Astronomy, Race, and the Unwitnessed Radiance Inside History’s Blind Spots
By Maria Popova
In 1977, the poet Adrienne Rich exhorted a graduating class of young women to think of education not as something one receives but as something one claims. But what does an education mean, and what does claiming it look like, for lives and minds animating bodies born into dramatically different points along the vast spectrum of privilege and possibility which human society spans?
This question comes alive in a wonderfully unexpected and necessary way in one of the highlights of the the third annual Universe in Verse by another great poet, essayist, and almost unbearably moving memoirist: Elizabeth Alexander — the fourth poet in history read at an American presidential inauguration (she welcomed Barack Obama to the presidency with her shimmering poem “Praise Song for the Day”) and the first woman of color to preside over one of the world’s largest philanthropic foundations.
Two years after Alexander illuminated a disquieting shadow-patch excised from the hegemonic history of science with the stunning poem she read at the inaugural Universe in Verse, she returned to the stage to shine a beam of radiance on the beauty hidden in an umbral corner of the selective collective memory we call history. Following astrophysicist Janna Levin’s opening reading of a pair of short poems by two titanic contemporaries who never knew of each other’s existence — a short untitled exultation at the surreality of a solar eclipse by Emily Dickinson and “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman — Alexander read a poetic antidote to history’s erasures, celebrating the invisible visionaries who also lived and marveled at the cosmos when Dickinson and Whitman lived and marveled at the cosmos, originally published in her collection American Sublime (public library) and prefaced in the show with some contextual connective tissue by yours truly:
by Elizabeth Alexander
In 1839, to enter University,
the Yale men already knew Cicero,
Dalzel’s Graeca Minora, then learned more Latin prosody,
Stiles on astronomy, Dana’s mineralogy.
Each year they named a Class Bully
who would butt heads with sailors in town.
“The first foreign heathen ever seen,”
Obookiah, arrived from Hawaii in ’09.
The most powerful telescope in America
was a recent gift to the school
and through it, they were first to see
the blazing return of Halley’s comet.
Ebeneezer Peter Mason
and Hamilton Lanphere Smith
spent all their free time at the instrument
observing the stars, their systems,
their movement and science and magic,
pondering the logic of mysteries that twinkle.
Some forty years before, Banneker’s
eclipse-predicting charts and almanacs
had gone to Thomas Jefferson
to prove “that nature has given our brethren
talents equal to other colors of men.”
Benjamin Banneker, born free,
whose people came from Guinea,
who taught himself at twenty-two (the same age
as the graduates) to carve entirely from wood
a watch which kept exquisite time,
accurate to the blade-sharp second.
Living in the same era as these astronomically enchanted men, whom Alexander so beautifully declipses from history’s shadow, was a young woman who blazed parallel trails for another section of humanity barred from higher education and discounted by the scientific establishment, and who would go on to stake her life on the conviction that equal opportunity for the life of the mind is at the center of social change.
Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) — to whom the inaugural Universe in Verse was dedicated and whose life furnished the initial inspiration for Figuring (from which this portion of the essay is adapted) — was twelve when she observed her first solar eclipse through a brass telescope set up in the front parlor of her modest Quaker home on the island of Nantucket. The cosmos, with its mystery governed by immutable laws of poetic precision, staggered her imagination. By fifteen, she had mastered higher mathematics, which she supplemented with an ardent love of poetry. No institution — not on the island, not on the globe — had anything further to offer her in the way of higher education for a woman. And so, at seventeen, she founded a small school of her own.
The first children who approached the teenage teacher for enrollment were three “Portuguese” girls — the era’s slang for immigrants of color, whatever their actual nationality or race. Having just witnessed a vehement outcry when the Nantucket’s public school had attempted integration the previous year, Mitchell knew that admitting students of color would cost her the support of many parents, particularly the wealthy. But when the little girl representing the trio implored for a chance to learn, Mitchell made a decision with a clarity of conviction that would come to mark her life. The three “Portuguese” children became her first scholars, soon joined by others ranging in age from six to fourteen.
In a single large classroom, Mitchell stretched her students’ minds from Shakespeare to spherical geometry. But before she could savor the success of her school, she was offered the head librarianship of the Nantucket Atheneum — a new kind of cultural institution, named after the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom, learning, and the arts, designed as a secular gathering place to discover and discuss ideas. She was eighteen. She would not relinquish her librarianship for two decades, despite the international celebrity into which her historic comet discovery catapulted her at the end of her twenties; despite her landmark admission into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as the venerable institution’s first female member; despite becoming the first woman employed by the federal government for a “specialized non-domestic skill” as a “computer of Venus” — a one-person GPS performing complex celestial calculations to help sailors navigate the globe.
During her tenure at the Atheneum, Mitchell hosted the institution’s regular public lectures by itinerant speakers. Among them was a young man who had escaped slavery three years earlier.
One August day in 1841, a nervous twenty-three-year-old Frederick Douglass — the same age as Mitchell — took the podium at the Atheneum to deliver his very first public address before the mixed-race audience of five hundred gathered at the island’s temple of learning for the first Nantucket Anti-Slavery Convention. “It was with the utmost difficulty,” Douglass would later recount, “that I could stand erect, or that I could command and articulate two words without hesitation and stammering. I trembled in every limb.” He proceeded to deliver a speech so electrifying that at its conclusion, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who was waiting to take the platform next, leapt to his feet, turned to the audience, and exclaimed: “Have we been listening to a thing, a piece of property, or a man?” The chamber of the Great Hall bellowed with a resounding “A man! A man!” The man was hired on the spot as full-time lecturer for Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society.
Four years later, by then one of the country’s most prominent public speakers, Douglass would write in his autobiography:
I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence. From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace.
Maria Mitchell echoed this sentiment in her own diary as she was doing for women what Douglass was doing for African Americans:
The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not.
Mitchell and Douglass cherished their friendship for the remainder of their parallel pioneering lives — both world-famous before they were thirty, both liberators of possibility in their present, both role models of courage and tenacity for generations to come. The year Mitchell made her historic discovery of the world’s first telescopic comet, Douglass — who in that trembling dawn of his career had calmed his nerves by taking in the cosmic perspective through her telescope — began publishing his abolitionist newspaper; he titled it The North Star in homage to the key role astronomy played in the Underground Railroad — traveling at night, slaves were told to keep the river on one side and follow the Drinking Gourd, an African name for the Big Dipper, for if they kept after the pole star, they would keep themselves moving north. In the final year of hers, the ailing Mitchell — whose childhood home had been a stop on the Underground Railroad — exerted herself to travel many miles via ferry, coach, and train for a reception given in her cherished friend’s honor.
Full recordings of the first three seasons of The Universe in Verse — a celebration of the meeting ground between science and the human spirit through the lens of poetry — are freely available to be enjoyed here.
Published June 24, 2020