In 1970, Gil Scott-Heron released his debut album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, and loaded his collection of spoken word with critiques of the U.S. government’s role in the creation of racial inequality. Perhaps most famously, the album kicks off with his career-defining track “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a biting fusion of pop culture criticism and radical politics that prophesied an end to white supremacy.
But Scott-Heron placed what is arguably his most pointed piece of political scrutiny inconspicuously as the second cut on side two.
“We have a poem here,” a twenty-year-old Scott-Heron began in a soft voice that undersold the incendiary political commentary he was about to provide. “It’s called ‘Whitey on the Moon.’ And, uh, it was inspired, it was inspired by some whiteys on the moon. So I want to give credit where credit is due.”
Gil Scott-Heron, “Whitey on the Moon,” Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, Flying Dutchman Records, Stereo FDS-131, 1970, 33 1/3 rpm.
The poet used the 90 seconds that followed to eviscerate the nation’s economic priorities, contrasting the spending required to land a man on the moon to the environmental degradation experienced in urban African American communities. Many Americans had rejoiced in the wake of the Apollo 11 mission as a triumph of American ingenuity among the social and political revolutions of the 1960s. But in “Whitey on the Moon,” Scott-Heron rendered the nation’s accounts and found the efforts to help its most marginalized citizens to be insufficient, especially in comparison to the billions of dollars and thousands of work hours required for the Apollo mission.
A conga beat played by percussionists Eddie Knowles and Charlie Saunders announced the beginning of the piece, as Scott-Heron launched into his verbal attack that juxtaposed first-person descriptions of economic and environmental despair in African-American communities with variations on the refrain “Whitey on the moon.” The opening verse threw this economic disparity into sharp relief.
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)
As shocking as this verse may seem (and Scott-Heron intended to shock), rat infestations and bites plagued the poorest sections of urban America in the 1960s, including New York City, where Scott-Heron moved in 1962 after spending his childhood in Jackson, Tennessee.1 The title of his record, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, placed him at the heart of Harlem, the city’s most famous black community. Having served as a destination for successive waves of black southerners fleeing the South, as well as Caribbean immigrants, Harlem featured a cross-section of black culture and politics in the 1960s, from rising politicians like Charles Rangel to the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan to cutting-edge musicians like the Last Poets.2
Yet this center for black life also harbored scenes of desperation due to generations of predatory landlords and negligent public services. The poorest of Harlem’s residents found themselves trapped in public housing and low-rent tenements with few options for escape. Black community leaders like Jesse Gray organized Harlem’s impoverished tenants in rent strikes and rallies for sanitation and building code enforcements against the exploitative practices of absentee slumlords as early as 1959. Rat abatement remained a central concern for these tenant movements.3 According to a report in the New York Amsterdam News from May 1960, the New York City Health Department found that over “800 landlords in the Harlem and East Harlem areas were found to be guilty of harboring rat infestation” in a total of 8,600 buildings.4
To make matters worse, a combination of corrupt garbage collection services tied to organized crime and strikes by city sanitation workers led to piles of garbage on Harlem’s sidewalks, alleys, and backyards. This garbage acted as feeding and breeding sites for the city’s vermin population.5 Despite the work of tenants’ rights groups and activists, rat infestations continued. By 1969, NYC logged over 400 reported rat bites, leading to the Health Department’s Bureau of Pest Control to embark on a “Starve a Rat Today” public relations campaign in 1970 to raise awareness about the correlation between proper waste disposal and vermin abatement. With a yearly budget of $4.5 million dollars and a staff of 420 workers for the entire city, the bureau could only accomplish so much, and the majority black residents of Harlem stood little chance of receiving the needed attention for the neighborhood’s sanitation problems.6 Adding insult to these toxic living conditions, rent continued to rise for even substandard housing, as Scott-Heron complained in the second verse.
The man just upped my rent last night.
(because Whitey’s on the moon)
No hot water, no toilets, no lights.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
I wonder why he’s upping me?
(because Whitey’s on the moon?)
I was already giving him fifty a week.
(with Whitey on the moon)
While NYC sanitation infrastructure failed to maintain living conditions and tenants struggled to pay $50 a week, NASA spent $20 billion on Project Apollo alone in an unprecedented and myopic spending frenzy to place a man on the moon. And the government’s prodigious spending reached far beyond the construction of spacecraft. NASA sponsored the Sustaining University Program that funneled $100 million into graduate training for over 5,000 science and engineering students and poured $32 million into university laboratory construction. Meanwhile, private companies like Boeing, IBM, and Douglas Aircraft Corporation reaped huge financial benefits as three of the largest among the 500 private contractors hired to construct parts for the Apollo missions.7
When Scott-Heron disparaged “whitey” for taking a trip to the moon, he did not mean to single out Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin. Instead, he directed his criticism to the economic boost delivered to white America through government funding of the space program. These expenditures paid for educations given to predominantly white engineers who bought homes in predominantly white suburbs.
In this regard, the environmental commentary offered in “Whitey on the Moon” has as much to say about manicured suburban lawns as the urban pollution that marred Harlem’s cityscape.
Scott-Heron’s simple arithmetic reminds us that the funds not spent on improving the lives of America’s black urban citizens went somewhere. They went to the engineers and contractors tasked with beating the Soviet Union to the moon.
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the United States flag in the lunar dust on July 20, 1969, 24 million Americans lived below the poverty line.8 Granted, this statistic represented a new low compared to the previous decade’s numbers. Through a combination of employment and social welfare programs initiated by the Johnson administration, the nation’s impoverished populations had experienced a general improvement in living conditions.9 Regardless of these advances, the country’s most vulnerable citizens continued to suffer.
As recent books, films and Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremonies remind us, black and white women like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Margaret H. Hamilton can claim much of the honor for the singular achievement of placing men on the moon. But these tales of individual accomplishment should not divert attention from the structural racism and inequality that “Whitey on the Moon” illuminates. While the urban environments of black America struggled through the 1960s and 1970s, other communities prospered. Scott-Heron helped connect those stories with precision, humor, and an enduring eloquence that calls the bluff of a nation’s skewed economic priorities.
Joseph M. Thompson is a doctoral candidate in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. His dissertation, “Sounding Southern: Music, Militarism, and the Making of the Sunbelt,” uses popular music to examine the cultural impact of the military-industrial complex on the shifting meanings of race, region, and citizenship since the 1950s.
Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Holiday: A Memoir (New York: Grove Press, 2012), 58-60; Marcus Baram, Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014), 26. ↩
Kendra T. Field, “ ‘No Such Thing as Stand Still’: Migration and Geopolitics in African-American History,” Journal of American History 102, no. 3 (December 2015): 693-718; Lara Putnam, Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Garrett Felber, “ ‘Harlem is the Black World’: The Organization of Afro-American Unity at the Grassroots,” The Journal of African American History, 100, no. 2 (Spring 2015); 199-225; “Rally ‘Round to Rid Harlem of Rats, Slumlords,” New York Amsterdam News, August 22, 1970, 1; Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan, On a Mission: Selected Poems and a History of the Last Poets, with Kim Green, foreword by Amiri Baraka (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996). ↩
Thomas J. Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (New York: Random House, 2008), 404-405. ↩
“Rat Infestation Drive Lands 800 Landlords,” New York Amsterdam News, May 28, 1960, 7. ↩
Dick Edwards, “Rats ‘n’ Trash – Both Thrive in Harlem,” New York Amsterdam News, March 29, 1969, 3. ↩
“‘Starve A Rat Today’ Aim of Current Drive,” New York Amsterdam News, July 11, 1970, 4. ↩
Roger Lanius, NASA: A History of the U.S. Civil Space Program (Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Co., 1994), 68-69, 73. ↩
U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, Series P-60, No. 76, “24 MILLION AMERICANS–Poverty in the United States: 1969,” (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970). ↩
Julian E. Zelizer, The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society (New York: Penguin Press, 2015); Sidney Milkis, “The Modern Presidency, Social Movements, and the Administrative State: Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Movement,” in Race and American Political Development, eds. Joseph Lowndes, Julie Novkov, and Dorian T. Warren (New York: Routledge, 2008); Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty. ↩
Joseph M. Thompson, "Whitey on the Moon," Enviro-History.com, March 16, 2018, http://Enviro-History.com/whitey-on-the-moon.html.