The Definition of Oneself – Kosi Ezeanolue

Kosi Ezeanolue

The Definition of Oneself

On March 31, 2023, I saw a presentation led by Dr. Mae C. Jemison,  an American engineer, physician, and former NASA astronaut who became the first African-American woman to travel in space. She opens by talking about how our backgrounds and identifications play a significant role in our futures yet we are not ruled by it. Jemison then goes into a story about when she was a little girl and her teacher asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. A young Mae Jemison responded “I’d like to be a scientist” to which her teacher responded, “You mean a nurse?”. This story was a great representation of the limitations placed on her as a girl based on her identity as a woman. With this introduction from Dr. Jemison, it was clear that she had a powerful message about the importance of defining yourself and understanding your identity. The purpose of the program was to shed light on Jemison’s journey, and the core narratives and themes that emerged revolved around the importance of perseverance, the power of education, and the impact of race and gender on one’s success.

In the discussion panel, Dr. Mae Jemison shared her personal experiences of being a black woman in America. She emphasized the importance of recognizing and celebrating diversity in all its forms. According to Dr. Jemison, being black is not just a skin color, but it is an identity that is tied to the experiences, history, and culture of black people. Dr. Jemison also touched on the issue of “tokenism”, where individuals from underrepresented groups are included in a group or organization to give the appearance of diversity. She stressed that true diversity is not about ticking boxes or meeting quotas, but it is about creating an inclusive environment where people from diverse backgrounds can feel valued and respected for their unique perspectives. Jemison speaks on this, likely referring to schools like Stanford which she attended. She continues on highlighting the need for black people to embrace their identity and be proud of their heritage. She shared how she faced discrimination and prejudice throughout her career, but her confidence in her identity as a black woman gave her the strength to overcome those obstacles. Her experiences as a black person have also shaped her perspectives and informed her decisions as a leader and astronaut.

Freedom on my Mind offers an insightful conversation on the intersection of race and gender as barriers to success. One quote that stands out and relates to this theme is “You can’t be what you can’t see.” This quote emphasizes the importance of representation and its ability to inspire young people to pursue their passions and dreams. The quote connects to Jemison’s early experience in kindergarten when her teacher failed to believe in her aspiration to become a scientist, instead suggesting that she should pursue a career as a nurse. This incident highlights how societal expectations based on race and gender can restrict individuals’ ambitions and discourage them from pursuing their passions.

Similarly, another quote from the text that relates to the theme of perseverance is, “Don’t give up, don’t give in, and don’t let anyone break you.” This quote echoes Jemison’s experience of being ignored by teachers in college, despite her obvious intelligence and eagerness to learn. Jemison persisted despite these setbacks, earning a degree in engineering from Stanford University and eventually becoming an astronaut. Her story is a testament to the power of resilience in the face of adversity, and it illustrates the importance of never giving up on one’s dreams. During the panel discussion, the core narratives and themes revolved around Jemison’s extraordinary journey as a black woman in the field of science. Her experience as an EMT and working seven days a week while applying to Stanford University illustrates the value of hard work and dedication. She did not let any obstacles stand in her way, and her perseverance eventually paid off. Furthermore, Jemison’s dedication to education and pursuit of knowledge are themes that run throughout her life and career. She took numerous African-American-based courses in college and credits her diverse education with giving her the tools she needed to succeed.

The discussion also brought attention to the impact of race and gender on Jemison’s journey and the challenges that women and people of color face in science and technology fields. These fields have been historically dominated by white men, and women and people of color are often underrepresented and undervalued. Jemison’s story serves as a reminder of the importance of breaking down these barriers and creating more opportunities for underrepresented groups in science and technology. Freedom on my Mind provides a thought-provoking discussion on race and gender as barriers to success, and the quotes from the text effectively connect to Jemison’s experience. Jemison’s story is a testament to the power of perseverance and education, as well as the importance of representation in inspiring young people to pursue their dreams. The panel highlighted the ongoing struggle for equality and representation in science and technology fields, where women and people of color face significant challenges. Jemison’s journey and the narratives and themes of the program are significant to our understanding of African American history because they showcase the ongoing struggle for equality and representation, and emphasize the importance of hard work, perseverance, and education in overcoming obstacles.

Moreover, Jemison’s journey speaks to the significance of representation in inspiring the next generation of leaders. Jemison discussed the impact of seeing someone who looked like her in space, and how it inspired her to pursue her dreams. This sentiment was echoed by the panelists who emphasized the importance of having role models and mentors who can guide and support young people on their journeys. The lack of representation in science and technology fields not only limits opportunities for underrepresented groups but also limits the potential for innovation and progress in these fields. Therefore, the importance of creating more opportunities and supporting diversity in these fields cannot be overstated.

The discussion on the impact of race and gender on Jemison’s journey also highlights the need for systemic change in society. The challenges that Jemison faced in pursuing her dreams are not unique to her but are shared by many individuals from underrepresented groups. The panelists emphasized the importance of addressing systemic inequalities that limit opportunities for women and people of color, including lack of access to education, discrimination in hiring and promotion, and limited representation in leadership positions. By addressing these issues, society can create a more inclusive and equitable future where everyone has the opportunity to pursue their dreams and reach their full potential.

In addition, Jemison’s story is a reminder of the ongoing struggle for equality and representation in African American history. Her accomplishments as the first Black woman in space are a testament to the resilience and determination of the African American community in the face of adversity. The themes of perseverance, hard work, and education that were emphasized in the panel discussion are also central to the African American experience. Throughout history, African Americans have faced systemic barriers to achieving their goals, but they have persevered and made significant contributions to society. Jemison’s journey serves as a symbol of this resilience and a source of inspiration for future generations.

In conclusion, Dr. Mae C. Jemison’s story and contributions to science were the focus of a panel discussion that explored the themes of perseverance, the power of education, and the impact of race and gender on success. Our text, Freedom on my Mind quotes on the importance of representation and perseverance connect to Jemison’s journey and serve as a reminder of the ongoing challenges that women and people of color face in pursuing their passions. The narratives and themes of the program are significant to our understanding of African American History because they provide us with a lens through which we can view the experiences of black women in STEM fields. Dr. Jemison’s story highlights the importance of representation and access to education for marginalized communities. Her journey shows us that with determination, hard work, and support from others, it is possible to break down the barriers that limit our potential.


Works Cited

Thompson, Kenneth. “Politics and the Fight for Jobs.” Freedom on My Mind: A 

History of African Americans with Documents, edited by Deborah Gray White et al., 

Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013, pp. 910-914.

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