Gil Scott-Heron, the man Public Enemy’s Chuck D called “the manifestation of the modern world,” may be the last poet whose words truly resonate in America. They resonate in a literal sense, trembling out of subwoofers as they do in the final minutes of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, echoing through the defiant hallows of hip-hop which was his brainchild, expanding unflinchingly in darkness as they surround and make naked what is empty. A man who created an artistic movement with his clarity of vision, it makes sense that his life was so brutally exposed to civilization’s extremes. He spent years in prison for drug possession, perhaps a lifelong victim of the FBI’s operation to turn Black Panthers into addicts, and was once arrested for leaving a drug rehabilitation center that blocked him from HIV medication. He died at 62 in 2011, spared from homelessness by the spectacular album I’m New Here he had released the year before.
His most riveting work remains his first recording, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, a collection of his poems accompanied by a percussion trio performed for a studio audience. Released in 1970, the album is usually considered the genesis of rap, but as an artistic and political statement it more than stands for itself. Though many of its songs stand out as chilling reminders that what seem pressing crises in 2017 are for the oppressed long-running clichés, this week’s political events inspired me to listen once again to one of the shorter poems, called “Whitey on the Moon.” It opens
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)
On March 21, our President, a man who proved his scientific acumen on the campaign trail with such sensitive quips as “Nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me,” signed a bill granting NASA $19.5 billion for 2017 and requesting investment in a manned mission to Mars. In the midst of widespread outrage over the administration’s obscene budget proposal, this action gave pause to liberals who both adore techno-utopian advancements and loath association with anything Trump. Tech tycoons who have been meeting privately with the President many of them vocally criticized during the campaign have been fast to distance themselves from the bill. SpaceX’s Elon Musk leapt to deny Recode co-founder Kara Swisher’s accusation that the bill left him “smiling,” complaining that his company’s multi-billion dollar contract is not directly expanded by the new legislation. The New York Times, after spending months implying that Trump is a threat to space exploration, made no note of the increase in funding beyond a buried AP brief that focused more on the President’s characteristically uncouth remarks signing it. But regardless of the reaction, the reality is that commitment to a Mars mission is the largest presidential affirmation of the space program since Reagan, and it’s something liberals and industry leaders have wanted for years.
A question of $19.5 billion is practically a triviality on the scale of the national budget. It should not distract, for example, from the $54 billion President Trump is likely to add in annual military spending, which already total $596 billion, or the $600 billion tax cut for the rich he hopes to sneak into healthcare legislation. But in the country that billionaires like Trump and Musk try to forget, $19.5 billion is substantial. It would be more than enough to house every homeless American, for example, with enough left over to feed every Syrian refugee from the US-fueled civil war for more than a year.
Why would the government choose to spend so much money on a space program? Does President Trump, who once gleefully tweeted “We need global warming!” during a snow storm, place that much value on the potential scientific discoveries of astronauts on Mars? Does he accept the standard argument, an argument liberals make when discussing the internet and avoid when discussing inter-continental nuclear missiles, that the technological advancements of the space program will benefit the entire economy and culture? Or does he hope to play Kennedy in a recreation the Apollo moon missions, perhaps the most obvious answer to the unfortunate question his electorate faces: when was America great?
The 1969 moon landing inspired Mr. Scott-Heron to write “Whitey on the Moon” (“Let’s give credit where credit is due,” he chuckles on the recording). Few events better encapsulate the collapse of the revolutionary 60s and the surge of state power than that ultimate distraction. While the middle class was literally looking 240,000 miles in the other direction, black Americans were facing an unprecedented economic assault by the Republican Party, leftist movements that had gained power for a decade were being infiltrated by the FBI, wages were falling, and the Nixon-Kissinger political machine was rapidly accelerating the horrors of the American invasion of Southeast Asia. It was not without irony that Neil Armstrong told our lifeless satellite, “We came in peace for all mankind.” Just two days before he left the planet, reporter Seymour Hersh revealed that US troops had brutally slaughtered 400 civilians in the Vietnamese hamlet My Lai the previous year.
It is this well-documented contradiction that Scott-Heron seeks to illuminate. His verses scathingly but conversationally describe daily life in ghettoized America, where despite the widely publicized Civil Rights Movement of the past decade, black people still lived under threat of rat bites, power outages, and rent hikes, the slow terrorism of poverty. Between every line, he chants his reminder of the nation’s opposite extreme, whitey on the moon, until the two Americas, by the power of driving African rhythms, become inextricable. A self described “bluesologist,” the poet borrowed this technique of repetition from chain gangs in the American south, whose ancestors carried the tradition of call-and-response storytelling from pre-conquest Central Africa. In Scott-Heron’s voice, the art form’s thunderous power to tell truths is realized with unparalleled nuance. In his last stanza, he posits
Was all that money I made last year
(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain’t no money here?
(Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon)
At first glance, the space program seems to be nothing more than an especially expensive program of propaganda, a way to manufacture nationalist pride at the expense of more useful services such as healthcare, welfare, infrastructure modernization, or education. And it certainly is that. But as Gil Scott-Heron and other radicals of the era such as the artist Faith Ringgold understood, there are much more disturbing implications to America’s conquest of the Final Frontier.
The mythology of the United States relies axiomatically on the assumption that exploration is synonymous with conquest. The world watched as astronauts, vacuum sealed in their silver suits to protect them from what had always been, planted a box-framed flag on the moon. What could they evoke but Columbus, paying tribute to his God before unleashing mass rape, mutilation, and smallpox on the newly enslaved Taínos? The survivors’ descendants, watching the moon landings from American-occupied Puerto Rico, must have noted the similarities. Since July 20, 1969, victims of American imperialism from Vietnam to Yemen have faced not only the violence and degradation of empire, but an irreversible existential humiliation. The body that pulls their tides and brings light to darkness, a body with spiritual significance in every culture, has been reduced to a rock claimed by their oppressors.
The moon landings may have been less directly profitable than American conquest of the Philippines or Iraq, but the space program is no less imperialist in its vision. It can never be truly separated from the lebensraum ideology of the 1,600 Nazi scientists secretly drafted by US intelligence after World War II. The rocket that carried the first men to the moon was built by Wernher von Braun, whose missiles once rained across Europe to build a homeland for a master race. Does the United States, a country half stolen from Mexico, half stolen from the labor of African slaves, and all stolen from our continent’s previous inhabitants, brown-skinned all, follow a different path? To colonizers, any frontier, even the miracle of the cosmos, is fair game for exploitation, and to imagine that the exploitation of space will be more egalitarian than the exploitation of the Earth is pure naiveté.
And while the lunar climate is too uncomfortable to make “Whitey on the Moon” a reality, “Whitey on Mars” is more feasible. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has had a plan to colonize the red planet since the 1980s. Scientifically, the plan is straightforward, straightforward enough for a child or a President who watches Fox News to understand. Astronauts would raise the Martian temperature by releasing particles into the planet’s atmosphere, melting ice caps which have held water for eons in the model of the current environmental crisis on our own planet. They would then use bioengineered algae (which they are already developing) to feast on the carbon-rich atmosphere and produce oxygen, terraforming a new world and making it inhabitable by humans. This project was first explained to me in a class by a lovely former DARPA researcher, who would anxiously reply to any questions of “why?” with “What if the Chinese get there first?”
What does it mean if Donald Trump wishes to prioritize a manned mission to Mars? It means despite his tweeted skepticism, despite the desperate claims of the Exxon picks in his cabinet, he and his corporate base understand the impending ecological collapse they have been fomenting for decades. They understand that soon rising sea levels will trigger a refugee crisis unprecedented in human history, that agriculture will become effectively impossible as weather patterns of millennia become unrecognizable, that any ancient rules of power and engagement will be cast aside as clean water becomes more precious than gold, that eventually the warming oceans will cut off our supply of breathable air. It means the future decades of neoliberal inaction should have predicted is now manifest reality. The state has no interest in the ongoing survival of the planet, because the ruling class can envision a future without it.
Needless to say, the escape to Mars will be expensive and therefore exclusive. It is safe to assume the vast majority of the world’s rapidly expanding population is not included in any imperial plan for self-preservation. The colonized people of the planet are well aware of how little value their lives hold in the global economic order. There is little question of who would be left to fight for their lives on a ruined Earth. These are the stakes.
Gil Scott-Heron, who bore the cruelest effects of colonization on his person as do billions every day, could easily have died of AIDS, homeless on the streets of the wealthiest city in the world. Such a fate, so absurdly preventable and anonymous it seems impossible, is not altogether unlike that of a multitude left to die beneath a poisoned sky. But at his funeral, the most successful black rapper of all time, Kanye West, delivered another poem from Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, “Comment #1.” In the original recording, the poet’s voice expands with power where another artist’s would crack in desperation, as he demands to know, again and again, “Who will survive in America?” It is this question we must ask ourselves as we ponder the question of revolution. Will it be the owners, ferried away at the last minute to the sanctity of a manufactured biome? Or will it be the people, long ago presumed conquests and commodities under capitalism, who for a precious and fleeting window of the future still wield the profound power to reject their dying civilization and create a new one?