First African American woman in space speaks at Pitt

By Richard Rosengarten

Mae Jemison could hear the National Guard march past her house as she lay in the backyard…. Mae Jemison could hear the National Guard march past her house as she lay in the backyard. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. There were riots.

Jemison looked at the stars. She always assumed she was going to be an astronaut.

Last night, as part of a series of free events honoring Martin Luther King Jr., Jemison told Pitt students how it felt to live her dream at “Dr. King’s Legacy: A Call to Action.”

She spoke in front of an auditorium of students and families at the event organized by the Black Action Society and the National Society of Black Engineers.

She told students what it took to become the first African-American woman in space — as well as a lesson her audience could take from it.

“Time, possibilities and responsibility,” she said.

Very simply, she said, we have time. There are 86,400 seconds in a day.

That time is filled with possibilities, and we are responsible to take those possibilities and make of them something positive, she said.

“If you wait for tomorrow, tomorrow comes,” Jemison said. “If you don’t wait for tomorrow, tomorrow comes.”

Sossena Wood, president of the National Society for Black Engineers, said Jemison’s talk was part of a two-day program of service and action. Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, was the day of service.

“We called it a day on, not a day off,” she said.

Wood said King believed in service, paraphrasing him: “Everybody can be great, but everybody can serve,” she said.

Keeping this ideal in mind, Wood, Black Action Society members and members of the National Society for Black Engineers organized events and service projects for the holiday, including sorting books at the Carnegie Library on the West End, hosting a clothing drive on Pitt’s Oakland campus, collecting hygiene products for the Brother’s Brother Foundation for Haiti and helping Jumpstart, a tutoring organization.

That was the service part. Jahmaiah Lewis, president of Black Action Society, said Jemison’s talk was the action part.

“We need to celebrate and support the heroes for African-American people, and she is one of those heroes,” she said. “We just wanted to bring a legend to campus so that she can inspire students.”

Jemison quoted famous people and proverbs, repeating phrases and the refrain, “time, possibilities and responsibility.”

But she cautioned that honoring King’s legacy is not about repeating his speeches. It’s about acknowledging and developing our skills to effect positive change. She paraphrased Japanese poet Matsuo Basho:

“Do not seek to follow others’ footsteps,” she said. “Seek what they sought.”

Jemison sought the stars, and she reached them. Speaking on the ground at Pitt last evening, she spoke about enjoying all the substance of her life.

She fielded questions about the movie Avatar, her favorite science fiction novels and talked of her love of dancing, chocolates, cherries and cats.

Time only seems to go forward, she said. But it stretches backward as well. Our responsibilities are not only to the seconds in our days, but to those of who came before us.

Jemison became an astronaut like she dreamed not because she had a role model, she said. She was the first.

She said she realized her dream because she realized the possibilities that time offered.

“You can be the first at whatever you want to be,” Lewis said, “As long as the first wasn’t already taken.”