On March 29th, 2023, I attended “TPB’s Women’s History Month Event with guest lecturer Dr. Mae Jemison” in collaboration with the Black Student Union, the National Society of Black Engineers, and the Women’s Commons. During the event, Dr. Jemison was interviewed by Dr. Odesma Dalrymple, an engineering professor here at the University of San Diego. Although the event was not put on during Black History Month, it revolved around one example of Black excellence in our country, Dr. Mae Carol Jemison. Dr. Jemison is not just a doctor, but a chemical engineer and the first African American woman to go into space. Dr. Mae Jemison’s accomplishments hold great significance in African American history for several reasons. African Americans have been systematically and socially oppressed since the beginning of our country but her groundbreaking achievements show that it is possible to shatter barriers, once not seen as breakable. The event portrayed how Dr. Jemison paved the way for future generations, by illuminating, and then challenging prevailing stereotypes and prejudices towards African American Women through her academic achievements and advocating to fix disparities for African American girls in the educational system.
Born on October 17, 1956, in Decatur, Alabama, Dr. Jemison grew up in Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Jemison’s family moved to Chicago primarily due to the socio-economic and educational opportunities it offered. During the mid-20th century, many African American families, like the Jemisons, sought better living conditions and educational prospects by migrating from the rural South to urban areas in the North. Chicago, as a major city in the Northern United States, provided a relatively more welcoming environment for African Americans compared to the deep-seated racial discrimination prevalent in the South at the time. In Freedom on My Mind chapter eleven “The new N*gro comes of Age, 1915-1930” the Great Migration was discussed. This was a period spanning from the early 20th century to the 1970s, witnessed a significant influx of African Americans to cities like Chicago, seeking to escape racial segregation, limited economic opportunities, and Jim Crow laws in the South. It is important to note that while Chicago provided greater opportunities compared to the segregated South, racial inequalities and challenges still persisted. However, the move to Chicago represented a step towards improved opportunities.
Dr. Jemison attended high school in Chicago until she was accepted to Stanford University at sixteen years old. After some positive experiences in high school, she decided to study Chemical engineering and African-American studies. During the event, Dr. Jemison explained how she had a great time at Stanford. She was close friends with her roommates, was very active in the dance community, which is one of her passions, and was the first female president of the Black Student Union at Stanford. Although her overall experience at Stanford was a happy one, she still faced forms of discrimination. Professors at the school, specifically the engineering department, did not take her seriously. They would not call on her in class, or they would, then not take her comments seriously and later project them as their own. It is unclear if this was due to her young age, that she was African American, that she was a woman, or the intersection of all three. Even with these hurdles, Dr. Jemison graduated and had many opportunities after. She could have begun working as an engineer or gone to graduate school. Instead, she chose to go to Cornell medical school and become a doctor.
Dr. Jemison’s experience at Cornell was not discussed in detail during the interview. But what she did speak about, was how none of her advisors supported her goal to join the Peace Corps when she graduated from medical school. Her advisors were pushing her to go to residency and begin a normal career, and that joining the Peace Corps would be taking steps back not forward. Thankfully Dr. Jemison did not listen to them because she would find out later in life, the reason her application was expected by NASA was due to her time in the Peace Corps. NASA was impressed with her ability to work efficiently in very stressful situations where most people would not be able to handle the pressure.
Dr. Jemison’s accomplishment as the first African-American woman to travel into space challenged the prevailing stereotypes and prejudices that had marginalized people of color, particularly women, in the field of science and exploration. All throughout American history, Black women have been stereotyped as intellectually inferior and lazy. These “negative racial stereotypes [stemming from times of slavery, such as the Mammy] appear to be a unique barrier that some professional Black women face in the workplace”, preventing them from progressing in the workforce and in their careers (Reynolds-Dobbs, 2008). Dr, Jemison’s journey showcased the intellectual capabilities, talent, and perseverance of African American women and how they can make an impact in any field historically dominated by white males. By achieving such a remarkable feat, she defied societal expectations and gave an example of why these stereotypes are without foundation. Dr. Jemison inspired countless individuals, especially African American youth, to believe in their own potential and pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
Dr. Jemison’s achievements also hold importance as a symbol of representation and inclusivity. Historically, African Americans faced significant systemic barriers and limited opportunities for advancement in various sectors, including the sciences. Due to systemic racism, African American youth are less likely to be provided with a proper education which therefore lowers their opportunity to branch into the field of science. By successfully venturing into space, Dr. Jemison became a role model and an inspiration to aspiring African American scientists and astronauts. It is extremely important for young people to see someone similar to them doing amazing in life. Representation gives children the inspiration to achieve goals they set for themselves. It gives them the confidence to believe they can be anything they wanna be. Her visibility and accomplishments not only empowered African Americans but also underscored the importance of diverse perspectives and contributions in scientific and technological endeavors. Her success highlighted the need for increased representation and inclusion of marginalized communities in STEM fields, encouraging a more diverse and equitable future.
Furthermore, Dr. Jemison’s advocacy for science education, particularly for girls and minorities, is an essential aspect of her impact on African American history. Historically, She recognized the importance of addressing the disparities and systemic barriers that hindered access to quality education and opportunities for underrepresented communities. Through her work, she emphasized the significance of promoting science literacy and ensuring equal access to educational resources, opening doors for African American students to pursue their passions and achieve success in STEM disciplines.
Dr. Mae Jemison’s accomplishments have left an indelible mark on African American history. Her journey to space, her advocacy for diversity and inclusion, and her dedication to science education have reshaped narratives and perceptions, fostering a more inclusive and equitable society. Dr. Jemison has become a person that all people can look up to due to her work ethic and her constant effort to help other people. She continues to inspire individuals to overcome adversity, pursue their dreams, and break down barriers, leaving a powerful and lasting legacy for generations to come.
Dr. Mae Jemison visits USD. USD Student Media. (2023, April 12).
“Freedom on My Mind, Third Edition: A History of African Americans, with Documents” by Deborah Gray White, Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin
Reynolds-Dobbs, Wendy, et al. “From Mammy to Superwoman.” Journal of Career Development, vol.35, no. 2, 2008, pp. 129–150, https://doi.org/10.1177/0894845308325645.