“Whatever Happened to the Protest and the Rage?” Gil Scott-Heron and the Pentagon’s Environmental Racism

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 4:30 PM
Stevens C-6 (Hilton Chicago)
Joseph Thompson, University of Virginia
This paper uses the catalogue of Gil Scott-Heron, one of the most productive, outspoken, and celebrated African American poets and musicians of the 1970s, to explore the role of Cold War defense spending in the creation of toxic domestic spaces for black Americans. Scott-Heron often featured the black home in his songs as a place where he learned the lessons of pain, poverty, and addiction. In 1971, his second album, Pieces of a Man, featured the song “Home Is Where the Hatred Is.” Written from the point of view of an addict, Scott-Heron intones, “Home is where the needle marks / Try to heal my broken heart /And it might not be such a bad idea if I never went home again.” In the wake of the 1965 Moynihan Report, the idea of the home as a location of black pathology emerged as a widely accepted, albeit always contested, truth in U.S. society, especially among policy experts. Yet, for Scott-Heron, the culpability lay not with black individuals but with the systematic destruction of the black home at the hands of the federal government, specifically the military-industrial complex. Songs like “Whitey on the Moon” and “Barnwell (South Carolina)” all connect the economic and environmental degradation experienced in black homes to defense expenditures that kept the U.S. prepared for perpetual war. Importantly, the link between defense spending and African American oppression implicates the U.S. South, a region that disproportionately relied on the Pentagon for its share of federal largesse. Juxtaposing the achievements of the space program, corporate profitability, and nuclear energy with the poverty and pollution experienced by African Americans, Scott-Heron implicitly and explicitly linked the South’s economic reliance on military spending to the environmental racism experienced in African American communities all over the nation.
<< Previous Presentation | Next Presentation