We are reminded repeatedly that to inspire children to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics, they need to see people who look like them in those fields. Every kid needs a role model and until very recently, there weren’t many images of famous Black Americans in STEM. How many teenagers these days know who Geordi LaForge is, much less Mae Jemison? But they need those images if they’ll ever believe that they can become great scientists too.
Enter: Pop Culture.
Fox network and the Science Channel have done what no one else has: they’ve put Black men at the forefront of America’s new scientific curiosity. With the documentary series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and Through the Wormhole, television is doing for science what Reading Rainbow did for reading: it’s showing children (and adults) that scientific exploration is not just a white man’s game.
Who are these Black men, you ask? Well, you probably didn’t ask because they’re everywhere. But just in case you don’t own a television, a radio, aren’t on Twitter, have never heard of the Internet and don’t listen to podcasts- the host of Cosmos is satirist Jon Stewart’s favorite astrophysicist- Neil deGrasse Tyson. And the host of Wormhole? Academy-Award winning actor Morgan Freeman. Because the story of the universe should pretty much only be narrated by Morgan Freeman.
If you’ve never seen these shows (they’re on Hulu and Netflix so there’s really no excuse), Cosmos is a revival of the popular 1980s show hosted by Carl Sagan. Now hosted by Tyson, Cosmos explores the workings of the universe and the people who discovered exactly what’s going on in this world of ours. Cosmos is beautifully produced, engaging, and the fact that Tyson is so very in love with science encourages the viewer to fall in love with it too. Nominated for 12 Emmys, Cosmos’ global warming episode tied The Bachelorette in ratings. A show about science tying a reality show? Incredible.
Also Emmy nominated, Through the Wormhole covers everything from whether zombies really exist (spoiler alert: yes), to whether or not time travel is possible (non-spoiler alert: I really, really, really hope so). Freeman is completely engaging in this show, not just because of who he is – Morgan Freeman – but because of what he’s not, a scientist.
Like our children, he’s just a guy who thinks the world is awesome and wants to find out more about it. Now in its fifth season, Through the Wormhole answers the questions we’ve always wondered about and confirms some things we were pretty sure about – see zombie comment above.
It’s an extraordinary thing to have two Black men hosting the two most popular science TV shows of our time, and even more extraordinary that one is a scientist, and the other is one of the most famous actors of the century. Such different men prove that no matter what our children become, or where they come from, nothing is more important than an education.
As Tyson said in Mother Jones earlier this year, “Science is trending in our culture, and if science is trending, that can only be good for the health, the wealth, and the security of our species, of our civilization.” And if a more diverse cast of characters are leading the trend? That can only be good for the hearts and minds of our children.
In hip-hop artist Talib Kweli’s best song (don’t argue, that’s scientific), he says:
“The TV got us reaching for stars
Not the ones between Venus and Mars
The ones that be reading for parts.”
After all of these years, “the TV” is showing us a wide universe of possibility. Are your children watching?
Kat Calvin is a social entrepreneur, writer and advocate for the empowerment of women, entrepreneurs and the black community. She is the founder of Michelle in Training, a mentoring and educational organization. You can follow her at @KatCalvinDC.