DON’T MISS HIDDEN FIGURES

Aviation is my hobby, and I grew up in the middle of the grand quest to “put a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth” by the end of the decade, bequeathed to us by John F. Kennedy. I thought I knew about everything there was to know about the space race. Then I saw Hidden Figures, (Rated PG for mild language) and learned a beautiful back story to the Mercury space program that no one should miss.

The film centers around three gifted mathematicians who overcame racial and sexual discrimination to make significant contributions to America’s ultimate aerospace achievement. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) is a spunky math whiz who, “would already be an engineer,” if she were a white man. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) is just as smart, but also a wise and wily leader, as she positions her cadre of “colored computers,” a whole division of black female number crunchers working for NASA in segregated space at Langley, Virginia, to become indispensable programmers of the new IBM machines that will soon take their place. But Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is the real Brainiac of the bunch, and the central figure in the film. Her skills in analytical geometry get her assigned to the Space Task Group led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) where she soon becomes invaluable. It’s her relationship with Harrison, and her conflict with direct supervisor Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), as well as “the system” of segregation, that make this story so compelling.

The real strength of Hidden Figures is that it humanizes the story of segregation in America without overplaying its hand. It does that because it is the true tale of the way three brilliant women experienced and overcame racism in the most mundane of matters. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but the bathroom and the coffee pot are more compelling in this film than the rockets and IBM machines.

More important than all of those things, however, is that the biblical worldview is on clear display. Although we are all created equal in the image of God, inequality is real in more ways than one. We are differentiated not only by skin color and sex, but also by brains and character. Katherine’s mathematical skills, the depth of Dorothy’s wisdom, and Mary’s tenacity make them stand out above the rest, black or white, male or female. But their needs for dignity, respect, and opportunity are shared by all.

The Fall is also present: our capacity for hypocrisy and rationalization on full display–but so is Redemption. The mission, the grand quest not only to beat the Russians, but also to explore the great beyond, reveals the foolishness of discrimination better than any sermon. Everyone is needed to accomplish the goal, and things like segregation just get in the way.

Finally, the world is changed, not just because man made it to the moon, but because three black women helped him get there.

What THE BUTLER Did For Me

Not long ago my neighbor, Ralph, an African American man for whom I have deep respect, and I were chatting in our back yard. We usually talk about our kids or joke with each other about our geriatric joints and other ailments with him always having the last laugh. “Just wait till you’re seventy. You ain’t seen nuthin yet!” But that day I had more on my mind. Something in the news, or in my reading, made me want to understand more about his life as a black man in America. At seventy-odd, his is a longer experience than mine.

“Ralph, one day I want you to tell me what it was like for you as a black man in the American south in the twentieth century,” I said.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“Atlanta.”

Ralph’s face clouded a bit, something I’d never seen before, and he said, “Well then, you know … you know.” And that’s all he would say.

But I didn’t know, not from the inside, the way I wanted to know.

I was four years old when the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which desegregated the schools, passed. I grew up in the turmoil it precipitated among the races; especially in the schools I attended in the Atlanta suburbs. I’m sure my family would have been considered racist by the standards of today, but we didn’t consider ourselves so. We didn’t march with Dr. King or anything like that. But my father had stood up for the right of a black man to join his Southern Baptist Church in 1957, and my mother was always kind to the black people we met.

Desegregation didn’t affect me until I reached middle-school age, in 1973. From then until I graduated high school my experience of desegregation was one of upheaval, disorder, disruption, and danger. Knowing what I do now, I can’t say I blame the black kids of that generation for the anger and aggression they displayed toward us white kids, but it wasn’t conducive to the development of a sympathetic attitude either.

Time moved on and so did I. I became a follower of Christ and became committed to racial reconciliation. But I still couldn’t say that I understood the African-American experience with any depth. I knew my story, but I didn’t know theirs, not with empathy.

Then, via Netflix, I watched the bio-picture LEE DANIEL’S THE BUTLER (2013), starring Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, a man who rose from the cotton fields of Georgia to become butler to eight presidents in the White House. THE BUTLER is loosely based on real-life White House butler, Eugene Allen, who retired in 1986 after thirty-four years of service. It is to the racial turmoil of the time what FOREST GUMP was to the Viet Nam War, a comprehensive narrative of one powerless man’s journey through a world fraught with legalized oppression, naked cruelty, and blind hypocrisy. I saw through Cecil’s eyes, the bitter brutality of racist southern farmers and the lordly arrogance of hypocritical politicians and business men. I’ve known men like that, I thought. I winced too at the quiet carnage of condescension, remembering women with saccharine smiles, as dismissive of black personhood as they would be a soiled napkin.

I’ve also known men and women like Gaines, servants with such self-mastery that they could be “invisible in the room,” even when the people they were serving tossed off thoughtless insults that would have enraged me. That was the films greatest impact, Gaines’ ability to rise above the bigotry of his employers with a dignity that revealed his inner nobility, and their shabbiness. His commitment, even his joy, in performing with excellence the most menial tasks brought honor to everything he did. (1 Peter 2:12).

Through his relationship with his oldest son, who became a freedom rider and later a congressman, I also learned the inner conflict many older black men and women had with the civil rights movement. They knew in their bones that the cause was just, but they hated the disorder it brought and feared the predictable backlash.

Finally, the film helped me understand on a visceral level, why the majority of African-American men and women felt obligated, if not compelled, to vote for Barak Obama to serve as president. It just makes me wish Ben Carson had been running against him instead of McCain or Romney.

LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER, is not a bio-pic in the strict definition of the word. “While the movie The Butler is set against historical events, the title character and his family are fictionalized,” states director Lee Daniels. “We were able to borrow some extraordinary moments from Eugene’s real life to weave into the movie.” I hope everyone, black and white, who did not live in that era, will watch the film and share what they learned. It will go a long way toward building reconciliation.

If you want to know the real history of Eugene’s life, visit http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/the-butler.php.

SING OVER ME: Dennis Jernigan’s Journey

“How did this happen? What did we do wrong? Why didn’t we see it coming?” These and many other questions hound the parents of children who go off the rails in one way or another, none more so than the parents of children who “come out” as gay.

Dennis Jernigan’s parents did not learn of his immersion in the same-sex world until he had been delivered from it, but his autobiography, SING OVER ME (Innovo Publishing 2014), should be read by anyone who wants to understand how it happens and how same-sex attraction can be overcome.

Jernigan, whose songs and hymns are known and loved all across the evangelical landscape, has had over twenty years to heal and consider his life’s path, and tells his story in a way that is transparent and mature. Familiar patterns emerged as I read the chapters; patterns parents and loved ones should take note of, especially when raising artistically gifted and sensitive boys.

Rosaria Butterfield says that all sexual sin, hetero or homosexual, is predatory and she’s right. Jernigan’s story bears that out. Some of the forces that channeled him into same-sex attraction include: Adult male predatory behavior that initiated confusion, curiosity, self-doubt, and a fixation on sexuality in Dennis as a very young boy; bullying and being made to feel different from other boys; an untutored journey through puberty; homophobic hostility from other men that made it feel impossible for an adolescent to discuss his confusion with those who could’ve helped him; powerful identification with major female authority figures at critical periods in his life; more sexual predation and manipulation as a young man by trusted adult males who used him instead of helping him. The list is longer, but you get the point. It all leads to a confusion of identity that is sexually expressed.

According to Jernigan, many people feel trapped in the same-sex world and want to escape, but don’t know how. For Dennis, the path out of homosexuality wasn’t as complicated as the path in, but it was no less difficult. It too has a pattern, one that has nothing to do with man-centered schemes like “dating for the cure,” where people with same-sex attraction date the opposite sex in hopes it will effect an inward change. It won’t. In fact, the people who emerge victorious over this attraction find that the victory isn’t about sex; it’s about identity and love.

“It suddenly became apparent to me,” he writes, “that since childhood I had believed a vast number of lies about myself, lies planted in my mind concerning my sexual identity, my worth, my talents, my personality, my character, and everything about me … I could no longer trust anyone from my past to help me because I reasoned they were in the same predicament as I was. In that moment, I decided I would go to the Word of God, the manual, and to Father God Himself in intimate prayer and worship—not to discover who I was but rather to discover Who He was!”

Jernigan replaced lies about himself with truth and walked in the light about his problems with his fellow believers. He found acceptance, understanding and a commitment to walk with him among a few close Christian friends, and notably, he discovered the power and freedom of Spirit-led worship.

Not surprisingly, some people have condemned Dennis for this forthright autobiography, accusing him of trying to reinvigorate a waning music career by “coming out” in this way. But as the legal threat for refusing to celebrate homosexuality grows it becomes increasingly important for others who struggle with same-sex attraction and identity to hear from people like Dennis, and gain hope. May his tribe increase.