Photo by Greg Thrasher
Nikki Giovanni is a space cadet.
I was pleased to find that out when she lectured last week at Wayne State University. (They had to move her lecture to a larger venue after more than 600 fans registered to hear her speak.) Giovanni, an activist, commentator, and forceful member of the late-1960s Black Arts Movement, is now a diminutive, 67-year-old distinguished professor at Virginia Tech. But her quick mind and searing commentary is still out of this world.
“Did you know they just discovered another planet like Earth?” Giovanni asked, referring to Gliese 581g, a planet about 120 trillion miles away that is just the right temperature for liquid water. “I’m a big fan of life in space. It’s just human arrogance to think that we’re the only living things in the universe.”
Giovanni went on to describe one of the highlights of her career: Speaking to NASA. What would possess NASA to invite a black, female poet to come speak to them? “That’s easy,” she said. “It was February.” The audience roared in laughter, understanding that Black History Month is often the time of year that leaders in the black community find themselves in the most unlikely places.
Of her experience speaking at NASA, Giovanni quipped: “Have you ever watched 600 white boys pout?”
We arrived at the Kennedy Space Flight Center where a garden of rockets needled the sky. When they played the national anthem before we entered, the kids yawned bored. I cried embarrassing tears. To me, the exploration of space says everything about human courage and our connection with God.
But until I heard Giovanni speak, I had never connected my yearning for space with my own ancestral journey to America.
“It is my understanding that it would take one year for us to travel to Mars,” said Giovanni. “Assuming that astronauts spend a year exploring before they journeyed back, that would be a three-year journey.”
How well-suited are humans to make such a trip? How would they fare psychologically with the isolation, the physical confinement, the constant pressure of facing the unknown, the knowledge that they may never again see Earth again?
“In order to solve that problem, NASA need only look to the Middle Passage,” said Giovanni. “The answer lies with black people.”
The parallels are indeed astounding. Untold millions were snatched suddenly from their families and communities in Africa, sardined into the belly of a boat, and hijacked to a foreign land. Not only did they not speak the language of their captors, they didn’t even speak the language of their fellow captives. They had no idea where they were going or why, if they’d ever see home again or what would we awaiting them if they survived the voyage.
They were confined in darkness, living in unspeakable filth, shackled to corpses. So many died and were thrown into the sea, that sharks escorted the ships westward.
“How did they maintain their sanity, these great people?” Giovanni asked. To understand how Africans survived the Middle Passage—and the enslavement they suffered after such a harrowing journey—is to understand how to traverse the cosmos while maintaining our humanity.
Just like Nikki Giovanni, I am mesmerized by the idea of space travel. But it wasn’t until I listened to her talk about exploring the universe that I came to understand that the real final frontier lies within.
(P.S. – A moment of shameless self-promotion: Nikki Giovanni was the guest editor who selected my short story, “Night Coming,” to be included in Best African American Fiction 2010. )
Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We're Going to Mars)
By Nikki Giovanni
We're going to Mars for the same reason
Marco Polo rocketed to China
for the same reason Columbus
trimmed his sails on a dream of spices
for the very same reason Shakelford
was enchanted with penguins
for the reason we fall in love
It's the only adventure
We're going to Mars because Peary
couldn't go to the North Pole
without Matthew Henson
because Chicago couldn't be a city
without Jean Baptiste DuSable
because George Washington Carver and his
peanut was the right partner for Booker T.
It's a life seeking thing
We're going to Mars because whatever is
wrong with us will not get right with us
so we journey forth carrying the same baggage
but every now and then leaving
one little bitty thing behind:
maybe drop torturing hunchbacks here;
maybe drop lynching Billy Budd there;
maybe not whipping Uncle Tom to death;
maybe resisting global war.
One day looking for prejudice to slip ... one
day looking for hatred to tumble by the wayside
... one day maybe the whole community
will no longer be vested in who sleeps with
whom ... maybe one day the Jewish community
will be at rest ... the Christian community
will be content ... the Muslim community will
be at peace ... and all the rest of us will get
great meals at holy days and learn new
songs and sing in harmony
We're going to Mars because it gives us a
reason to change
If Mars came here it would be ugly
nations would band together to hunt down
and kill Martians
and being the stupid undeserving life forms
that we are
we would also hunt down and kill what
would be termed Martian Sympathizers
As if the Fugitive Slave Law wasn't bad
As if the so-called War on Terrorism isn't
When do we learn and what does it take to
teach us things cannot be:
What we want
When we want
As we want
Other people have ideas and inputs
And why won't they leave Rap Brown alone
The future is ours to take
We going to Mars because we have the
hardware to do it ...
we have rockets and fuel and money and
stuff and the only reason NASA is holding
back is they don't know If what they send
out will be what they get back
So let me slow this down:
Mars is 1 year of travel to get there ...
plus 1 year of living on Mars ...
plus 1 year to return to Earth ...
= 3 years of Earthlings being in a tight
space going to an unknown place with an
unsure welcome awaiting them ...
tired muscles ... unknown and unusual
foods ... harsh conditions ... and no known
landmarks to keep them human ...
only a hope and a prayer that they will be
shadowed beneath a benign hand and there is
no historical precedence for that except this:
The trip to Mars can only be understood
through Black Americans
I say, the trip to Mars can only be understood
through Black Americans
The people who were captured and
enslaved immediately recognized the men
who chained and whipped them and herded
them into ships so tightly packed there was
no room to turn ... no privacy to respect ... no
tears to fall without landing on
another ... were not kind and gentle and concerned
for the state of their souls ... no ... the
men with whips and chains were understood
to be killers ... feared to be cannibals
... known to be sexual predators ... The
captured knew they were in trouble ... in an
unknown place ... without communicable
abilities with a violent and capricious
species ... But they could look out and still
see signs of Home they could still smell the
sweetness in the air
they could see the clouds floating above the
land they loved
But there reached a point where the captured
could not only not look back
they had no idea which way "back" might be
there was nothing in the middle of the deep
blue water to indicate which way home
might be and it was that moment ... when the
decision had to be made:
Do they continue forward with a resolve to
see this thing through or do they embrace
the waters and find another world
In the belly of the ship a moan was
heard ... and someone picked up the
moan ... and a song was raised ... and that
song would offer comfort ... and hope ... and
tell the story ...
When we go to Mars ... it's the same
thing ... it's Middle Passage
When the rocket red glares the astronauts
will be able to see themselves pull away
from Earth ... as the ship goes deeper they
will see a sparkle of blue ... and then one day
not only will they not see Earth ... they won't
know which way to look ... and that is why
NASA needs to call Black America
They need to ask us: How did you calm your
fears ... How were you able to decide you
were human even when everything said you
were not ... How did you find the comfort in
the face of the improbable to make the
world you came to your world ... How was
your soul able to look back and wonder
And we will tell them what to do:
To successfully go to Mars and back you will
need a song ... take some Billie Holiday for
the sad days and some Charlie Parker for
the happy ones but always keep at least one
good spiritual for comfort ... You will need a
slice or two of meatloaf and if you can man
age it some fried chicken in a shoebox with
a nice moist lemon pound cake ... a bottle of
beer because no one should go that far
without a beer and maybe a six-pack so that
if there is life on Mars you can share ...
Popcorn for the celebration when you land
while you wait on your land legs to kick in ...
and as you climb down the ladder from your
spaceship to the Martian surface ... look to
your left ... and there you'll see a smiling
community quilting a black-eyed pea ...
watching you descend