The sound of tambourines calls us to gather round. It's a summer evening on a city centre lawn, or maybe on a concrete pavement in some ghetto.
The speaker gets straight to the point. It's all come to a head: a rat bit his sister Nell. The repeated reference to “whitey on the moon” suggests that this happened around the time of man’s first walk on the moon. The juxtaposition of these images prompts us to consider the cost at which such a feat might have been accomplished, what kind of sacrifices might have been made to get a man to the moon. Where did the funds for research, medical support etc come from? The speaker links all this to his inability to pay for the treatment of his sister (who gets worse) and ruminates on his obligation to be paying off loans for the next ten years.
Being bitten by a rat in the home suggests neglect. We learn there’s a landlord involved; and that, while the rent has gone up, there’s still no adequate sewage system or supply of electricity and hot running water. Then come further, more general hardships: higher taxation, more expensive food, widespread availability and use of hard drugs, and – getting back to the start of it all – rats lurking around the house.
Up until now the man on the moon – the derogatory “whitey” notwithstanding – has been a symbol for the disparity in means between the rich and the poor. But suddenly he begins to be implicated (if it wasn’t such a terrible pun you could say that the speaker smells a rat): “Was all that money I made last year / for whitey on the moon?” he asks. And right there the anger boils over: but, as well as defiance, it's with an undercurrent of suspicion that nothing will come of it that the speaker vows to send his bills – “airmail special” – to the man on the moon.
In its vaguely defeated denouement the poem is an eloquent call to arms. There’s an uncomfortable contrast between the contempt the speaker shows to the powerful through the use of the word “whitey” and the hope of having his bills paid by him. While specifying the man on the moon as white, combined with the fact that the poet is black, may strike some as restrictive in its particularity – though there is much evidence that there are still discrepancies in standards of living between racial groups – the situation described has a broader ambit. Last year I spoke to a (white) man who was bitten by a rat on the first night after he and his family had moved into rented accommodation – a rather neglected home until the threat of litigation – very close to where I live. Taxes are indeed going up, while public services are being curtailed; heating bills and other domestic charges are increasing; crime is encroaching on areas previously thought of as safe.
At the same time comfort and riches are fenced in smaller and smaller circles – both between and within nations. Acts of thievery and thuggishness are being swept under the carpet or even justified due to the power the perpetrators command – political, financial or cultural. People lose their livelihoods and homes while those accountable are quietly retired or handed bonuses or both. Those who simply try to carry on are finding it harder to do so – and others who seek out new challenges, whether for the sheer excitement of it or because they see no other option, are often constrained by new laws and new moralities.
I read ‘Whitey on the Moon’ as a timeless revolutionary call that has found a new point in the sociopolitical cycle at which it is relevant. It questions whether the dignity of individuals should be traded for general prosperity and excellence – or indeed whether this is the only way. This year’s Arab uprising and student protests in the UK are almost certainly just the beginning, because the current – and widening – contrast between those with means and those without cannot possibly be sustained.