As the proud holder of a graduate degree in English, I have always been a little obsessed with books, especially those books I read as a child that set me on the path to studying literature. You can practically draw a straight line from my love for D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and my eventual decision to major in classics in college. And I’ve always been enthusiastic about sending books to the little kids in my life so they, too, can enjoy the antics of the monkeys in Caps for Sale or giggle while reading Dr. Seuss’s “Too Many Daves.” Combining the pleasure of reading children’s books while fostering a greater awareness of racial inequality seemed like a natural fit.
So I immediately hopped on Google, found a couple of Black-owned bookstores, and sent a stack of children’s books to my friends and family. My favorite one is part of a series by Vashti Harrison, called Dream Big, Little One. This simple board book features stylized illustrations of notable Black women like Katherine Johnson, the famed NASA mathematician; science fiction author, Octavia E. Butler; and – no introduction necessary – Oprah. But there were a few women in the book that I had never heard of before. And in the spirit of the When I Was 17 project, I wanted to share their stories here.
Mae Jemison was the first Black woman to travel into space aboard the Endeavour. But every time I thought I had a handle on Jemison’s story, she threw another curveball at me. Her biography highlights her early love for science, fitting for a future astronaut, and the discrimination she faced as a woman of color trying to enter that field. But Jemison was also an accomplished dancer, studying African, Japanese, ballet, jazz, and modern dance. She attended Stanford University when she was only 16 and studied chemical engineering. But instead of going the route I expected, Jemison went on to earn her medical degree at Cornell University before serving as a medical officer in the Peace Corps in Liberia and Sierra Leone and later working for the CDC. After her time abroad, Jemison returned to the US and began taking graduate-level engineering courses. She was inspired by the rise in female astronauts like Sally Ride and applied to the NASA astronaut training program. She was accepted to the program in 1987 and completed her 8-day space mission in 1992. She has since founded her own company examining the impacts of technology on society, taught environmental studies at Dartmouth College, and worked to encourage minority students to study STEM.
Augusta Savage was an internationally recognized sculptor and teacher who was part of the Harlem Renaissance. Savage started her career at a very young age, making small animal figurines out of the red clay she found near her home in Green Cove Springs, Florida. Her father was not very supportive of this hobby, but by the time she got to high school, Savage was teaching clay modeling classes to the other students. At age 27, she won the prize for most original exhibit at the Palm Beach County Fair and then moved to New York to study sculpture at Cooper Union. She was a dedicated advocate for equality, inspired partly when a French art program denied her application because she was Black. She did eventually travel to France in 1929, where she won awards at Paris Salons and Exhibitions. Back in the US, she founded the Harlem Community Art Center where she taught classes to anyone who wanted to learn about art and sculpture. Savage was also selected as one of only four women and only two Black artists to create works for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Her piece, Lift Every Voice (“The Harp”), was wildly popular. She later moved to the Hudson Valley and spent the rest of her life teaching art, writing children’s books, and running two successful galleries. One of her busts, Gamin, is on permanent display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.