Fire on the Moon: the accomplishment gap

Norman Mailer wrote a book called “Of a Fire on the Moon“. It dealt with the first landing by men on the moon, in 1969: American, and men, and as it turns out, white. I steal this from Frank Kersey.

“Mailer writes of a party he attended in Houston while the three white astronauts were completing the journey to the moon.

“At the party, he encountered a usually loquacious black Ivy League professor (who espoused some form of ‘black power’ and mentored black students on campus), who was uncharacteristically laconic and drinking heavily. Mailer writes: “He was normally so elegant a man that it was impossible to conceive of how he would make a crude move – now, you could know. Something raucous and jeering was still withheld, but the sourness of his stomach had gotten into the sourness of his face. His collar was a hint wilted.” (p. 124)

“It is here Mailer unloads with the most masterful part of his book, observing the source of the black Ivy League professor angst:

“But there were other reason for drinking as well. America had put two White men on the moon, and lifted them off. A triumph of White men was being celebrated in the streets of this city. It was even worse than that. For the developed abilities of these White men, their production, their flight skills, their engineering feats, were the most successful part of that White superstructure which had been strangling the possibilities of his own Black people for years. The professor was an academic with no mean knowledge of colonial struggles of colored peoples. He was also a militant. If the degree of his militancy was not precisely defined, still its presence was not denied. 

His skin was dark. If he were to say, “Black is beautiful” with a cultivated smile, nonetheless he was still saying it. Aquarius had never been invited to enter this Black man’t vision, but it was no great mystery the Black believed his people were possessed of a potential genius which was greater than Whites. Kept in incubation for two millennia, they would be all the more powerful when they prevailed. It was nothing less than a great civilization they were prepared to create. Aquarius could not picture the details of that civilization in the Black professor’s mind, but they had talked enough to know they agreed that this potential greatness of the Black people was not to be found in technology. Whites might need the radio to become tribal but Blacks would have another communion. From the depth of one consciousness they could be ready to speak to the depth of another; by telepathy might they send their word. That was the logic implicit in CPT. If CPT was one of the jokes by which Blacks admitted Whites to the threshold of their view, it was a relief to learn that CPT stood for Colored People’s Time. When a black friend said he would arrive at 8 p.m. and came after midnight, there was still logic in his move. He was traveling on CPT. The vibrations he received at 8 p.m. were not sufficiently interesting to make him travel toward you – all that was hurt were the host’s undue expectations. The real logic of CPT was that when there was trouble or happiness the brothers would come on the wave. 

Mailer noted what the moon landing meant to the concept of black superiority and black power in a now forgotten book chronicling the Apollo 11 mission

Well, white technology was not built on telepathy, it was built on electromagnetic circuits of transmission and reception, it was built on factory workers pressing their button or monitoring their function according to firm and bound stations of the clock. The time of a rocket mission was Ground Elapsed Time, GET. Every sequence of the flight was tied into the pure numbers of the time line. So the flight to the moon was a victory for GET, and the first heats of the triumph suggested that the fundamental notion of Black superiority might be incorrect: in this hour, it would no longer be as easy for a militant Black to say that Whitey had built a palace on numbers, and numbers killed a man, and numbers would kill Whitey’s civilization before all this was through. Yesterday, Whitey with his numbers had taken a first step to the stars, taken it ahead of Black men. How that had to burn in the ducts of this Black man’s stomach, in the vats of his liver.

Aquarius thought again of the lunar air of technologists. Like the moon, they traveled without a personal atmosphere. No wonder Blacks had distaste for numbers, and found trouble studying. It was not because they came – as liberals necessarily would have it – from wrecked homes and slum conditions, from drug-pushing streets, no, that kind of violence and disruption could be the pain of a people so rich in awareness they could not bear the deadening jolts of a civilization on each of their senses. Blacks had distaste for numbers not because they were stupid or deprived, but because numbers were abstracted from the sense, numbers made you ignore the taste of the apples for the amount in the box, and so the use of numbers shrunk the protective envelope of human atmosphere, eroded that extrasensory aura which gave awareness, grace, the ability to move one’s body and excel at sports and dance and war, or be able to travel on an inner space of sound. Blacks were not the only ones who hated numbers – how many attractive women could not bear to add a column or calculate a cost. Numbers were a pestilence to beauty. 

There was something to be said after all for arriving on time. CPT was excellent for the nervous system if you were the one to amble in at midnight, but Aquarius had played the host too often.

“You know,” said the professor, “there are no Black astronauts.” 

“Of course not.”

“Look,” said the Black professor, “do they have any awareness of how the money they spent could have been used?”

“They have a very good argument: they say if you stopped space tomorrow, only a token of the funds would go to poverty.”

“I’d like to be in a position to argue about that,” said the Black. “Damn,” he said, “are they still on the moon?”

“They took off already,” said Aquarius. 

“No trouble?” 


If the Blacks yet built a civilization, magic would be at its heart. For they lived with the wonders of magic as the Whites lived with technology. How many Blacks had made a move or inhibited it because the emanations of the full moon might affect their cause. Now Whitey had walked the moon, put his feet on it. The moon presumably had not spoken. Or had it, and Richard Nixon received the favor and Teddy Kennedy the curse? Was there no magic to combat technology? Then the strength of Black culture was stricken. There would not be a future Black civilization, merely an adjunct to the White. What lava in the raw membranes of the belly. The Black professor had cause to drink. The moon shot had smashed more than one oncoming superiority of the Black.  (p. 125-127)


Norman Mailer wrote this in 1969. Magical thinking by American black intellectuals persists (see Ta-Nehisi Coates below). It will not get them to the moon, it will not make manna drop from heaven, it will not stop them from killing each other in astonishing numbers. Nothing will, except the same virtues that every other people on earth, including other Africans, have used to advance themselves. Industry, thrift, chastity, family, faith, diligence, and learning. There is no magic in this, and that is probably a strong reason why the traditional virtues are of no interest to so many of them.