Dear Dr. Mae Jemison,
We have never met, but when you went to space in September, 1992, I cried, because without knowing the details of your life, I felt I knew you. I knew you the way twins who are adopted by different families recognize each other. Without reading your biography, I knew you must have spent hours of your childhood glued to the TV during those live broadcasts of Apollo and Gemini flights during the 1960s. I knew because I did, too. I figured that like me, you spent hours playing with microscopes and chemistry sets, making up your own little experiments, fantasizing about the wonders you could explore and discover one day.
I cried because you and I are contemporaries who grew up in a world imagining, as I think Margo Jefferson put it, what had not imagined us. And see, when I watched you go up on that space ship, I realized that I had unwittingly gone for the okey-doke all those years ago: despite growing up in the “Black and Proud” 60s, despite being encouraged to study science and engineering (and even being recruited as an engineering student), by the time I entered high school, I had absorbed two messages from the larger culture that, in my mind, made your achievement impossible.
First, NASA seemed the permanent province of white men, and besides, space travel seemed too far removed from the immediate concerns of the freedom struggle for me to justify focusing my energies there. Remember Gil Scott-Heron’s complaint: “A rat done bit my sister Nell/And Whitey’s on the moon?” And Marvin Gaye’s Inner-City Blues: “Rockets/Moon shots/Spend it on the have-nots…” (And yes, even though I was just 12 when the Apollo astronauts landed on the moon many precocious kids of my generation did absorb the message that we had a responsibility to advance positive social change.)
I didn’t understand then what I know now: in the last several decades, it’s the mathematicians and the scientists who have changed our world.
But even without the antagonism to “exotic” scientific research that I was exposed to as a child, I had absorbed another message that made me think I wasn’t cut out to be a scientist. I had developed an interest in writing, and the conventional wisdom at the time, in both education and popular culture, is that one could not be good at both science and the humanities. I was a science major in high school, which meant I was on track to take physics and AP bio and I didn’t take music and art. But the truth was, I wasn’t that great at chemistry, and I would come to school early to watch the orchestra practice. At my middle school, Masterman, I had studied electronic music, and I had a basic programming class. No such opportunity presented itself at Girls’ High. So although I liked science, by the time I went to college, I had absorbed the message that I was not a “science type.” My Princeton degree is in Politics, with a certificate in African American Studies.
By the time you joined the Astronaut Corps in 1987, I had fallen into a career as a science writer. I had worked for the Fox Chase Cancer Center and now I was at Bell Labs, where my job was to explain the basic and applied science behind emerging telecommunications technologies. I was working with brilliant people, some of them black, who created so much of what we take for granted today. One of them is the mathematician William Massey, whom I first met at Princeton and who returned to Princeton after his Bell Labs career to become a professor of in the University’s engineering school. In this YouTube video, he talks about the accomplishments and legacy of Black scientists at Bell Labs. I had the privilege of writing about him and many of the other people whose work he describes:
It was the experience of working with people like Bill that showed me something that you’ve known for a long time – that this idea that one can’t be a scientist and a humanist at the same time is a canard. As you argued just over ten years ago, not only are the sciences and arts not opposed, they share a common creative source. In computer science education, we now know that one way to get students from under-represented backgrounds into the field is by introducing them to its expressive and creative potential. I watched you talk about how you dealt with the conventional view that there was some contradiction between your love of science, your passion for dance and your fealty to African-American culture and I wanted to cheer because somehow, you figured out that it didn’t have to be one or the other.
When you went up in space, Dr. Jemison, I cried. When you stood up and gave this speech, I cheered. You’re working on interstellar travel now. I’m working with computer scientists to create new tools for civic engagement. You are still inspiring me to think bigger, be bolder, to ferret out any remaining culturally imposed limitations I’ve absorbed. I hope you are having a happy birthday, Dr. Jemison. You continue to be a gift to us all.