Updated: Apr 8

Mae Carol Jemison is not only the first black woman to travel into space, but She is also an engineer and a physician with degrees in chemical engineering and African American Studies. During medical school she traveled with the American Medical Student Association to Cuba and a refugee camp in Thailand. Jemison was a doctor for the Peace Corps in Liberia and Sierra Leone from 1983 until 1985 and later became a general practitioner. After leaving NASA in 1993, she founded a technology research company, formed a non-profit educational foundation where she is the principal of the ‘100 Year Starship project”, created an international space camp for young people called “The Earth We Share”, and started a consulting company called the Jemison Group that encourages science, technology, and social change. And, in an attempt to not leave any single moment of her days unscheduled, she also began teaching environmental studies at Dartmouth College.

In addition to all her professional and academic success, in 2001, Jemison wrote a book for children about her life called Find Where the Wind Goes. She is fluent in Russian, Japanese and Swahili. She has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame and the International Space Hall of Fame.

To top it all off, LeVar Burton learned that Jemison had been inspired by African American actress Nichelle Nichols who played Lieutenant Uhura on the original Star Trek series and invited her to appear in an episode. She played Lieutenant Palmer in the episode, "Second Chances."

Whew!!! Exhale.

How did I not know this? Not that the fact that she was the first black woman in outer space. I knew that. And indeed, as a “Trekkie”, I am ashamed that I did not know about her appearance on Star Trek until my wife told me a few weeks ago. What bothers me is that this woman’s accomplishments are not a part of our regular discourse.

When we discuss race and gender politics, we tend to ground those discussions in an historical framework. Assuming anything that we, as a community, have already accomplished will not need to be re-accomplished. And in turn, will inspire our children to reach beyond those previously reached achievements to do bigger things.

No doubt, going into outer space greases the wheel for future endeavors. But the will and ambition of Jemison to reach her goals cannot be diminished. She was a role model before her application to NASA. Almost any single one of her endeavors are of the type that schools, and community centers would ask someone like her to speak.

In recent years we have gotten better at looking beyond the impact of men like MLK, Cesar Chavez, Russell Means, Obama, or Neil DeGrasse Tyson. These men often serve as our shorthand for discussing the social, political, or the academic possibilities of underserved communities. Shirley Chisholm, Grace Lee Boggs, and Bayard Rustin are all names that we are more likely to hear in 2021 versus 2000. But they are almost always spoken in collegiate or elite circles. Their names, and her name need to be added to our everyday vernacular as ways to express excellence and perseverance.

I love Lord of the Rings and read comics. I will likely never slay a dragon or use superpowers to save the world. But imagine, a little black girl who grew up watching a black woman on Star Trek actually making it to the stars.

-Barack O’Baggins

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