Success Favors the Bold: How I Stopped Worrying About Me and More About the Audacity to Be.

On September 12 1992, Dr. Mae C. Jemison blasted off into the cosmos, part of a joint US and Japan crew, as a Mission Specialist for NASA’s 50th shuttle mission. She was responsible for two bone experiments and monitoring the effects of weightlessness and motion sickness on herself and fellow crewmates.”The first thing I saw from space was Chicago, my hometown . . . It was such a significant moment because since I was a little girl I had always assumed I would go into space.”

Dr. Mae C. Jemison

As a little girl staring up into the night sky with visions of exploring the final frontier like her hero Lieutenant Uhura from Star Trek, Jemison knew that she would go to space but also was aware of the obstacles within that journey. While she pursued a career in science, the arts were calling her out to the dance floor. Dr. Jemison started dancing at the age of 11, “I love dancing! I took all kinds of dance — African dancing, ballet, jazz, modern — even Japanese dancing. I wanted to become a professional dancer.”

She continued to pursue both science and dance but as her mother pointed out, “You can always dance if you’re a doctor, but you can’t doctor if you’re a dancer.” Jemison chose science first graduating from Stanford and then receiving an MD from Cornell. She completed her medical training in the Peace Corps before applying to the astronaut candidate program. Due to unfortunate timing it was right before the Challenger disaster, so the program was put on hold for review but when they started again she was ready to take her seat on the ship. As she sailed into the stratosphere, she clutched an Alvin Alley Dance Company poster, having never let go of her love of dance. As the atmosphere dissolved into the vastness of space, Dr. Jemison was aware of her role in history as the first African American woman in space. It was also important to her that her critics witnessed her trip, “Back then I just wanted people to say, ‘Hey, the gatekeepers need to know that everybody has talent.’”

Streams (Photo by Brett Swinney)

I’ve always wanted to be an artist. I remember writing my first satirical newspaper article, a mix of musings with misapplied topical references, in second grade. I was so proud as I shared it with the class. The kids giggled while my teacher shook her head with a crooked smirk. From then on I was hooked. As I started to try out different things, I began to receive support from friends and family and discouragement from gatekeepers. They seemed to be the authority and it was hard not to internalize their titles and disapproving glances. Especially being a person of color, it seemed whatever I would do was not good enough and there was no way to change it. I didn’t belong in the arts, and for a hypersensitive tall lanky black dude it also meant that I didn’t belong, period.

Thankfully since every other industry/profession/passion had their own gatekeepers, including math, science, computer science, history, English, etc…, I found my way back into arts. At first it was just a means to end, a way to buck the system, another reason for my parents to worry about me. It started with a photo class in high school. Nothing too fancy, just shoot B/W film, make some crappy prints and bring them home to be hung on the fridge. I tried to be cynical about it but the sensation of seeing a picture, a silly self-portrait, materialize in the developer was a radical awakening. It was MY awakening and no one could take that from me. While I have encountered many more gatekeepers since, many who succeeded at knocking me down, I have chosen each time to rise back up.

Departures (Photo by Brett Swinney)

Explorers and artists have a lot in common. We are governed by our willingness to venture into the unknown with the hope it will contribute to greater awareness, beyond the ephemeral. We regularly encounter gatekeepers who attempt to diffuse, deflect or douse our ambition by saying directly or indirectly ‘You don’t have talent’ or ‘You don’t belong here.’ To become accountable for our dreams we must embrace the ‘audacity to be.’ Audacity is the willingness to take bold risks and the alternative to be is not to be. Together, explorers and artists affirm the infinite within the potential rather than remain limited by the referential. Through audacity, dreamers launch shuttles to space, put paint brushes to canvas, and stir bodies to rhythm. As Mae Jemison charted her course to the stars, every ‘no’ just added fuel to her fire to prove the ‘yes’. “At the time of the Apollo airing, everybody was thrilled about space, but I remember being irritated that there were no women astronauts. People tried to explain that to me, and I did not buy it.”

Born March 25th (child of Mars, Aries AF), I share a birthday with Aretha Franklin. I always thought there was something special about sharing a birthday, it’s like different prints from the same negative. So when considering what it means to be bold, I look to the path laid out by Aretha Franklin.

Sleepwalking (Photo by Brett Swinney)

Over the course of her reign, she had 77 charted singles and sold more than 75 million records worldwide, mentored generations of artists, and provided the soundtrack of many everyday miracles and moments. Like Dr. Jemison, Aretha Franklin knew from an early age that she was going somewhere and no one was stopping her. When a gatekeeper appeared, Aretha Franklin knew what to say to them. In 1993, a New York Post columnist wrote “[Aretha Franklin] must know she’s too bosomy to wear such clothing, but she just doesn’t care what we think, and that attitude is what separates mere stars from true divas.” To which Franklin replied, “You are hardly in any position to determine what separates stars from divas since you are neither one or an authority on either.” Out of the wave of condolences and celebrations on her recent passing, I believe a truly fitting tribute was the one made by NASA when they named asteroid 249516 “Aretha.” It measures just under three miles across and it orbits between Mars and Jupiter. It will take 249516 Aretha about five-and-a-half years to make one trip around the sun.

Whether you choose to be an explorer or an artist or anything that is meaningful to you, it’s important to embrace the Audacity to Be and be accountable for your dreams. It’s often hard and isolating, but remember, you are not alone. At this moment, all over the world, there are countless other banes of gatekeepers all staring up into the night sky, whispering to themselves, “I Belong.”

And from now on the night sky will always have a response…