Saturday, December 01, 2007

Whitey on the Moon

John Derbyshire gathers rosebuds while he may:

Political Correctness came too late for the naming of lunar features, though no doubt there is a campaign about this operating somewhere. (I mean, we could always re-name them.) Most craters are named after DWMs. There's a scattering of Arabs and Chinese, but very few Hispanics — no Garcia, no Rodriguez. Someone alert La Raza.
Or as Gil Scott-Heron put it:
A rat done bit my sister Nell with Whitey on the moon.
Her face and arms began to swell but Whitey's on the moon.
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.
In an essay entitled "Outer Space and Inner Cities," Lynn Spiegel presents the American space program as an extension of segregationist practices on earth to "the imaginary geography of the universe at large." In making her case, she mentions the 1896 minstrel song "I Got a Message From Mars," in which a black congregation emigrates to the moon after being promised a better life, only to find that it's essentially a slave plantation.

Spiegel misunderstands this song (which she says is symptomatic of "a degraded popular culture"), possibly because she doesn't realize that its author, Gussie Davis, was a black man who was forced to become a janitor after being barred from entering college. To me, the song's at least as pointed as Scott-Heron's.

But on the whole, her research into the ambivalent response of African Americans to the US space program - the heyday of which was more or less contemporaneous with that of the civil rights movement - is invaluable, as is her point that travel per se had very different cultural connotations, and likely outcomes, for whites than for minorities.

More to the point, her claim that "in order to maintain and reproduce its power, a group must...occupy imaginary space" is borne out nicely by the manifest pleasure Derbyshire takes in pointing out that the lunar landscape bears the names of "DWMs" almost exclusively, and by his anxiety that we might someday change this in the name of "political correctness," leaving him to mourn over the fallen white stronghold of the moon as mawkishly he now does over the vanished splendor of the Raj.

(Illustration: Sheet music for "If the Man in the Moon Were a Coon," circa 1905.)

1 comment:

roger said...

i lived for several years on darkey creek in siskyou county california. there were also local place names reflecting the presence of chinese laborers when the area was a hotbed of gold mining. and maybe a creek named for my dwm great grandfather.

derbyshire sounds like the name of a county in england.