the fictional Caroline.
Mirroring personalities and youthful circumstances—poverty, innate intelligence, working class but ambitious mothers—are the springboards to these women’s eventual fulfilled adulthoods. Like Caroline, Dorothy trusted that her brave, often sacrificial hard work and determination would enable her to better her lot (very Horatio Alger-esque!), an unthinkable attitude for any Victorian black women. Unlike Dorothy, Caroline relied on her deep-seated faith in Christ as the key that unlocked her future. Human effort, however admirable, cannot outstrip or overturn God’s will in Caroline’s worldview.
Prejudices against 19th century low-born/working class whites crippled employment and educational opportunities in ways that rivaled the underground and flagrant racist attitudes that flourished then and provoke violent outcroppings that horrify our self-satisfied society even today. Today’s web-based info glut tantalizes with the allure of universal accessibility but the daily headlines indicate there’s a need beyond mere cultural instruction, no matter how mind-boggling the results.
Higher education certainly offers greater prospects of glory, but Isabella’s heroines avow it can’t supply the moral foundation or framework necessary for the human soul to flourish. That suffocating stone won’t roll away without divine intervention. The not-so-hidden figure revealed in Pansy’s works? The nimbus-rimmed shadow of Jesus, His blinding radiance no longer occluded by Death and the frailty of human flesh.
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun. It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heaven and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth. Psalm 19: 1-6