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