"Whitey on the Moon" is a spoken word poem by Gil Scott-Heron, released as the ninth track on his debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox in 1970. Accompanied by conga drums, Scott-Heron's narrative tells of medical debt, high taxes, and urban decay experienced at the time of the Apollo Moon landings, critiquing the resources spent on the space program instead of economic aid for Black Americans. "Whitey on the Moon" was prominently featured in the 2018 film First Man and the second episode of HBO's television series Lovecraft Country. "Whitey on the Moon" received renewed interest in 2021 following spaceflights by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, which were seen as emblematic of the inequities highlighted by the poem.
Background, recording, and content
Gil Scott-Heron was a poet, jazz musician, scholar, and novelist of Jamaican and African-American descent. His 1970 debut album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, contained spoken-word pieces that showcased his many literary and musical influences, including Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, and the Last Poets. Scott-Heron stated that he was inspired to write "Whitey on the Moon" by a statement from writer and Black Panther Party activist Eldridge Cleaver, who argued that the United States space program was intended to distract the nation from problems within and suppress discontent. Scott-Heron wrote the poem in the summer of 1969. His mother, Bobbie Scott, suggested the refrain and the closing line.
"Whitey on the Moon" was released as the ninth track on Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, which was recorded in the summer of 1970. Scott-Heron speaks the poem alongside a conga drum accompaniment, as and used by contemporaneous artists such as poets of the Beat Generation and the Last Poets. The track is just under two minutes long. Although the album has been frequently described as being recorded live in a nightclub in New York City located at the street corner for which the album is named, it was in fact recorded in a studio belonging to Atlantic Records, with a small audience present to simulate a live crowd.
"Whitey on the Moon" narrates the story of Scott-Heron's "sister Nell," who is bitten by a rat while Neil Armstrong lands on the Moon. She incurs medical debt for her treatment, and a rising cost of living and tax burden attributed to the Moon landings. It ends with the sarcastic promise that when the next bills arrive, Scott-Heron would send them by "air mail special, to Whitey on the Moon". Due to an error by the musicians, the punchline is barely audible over the drums. The first lines of the poem run as follows:
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)
Analysis and reception
"Whitey on the Moon" became popular among African-Americans in inner city neighborhoods in New York City, Detroit, and Los Angeles. Although Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, retrospectively described by AllMusic as a "volcanic upheaval of intellectualism and social critique", did not receive much mainstream recognition, it received considerable attention in Black and progressive circles across the US. Its criticism of the Space Race was broadly similar to that featured by the Black-owned print media, but drew far greater attention among that community. It featured thematic commonalities with Marvin Gaye's 1971 song "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" and Faith Ringgold's 1969 painting entitled "Flag for the Moon: Die N****r". The poem's popularity was described as evidence of growing awareness of the impact of urban decay in the United States. While Small Talk at 125th and Lenox did not chart, it earned enough attention for Flying Dutchman Records to authorize a second Scott-Heron album, Pieces of a Man.
"Whitey on the Moon" is described as exemplifying Afrofuturism, or "Black social thought concerning 'culture, technology, and things to come'." The poem critiques the US space program by connecting its use of government funds to the marginalization of Black Americans, identifying government neglect as the root cause of poverty and questioning the benefits and beneficiaries of the space program. The connection that Scott-Heron implies between capitalism and poverty, environmental destruction, and militarism, is a theme found in many of his other works. During the 1970s, many Americans felt that the government was spending too much on the space program, including President Richard Nixon; this criticism has been described as reaching its epitome in "Whitey on the Moon."
Scott-Heron's handling of the poem's subject matter with black comedy has been praised by commentators. Writing for The Atlantic after Scott-Heron's death in 2011, Alexis Madrigal stated that "Whitey on the Moon" had taken spaceflight out of the "abstract, universal realm in which we like to place our technical achievements". Madrigal added that the poem raised questions about "which America" got the "glory of the moon landing", and of what the costs of putting "whitey on the moon" were. A 2014 biography of Scott-Heron described "Whitey on the Moon" as a "gem of a prose poem" that was well-received critically, and "devastating in its harsh counterpoint" to adulatory mainstream media coverage of the Apollo program. Writing in 2021, MSNBC columnist Talia Lavin stated that the poem "memorialized, in sardonic fashion, the saccharine patriotism that had arisen around Apollo 11"; In the same year, Tom Taylor remarked in Far Out that "rarely has a point been made so forcefully while artfully avoiding the full brutal bludgeon of the nose" as in "Whitey on the Moon".
The 2018 film First Man, a biographical film about Neil Armstrong, prominently features "Whitey on the Moon". Director Damien Chazelle and writer Josh Singer sought to portray the "passionate feelings" of those opposed to the cost of the Apollo program: Singer stated he was interested in "pulling the veneer off" of what had been a "pretty sugarcoated story". In the film, the poem is read over footage of the Apollo 1 disaster and protests against the space program, with Leon Bridges portraying Scott-Heron. The recording featured in the film was included on the its accompanying soundtrack album. The poem is also used prominently in the second episode of HBO's 2020 television series Lovecraft Country, entitled "Whitey's on the Moon".
"Whitey on the Moon" received renewed attention in 2021 following spaceflights by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson in July of that year, along with Scott-Heron's posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Commentators wrote that the piece was particularly topical at the time, given the billions of dollars spent on the spaceflights in a time of social and economic inequality. In The Conversation, A. D. Carson opined that the titular "whitey" of the poem could represent Bezos or Branson, as the poem highlighted the economic inequalities upon which their wealth was built and which enabled costly space tourism. An opinion piece in Vice magazine by Edward Ongweso Jr. stated that the question of "precisely who is going to space, why, and at what cost?" running through the poem remained relevant. Lavin argued that the racial inequalities that the poem highlighted still existed in 2021 and had been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
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