Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

African American Lives
Whoopi Goldberg

African American LivesGoldberg, Whoopi (13 Nov. 1955 –), actress and comedian, was born Caryn Elaine Johnson in New York City, the second of two children of Emma Harris, a sometime teacher and nurse, and Robert Johnson, who left the family when Caryn was a toddler. Caryn attended St. Columbia School, a parochial school located several blocks from the family’s working-class neighborhood. New York provided a stimulating, multicultural environment that encouraged Caryn to reject the strictures of her Catholic education. By age eight, with the support of her mother, she began acting at the Hudson Guild in the Helena Rubinstein Children’s Theater, and she also showed a precocious interest in ballet and music. Caryn appeared in as many Hudson Guild productions as possible, but was less focused on her schoolwork. Her academic difficulties were exacerbated by dyslexia, though this was not diagnosed until later, and she dropped out of Washington Irving High School at age fourteen. Although Caryn’s teenage insecurities were hardly atypical, she was particularly discouraged by the racism endemic in the career path that she hoped to follow: the movie industry. In Hollywood, a white standard of beauty predominated, and glamorous roles for black actresses had traditionally been reserved for light-skinned and lithe performers like Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne. Caryn Johnson, however, was a brown-skinned beauty with full features of a type not yet acceptable to the entertainment industry’s limited and racially determined ideas of beauty. But such racism did not deter her thespian ambitions, and she appeared in the chorus of the Broadway musicals “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Hair”.

After leaving school, Johnson had an unexpected pregnancy and abortion, and she became, as she later explained, “chemically dependent on many things for many years.” Later, the escapades, pain, and difficulties of this period became fodder for her stand-up comedy routines, finding their way into her one-woman show. Eventually, she entered treatment for substance abuse, and in 1973 she married her drug counselor, Alvin Martin. Their daughter, Alexandra, was born a year later, but the couple separated in the mid-1970s and Johnson moved with her young daughter to San Diego, California. There she worked as a beautician, funeral home hairstylist, and bank teller while performing in local theater groups. She was also, for a few years, on welfare before finding success at the San Diego Repertory Company, appearing in Berthold Brecht’s “Mother Courage”, and with Spontaneous Combustion, an improvisational comedy group. Making her professional aspirations a reality required one more thing: to change her name, which she found boring, to a memorable moniker. She first chose “Whoopi Cushion” and then dropped Cushion for Goldberg, after her Jewish relatives.

In the late 1970s Goldberg moved to Berkeley, California, where she lived with her daughter and the playwright-performer David Schein. Performing at the Blake Street Hawkeyes Theater in 1982, she developed a one-woman play, “The Spook Show”, which she based on characters derived from life. Goldberg toured the United States and Europe with “The Spook Show” and in 1983 performed at the Dance Theater Workshop in New York. Goldberg returned to San Francisco and mounted “Moms”, a one-woman show that she co-wrote as a tribute to the vaudevillian Moms Mabley. A year later Goldberg returned to New York and, with director Mike Nichols, made her debut on Broadway, in the newly renamed show, “Whoopi Goldberg”. The show won her Theatre World and Drama Desk awards, and in 1985 she received a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Recording.

In 1985 Goldberg made her film debut in Steven Spielberg ‘s adaptation of Alice Walker ‘s “The Color Purple” (co-produced by Quincy Jones). Grossing over $80 million at the box office and $50 million in home video rentals, the film was an unexpected commercial success. For her strong, subtle performance, Goldberg received an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award.

In addition to performing stand-up and touring with her one-woman show “Living on the Edge of Chaos”, Goldberg worked steadily in film and on television during the last half of the 1980s, although, with the exception of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (1986), her films—”Burglar” (1987), “Fatal Beauty” (1987), “Clara’s Heart” (1988), and “The Telephone” (1988)—were only marginal hits. Goldberg became a household name with “Ghost” (1990). The film grossed over $517 million worldwide and earned Goldberg an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the second Oscar awarded to a black woman. In 1992 ‘s “Sister Act”, Goldberg again struck box-office gold and won a second Golden Globe. Having proved her financial value, Goldberg began balancing her Hollywood film appearances in comedies such as “Made in America” (1993) with dramatic roles in smaller, independent films, including “The Long Walk Home” (1990), a film about the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott; as a cop in Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire “The Player” (1992); “Sarafina” (1992), a musical drama set in apartheid South Africa. In 1996 Goldberg portrayed Myrlie Evers-Williams in the film “Ghosts of Mississippi”.

Goldberg’s television career has been even more prodigious. In 1986, along with comedians Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, she began hosting the semiannual live broadcast “Comic Relief”, a comedy showcase fund-raiser for the homeless, and in 1992 she launched a short-lived, self-titled, late-night talk show. She also appeared in her own HBO stand-up specials and had a recurring role (1988 – 1993) as Guinan on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. Her role in the 1994 and 2002 “Star Trek” films further proved her popularity and crossover appeal. In 1994 Goldberg hosted the Academy Awards, becoming the first black woman to preside over the Oscars since Diana Ross in 1974. She returned to emcee the awards in 1996, 1999, and 2002. From 1998 until 2002, she was also executive producer and appeared as the center square of the Emmy Award–winning television game show “Hollywood Squares.” Goldberg returned to television in 2003 with the sitcom “Whoopi.”

Following her successful return to Broadway in 1997 as the lead in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, Goldberg expanded her theatrical activities, co-producing the Broadway revival of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (2002) and “Harlem Song” (2002), a new musical by George C. Wolfe, and starring in and producing the Broadway revival of August Wilson ‘s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2002).

Offscreen, Goldberg married David Claessen, a Dutch-born director of photography, in 1986, after her relationship with Schein ended in 1985. Goldberg’s subsequent private relationship with the actor Ted Danson sparked public controversy after Danson performed in blackface at the Friar’s Club roast of the actress in 1993. The following year she entered into a one-year marriage with the union organizer Lyle Trachtenberg, whom she met when he was unionizing the crew of “Corrina, Corrina” (1994). From 1995 through 2000, she was involved with the actor Frank Langella.

The author of the best-selling Book (1997), Goldberg is the recipient of over forty awards, including six People’s Choice awards, five Kid’s Choice awards, and nine NAACP Image awards; she has garnered fourteen Emmy nominations and the 2001 Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American humor. Goldberg has been recognized as well for her humanitarian efforts on behalf of children, the homeless, human rights, substance abuse, and the battle against AIDS. In 1995 her hands, feet, and signature braids were pressed in cement outside Mann’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, and in 2001, she received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

Despite being an African American woman in a white dominated industry, Goldberg has become a mainstay in American entertainment. An iconoclastic comedian and commentator, she uses humor both to critique and to amuse her audiences. Over the years, there has been a mixed response to her celebrity. Some film critics and historians argue that her asexual characters perpetuate the iconic stereotype of the black mammy in the white household, while others interpret her screen persona differently, viewing Goldberg as an iconoclastic figure and countercultural force. However, Whoopi has expressed frustration with the selective editing of sex scenes that have landed on the cutting room floor.

Often described as too fat, too funny, too noisy, and too rebellious, Whoopi Goldberg has become what the critic Kathleen Rowe has termed an “unruly woman.” In Broadway performances, movies, and television appearances, she has played defiant characters who overturn social hierarchies, cross racial boundaries, and subvert conventional authority.

—Mia L. Mask
From African American Lives edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham.

Read More in…

Recent Comments

  1. Miss

    Whoopi Goldberg aka Caryn Johnson was born in 1949, NOT 1955. 1949 1949 1949

  2. cherry carter

    Whoopi G. has been my role model for years. I’m black female 51, who want to make a dream come true. I want to send one of my shirts/caps to her to market my dream. I have a blog and sister site attached to the above url. Any suggestions are welcomed. Just living a dream that I believe in.

  3. jessica hatfield

    to: caryn,
    i admire you for your talents, i have watched you on t.v. ever since i was a little girl. i am now 13 and i still watch all your old movies. thanks for all the inspiration.

  4. Herb "Q" Kendrick

    I too HAD BEEN a fan and admirer of Whoopi Goldberg for many years until yesterday when I heard and read her comments regarding Michael Vick.

    Everyone should watch the video, listen, and read what she said. Though she didn’t defend his actions, she did however make some very ignorant and shameful comments. As a black man, a human being and a consumer, I am disgusted with her and will permanently remove her from the list of people that I respect and from entertainers who I endorse with my money.

  5. fatina davis A.K.A fee fee

    one day my teacher ask me who my favorite actor was and i say WHOOPIE GOLDBERG becausei take an acting class and she was like why i said cause shea the best actress in the whole world to me.now im doing an project on WHOOPIE right now for 2 of my classes.i take an acting class cause i want 2 be an actor



  7. Helen

    You look like you were born in 1949. Why lie about it?

  8. Barry G

    I am a white male that has loved Whoopie since I viewed The Color Purple. Her talent, jumps at your senses! I love ALL her movies and admire how the underlying message is, we, ALL need to live and work, together! However, I am very much disappointed in her personal political life.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

African American Lives
Ben Carson

African American LivesCarson, Ben (18 Sept. 1951 –), pediatric neurosurgeon, was born Benjamin Solomon Carson in Detroit, Michigan, the son of Robert Carson, a minister of a small Seventh-Day Adventist church, and Sonya Carson. His mother had attended school only up to the third grade and married at the age of thirteen; she was fifteen years younger than her husband. After his father deserted the family, eight-year-old Ben and his brother, Curtis, were left with their mother, who had no marketable skills. Sonya worked as a domestic when such jobs were available, and she struggled with bouts of depression, for which, at one point, she had herself admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Despite her disabilities, she became the biggest factor in determining Ben’s later success, which she and Ben attribute to divine intervention.

Except for two years in Boston, Ben grew up in a dangerous and impoverished neighborhood in Detroit. Initially, he did so poorly in school that by the fifth grade he classified himself as “the class dummy.” In part, his difficulties resulted from a failure to detect his need for eyeglasses. Nevertheless, when Sonya noticed the poor academic performance of her two sons, she curtailed their play activities and television viewing and demanded that the boys read two books each week and write reports on them for her to review—despite the fact that she could barely read herself. (Later she, too, went on to college.) Her stern intervention was also accompanied by positive reinforcement. When she learned of Ben’s nascent interest in medicine, she said, “Then, Bennie, you will be a doctor.” Her parenting techniques catapulted Ben from the bottom of the fifth grade to the top of his seventh grade class.

Ben then became a normal teenager, desiring both stylish clothes and acceptance from his peers. As a result of this shift in his priorities, his grades plummeted from As to Cs, and he even confronted his mother angrily because she would not buy the fashionable clothes that he craved. She devised a scheme for him to manage the household expenses with her salary, saying that the remaining money could be used to buy the things he wanted. When Ben began this exercise, he was astounded and wondered how she made ends meet, because the money was gone before he had paid all the bills. Ben learned an invaluable lesson; he appreciated his mother’s tenacity, curtailed his sartorial demands, and focused once again on his studies.

As a teenager Ben had a volatile temper, and at fourteen he attempted to stab a friend with a pocketknife simply because the boy would not change the radio station. Ben believes that it was through divine providence that his knife struck only his friend’s belt buckle. This experience initiated another transformation in his life. He began to pray for help controlling his anger, he avoided trouble outside school, and he ended up graduating third in his class.

During Carson’s freshman year at Yale University, he writes, “I discovered I wasn’t that bright,” and he wondered if he had what it would take to succeed in the highly competitive premed program. Aubrey Tompkins, the choir director of the Mt. Zion Seventh-Day Adventist Church, encouraged him and helped him regain his confidence. In retrospect, Carson wrote, “the church provided the stabilizing force I needed.” After receiving his BA in 1973, Carson entered the University of Michigan School of Medicine, where he studied with Dr. James Taren, a neurosurgeon and dean, who advised his students, when confronted with the choice of whether or not to operate, to “look at the alternatives if we do nothing.” This statement has resonated throughout Carson’s professional career as a neurosurgeon. Another of his teachers, Dr. George Udvarhelyi, impressed upon him the importance of understanding the patient as much as the patient’s diagnosis. Through this advice, Carson developed the gentle bedside manner of a good country doctor.

Carson received his MD in 1977 and fulfilled his residency at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he was often mistaken for an orderly—despite the fact that he wore the white lab coat that should have identified him as a doctor. Carson was not only undaunted by such prejudice, he actually thrived on debunking racial stereotypes. From 1982 to 1983 he served as chief resident in neurosurgery at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Australia before Dr. Donlin Long recommended and engineered his appointment as chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. At the time of his appointment, Carson was only thirty-three years old and already considered a rising star in his field.

Carson gained international renown and made medical history in 1987, when he led a surgical team of seventy people in a twenty-two-hour operation that successfully separated the seven-month-old Binder twins, who were joined at the skull. In 1994 he performed a similar operation on conjoined South African girls, one of whom died during the operation and the other two days later; three years later he successfully separated six-month-old Zambian boys. Performing approximately four hundred operations per year in his pediatric unit, Carson is often called upon to assist surgeons all over the world.

In July of 2003 Carson assisted in a widely publicized attempt to separate twenty-nine-year-old Iranian sisters. Joined at the backs of their heads, the sisters decided that a fifty-fifty chance that only one or neither would survive the operation was better than continuing to live in a conjoined state, where they could not pursue their individual and distinct interests. Following the failure of this operation and the deaths of both sisters, Carson determined not to perform any more such operations on adults.

In August 2002, Carson successfully underwent surgery himself for prostate cancer, which had not metastasized. Throughout this ordeal, just as in surgery with his patients, Ben Carson relied on his faith and the will of God to carry him through.

In addition to his practice, Carson has written numerous articles for medical journals; an autobiography, Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story (1990); and two motivational books, The Big Picture (1999) and Think Big (1992). He has been an outspoken champion of such issues as racial diversity, affirmative action, and health care reform. In 1975 Carson married Lacena “Candy” Rustin; they subsequently had three sons. In 1994 Carson and his wife founded the Carson Scholars Fund, which offers scholarships to encourage children to take an interest in science, math, and technology and to balance the attention given to sports and entertainment with an appreciation of academic achievement.

—Thomas O. Edwards
From African American Lives edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham.

Read More in…

Recent Comments

  1. Eleanor

    Ben Carson would you please give me your email address because my class is doing a play on you and we would appreciate if you came.

  2. eleanor

    I love your book and bye

  3. Fidel Bonilla

    Where do I begin Dr. Carson or better yet start to find the proper and most adequate words to state what time of impact you left in me during your speech at the 20th annual biomedical symposium in Houston,Texas. At this point in my life my biggest goal was to pursue a degree in pharmacy at Texas Southern University but listening to your speech it made me realize that that would be selling my dream short of greatness which is something I aspire to when I look for a reason to keep on going and not quitting. Just listening to how difficult your upbringing was and not making that an excuse to being the best in your field which is something that you have attained due to your hard work and sacrifice made me see my dream in a much more ambitious and prospecitve view. When I met you it was like meeting Barry Bonds, Carl Lewis, Tiger Woods or better yet for the sake of the point the Michael Jordan of the medicine world of Neurosurgery. I guess what I am trying to say is that I never really looked at being a physician in surgery or anytype of doctor in the medical field because i was my own barrier or worst enemy because I had the pesamistic view and fear of being in school for so long and the more I think about it I think it was fear to be great or better yet putting it all on the line. Your speech was so inspiring that it was a life changing experience due to the fact that it planted that mustard seed that dared me to be great or better yet canceled the negativity of being afraid to put in numerous years of work to be successful like yourself. And like they say, a mustard seed can move mouintains and that is exactly what I am looking forward to doing.

    Once again thank you,
    Fidel Bonilla
    TSU Pre-Pharmacy Student

  4. Chantina Marsh

    Dear Dr. Carson,
    First of all, I want to say I was so inspired by your books and interview on the web. I am so encouraged by what you and your mother, and brother endured. You see I too am a single mothter raising a boy. We are doing well and my son is in contact with his father. I want to ask you how do you motivate our young black males enough to see all the potential and gifts that the Lord has instilled in them? My son takes all advance classes, but math is becoming very difficult for him. We both have read your books and they have inspired my son Adam as well. You have overcome so many challenges to get where you are now and I hope some day we can meet you. You are a living breathing example of a black male whose made a positive career for himself and is effectively sharing his gifts with others. Please help this single mother with her so just as your mother did for you.
    Thanks and God Bless,
    Tina in South Carolina

  5. Michael Forde

    Dear Dr. Carson,
    My name is Michael Forde. I go to a church school in Raleigh, N.C. The name of it is “Gethsemane SDA Church School. I read most of your books, and as a result of your story, I have decided to become a pediatric neurosurgeon, and do all I can to become that. I am 11, my birthday is September 3rd, and I was also wondering if we can be pen pals. Thanks. Oh, please give me your email address if you can. Thankyou. God bless. Bye.

  6. Obiajunwa Chiagoziem

    Dear Dr. Carson, I read your books, Gifted Hands and Think Big.The books were very useful to me and very challenging too. When I heard of your Cancer, I felt very bad and sincerely prayed for your recovery. You are indeed a mentor to many youths including me. May God continue to strenghten you

  7. Rhoda Birech

    Dear Dr. Benjamin Carson. Your books, Gifted Hands and Think Big have been read by thousands of young people here in kenya and many young scholars say they want to pursue a career in Neurosurgery. My husband and I are starting a school called ‘Integrity Educational Center’ in Africa Kenya. The model school is non-profit making serving the community and stresses on both academic excellence and moral character development in Primary school children. Can this school in any way benefit from the Carson Scholarsip Fund?

    Rhoda Birech

  8. Kelvin Ehimwenma

    Dear Dr Carson, I want to tell you how greatly motivated I am by reading your story. I’m a Nigerian living in the UK and also aspiring to become a medical doctor. I want to let you know that your story is an inspiration to me. My dream is to become a Neurosurgeon as well and right now, I can see myself at the top. Thank you for sharing your story and please I will be very appreciative if I get a feedback from you.

  9. Mading Malual.

    Dear,Dr Ben Carson.
    It is of great pleasure to write you this letter today,because I know you through your stories that you had done in this world,also I heard alot of informations from many people that you are the top Doctor in the world with good mercy and skills to help people.Therefore,iam writing you this letter due to my son sickness here in Australia,which all doctors in Australia were failed to findout the disease,they tried to diagnose it,but they failed to findout what type of diease that my son is suffer,before going further to give you more details about my son and to brief you about symptoms of his sickness,i would like to know firstwether i got the right address.Your reply will be highly appreciate if this message will go through.Thanks yours faithfully Mading Malual.

  10. tia

    dr.ben carson please post your e-mail adress bacause we are doing projects in science on great scientists who have changed the world and I choose u our teacher also said if we get a response form our person in e-mail we willl receive extra credit please help me
    an 8th graade student

  11. Omiwale Clement

    Dear Doctor, I was really astonished when I saw you made it despite your background. Your book – Gifted Hands is a great motivation for me. Thanks so much.

  12. Leopoldine Matialeu

    Dear Doctor Ben Carson,
    I haven’t heard of the amazing person and doctor that you are until I read your book “Think Big”. In fact, your book has been an inspiration to me both as a pre-med student and as an 18 year-old girl coming from Cameroon, Africa. At first, I thought that I couldn’t accomplish my biggest dream (to be doctor) because I felt that I was the most disadvantanged among my classmates. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I also would like to ask you a big favor: would you mind being my mentor? I will be very grateful if you respond positively to this request.
    Thanks again for everything and God bless you!

  13. RAOILIJAONA Rijasoa Fanantenana

    Dear Doctor Ben Carson
    I have heard your story when i Was in class(Adventist University Zurcher) and finally I have read it in the Magazine TOPIC N° 194. My son is epileptic and he has a kyst(under archanoid) in his left temporal of his brain. He has a critical crisis every 30 munites. He needs to be operated. In my country (Madagascar), Pediatric Neuro Surgeon doesn’ t exist. Adding that, we have no possibility to solve this problem( financial plan). So that, we ask you what do we do? He is my first baby and he has 5 years old. His current treatment is TEGRETOL SB 100 mg,Dihydan 100 mg and Nootropyl Gé 200 mg. On 20th january 2007, all of the family have fasted to ask God to manifest and ask Him his plan for him because he is suffering. By faith, we don’t know that our meeting (by email) is the God’s plan, why not? I beleive that God will manifest and pray for this email.
    Thank you

  14. Magdalene Eboigbe

    Dear Dr. Ben S. Carson

    Thank you for inspiring me. Now I know that I can be whatever I wish to be if I truly work harder. Thank you for sharing your Biography with us.
    Although, I am from a very humble home, my desire is to be greater than The great Dr. Ben. S. Carson who have turn many lives around positively.
    Your mother’s prayers in the THINK BIG is now my prayer. If God take nothing and make a world out of it, God take my life and make it work. I have been having a lot of challenges academically but I am believing God for greater things to come my way.
    Doctor, your books are blessings to my life. I wish I can get your email address because you have bless my life with your books. megcarefullymade@yahoo.co.uk from Nigeria

  15. Rob Tanner

    Dr. Ben S. Carson

    My collegue and I are writing a book on anger management. We would like to site you as an individual who had a severe anger problem, found ways to handle your anger in a healthy format and went on to be one of greatest Neurosurgeons of all times. Is there anyway that I can get in contact with you? Thank you. Rob Tanner, Livermore, Ca.

  16. Mrs. Vikki Leach

    Hello Dr. Ben Carson and Family:I pray that you are all well. I recently met a 16 year old high school junior who has wanted to become a Neurosurgeon since he was age three. He was later inspired by having read Gifted Hands. He’ll be my first guest of the Y2008 this Sat. Morning (1/5/08) at 8AM in Philadelphia on my Radio Program. His parents are coming to the studio with him. It would be an awesome surprise if you were able to listen to our live broadcast streaming online and call in at 215 634-8065 to speak with him and encourage him at the same time:www.900AMWURD.com My faith tells me that God can do miracles. Your call would truly be one!Sincerely, Vikki Leach

  17. Dolly Phillips

    I just watched Whoopi on Regis & Kelly today and saw that she was very interested in children’s books. I know a young lady, a cancer survivor, who has so much talent in writing children’s stories but she does not know where to go with this. She is amazing. HELP!!!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

African American Lives
Mae Jemison

African American LivesJemison, Mae (17 Oct. 1956 –), astronaut and physician, was born Mae Carol Jemison in Decatur, Alabama, the daughter of Charlie Jemison, a carpenter and roofer, and Dorothy Jemison, a teacher whose maiden name is unknown. After living the first three and a half years of her life in Alabama near the Marshall Space Flight Center, Mae moved to Chicago with her parents and older siblings, Rickey and Ada Sue. When her family experienced trouble with local gangs, they moved to another section of the city, where Mae immersed herself in her schoolwork. An avid reader, she also was inspired by role models in the media, such as Lieutenant Uhura, a black woman astronaut portrayed by the actress Nichelle Nichols in the 1960s television series Star Trek. At a time when all astronauts were white and male, even a fictional character such as Lieutenant Uhura had a positive impact on Jemison. “A lot of times, fantasy is what gets us through to reality,” Mae later said. An outstanding student, active in student government and arts organizations, Mae excelled in science and graduated from Morgan Park High School in 1973.

She entered Stanford University at age sixteen, in part, she confessed, because of the renown of their football team. Unfortunately, Jemison did not feel entirely welcomed by the Stanford science faculty, whom she believed underestimated or ignored her. “The majority of physical science professors pushed me away,” she later recalled. These chilly rebuffs did not deter her, however, and Jemison continued to study science and engineering while also enrolling in many African and Afro-American studies classes. She viewed her courses in the social sciences as vital, she recalled, “because I was unconsciously balancing the poor reception I often received in the science and engineering departments with the embrace of political science.” Jemison graduated in 1977 with a BS in Chemical Engineering.

After leaving Stanford, Jemison entered Cornell University Medical College (now Weill Cornell Medical College) in New York City. While in medical school, she also took modern dance classes in the city and became a great fan of the Alvin Ailey dance troupe, particularly the dancer Judith Jamison. During the summers between her second and third years in medical school, Jemison received a grant from the International Travelers Association and traveled to Cuba, Kenya, and Thailand, providing medical care. The experience deeply affected Jemison, whose attention to scientific and social concerns in the United States expanded to include international issues. She graduated with her medical degree in 1981 and returned to California as a medical intern at Los Angeles County/University of Southern California Medical Center in 1982.

From 1983 to 1985 Jemison served as the area Peace Corps medical officer in Sierra Leone and Liberia. She supervised the pharmacy and laboratory and established guidelines for public health and safety issues. She also collaborated with the National Institutes for Health and the Centers for Disease Control in the United States, researching hepatitis B vaccines and conducting studies of rabies and infectious diseases such as schistosomiasis, which is widespread in rural areas of Africa. She returned to the United States in 1985 to work as a general practitioner in Los Angeles.

Always curious and eager to embark on new paths, Jemison continued to take graduate classes in engineering while practicing medicine, and eventually she became interested in applying to the astronaut program of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Jemison found NASA’s early prohibition on women astronauts “nonsensical” and first applied to the astronaut corps less than a decade after the space agency began accepting female candidates in 1978.

NASA accepted Jemison on her second application, one of fifteen astronauts selected from more than two thousand applicants. She was the first woman of color and the fifth African American astronaut in NASA’s history. Beginning her training in August 1987, Jemison was part of the first class of astronauts to be selected after the 1986 Challenger accident. She told reporters that she was not daunted by the prospect of danger, but remained committed to the challenges of space exploration for the unique knowledge it provides. Dr. Joseph D. Atkinson Jr., a member of the astronaut board that selected Jemison and chief of NASA’s Equal Opportunity Programs Office, was struck not only by Jemison’s commitment to science but also by her social awareness. He found her scientific skill and sensitivity “to the social needs of the community” a formidable combination of abilities.

On 12 September 1992 Jemison rocketed into space aboard the space shuttle Endeavor. Her mission, STS 47, was a joint project of the United States and Japan. Jemison’s duties as a mission specialist involved life-science experiments focusing on bone cell research and other technical assignments, including verification of the shuttle computer software in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL). Among the personal objects Jemison elected to take on board with her were an Alvin Ailey dance poster, a statue from Sierra Leone, a certificate from Chicago schoolchildren pledging to improve their math and science skills, and a Michael Jordan jersey from the Chicago Bulls basketball team. Jemison noted that the items she brought along suggested that “space is a birthright for all of us on this planet.” During her eight-day mission, Jemison orbited the earth 127 times and logged 190 hours, 30 minutes, and 23 seconds in outer space. Her first mission in space was also her last. After six years with the space agency, Jemison resigned from NASA the following year to start her own technology company and explore teaching interests.

In 1993 Jemison founded the Jemison Group, Inc., a business that has been involved in projects involving thermal electricity and the use of satellite-based telecommunications to facilitate health care in West Africa. A year later Jemison established The Earth We Share, an annual science camp, which attracts children aged twelve to sixteen from around the world. She also served as professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College from 1995 to 2002 and, while at Dartmouth, founded another scientific research company, BioSentient Corporation, which investigates the application of techniques for controlling motion sickness and other medical problems.

In 2001 Jemison wrote an autobiography for young adults, Find Where the Wind Goes, in which she highlights episodes in her life that inspired or changed her. She has been involved in other media projects, including science programs on PBS and the Discovery channel. Fulfilling a childhood dream, she also appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation during an episode entitled “Second Chances.” In 2004, Jemison was the A. D. White Professor at Large at Cornell University where she spoke about scientific literacy and the need to increase the numbers of women and minorities in science and technology.

Mae Jemison has been honored with awards from the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine. She holds honorary doctorates from Princeton University, Lincoln College (Pennsylvania), and Winston-Salem College (North Carolina). In 1999 she was selected as one of the seven most qualified women to be President of the United States by the White House Project, an organization which seeks to eliminate the glass ceiling for women in business and politics. Now residing in Houston, Texas, Jemison continues to work toward the understanding that scientific progress and social equity are inextricably linked.

—Martha Ackmann
From African American Lives edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham.

Read More in…

Recent Comments

  1. kia

    i really like this story

  2. ciara

    I love u mae

  3. suzette haggins

    can you write me and tell me how you do ever
    thing and i want to be just like you

  4. suz

    i love your story

  5. jaja

    Charles, was the fathers name, and they moved to Chicago, Illinois when Mae was 3. I don’t know where you’ve researched your information, but i’ve been doing a small amount and i know already some of our information is wrong by reading the first paragraph. In my mind, since i only read articles on the internet and did not live through it, Mae is a wonderful person who is hard working. in some articles/books i’ve read she was influenced by her uncle, in others by the flight to the moon. i really would like to know what is true, so if you could see to it your story is updated and checked over, i would be very happy.

  6. Adrienne Franco

    In the first sentence of your profile, it states:

    “Carson, Ben (18 Sept. 1951 –), pediatric neurosurgeon, was born Benjamin Solomon Carson in Detroit, Michigan, the son of Robert Carson, a minister of a small Seventh-Day Adventist church, and Sonya Carson”

    Mr. Carson was not a minister of a Seventh-Day Adventist church, but of another denomination. The reason is that Sony Carson describes attending Sunday services at the church where her husband was the minister.

    Seventh Day Adventists worship on Saturday. It was only after her divorce from Robert Carson that she became a Seventh-Day Adventist — in part due to the influence of her sister, Jean Avery, and a woman who visited her in the hospital who was a Seventh Day Adventist (Mary Thomas).

    In Ben Carson’s book “Think Big”, Sonya Carson writes in chapter 2 on page 30 (in the paperback edition) “In the meantime, we lived comfortably, maybe even luxuriously. He loved to party and came up with every kind of excuse to go to one. Often we started on Thursday night and did not stop until the early hours of Sunday morning. Many Sunday mornings he had to drink hot sauce to wake him up after a party. That was the only way he could be ready to stand in the pulpit two hours later. Not knowing any differently, I went with my husband to church on Sunday ……. “

  7. Sara Frampton

    I absalutly love your story. It is filled with such amazing things that changed the world. I loved it so much the I did my book report and my first research paper on you. I think that you are such an inspiration and a great leader. You have tought many peopole to be strong and strive for what they believe in. Thank You so much. Like I said before you are such an inspiration and I would like to be like you in many ways.

  8. Renee' Stewart

    ok this all i know about Dr.Mae C. Jemison: she was born on October 17,1956 in Decatur,Alabama. She has a Bachelor of Sci. Degree in Chemical Engineering at Standford University. She also has a Bachelor in Arts in African-American Stuides also at Standford. She has a Doctor of Medicine Dergee at Cornell University. That she was the 1st African-American woman to fly in space.

  9. christina

    Hi Whoopi,
    I just admires your role on The View, I was sorry you were of sick when Obamma topic came up, but I sure was glad when she returned and put everyone in their place who were controvisial and suggested that Obamma should have left his church. I was so glad when Whoppi mention that when Jerry Falwell had problems that particular person did not leave his church. Keep up the good work Whoopi! I am from The Bahamas and enjoy every moment…. I would be thrilled if Whoopi could reply to my personal email.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

African American Lives
Quincy Jones

African American LivesJones, Quincy (14 Mar. 1933 –), jazz musician, composer, and record, television, and film producer, was born Quincy Delight Jones Jr. on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, the son of Sarah (maiden name unknown) and Quincy Jones Sr., a carpenter who worked for a black gangster ring that ran the Chicago ghetto. When Quincy Sr.’s mentally ill wife was institutionalized, he sent their sons, Quincy Jr. and Lloyd, to live in the South with their grandmother. In his autobiography Jones writes of growing up so poor that his grandmother served them fried rats to eat. By the age of ten he was living with Lloyd and their father in Seattle, Washington.

Modern jazz was Jones’s way out. Inspired by the now legendary jazzmen who passed through Seattle in the 1940s, Jones began studying trumpet in junior high school. When Count Basie brought a group to Seattle in 1950, Jones, then a teenager, approached one band member, Clark Terry, an acclaimed trumpeter, for lessons. “He’s the type of cat, anything he wanted to do, he could’ve done,” Terry said later in his autobiography.

Jones showed enough musical promise to win a scholarship to Schillinger House in Boston (now the Berklee School of Music), but he dropped out after a year to accept a place in the trumpet section of Lionel Hampton ‘s band. In 1951, Hampton made a record of Jones’s “Kingfish” and gave the teenager his first recorded composition.

Thereafter, Jones settled in New York City, where he found work as an arranger for some of the biggest stars in jazz, including Count Basie, Cannonball Adderley, and Dinah Washington. In 1956 he hired an array of top musicians for his first album, This Is How I Feel about Jazz. In May 1956 Jones joined the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra on a State Department–sponsored tour of the Middle East and South America. A year later he moved to Paris, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger, a conductor and composition teacher known for her illustrious expatriate pupils, including Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson. Modern jazz was blossoming in Paris, and Jones became a producer-arranger for Disques Barclay, France’s premier jazz label.

Returning to New York, Jones was hired in May 1961 as an AR (“Artist and Repertory”) man at Mercury Records. After producing a number-one hit—Lesley Gore’s teenage pop lament “It’s My Party”—and other artistic and creative successes, he became vice president of the company in November 1964. It was reportedly the first time a black man had held such a high position in the U.S. record business. In addition to arranging and conducting for Frank Sinatra, Basie, Sarah Vaughan, and Peggy Lee, Jones was writing and recording his own albums.

Beginning with Sidney Lumet’s Pawnbroker in 1964, Jones began composing film music, collaborating with many of the decade’s seminal filmmakers, including Lumet, Sidney Pollack, Norman Jewison, Richard Brooks, and Paul Mazursky. Jones’s scores for such films as In Cold Blood (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Cactus Flower (1969), and Bob Carol Ted Alice (1969) introduced jazz, soul, and, later, funk into films. Jones also played a part in bringing a new sound to TV with his scores for The Bill Cosby Show (1969); Sanford and Son (1972 – 1977), starring Redd Foxx; and the miniseries Roots (1977), for which Jones won an Emmy.

Jones, who had worked on behalf of Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s Operation Breadbasket, helped organize Chicago’s Black EXPO, an offshoot of Operation PUSH, with Jesse Jackson in 1972. He later served on the board of PUSH and, much later, produced a talk show with Jackson, The Jesse Jackson Show (1990). Jones became increasingly committed to the historical preservation of African American music. He helped establish the annual Black Arts Festival in Chicago and the Institute for Black American Music, which donated funds toward the establishment of a national library of African American art and music.

In 1969 Jones moved to AM. The trumpeter Miles Davis had plunged into fusion, a new style of electric jazz-rock and Jones did the same in Walking in Space (1974), his first of several hit records that combined jazz, fusion, and funk. Jones’s workaholic tendencies caught up with him in August 1974 when he suffered a near fatal brain aneurysm and underwent two major neurological surgeries. Once recovered, he returned to his career with the same fervor. In 1979 he produced Michael Jackson ‘s solo album Off the Wall, which yielded four top-ten hits. In 1981 Jones left AM and established the Qwest label at Warner Bros. Although he made his initial mark as a jazz arranger, producer, and bandleader, Jones became a household name by producing Jackson’s next album, 1982 ‘s Thriller, which sold fifty million albums and became the biggest-selling album of all time. Jackson and Jones remained a team for years, working on Bad (1987) and other projects.

Apart from his work with Michael Jackson, Jones’s greatest commercial triumph came in 1985, with the slick all-star album USA for Africa, which featured the song “We Are the World.” Written by Jackson and Lionel Ritchie and performed by forty-six music stars, including Bruce Springsteen and Diana Ross, the single sold seven and a half million copies, raised fifty million dollars for famine relief in Africa, and won Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Record of the Year.

After his successful turn in 1985 as co-producer of the Steven Spielberg film adaptation of Alice Walker ‘s The Color Purple (featuring Whoopi Goldberg in her film debut), Jones expanded his empire into film and television production. Through Quincy Jones Entertainment, Inc. (QJE), Jones created The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990 – 1996), the TV series that launched the acting career of Will Smith. In 1990 Jones established a magazine, Vibe, which focused on black pop music. The next year he persuaded the ailing Miles Davis to revisit classic work of the 1950s in a concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Davis hated looking back; only Jones could persuade him to do so. Davis died two months later.

The recipient of countless awards, Jones has earned seventy-seven Grammy nominations and won twenty-six times. He is a six-time Oscar nominee, and at the 1995 Academy Awards he won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. In 2001 he received a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement. As awards showered down on him in the 1980s and 1990s, some critics thought Jones outrageously over-hyped. There is little disagreement, however, about his abilities in combining talent in the studio to dazzling effect. Throughout his career he showed a shrewd business sense, earning millions of dollars, riding almost every new musical trend, including fusion and rap. Jones remains one of the most celebrated and charismatic figures in the pop music business. He has also allied himself with the biggest names in jazz, pop, and film to a point where he has been absorbed into their ranks.

—James Gavin
From African American Lives edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham.

Read More in…

Recent Comments

  1. Kres Robinson

    Dr.Carson,I would like to know where I could get a copy of the speech that you did at a university in Hattiesburg, MS quite a few years ago. It was during a recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I saw it once, but never got enough of it. It’s very inspirational. Please respond!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *