Why do we study history? It’s not unknown that past events and historical figures have an abundance of critical lessons to teach us, but we can only hope to learn from past mistakes if we pay attention in the present. Travel back to a time not all too unfamiliar to today: 1956. Segregation, the Jim Crow Era, and the fight for civil rights were all a raging fire in the United States at the time. In Alabama, Mae Carol Jemison was born to two African-American parents: Charlie Jemison, a maintenance supervisor, and Dorothy Green, an elementary school teacher. Although Mae was afraid of everything (the dark, heights, and even the basement), she needed to adapt to being cunning to survive as the baby of the family. She moved with her family to a rough neighborhood of Chicago only a few years later, where gang wars were raging on.
Today, kids grow up in the projects not knowing how far it’s even possible to go, or they have limits set for them before they even know what the word “limit” means. So many factors, including a lack of a good education, unstable home life, or just a dangerous neighborhood can make it harder to live a life where the sky is the limit. Not to mention, the day-to-day struggle of racial profiling when you’re African-American or Hispanic.
In kindergarten, Mae knew she wanted to go into the field of science. She wanted to explore and felt irritated that there were no female astronauts. It was a mindset not unlike many other kindergarteners, one brewing with ambition and potential, unscathed by the real world. Mae says she thought that by now, “we’d be going into space like you were going to work.”
Like all other smart kids, Mae had a million questions to ask. Her mother’s reply, however, was usually just to figure it out or look it up, teaching Mae the importance of research alongside taking matters into her own hands. Beyond home influencers, however, were the influencers of the 80’s; notably, Martin Luther King Jr. To Mae, the civil rights movement was a lesson in breaking down the barriers to human potential. She skyrocketed right past the stereotypical expectations of herself as a young black female from the rough side of Chicago and went straight for the stars — literally.
The civil rights of Mae’s time parallel today’s era in many ways, mainly through the Black Lives Matter movement. African-Americans are still marginalized and profiled every single day. Racism is very, very much alive, which is why it’s imperative to look to role models like Mae for inspiration.
An 11-year-old Mae Jemison didn’t just stop at science. She learned to mix her interests with artistic endeavors like dance, too. She loved dancing so much that she seriously considered moving to New York and becoming a professional, until her mother told her, “you can always dance if you’re a doctor, but you can’t doctor if you’re a dancer.”
So it doesn’t matter if you’re interested in science or hula-hooping. Go for the gold.
Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated when Mae was 11 years old. Riots broke out in her neighborhood, and policemen were allowed to shoot to kill if necessary. A thirteen-year-old boy was shot and killed in the street near Mae. She was scared, but after a few days of hiding, she became irate. Her passion for helping fellow African-Americans was incited, and in high school she focused her science project on sickle cell anemia, boldly going to the Lab in Cook County Hospital to do her research alongside the lab directors.
Mae’s time with the civil rights movement is not only a lesson on perseverance but also a lesson on not letting yourself succumb to fear, even when it is at its most overwhelming point. Harnessing the energy you might feel from a brutal era of violence and lack of civil rights is crucial to propelling yourself forwards to success, not only for yourself but to lead others as well. It is a difficult task to do, but not impossible.
Mae went on to put her anger and frustrations into school more than ever. After winning the first prize in Chicago’s science contest, and at the young age of only 16, Mae took off to Stanford University to double major in chemical engineering and African-American studies. She specialized in African dance, Swahili, Sub-Saharan politics, and even Russian (because it could come in handy for her travels in space). It may seem like her studies were difficult to place amongst the heated civil rights movement, but Mae found a way to help.
Sure enough, Mae’s Swahili and African studies came into play when she landed an internship in Kenya, staying afterward to work with the Peace Corps in Liberia and Sierra Leone. She treated the worst hemorrhaging viruses, without any equipment or medicine. She was her own superwoman and a testament to the power of will and hard work. No matter what field you might find your strengths to lie in, find a way to apply your skills to the world around you. You can be an activist for good no matter what you’re interested in.
Although she was shining as a doctor and aid to the African people, Mae’s thoughts drifted back to her childhood dream of reaching space. Luckily for Mae, NASA was recruiting at the time.
An entire year passed by before Mae got a response to her application. She had been chosen as one of fifteen candidates out of 2,000 applicants. She moved to Houston, Texas, to undergo extreme physical training and training for survival in hostile environments. Sure enough, in September of 1992, Mae Jemison flew to space as a Mission Specialist on the STS-47 Spacelab. What was the first thing she saw out her window in space? Chicago.
“Looking out the window of that space shuttle, I thought if that little girl growing up in Chicago could see her older self now, she would have a huge grin on her face,” Mae said.