“Dr. Mae Jemison: 1st African American Woman in Space” – Joseph Barewin



     The African American story takes students through an immersive experience of pain and struggle, that both celebrates its impressive accomplishments as well as calls us all towards a continuous fight for equality. Mae Jemison, astronaut, author, and renowned scientist, blessed our university with a speech about her own story in becoming a trailblazer for both women and African Americans alike. Along with becoming the first African American woman to go to space, she has earned countless awards such as joining the 1993 Women’s Hall of Fame, written several novels, and is the current principal and founder of the DARPA 100 Year Starship, a program designed to develop a sustainable journey for humans to nearby stars.  The story of Mae Jemison provides knowledgeable lessons on the importance of inclusivity that mimic key themes throughout African American history such as  lasting sustainability, self empowerment, and undeniable pride.


     The Earth is a marvelous place of life and beauty. Yet, as Mae Jemison reminds us, humankind is dependent on the Earth to survive. The Earth, in turn, is not necessarily dependent on human survival. Thus, she chose to pursue an education in sustainability in order to carry out her vision of inclusivity. Sustainability is a key factor in all forms of science that often gets overlooked. It requires a way of thinking that maximizes benefit, while at the same time minimizing impact. Jemison was passionate about not only creating a lasting impact on the world, but also in finding her own personal sense of success. While she enjoyed her time as an astronaut, Jemison spoke of her lack of satisfaction from such a career, even with NASA pushing her to continue, saying “People want you to behave in the model that they want, rather than what you as an individual want. How do you stay true to yourself, and use your platform so people truly hear you?” This quote illustrates her understanding that being sustainable requires a passion combined with a powerful voice. The Montgomery Bus Boycott mimics this narrative with its use of Rosa Parks. Many know the story of Rosa Parks as a strong woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus to her white counterpart. Yet, what is often overlooked is the thousands of other men and women who contributed to the same movement, and agreed to have Rosa Parks stand as their representative for such an important protest. This decision was made using the same logic as Mae Jemison, choosing a representative to maximize the impact of a voice so as to be truly heard, and have a lasting impact that is as inclusive as possible. 

     What does it mean to be empowered? Mae Jemison attempts to answer this question with a statement from her own experiences in self-empowerment, saying “You have to take your power, you have to own it. To be empowered, you must believe that you have the right to participate . . . You must also believe you have the right to contribute something, and that you have something to contribute. You then have to risk making that contribution.” This quote directly relates to the same narratives of black power and self-help during the fight for civil rights. Just as Jemison had to take her own power, black people had to find their own strength, separate from a government that had abandoned them. This was accomplished by using concepts like self-help, being fully inclusive of black communities through supporting black business and black leaders (White 625). What began as self-help, would eventually grow into a larger black power movement. This movement included strategies to more specifically target methods to regain empowerment for all African Americans. These tactics ranged from obtaining political relevance to supporting the safety of black people from lynching or police brutality. In each case, it was absolutely necessary for the involvement of all black people nationwide in order to empower each individual. 


     During the closing statements of her speech, Jamison was asked a question to provide one piece of advice that she has learned from her struggles as an African American woman. She responded with a powerful quote, saying “you must be able to get dirty”. This remark goes beyond her youthful upbringing of playing in the mud, and instead speaks to the resilience required to be successful as a minority in this country. This resilience mimics the struggles faced by fellow African American women fighting for feminist rights during the civil rights movement. Freedom on My Mind states, “the phenomenon of being black and female, in a country that is both racist and sexist” (White 970). To combat these struggles, it was necessary that women of color prioritized inclusivity. An individual black woman stood little chance of triumphing her oppression alone. Thus, many turned to organizations such as the National Black Feminist Organization (Barnes). Mae Jemison was no different. She spoke of the discrimination she faced as a black woman in a field dominated by white men. Yet, she drew power knowing that she could be an inspiration for many to come. If she were able to continue to stand proud, she would be able to empower many more like her and increase inclusivity in the scientific community. Even at a young age, Jemison was able to recall her Kindergarten teacher doubting her goals of one day becoming a scientist. When revealing her dream, the teacher responded “Don’t you mean you want to be a nurse.” Tragically, it was not uncommon for educators in predominantly black areas to look down upon the capabilities of black students. Chapter Sixteen of Freedom on My Mind reminds us that as gang violenced increased during the late twentieth century, even more so were innocent black people grouped into the stereotype that all Black people were violent criminals. These stereotypes existed everywhere from poverty-ridden cities to middle-class school systems, never were black people safe from prejudice. Yet, Mae Jemison reminds us that with pride in your desires and dreams, black people are capable of superimposing the systemic racism that has plagued the nation for so many centuries, and move toward an inclusive community. 


     Mae Jemison is one of many African Americans with a story of struggle, perseverance, and eventual success. Her remarkable achievements as a scientist inspire women and African Americans alike in the growth towards a fully inclusive world. With her story, powerful parallels can be drawn to the rich tapestry of history through key themes of sustainability, self-empowerment, and pride. Each of these themes directly correlate to lessons that can be viewed as growth in our march towards equality, but also as a constant reminder to continue fighting. 




Alexander, Kerri Lee. “Mae Jemison.” National Women’s History Museum, 2019.

Accessed: 1 May 2023.



Barnes, Sharon L. “Black Feminism.” The American Mosaic: The African American 

Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2023, Accessed 8 May 2023. 



U.S. Department of the Interior. (2021, August 6). Women in the Civil Rights Movement 

Historic Context Statement and AACRN listing guidance (African American Civil Rights Network) . National Parks Service. Accessed 10 May 2023. https://www.nps.gov/articles/women-in-the-civil-rights-movement-historic-context-statement-and-aacrn-listing-guidance-african-american-civil-rights-network.htm 


White, Deborah Gray, Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin Jr. Freedom on My Mind: A History 

of African Americans with Documents, Third Edition. Bedford/St. Martin’s, (2020).

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