The right to know and understand the night sky
My Feb 6 remarks to Occidental College during my visit as the 2019 Stafford Ellison Wright Black Alumni Scholar-in-Residence
Many thanks in particular to Regina Freer and Krystale Littlejohn for this prestigious invitation and an opportunity to think about what the night sky means in 2019. I also incredibly grateful to the students I met and learned from, particularly the members of the Black Student Alliance. I am also thankful to the faculty who welcomed me in their classes. I had so much fun!
Thank you for welcoming me today. I would like to thank Regina Freer and Krystale Littlejohn as well as the rest of the Stafford Ellison Wright selection committee. I was thrilled by the invitation to be the 2019 Stafford Ellison Wright Black Alumni Scholar-in-Residence. I feel honored to have been selected to spend time with students and faculty during the inaugural year of the Black Studies program. I know that at every campus where one exists, students, staff and faculty fought hard — often for many years — for Black Studies, and I am grateful for those fighters. Without Black studies, I’m not sure Black women in STEM would be where we are today.
[then I gave an introduction to cosmology and dark matter using a powerpoint presentation]
I’ve just told you a cosmological story and I ended it by saying that science is a social phenomenon, with problems of its own to solve. I’d like to contextualize that some more.
When I was in high school in West LA I had about three hours of roundtrip commute that took me through Eagle Rock twice a day, except for during the months when I lived here with my best friend and her family, which shaved about 30 minutes off my daily commute. During the long school bus rides, I used to regale people with tales of the particles I read about in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I explained what a quark was, even though I had no idea. I explained the lepton family, even though I didn’t have a clue about it. I was very excited about my future as a Harvard-educated particle physicist and cosmologist.
I left East L.A. for college because someone like me was free to. By that I mean, a good test taker, someone who enjoyed school, someone who because of a combination of luck and colonial social structures hadn’t gotten caught up in the mass incarcerationist dragnet.
And when I left for college, I thought I might stand out because I looked different, but I ultimately believed the multicultural diet early millennials had been steadily fed, that the world was better now, and barriers were begging us to break them. I didn’t understand that I would stand out because I came from a different world, one of cholos from metro 13 and bloods and crips but also Black and brown girls with lips boldly outlined in thick brown lipliner and pre-crossover Shakira blaring loudly as folks drove down streets with brightly colored houses that were near train tracks and cancer-causing factories and billboards that hadn’t seen a word of English on them in years. I didn’t understand that I would stand out in my professional community, for years on end, even today, because I refuse to decide that I am no longer of that world, that those are not my people, even if it has been half my life now since I lived in it. I did not know how lonely I would feel, and the grief I would experience as my ability to speak Spanish has dissipated, that my only opportunities to speak it would come with, as I moved up in my professional world, increasingly frequent visits to four and five star hotels (like the one I am staying in right now) staffed at the lowest-paid levels by people who live in neighborhoods like the East Los I grew up in: El Sereno, Lincoln Heights, and Eagle Rock.
At Harvard, I learned to wear J. Crew when I needed to look professional. After Harvard, I learned to wear big hoop earrings not just because that’s how we do but because that’s how I consciously put hiring committees on notice about my political commitment to Black femmes, to Black womanhood. I learned also to name the academy as a place where the ruling class is produced, sometimes through psychological warfare, even as it is also a place where we learn wonderful things like the fact that in the Orion nebula water naturally produces masers, which are the radio version of lasers.
People I went to college with tell me that East LA is becoming cool now. This returns me to my 16 year old self, and the day I got into Harvard, the same day two white boys in my class sat me down and said no matter where I went to college, they would always be better than me. I was probably in the bottom quartile of my high school class socioeconomically, and because of this my dream of becoming a scientist was also a revenge fantasy and a triumph fantasy: I wanted to come home a hero, the local girl who went to Harvard and came back with the magic of particle physics in her hands.
Dreams get deferred. Last month, when I became the first Black woman in history to hold a faculty position in theoretical cosmology, I couldn’t have been geographically and culturally further away from the grand homecoming that I dreamed of. And it took 8 years after my PhD was awarded before any Los Angeles institution recognized that there was something of value in my story and my work.
It feels strange to recall how all of this made me feel — and to recall all of my feelings about what an awful and often abusive place academia is — while people are locked up in freezing cages in Brooklyn and Texas and while children are being disappeared by the Department of Homeland Security and what I call “the bad part of” Health and Human Services (which has other offices doing important life-saving work). In many ways I lead the life of a highly successful token. I make way more money than my mother raised me on, and I am recognized in the press as a Black woman who is changing the face of science. Black women are outnumbered in physics by Black men at a ratio of 2:1, and Black people overall are outnumbered by white people at a rate that I couldn’t bring myself to calculate. My presence in the field represents a broken barrier, and I often feel that I broke that barrier with my bare hands, even though I know the ancestors began the work long before I was born.
Truthfully, I don’t believe there is a college or university or any capitalist workplace really that is a healthy place for Black women. Most painfully, my personal success will not end the structural racism that keeps so many Black people, especially single Black women and their children, in poverty, and it doesn’t do anything to fight the erasure of working class Latinidad in Boyle Heights and Eagle Rock.
Of course, the last year is not the first time in the history of the Americas that children were separated from their parents in large numbers. In one example, my African ancestors were forcibly separated from their parents and siblings during, before, and after the middle passage. Families were torn apart even in the search for freedom. Sojourner Truth had to leave most of her children behind when she walked away to freedom. We talk about Harriet Tubman using knowledge of astronomy by following the drinking gourd — the big dipper constellation — to make dangerous trips below the Mason-Dixon line to lead people to freedom, and perhaps we don’t emphasize enough that more than one of those trips was to liberate members of her family.
Today, children and their parents have marched miles and miles under the same stars that Harriet Tubman used to navigate — also looking for sanctuary and freedom from violence. While the violence that these Black, Indigenous and white Central American refugees face has different historical contours than the violence of chattel slavery, the fact of running for your life by any means necessary, including by foot, is something they have in common.
I do not believe we can talk about the wonders of the night sky without talking about the fact that people are running for their lives beneath the same celestial structures that I get paid to think about every day. I do not want to wait to find out how this story ends if we don’t get in the way because I know, and as a Black Jew feel in every fiber of my being, what happened when Germans did the same.
It’s important to be clear that human rights are not just about food, water, shelter, health care, and equal treatment under the law. When I had my first chance to go observing at a major telescope facility, a newly minted PhD and fellow at MIT, I saw a night sky in the Chilean Atacama Desert that changed my life. I had two degrees in astronomy and could tell you how many stars there are in the Milky Way (about 100 billion) and until that visit, I really didn’t have a sense of how many stars there were in the sky. It was during that visit that I realized that access to a dark night sky — to see the universe as it really is — should be a human right, one that children in urban areas are usually denied.
And it is not lost on me either that the struggle around gentrification in east Los Angeles involves poor people who largely have geographic heritages that are very similar to the people that the government wishes to block and cage at the border. Often the arguments about diversity in science are made in the name of exceptional people among those being brutalized. Scientists ask: what if a refugee child could solve dark matter if we just gave them a chance? This framing is ultimately about what discursive value the refugee child serves to American intellectual economies, too close to the logic of slavery for my comfort. I invite you to join me in rejecting this framework. Instead, let us demand an end to the conditions that cause people to flee for their lives. We must question the value of borders and deny — completely — the value of walls, both here and in Palestine. Let us demand human rights for all, including the right to know and understand the night sky, not as the context of desperate and dangerous searches for freedom, but as the beautiful place that holds the answers to how we came to exist at all.