Money will take you to the stars but won’t be used to feed the hungry
By Matthew Fraser, Opinions Editor
Hell, I don’t need to crane my neck and look as far as the moon, sometimes Whitey goes as close as Cancun.
I should probably first say that I’m not the biggest fan of identity politics. All too often it serves as a distractor from the issues that we should be united on; other times, identity politics can be used to shield bad faith actors from legitimate and well-deserved criticism. It is overwhelmingly in the best interest of progress that we make good arguments that address the problems specific to an identity without crushing those whose identities are not part of the injured class. Simultaneously, there are times when identity politics really do get to the nexus of the issue and must be used to address the problem. In 1970 when Gil Scott-Heron wrote “Whitey on the Moon,” identity was at the very center of the story he told. If you haven’t heard the poem yet I suggest you take a moment to hear it now.
Heron wrote then about a black problem that was largely forgotten and unmentioned in the fervor of the space race. He narrates the bewilderment of those left to fend off rats and suffer without healthcare while the government builds rockets using their tax dollars. Speaking to the frustrations of the poor masses in the forgotten ghettos, Heron synthesized the quiet rage of poverty with the humorous refrain of “Whiteys on the Moon,” hammering home the absurdity of sending a few men to space while millions more starve.
Let me break here from what I believe to be the intention of Gil Scott-Heron in naming “Whitey” as solely the white man. In his time that was largely true, but I would argue that the “Whitey” he spoke of is now a political and economic class more so than a group determined by complexion. The “Whitey” of today is separated by a wealth chasm so large that they may as well be as far away as the moon.
Here, in our time, these absurdities are unchanged. At first my mind was blown when I heard that the production cost of Interstellar was more than the budget of India’s entire space mission Chandrayaan 2—and then I remembered that India is still one of the world’s poorest countries (Global Finance ranks it 124 out of 191).
Just the other day when I saw that a space hotel might be launched in 2027, I remembered Heron saying: “A rat done bit my sister Nell with Whitey on the Moon.” Exactly 51 years have gone by since Heron’s words were first spoke, but millions of Americans lost their healthcare at the start of this pandemic and Whitey will soon be packing for the moon. More people in BC died from an overdose than COVID (Gil Scott-Heron said then “The Junkies make me a nervous wreck”) and over 35 First Nations communities lack running water, but a mighty strong telescope can show it all to the modern Whiteys as they float up high.
Then again, when Texas froze and a few folks died of hypothermia, Tim Boyd, a representative of that political class told them to “Quit crying and looking for a handout! Get off your ass and take care of your own family!” Gil Scott- Heron wrote: “I can’t pay no doctor bills, but Whiteys on the moon. In ten years I’ll be paying still, while Whiteys on the moon.” Now a man gets a $16,000 electric bill and William W. Hogan says “the system is working as designed.” Hell, I don’t need to crane my neck and look as far as the moon, sometimes Whitey goes as close as Cancun.
Though I’m all for advancements in technology and I’m fully aware that the private space hotels are an important leap in exploration, we may as well be on the right side of Mother Earth before we vacation elsewhere. I hold no illusions as to Elon Musk dropping SpaceX and cleaning up Appalachia and the inner cities (let alone the ghettos of his birthland, South Africa), but I wish the government would at least try.
Generations have come and gone, technology has made leaps and bounds, some melanated people have been welcomed into the Whitey class since Heron wrote this poem. It’s a different world with the same problems, but it sounds about right to say: “I’ve just about had my fill of Whitey on the moon. I think I’ll send these doctor bills, airmail special, to Whitey on the moon.”