Black to the future

History: "As one of the seven active African-American astronauts, what do you see as the future of African-Americans in space?" asked National Public Radio talk show host Tavis Smiley.

"That’s a good question," responded astronaut Michael Anderson. "I see the future as pretty bright."

When Anderson was responding to the question, he was orbiting the Earth in a space shuttle. His crewmate, Willie McCool, described their location as being on the "dark side" of the Earth, passing over South America near Chile.

Two days later, on Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month, in broad daylight, Anderson and his six fellow crewmembers died when their craft disintegrated more than 200,000 above Earth.

Not quite a week later, I overheard my barber grumble, "We didn’t have any business up there no way."

"We need to take care of down here," she said. "Nowhere in that Holy Bible does it say anything about space."

I can understand that sentiment; in some ways I even agree with it. There are a lot of issues that need taking care of "down here," and sometimes it is hard to understand how so much money can be found to promote space travel when that money could so easily fill a lot of needs on the ground floor.

But those astronauts weren’t exactly joyriding up there. Much of their mission involved scientific experiments that may lead to a better, healthier quality of life here on Earth. Anderson was in charge of the payload — the equipment used for those experiments. As he said to Smiley during the interview, "On board this flight we have a bioreactor. We also have the research that I think will be really beneficial to the African-American community." Anderson further stated that there were prostate cancer cells on board to be used for study, pointing out that prostate cancer afflicts African-American males at a disproportionate rate.

Yes, there’s been plenty of criticism that all this can be done without the risk and expense of strapping humans to oversized Roman candles, shooting them into the sky and praying that they’ll come back to a safe landing. After putting a man on the moon, we should make do with machines — or so we’re told.

But how do you factor the human spirit into that cost-benefit analysis? Machines can’t make us swell with pride, and an astronaut like Anderson is someone to be proud of, someone our kids could — and should — look up to. This is yet another shining star who should be celebrated and remembered during Black History Month — and throughout the rest of the year as well. No, Anderson was not a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a Frederick Douglass or any of the other big-name historical heroes that are religiously, if justifiably, trotted out every year at this same time. Anderson is the fruit of their labors, and that is something even more special to celebrate because it represents tangible progress. Neither Douglass nor King ever made it into space — they had a hard enough time making it from day to day in their own neighborhoods — but you’d better believe they helped build the launching pads that propelled each and every African-American astronaut beyond the stars.

Yes, we do have business up there.

No, the Bible, at least to my knowledge, doesn’t mention space travel. But I have a hard time believing that God would disapprove of what Anderson — or any of the other six astronauts — were doing up there. I think he understands our need to reach out as far as our abilities can take us.

I also think that we, as African-Americans, should take pride that one of our own was up there doing the "reaching out" for the rest of us whose lives are far too bogged down by the forces of physical, emotional and psychological gravity to ever make it more than a few feet off the ground without an airplane — or whatever else we need to get through the day.

History of history: I think it’s time to set the record straight: We black folks did not get stuck with the shortest month of the year for Black History Month because white folks couldn’t bear to part with a longer month. This was not a conspiracy concocted by The Man.

We — black folks — chose it.

Some of us have already forgotten that the whole idea for Black History Month started out as Negro History Week in 1926. Negro History Week was the brainchild of historian Carter G. Woodson, who is also known as "the father of black history."

The first Negro History Week was celebrated from Feb. 7-14, 1926, because Woodson wanted to pay homage to Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, both of whom were born in the month of February (Lincoln on Feb. 12, Douglass on Feb. 14). Ten years earlier, Woodson had founded the Journal of Negro History. He believed Negro History Week might better educate larger numbers of both blacks and whites about the contributions made by African-American people to American society and culture.

We black folks have enough things to be ticked off about? No need adding unnecessary items to the list.

Future of history? Speaking of things to get ticked off about, the car manufacturer Nissan has decided to participate in the celebration of Black History Month. No, that’s not the part to get ticked off about. What is upsetting a number of black folks, however, is the way in which the company has chosen to participate, namely by erecting billboards in black neighborhoods that diminish the importance of the month in the eyes of some. The billboards say "Black History" with the word "History" crossed out and replaced with "Future." Part of a national campaign by Nissan North America, they are on display in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Atlanta through February.

According to a spokesperson for Nissan, the idea was never to draw the wrath of protesters — which the company has — but rather to get folks to think. I think maybe Nissan ought to stick to what it does best — making cars. I think it needs to put that cleverness to better use in promoting the company as a good place to work for African-Americans and other nonwhites.

Once Nissan starts to do these kinds of things, then maybe I’ll believe Nissan really cares as much about the future of African-Americans as it does about cleverly using them to sell more cars. Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail him at

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