“Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, is that we sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death.” – James Baldwin
The new science series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, hosted by the black astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson is a reprise of the 80’s show, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, hosted by the late astrophysicist, Carl Sagan. Like Sagan, Tyson wants to bring science to the general population in a way that informs as well as entertains. “The goal is to convey why science matters to the person, to our society, to us as shepherds of this planet, “ Tyson says. “It involves presenting science in ways that connect you, so Cosmos can influence you not only intellectually, but emotionally, with a celebration of wonder and awe.”
In the black community when the words wonder and awe are spoken, it’s usually in the context of a personal god. There are not many black scientists in the United States and Tyson is a rarity in that he finds comfort in what the natural world can teach us as opposed to revelation from holy books.
Tyson was born in the Bronx, NYC, the son of college educated professionals. His fascination with astronomy began early on in life on visits to rural Pennsylvania looking up at the summer sky. He is quoted as saying he felt the universe calling him as opposed to many blacks, especially ministers who hear the voice of god calling them.
Neil deGrasse Tyson credits people like the late astrophysicist, Carl Sagan for mentoring him and he is now director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space and a research associate in the department of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History.
Free inquiry, open-mindedness and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake is what propels societies to excel and in the United States this is often thwarted by religious culture and magnified more so in the overall black community. These numbers from the Pew Research Center concerning the black population explains part of the dilemma; belief in god, 88%, belief in miracles , 85%, belief in angels/demons, 83%, religion important in lives, 80%, pray daily, 77%, believe in life after death, 58%, interpret scripture literally, 55%, attend service weekly, 54%.
Blacks are the most religious of any group in the U.S. due in part to historical factors such as the role of slavery in shaping their worldview. The enslavement of the black population also included co-opting their minds. When you deny a person a means to educate himself you can substitute a fictitious meaning for his existence – a god figure who watches over him and explains his role in the world. By letting the black man read the bible, those in charge had a ready made ally in keeping blacks unaware of the real world.
A local resident and former educator, Jack Brizzi taught in an urban school and has a unique perspective on minority students. “In the black community I noticed a sense of anti-intellectualism and I wondered why. It wasn’t ability. In 40 years of teaching I can count on one hand students too stupid to excel. It was more often laziness.”
This laziness could be due in part to what they were taught at home and in their churches about the way the world is structured. Most of their early roll models are black ministers preaching the role of god in every sphere of life. The lack of interest in science by many blacks speaks to what they are indoctrinated with before they enter the school room.
In the year 2014 it’s ironic we now have a black personality in the forefront of educating all races. “Neil deGrasse Tyson has become the most important public intellectual of our time, and while in the past that “position” usually involved defending the practices of the state or ruling class, he is a heretic in the finest sense possible. He’s taking on the awesome power of superstitions that have held people back for millenia and showing them the light of human possibility.” – Bob Buzzanco, professor of history, Univ. of Houston
Tyson is often lumped into the atheist camp by his admirers and he has corrected them on more than one occasion, stating that he wants to be identified as an agnostic. This may be of little significance to some but to him, as a scientist he sees no need to identify with any camp except the one he is in, a scientist. Until he sees “verifiable evidence” of a god he is content exploring the natural world, the one he can see.
The black writer and poet James Baldwin, also a native of Harlem in NYC, was raised up poor, the son of a minister, became one of this country’s most treasured authors and intellectuals. Both he and Tyson refused to give up the beauty of their lives for easy answers and false concepts.