Gil Scott-Heron, whom some considered the greatest living blues singer, is no longer living, having died at the age of 62. He is said to have influenced later hip hop and rap artists with his work dating from the 1960s.
While one does not want to feel other than sad about the death of another human being, especially an artist, one must not also forget that Scott-Heron committed a musical atrocity by creating a song called “Whitey on the Moon” which sought to trash and denigrate the greatest scientific and engineering achievement in history, using the crudest of race based political agitprop. “Whitey on the Moon” could even be said to be racist in that it plays the race card against the very idea of space exploration.
Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic Monthly discusses the song and how he thinks it changed his perception of the Apollo Moon landings. One suspects that is white, liberal guilt speaking. Even the first few verses of “Whitey on the Moon” should cause anyone with any sensibility to recoil:
“A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arms began to swell.
(and Whitey’s on the moon)
I can’t pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be paying still.
(while Whitey’s on the moon)
The man just upped my rent last night.
(’cause Whitey’s on the moon)”
Scott-Heron was not the first to try to blame the poverty and misery experienced by many blacks in the late 1960s on the moon landing. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, at the time considered the heir to the recently martyred Martin Luther King, led a protest march against the launch of Apollo 11. While Abernathy and his protestors were greeted with courtesy and respect by NASA officials, they repeated the line that the money spent on space exploration ought better to have been spent on social programs.
It was a foul calumny. In 1969, spending on Great Society poverty programs dwarfed spending on NASA. The Great Society, which included Medicare, Medicaid, the War on Poverty, and a number of other programs, formed the basis of the modern welfare state that has stifled rather than advanced the economic and social progress of the poor. The economist Charles Murray documented the failure of social programs between 1968 and 1980 in his classic study “Losing Ground.”
NASA bears some of the responsibility for some of the antipathy blacks felt toward the Apollo program. There were no black astronauts during the 1960s. This was not ought of overt racism. The pool of military test pilots that formed the group astronauts were selected from were almost all white.
“Almost” though was the key. For a brief time the Air Force had its own astronaut program. One of the military astronauts was an African American Air Force Major named Robert Lawrence. Major Lawrence was killed in an airplane crash while helping to test gliding techniques that would later be used on the space shuttle.
Had Major Lawrence lived, he would almost certainly have transitioned to the NASA astronaut corps with the rest of the Air Force astronauts. Would he have been selected to walk on the Moon? It is very conceivable and, had it happened, the wind would have been taken out of Scott-Heron’s hate filled song and Reverend Abernathy’s demand for government largess.
Sources: Gil Scott-Heron’s Poem, ‘Whitey on the Moon’, Alexis Madrigal, Atlantic Monthly, May 28, 2011
Apollo 11 blasts off for historic voyage, Al Rossiter Jr. UPI, July 17, 1969
Losing Ground: American Social Policy: 1950-1980, 1984, Basic Books
Major Robert H. Lawrence, America’s First African American Astronaut, Real African American History