Conference Examines People Of Color In Space Exploration

Oct 24, 2013

Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture by Ytasha Womack
Credit ytasha womack /


Recently, the Voyager One space craft entered interstellar space, the farthest a man-made object has ever traveled. But as we push the bounds of space travel, the number of people of color in space-related careers remains low. This weekend, Duke University is holding the first conference to explore the intersection of identity and space exploration, “Race in Space.” Host Frank Stasio speaks with conference participants about the involvement of people of color in space-related careers.

Rhonda Sharpe, a visiting professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University, spoke with Host Frank Stasio about the “Race in Space” conference’s goal of addressing the underrepresentation of people of color in the STEM fields.  

“We have your writers and artists who have been challenging us to think about space travel…and we’re thinking about the challenges within STEM which is science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” Sharpe explains. “How do you get folks to come together and have a conversation, so this is more of a reality? So that there is a generation of young folks who see [careers in STEM] as a possibility?”

Ytasha Womack, author of “Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture,” mentions that for people to see space-related careers as a possibility for them, the issue extends outside of the classroom. Womack speaks with Host Frank Stasio about Afrofuturism and the need for art and media to address people of color’s involvement in space travel. (Chicago Review Press; 2013). 

“Afrofuturism looks at the parallels between the imagination, technology, Black culture, and liberation in order to expand our idea of race and boundaries….One of the primary ways of exploring this in science fiction, is creating more images of people of color in space, just as a visual,” Womack remarks. “One of the challenges and opportunities that many artists have today is to be able to create these images, whether it’s through film or visual arts or literature; and inspire the imagination…so people can see themselves in space travel. It also breaks a lot of limitations and barriers of what can be, so you can view yourself as a change agent.”

Guests point out that science fiction in particular is a vehicle for talking about alienation, and being an outsider. They mention that these themes are paralleled to race in many ways.  Jarita Holbrook, astrophysicist, science fiction writer and filmmaker, connects themes of alienation with the people of color’s involvement in STEM careers.

“[Science fiction addresses] who has the right to go in space? It’s the same issues that we’re dealing with concerning diversity in STEM. Who has the right to create knowledge? Who is relegated to just consuming knowledge. How is that a practice of exclusion?” Holbrook continues, “When you go into space it’s the same sorts of thing. What kind of jobs are people of color allowed to have in the space race?”

And it’s not about diversity for diversity’s sake. Sharpe argues that people of color bring new knowledge and innovation to STEM careers.

“When you think about a population of folks who have had limited resources, you can become incredibly innovative… Diversity means people think about their circumstances and how we can alter that,” says Sharpe. “Many of us are driven to go into science because we see a problem in their neighborhood and want to solve it.  But we don’t necessarily think about stepping outside of the box and transferring your knowledge to another realm.

Duke University’s Race in Space Conference is October 25th and 26th. For more information, click HERE.