An astronomy course at prestigious Cornell University, concerned about racism in the universe, not just Planet Earth, asked the deathless question: “Is there a connection between the cosmos and the idea of racial blackness?”
As famed author Heather Mac Donald, who has written numerous books, including “The War on Cops,” writes in City Journal, the course, titled “Black Holes: Race and the Cosmos,” notes in the catalog description that “conventional wisdom” asserts that the “‘black’ in black holes has nothing to do with race,” but astronomy professor Nicholas Battaglia and comparative literature professor Parisa Vaziri suggest the truth may be otherwise.
The catalog description reads:
Conventional wisdom would have it that the “black” in black holes has nothing to do with race. Surely there can be no connection between the cosmos and the idea of racial blackness. Can there? Contemporary Black Studies theorists, artists, fiction writers implicitly and explicitly posit just such a connection. Theorists use astronomy concepts like “black holes” and “event horizons” to interpret the history of race in creative ways, while artists and musicians conjure blackness through cosmological themes and images. Co-taught by professors in Comparative Literature and Astronomy, this course will introduce students to the fundamentals of astronomy concepts through readings in Black Studies. Texts may include works by theorists like Michelle Wright and Denise Ferreira da Silva, authors like Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson, music by Sun Ra, Outkast and Janelle Monáe. Astronomy concepts will include the electromagnetic spectrum, stellar evolution, and general relativity.
Mac Donald notes, “Battaglia and Vaziri puncture the ‘conventional wisdom’ by drawing on theorists such as Emory University English professor Michelle Wright. Wright’s book, The Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology, invokes ‘Newton’s laws of motion and gravity’ and ‘theoretical particle physics’ to ‘subvert racist assumptions about Blackness.’ The Cornell course also studies music by Sun Ra and Outkast to “conjure blackness through cosmological themes.”
She concludes, “Today’s academic charlatanism consists in part in mistaking rhetoric for knowledge and words for things. This sleight of hand is particularly prevalent in matters relating to race. Hunter College professor Philip Ewell argues that the concept of tonal and harmonic hierarchies in music theory is a stand-in for pernicious racial hierarchies. … Seeing specters of racism everywhere, the racial avengers are tearing down every institution associated with Western civilization, simply because of its ‘whiteness.’ Science had stood as a guard against such metaphorical, magical thinking. Bit by bit, it is succumbing.”
Meanwhile, another course description at Cornell recently came under fire for ostensibly being racist. The course description of a rock climbing P.E. class “initially said that the class was open only to those students identifying as BIPOC, which sparked controversy on Cornell’s campus and beyond. A thread of posts to the Cornell reddit called for an end to ‘racially segregated P.E. classes at Cornell,’” the Cornell Sun reported in May. “Some argued that the implementation of BIPOC rock-climbing, by offering the class only to students of particular races, was a hindrance to diversity and inclusion efforts,” the paper noted. “Others said that Cornell’s decision was racist and in violation of federal Title VI, which states that no educational program receiving federal financial assistance may exclude participation on the basis of race or national origin.”