Dr. Mae Jemison’s Symbolization of Black Women’s Power

Dr. Mae Jemison’s Symbolization of Black Women’s Power – Marlen Navarro

 “Don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It’s your place in the world; it’s your life.” This well known quote said by Dr. Mae Jemison really sets the stage for her insightful and motivating words said at the University of San Diego’s First African American Woman in Space Event. On the late evening of wednesday March 29th, 2023 I made my way to the Kroc Institute of Peace and Justice Theater for the opportunity to listen to Dr. Mae Jemison talk about her life experiences. The event was organized and supported by USD’s Black Student Union (BSU), National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), Women’s Commons, and the Torero Program Board (TPB). Dr. Odesma Dalrymple, one of USD’s Industrial and Systems Engineering professors and my very own User-Centered Design professor did an excellent job in interviewing her during this event. Jemison’s visit was a remarkable experience, filled with inspiring stories of her life and career, as well as insightful commentary on the importance of representation and empowerment in shaping the future of African American communities, especially the inspiration and guidance of African American Women. Her message is interconnectedly related to the concept of Black women’s power, as discussed in Freedom on My Mind, by Deborah Gray White, Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin.

“We talk about empowerment like somebody gives us the power, but we have to take it, we have to own it,” (Jemison, 2023). This message is particularly relevant to African American communities, who have historically been marginalized and excluded from positions of power and influence. Dr. Jemison’s own journey to becoming an astronaut is a testament to the power of self-determination and perseverance. She shared how, as a young girl, she was inspired by the civil rights movement and the examples of African American activists who fought for equal rights. Malcolm X, was one of many prominent figures of the black power movement, and is widely recognized for popularizing the notion that “black is beautiful.” Specifically we see this in chapter 15 of Freedom on My Mind, “Malcolm’s insistence on ‘black is beautiful’ had a special significance for black women who had been negatively impacted by white standards of feminine beauty.”  Jemison is a direct portrayal of this. Furthermore, her parents also instilled in her a sense of self-worth and determination, teaching her to believe in herself and her abilities. Dr. Jemison’s story highlights the importance of role models and mentors in shaping the lives and aspirations of young African Americans. “[Who you choose to be your influences] help set the tone to whether you try things, or whether you’re discourag[ed] from things,” (Jemison, 2023). 

Another key theme of Dr. Jemison’s talk was the importance of affirmation, both from oneself and from others. “One can only get affirmation from lots of different places, but very importantly you have to affirm yourself,” (Jemison, 2023). This message is particularly relevant to African American women, who have historically faced double discrimination based on their race and gender. As Freedom on My Mind discusses, the civil rights movement did not always address the specific issues faced by African American women. For instance, Fannie Lou Hamer, a prominent civil rights activist, was subjected to forced sterilization while in jail after being arrested for protesting voting rights violations (White, Bay, and Martin, 2021). The intersection of race and gender in African American women’s experiences highlights the importance of self-affirmation and up-bringing. 

Dr. Jemison’s message additionally relates to the concept of Black women’s power discussed in Freedom on My Mind. Chapter 16: “Racial Progress in an Era of Backlash and Change,” highlights the unique challenges faced by African American women in their fight for equal rights. As chapter sixteen notes, “The movement of the 1960s did not necessarily address the specific issues of African American women,” (White, Bay, and Martin, 2021). African American women faced double discrimination, both as women and as African Americans. The chapter includes a speech by Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress, in which she states, “I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and I’m equally proud of that” (White, Bay, and Martin, 2021). Chisholm’s words in Freedom on My Mind illustrate the complex intersectionality that African American women faced in their fight for equal rights. This view of the material highlights the unique challenges faced by African American women in their fight for equality. In correlation, Dr. Mae Jemison’s words and accomplishments take part in the continuation of Black Power and a representation of what can happen when oppression both racially and gender-wise is challenged and the success that can be achieved when Black people but more specifically Black women are allowed to thrive in their chosen career paths. By understanding the experiences of African American women now as well as then, we gain a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the civil rights movement and its impact on different communities.

Similarly to Dr. Jemison, Katherine Johnson, American mathematician and first black female engineer at NASA, also serves as an inspiration to young girls and women who are interested in pursuing careers in STEM fields. Her dedication to her work, her perseverance, and her exceptional skills are a testament to the fact that women have an equal place in the world of science and mathematics, (Loff, 2016). Her story is a reminder that anyone, regardless of gender or race, can achieve great things if they have the talent, determination, and opportunities to do so, (Loff, 2016). In addition to her groundbreaking work at NASA, Katherine Johnson’s life and career have been the subject of numerous books, documentaries, and other media. One such book is “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly. This book, which was also adapted into a successful film, has helped to bring Johnson’s story to a wider audience and has inspired many young African American girls and women to pursue careers in STEM. Both Jemison and Johnson are symbols of Black power especially representing the beauty and strengths in Black Womanhood. 

Despite significant progress in recent years, there is still a significant gender gap in STEM fields, with women especially women of color being underrepresented in many scientific and mathematical disciplines. Women face a number of challenges, including biases and stereotypes, that can discourage them from pursuing careers in any field, though specifically in STEM. However, many powerful women (such as Dr. Mae Jemison, Dr. Prathia Hall, Katherine Johnson, Zora Neal Hurston, and more) have made significant contributions to science and mathematics, as well as the arts throughout history, and that their perspectives and insights are essential to further advances in these fields. They have made space for themselves, made their voices be heard as Black women have done throughout time. An example of this being the “SayHerName” movement. Their dedication and perseverance are a testament to the fact that women have an equal place in the world. By having knowledge of how they continued the Black Power movement, overcame adversaries and achieved greatness, future generations may use this as a guidance to make their own mark on the world. Additionally, awareness is needed for the rest of society to know, see, and take accountability of the marginalization still occurring. 

This program’s narratives and themes are essential to the understanding of African American history as the content brings insight to the double discrimination and marginalization black women still face today. This fundamentally connects to the historical material discussed in the text, lecture and program. Dr. Mae Carol Jemison highlights the strengths and empowerment of black women today, acting as an example for the continuing generations. By discussing this topic, young black females may hopefully follow Jermison’s set standards for what they can accomplish, how they should be treated, and how they should make space for themselves, because they belong wherever they want to and feel they should belong. After listening to this interview, challenging the issues of the marginalization of black females in educational institutions and in the work-field is important to bring awareness to in hopes of creating a better future for African American women and their dreams. 


Loff, S. (2016, November 22). Katherine Johnson Biography. NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography 

“Freedom on My Mind, Third Edition: A History of African Americans, with Documents” by Deborah Gray White, Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin 

Dr. Mae Jemison visits USD. USD Student Media. (2023, April 12). https://uofsdmedia.com/dr-mae-jemison-visits-usd/ 

(photo derived from): Rhode Island Catholic. (2021, October 6). Pioneer astronaut, engineer and physician Mae Jemison addresses providence college class of 2020. Rhode Island Catholic. https://thericatholic.com/stories/pioneer-astronaut-engineer-and-physician-mae-jemison-addresses-providence-college-class-of-2020,12566 

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