Black Men on Mars!

Ezekiel saw that wheel

Way up in the middle of the air

Now Ezekiel saw that wheel

Hurling way in the middle of the air

— traditional spiritual

On the day that Ray Bradbury died, June 5,  I had assigned his story about Blacks landing on Mars to my class.  I had waited years to teach “Way Up In the Middle of the Air,” part of the The Martian Chronicles (1950), since I read it back in the 60s.

It is a hilariously funny short story  yet poignant depiction of racial prejudice. Set in the segregated South of 30,  Blacks leaving American on a space ship that they had apparently designed, built, and launched. This story is a slice of the main theme of the Martian Chronicles a book that replays issues of colonialism and race relations through the human invasion of and eventual settlement on Mars.

The satire is focalized through the eyes of  Samuel T. Teece,   a white southerner, who cannot believe that Blacks had the scientific ability to sent a rocket to Mars.

“Did you hear about it?”

“About what?”

“The niggers, the niggers!!”

“What about ’em?”

“Them leaving, pulling you, going away…”

“Just a couple?”


“Where they going- Africa?”


“Yo mean the planet Mars?”

“I can’t believe it! Why are they doing this to us? How did they lean how they learn how to do that!”

Last week, when the Curiosity landed, I thought of the Bradbury story again.  Yet the media was so enthralled by a white man wearing a mohawk that they completely ignored an ever more impressive fact: the leader of the expedition, Charles Bolden, was a Black man.

As equally impressive, if not more so, is the fact that another black man, President Obama, appointed him. When Obama appointed Bolden to be the first black man to lead NASA, he did it in his usual quiet, cool style.

Despite the haters, Bolden was clearly the best man for the job. When the Curiosity landed on Mars, he called him up and gave him a verbal high-five. “I just wanna say, that was quite something.”

I give my students the Bradbury story to read, explaining that there few examples of science fiction with blacks in them. In science fiction, which is about the future, there are no black people. One of the few writers to ever imagine blacks in the future, Bradbury actually imagines them creating the future. He also reveals, ipso facto, that there is as much white racism against that idea today, in 2012, as there was in 1950 when he published the story in a pulp magazine, The Other.

Science fiction is—and Bradbury had this right too–just another way to look at the present. He said so himself. “Science fiction pretends to look into the future,” he told the editor of Paris Review, “but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us.”

What’s in front of us is Whites refusals to accept Black’s leadership in science.

“Science is always white,” Professor John Winslesky, author of “Science and Race,” told me in his office at Stanford University,  “Blacks are not capable of science, and therefore there is a reluctance to believe they can do science.”

To celebrate the Mars Landing, NASA officials invited Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, on the original Star Trek  to celebrate the event the event with young African American girls.  This was an effort to bridge the gap between Blacks and science, to encourage young African American women to study science.

Yet little was made of the fact that it was a Black president who appointed another black man to run NASA.

When Obama appointed Charles Bolden, to lead the NASA, the reaction from some white scientists was as racist as Mr. Teese, the fictional character drawn by Bradbury fifty years ago. Blogger Dave Blount groaned: for him,  Obama’s appointment had reduced the NASA–“one of the very few government agencies that have inspired pride in the American people–to a “pathetic farce devoted to advancing liberal ideology.”

Dave Blount printed a letter from “fifty top astronauts, scientists and engineers at NASA” signed calling Bolden a “perversion-promoting Affirmative Action clown appointed to head the agency [NASA].

The letter was addressed to “Dear Charlie.”

“Dear Charlie: We, the undersigned, respectfully request that NASA and he Goodard Institute of Space Studies refrain from including unproven remarks in public releases and websites.”  What do the “unproven remarks” refer to? The undersigned was against “Global warming and catastrophic forecasts.”

By identifying Mr. Bolden with global warning, the ex-NASA scientists are able to both dismiss Bolden as an Affirmative Action hire and as an enemy of global warming theories.

In his story, Bradbury predicted this kind of argument too.

Just before the Blacks head for the space ship to Mars, the banks of the Mississippi overflow; and a river flows down the center of town. He draws graphic metaphor of the tide of black people surging towards the space ships, the “levee” breaking, and the “black, warm waters descended and engulfed the town.”

Samuel Teece wouldn’t believe it.  ‘Why, hell, where’d they get the transportation? How they goin’ to get to Mars?’

‘Rockets,’ said Grandpa Quartermain.

‘…Where’d they get rockets?”

“Saved their money and built them.”

Apparently this is what the Obama administration did, too. Because of the budget crisis and the grounding of the shuttle program, Obama was forced to dig deeper into his cultural resources. By appointing a man qualified to do the exceptional task- and to do without congressional funds.

But the NASA-naysayers were just as negative about Obama and Bolden. At the end of the letter, under a picture of Charles Bolden was the caption, “Don’t expect much for him.”

Yet a few months later, the world was praising Bolden for his brilliant Mars landing.

“What you gonna name [the space ship],” Teese yelled to one of the black boys headed to the ship, “Elijah and the Chariot, The Big Wheel and the Little Wheel, Swing Low and Sweet Chariot? Faith, Hope and Charity, eh?”

He could have added “Curiosity.”

Although not known for his progressive politics, Bradbury, one the greatest science fiction writers of the century, knew how deeply American racism went.  He knew the origins of the feelings that whites had about science and Blacks.

Even though black men may be the ones who bring us to Mars, the white scientist and journalists are still locked in the mind set of Samuel T. Teese.

The same ridicule that accompanied the white racism in the South is now deflected in the white’s interest in the “Mohawk!”  The New media is as racist as the old media, and in some ways they are more so. Where the public would be informed about something significant, they focus on a trivial detail.

Bradbury never explained to the reader how Blacks developed and built the spaceship. He leaves it to your imagination–or your lack of imagination.  In other words, when it came time for white NASA scientists to appreciate the contribution of Blacks to science, some of them had to look the other way.

In the story, when Grandpa turned to Mr. Teece and pointed to  the spectacular  scene of blacks entering the rockets, Mr. Teece  could not look. He cannot bear to  look, let go his prejudice that Blacks cannot know enough science to built a spaceship to Mars.

“I don’t want to look,” he said.  He might have said, “Let me look at the guy with the Mohawk again!” In a comical rebuttal to the publicity accrued by this Mohawk flap, Obama quipped that he was thinking of getting a mohawk, too.

Whites still can’t believe that Blacks are capable of science.

This was precisely Bradbury’s point in his subtle, supple story. In fact, the key to  the success of the mars landing was not money, but talent: the engineering, and Mr. Bolden is a master of engineering.

Yet Blacks students are not expose to engineering  in the  American  education system.  The class I teach at U C is full of African Americans learning about New Media and Digital technology. In the Engineering School where about 700 students are admitted–only three are African American. With my course, at least 25 students at U C will know about the contribution of African Americans have made to science.

In an article titled, “Race and Ethnicity in Science Fiction” researcher Elisabeth Anne Leonard has an illuminating insight into the Bradbury story. She sees it as showing “the way in which the whites define their existence through the lives of the blacks.”

One might suspect that the whites should be happy to see Blacks leave America, she concludes, but they are not. “One might imagine that a racist white would be glad to see the blacks leave the world, “ she wrote, “but racism depends on the presence of those it hates. He and his fellow whites depend upon the blacks not just economically but also as a way to identify themselves by what they are not.”

Indeed without “a black presence, Teece has very little left of himself.“ Without Obama and Bolden, whites wouldn’t be able to celebrate the great achievement.

To reiterate, Bradbury is writing not just about the imagined future,  but also about the our present situation. Blacks don’t get the credit they deserve, but the attention of the public is directed to a white  guy in a mohawk.

In a way, Blacks did get to Mars. We just didn’t notice it.

CECIL BROWN is the author of I, Stagolee: a NovelStagolee Shot Billy and The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger. He can be reached at: 

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