I’VE YET TO read Margot Lee Shetterly’s “Hidden Figures,” but even before I learned of the story, I was intrigued by the title.
Hidden figures. Readers of nonfiction will regularly stumble across vignettes and anecdotes of individuals who never received the recognition they deserved.
Historians Phil Keith and Tom Clavin uncovered one while researching another subject (as is usually the case). And if their new collaboration “All Blood Runs Red” can shift an elusive spotlight on the life of Eugene Bullard, there will be one less hidden figure, one unsung hero who can finally step to center stage.
Bullard died in 1961 but not before living the kind of extraordinary life that would make Forrest Gump envious. As Keith put it in a promotional interview: “Our research uncovered 10 guys, not just one guy.”
Imagine having this on your résumé: jockey, longshoreman, mill worker, carnival worker, boxer, soldier, pilot, musician, night club owner, spy, civil rights crusader.
Imagine listing these abilities: multilingual, jazz drumming, vaudeville comedian.
Imagine your life experiences included the following: training with heavyweight champ Jack Johnson, joining the French Foreign Legion, manning a machine gun in the Verdun trenches during World War I, becoming the first African American fighter pilot and shooting down (probable) two German aircraft, being Louis Armstrong’s assistant, hobknobbing with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter and Josephine Baker. Or eavesdropping on gossiping Nazis in Paris, exchanging blows with racists at Paul Robeson civil rights events and being honored by French President Charles de Gaulle.
Bullard seemingly did it all. Yet his encore was working as an elevator operator in a New York City skyscraper, living a meager existence to his end.
Another hidden figure, yet the blinders placed on this one seem particularly inappropriate. A life this rich is worth recognizing and honoring, regardless of the celebrant’s personal characteristics, such as skin pigmentation.
So nearly 60 years later, Keith and Clavin pay the tribute Bullard’s native land couldn’t—or wouldn’t (France, Bullard’s adopted nation, was much more respectful). The writers didn’t uncover a trove of data on Bullard’s life, due to poor record-keeping in the South and war destruction in France. But the story they can tell illustrates what a proud, determined person can overcome and accomplish in a quest to fulfill their potential.