Black History Month: Dr. Mae Jemison

Black History Month: Dr. Mae Jemison

Hey all – it’s Dr. Hinson here with our third installment of Ladies Who Lead during Black History Month. We’ve already talked about the personal impact of two leading black women, Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey. Today I’m shifting focus to talk about an inspiring black woman that I learned about for the purpose of this blog.

Having seen Black Panther over the weekend (it was AMAZING), I was delighted to see the character of Shuri (played brilliantly by Letitia Wright) represent not only a strong, independent woman, but a tech genius. Therefore, when I read a tweet yesterday celebrating the 25th anniversary of the first black woman in space, I knew I had my blog topic.

“Growing up, I always assumed I would go into space, but I knew full well that people expected me to behave a certain way.” 

Dr. Mae Jemison says that she always loved looking at the stars, and grew up watching with wonder the Apollo space program. But she also noticed that there weren’t any women astronauts, much less women of color.

“I remember being really, really irritated that there were no women astronauts. And I remember people trying to explain to me why there weren’t. I didn’t buy it. There were a lot of people that felt left out. They didn’t see themselves, so they didn’t see the connection back to them.”

Growing up in Chicago, Dr. Jemison was excited by the hopeful, and futuristic society represented by the original Star Trek television show. Perhaps most important to her was the character of Uhura (played brilliantly by Nichelle Nichols) who was a black woman in the senior tech role on the bridge.
With this character, Dr. Jemison often talks about how she saw herself reflected back to her. She was able to make that connection between seeing Uhura in space and seeing herself in space. Dr. Jemison continued her education, before joining the Peace Corps to work as a medical officer in Sierra Leone. Returning from the Peace Corps, she applied to the NASA astronaut program. After 5 years of training, Dr. Jemison was selected as the science mission specialist on the space shuttle Endeavour’s second mission in 1992.

Shortly into her first glimpse of planet Earth, Endeavor passed over Chicago. Dr. Jemsion recalled from her experience that “the perspective that stuck with me is that I am as much a part of this universe as any spec of stardust. That perspective of belonging was what was important to me.”

Following her year with NASA, Dr. Jemison started her own consulting firm, received 11 honorary doctorates, and became the first real astronaut to appear on Star Trek. For the last 25 years she has also worked tirelessly to foster that sense of belonging for young women in science fields. In my blog on Ava DuVernay, I talked about representation and equity. Those two concepts were a huge driving force behind the Black Panther movie, which reflect not only racial and cultural representation but also gender representation.

The lineage of groundbreaking women of color in science and science-fiction, including Nichelle Nichols and Mae Jemison, laid the foundation for characters like Shuri in Black Panther and Michael Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery. Showing young women and girls, most especially young women of color, that they belong in the room where it happens, even if that room is orbiting Earth. Representation matters. Equity matters. Belonging matters.

That wraps up my brief jaunt into the history of black women in STEM.

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