A particularly moving scene in the film Hidden Figures takes place not at NASA but in the public library of Hampton, Virginia. Mathematician Dorothy Vaughn steers clear of vocal civil rights protests on her way into the library. Yet her visit is cut short when a white librarian warns her: “We don’t want any trouble in here,” as she considers a computer programming text on a shelf. Vaughn’s only seeking knowledge — a book that can’t be found in the colored section — yet she and her young sons are brusquely escorted out by a guard.
The scene distills so many dimensions of the enduring obstacles to equality in America, from restricted access to career-propelling information to the threat of rebuke for daring to challenge the social order. It got me thinking about the incredible barriers to adult education and career advancement that continue to persist, helped by complex systems of discrimination and segregation.