Space Ain't the Place: Gil Scott-Heron's "Whitey on the Moon"

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Slate's Culture Blog
July 20 2009 11:45 AM

Space Ain't the Place: Gil Scott-Heron's "Whitey on the Moon"

It's worth remembering, on this 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's moon walk, that not all Americans viewed the event as an inspiring "giant leap" forward in human exploration. A rather dimmer view of the lunar landing is expressed in Gil Scott-Heron's classic 1970 protest song "Whitey on the Moon." A short, sharp poem drawled by Scott-Heron over percolating conga, "Whitey on the Moon" is an example of the black-nationalist-infused proto-rap pioneered by (among others) Scott-Heron, The Last Poets , and The Watts Prophets . Scott-Heron was by far best writer of the lot, and "Whitey on the Moon"—which contrasts the squalor of the inner city with the government largesse that put Apollo 11 in space—is one of the one of the finest, funniest protests ever recorded, an indictment of American racism as mordantly witty as any Lorenz Hart lyric:

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's bill
But Whitey's on the moon
Ten years now I'll be paying still
While Whitey's on the moon

Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.

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