On September 12, 1992 Dr. Mae Carol Jemison became the first African-American woman and indeed the first racialized woman to travel in outer space. When the space shuttle Endeavour blasted off from its launching pad at the Kennedy Space Centre on its eight day mission (September 12 – 20, 1992) Dr. Jemison was one of the seven-member crew on board.
Jemison was born in Decatur, Alabama on October 17, 1956, the third and youngest child of Charlie and Dorothy Jemison. When she was three years old, the Jemison family moved to Chicago, Illinois. While it takes some people many years to know their purpose, Jemison knew since she was in kindergarten that she wanted to be a scientist. In her book Find Where The Wind Goes: Moments From My Life, she tells the story of her assertive five-year-old self correcting her kindergarten teacher who suggested she might want to become a nurse instead of a scientist.
It is not surprising that in 1961 a teacher may have been startled by a five-year-old African-American female declaring that she knew that she intended to become a scientist. After all, White Americans in southern states (like Alabama where Jemison was born) were still denying African-Americans their full rights as American citizens, including the right to vote.
African-Americans living in northern states like Illinois where Jemison attended school, although they may not have been prevented from voting, were living in a White supremacist environment. In our modern era of 2010 there are some teachers who continue to have lowered expectations of our children, especially if they live in lower income neighbourhoods.
During the time that Jemison attended school (1960s) and, unfortunately, even today African history is not included in the curriculum as part of world history. Otherwise everyone who has ever been a student would know that math and science are very much a part of the African experience and history. Contrary to popular opinion, especially during African Heritage Month (February) when we are inundated with stories of the Underground Railroad, our history did not begin with slavery.
Stories about the Underground Railroad are usually trotted out when the historical presence of Africans in Canada is acknowledged. We hardly hear any stories about the enslavement of Africans in Canada or their contribution to the building of this country. The history of Africa and Africans includes the Sankore University at Timbuktu in Mali, West Africa (built in the 10th Century) where students studied mathematics and the sciences.
The Ishango bone, estimated to be about 22,000 years old and considered the world’s oldest known mathematical artifact, comes from the Congo although, not surprisingly, it is housed in Brussels (capital city of Belgium) at the Royal Institute for Natural Sciences of Belgium. The Belgians, during the scramble for Africa, claimed and colonized the Congo until its independence on June 30, 1960, but Belgium has never completely loosened its hold on the Congo.
Mathematics has its roots in Africa where Africans used algebra, geometry, trigonometry etc., in their daily lives so an African-American child or African Canadian child who excels in math and science ought not to be viewed with surprise or considered an anomaly, “a credit to their race”.
Jemison, who would grow up to make history by becoming the first African-American female astronaut, excelled at science but also loves to dance and even speaks four languages (English, Japanese, Kiswahili and Russian).
The upheavals in the American society as African-Americans struggled to assert their human rights, the trials and tribulations of the times touched the lives of the Jemison family. In Find Where The Wind Goes: Moments From My Life, Jemison writes about being angry, confused and scared as she watched the National Guard march through her predominantly African-American neighbourhood with guns held “at the ready”.
Jemison writes: “I knew that as a ten-year-old Black girl that I was not precious to these adults. I believed they would kill me as readily as they would kill the Vietnamese we were at war with. It didn’t matter that I was a United States citizen. It didn’t matter that I was very smart, would probably grow up to be pretty like my mother, or that I was fun to talk to, and had unlimited potential. It didn’t matter that I was a good girl and hadn’t been suspended from school. It didn’t matter because I didn’t matter to them. These adults, these representatives, enforcers of the United States government would hold me in suspicion and probably shoot me if I was out on the street.”
She promised herself she would never feel that frightened again. “I reminded myself that I was as much a part of this United States as the guardsmen,” she wrote.
Jemison kept that promise to herself, excelling as a student who at 16 years old entered Stanford University on a scholarship and four years later graduated with two degrees, a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering and a Bachelor of Arts degree in African and African-American Studies.
She attended Cornell Medical College where she earned her Doctorate in medicine and developed an interest in working to help people in developing countries, traveling to Cuba, Kenya, Thailand and a Cambodian refugee camp. A few years after graduating from medical school she worked as a Peace Corps medical officer in Sierra Leone and Liberia, where she also taught and did medical research.
In October 1985, after returning to the USA from Africa, Jemison applied for admission to the astronaut training program at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The Challenger disaster of January 28, 1986 delayed the selection process, but a year later she was one of 15 selected from approximately 2,000 applicants. When she was chosen in June 1987, Jemison became the first African-American woman admitted into the astronaut training program.
When she blasted off to space on September 12, 1992 it was with the title of science mission specialist. Her kindergarten teacher probably remembered Mae Carol Jemison who had insisted in 1961 that she would become a scientist.