For the Two Black Girls in the Orange Astronaut Flight Suits.
25 FEB 2020.
My cheeks tasted like salt. I wasn’t sure how to explain what happened to me, or why a heavy aching and joy could be felt in my stomach. Or was it in my soul?
Seconds before, I glanced over the balcony and saw two Black girls smiling, arms around either other, and natural hair twisting. turning. flowing. Both girls were old enough to only know their ABCs and both were wearing Orange Astronaut Flight Suits. I could see their patches- the Space Shuttle, NASA, Commander, and flag on both flight suits.
Both girls were headed to space. Dr. Mae Jemison would speak in a matter of minutes.
I could have been over the moon, if you’d let me.
Dr. Mae Jemison spoke for exactly 48 minutes and for the first time in a long time, I heard similarities to my own personal story. “What do you do with your place at the table?” I heard her speak about her experiences as the only Black woman navigating spaces where literally no one like her had ever been. Science. Space. Her passion for dance. Education. Change. Inclusion.
A doctor for the Peace Corps in Liberia and Sierra Leone at the age of 26. I’m 27 as I write this.
“You can use your authority in any position, but in order to be empowered, it requires a number of things. The first thing that it requires is that you believe that you have the right to be there. Just think about that for a second… You have to believe you have the right to be involved and that you have the right to be there. If you don’t believe that, you’ll never use your position correctly. You have to also believe that you have something to contribute, something to give. If you’re just there and you think ‘well, they don’t need my opinion’ or ‘this project doesn’t need my ideas’ then it doesn’t matter that you’re there.” She takes a sip of her water.
Her hair touches her shoulders, curled at the end. She smiles and laughs ever so slightly. The cadence of her voice is melodic, to the point where I could close my eyes. A sweet lullaby. She speaks with authority, with power, with the strength of a woman who knows her voice and what she stands for. That alone gives me chills.
The first time I truly stood up for myself was in 2019. The second time was 15 days ago.
For the first time in my life, I feel like I know who I am and what I stand for. There is a power in knowing what I will and will not accept. I just realized I can be soft and unruly and polite and powerful. I can set boundaries and say “no, that doesn’t work for me.” I can be brave and scared shitless and wildly passionate and know when it’s time to move on. Some days I crawl into bed and tell myself I will try again later. Some days I raise my voice and most days, I feel comfortable in my skin. I take up space. How long did it take her to arrive here?
Oh, the things we can do and the person we can be just by knowing our worth.
How long did it take her to arrive?
There is a sternness, yet a touch of sweetness in her voice. Her laughter feels like home. I know she is a good friend. She looks the exact same as the famous photo of her in her own Orange Astronaut Flight Suit in 1992, when she orbited the earth for almost eight days on the STS-47 mission on September 20, 1992. She is the first Black woman to travel into space. I was almost four months old.
“Finally, you have to risk making the contribution. You can have all the wonderful ideas in the world, you can be at the table, and if you don’t make that contribution because you’re afraid someone may laugh at you, that you may fail, or you may not be completely right, then you’ve given all of your power away no matter what position you’re in.”
When I was younger, I laid in the grass outside of my parents’ house, watching the clouds pass by. I hardly wore shoes. I brought far too many insects and animals inside. My hair stood on the top of my head and my mother made me wear overalls outside as I regularly tore the beltloops off of my jeans from climbing trees with ropes and sticks.
The clouds were magic. I imagined what the cloud shapes were, what God wanted to tell me.
I got lost in the woods with my best friend Kiera and inside Harry Potter novels. To tell the truth, I carried around a notebook, writing short stories in pink glitter gel pen because I knew deep down in my soul that I would be an author.
My mother bought my brother and I the gigantic book, It’s a Big Big World by Brierly. I sat criss- cross applesauce on the floor in our dining room and perused the children’s atlas, full of world geography, fun facts, and natural resources of each country. The book lived to the right of the piano. My father won a contest at work and my parents, little brother, and I went to Bermuda for a week. I went parasailing with my mom, swam with dolphins, and played around on a banana boat in the ocean with my brother. I could see my feet on the ocean floor. My father took a photo of me in the airport, smiling with my favorite stuffed animal, Sie, and an American Airlines plane in the background.
When I was 11, my childhood friend Kiera,and I were running around her backyard when I looked up and saw an airplane overhead flying far too low. I always stared at airplanes and wondered where they were going. What did the people look like where they were going? What languages did they speak? When did they eat dinner? Did anyone have a little brother like I did? Without thinking, I waved, and to this day I always wonder if anyone ever waved back at me.
Years later, I am still the wild child. I am still fascinated with airplanes, clouds, people, culture, and faraway lands and smells. I love airports, the airport park at the Raleigh-Durham Airport, plants, grass between my toes, and the smell of rain. I am still trying to love the parts of me that feel small, still feel rather unsure, a tad bit unloved. Still trying to find my way. Still trying to tell and write my story.
What I am passionate about has to be created. There’s no one field, no right answer. I love to write. People and different cultures. Languages. International Relations. Business. Women’s Rights. Spanish. Creative Writing. Lately, the challenge is to figure out how to combine all of these passions, into a career (and then some) and show up 100% as myself. I wonder if Dr. Jemison ever felt this way.
That’s the beauty of representation. That’s the beauty of being born in this current time. Who would I be if I was born in 2020? With Google and The Internet? If I was pushed outside of traditional southern gender roles for girls, if I wasn’t encouraged into liking Language Arts, but told that I too could be good at math and science? Coding? What if there was representation and I saw other women with skin and hair like me striving and making accomplishments on a regular and consistent basis? If I had more teachers and professors of color? What if barriers to entry for black and brown boys and girls simply didn’t exist?
Who would I be if someone told me that I could be a doctor, an engineer, and/ or a scientist when I was younger? An astronaut? Physicist? A dancer?
I knew I could be anything and everything, but I wish I was eight years old listening to Dr. Mae Jemison speak, holding her Lego figurine in my hand, like so many other girls in this auditorium tonight.
What will the next generation of leaders look like?
Who can I be now, knowing that I can push forward and be knowledgeable, intelligent, a strong and passionate woman, and that my passions can align with my field of work? Who can I be knowing that I am standing on the shoulders of Giants? Who can I be when I sit at the table? Who can I be when speaking to the younger generation of black and brown kids? Who can I be in positions of leadership and power? Who can I be when I speak, influence, write, and uplift?
It’s knowing how extraordinary it was for my grandmother to teach in Japan in the 1980s for the summer; it’s knowing that she paved a way. It’s knowing that she took her Black and Brown students on a field trip to Raleigh to watch the Harlem Globetrotter play in the 1960s, when many of her students had never traveled outside of Durham. It’s knowing where I come from. Who am I, if not a product of my ancestors, the experiences of my mother and father, the 11-year-old girl who waved at an airplane overhead, and the 19-year-old young woman who swore she would speak Spanish fluently one day?
Tonight, a younger Black boy stood up and asked Dr. Jemison a question during the Q&A.
“Do you think we can build train tracks to go to space?” He asked, fingers wrapped around the microphone.
“That may be difficult in the sense of using actual train tracks,” Dr. Jemison says, pausing. “But… you know. Right now, there are scientists attempting to build a transportation system from planet-to-space.”
“I’m asking because I want to build train tracks to go to space,” he states.
The entire room turns around to look at this kid who is all of eight years old. He stands there, swaying back and forth. “I was watching this video last night on the internet of this scientist in Italy who is using electromagnetic energy to create transportation to space.”
“You should look into the Space Elevator,” Dr. Jemison says.
“OK. Thank you,” says the little boy. He stops and smiles at her before walking away.
I hear space tastes like salt and it tastes like progression.