Today is Ron McNair’s birthday. A highly motivated child, he grew up in a small town in South Carolina, was valedictorian of his HS class in 1967 and went on to get his PHD in physics at MIT in 1976. Two years later, Ron was one of 35 applicants accepted into NASA’s astronaut program.
In 1984 Ron went on his first shuttle flight; in 1986 Ron went on his last.
Ron would have been 70 years old today. He was only 36 when he died in the Challenger explosion but this husband and father accomplished more in those years than many of us do in a lifetime.
Ron’s determination was evident from an early age when, at nine years old, he refused to leave the library without the books he wanted to check out. (Back in those days, blacks were not allowed to check out books where he lived.) The librarian called the cops while Ron and his mom waited quietly with his selections. Once the patrolman arrived he told the librarian to just “let the kid check out the books.”
Today that library bears his name.
I thought about Ron McNair today after I read an e-mail from a library I used to frequent when we lived in North Carolina. They were announcing several changes to “remove the effects of racism and injustice” including dumping the name of the former governor for whom the building was named. A prominent democrat, Morrison was known for expanding the road system and funneling money to higher education, but he was also an active racist who belonged to a vigilante group that targeted minorities for intimidation. As an added “bonus,” in 1920 he ran against the pending 19th amendment giving women the right to vote. So yeah, I’d say naming a library after this man in 1987 was a terrible faux-pas to say the very least, but the land for the building was donated by his grandson so that little detail was likely hidden in the froth of such a grand and generous gesture.
The library “task force” also announced in its e-mail that an audit to review their “collectibles” and “commemorations” etc was underway to ensure everything aligns with the library’s position on “equity.” Included on the list of items that didn’t pass the first review were a few busts, a picture of a former plantation, a lithograph of Robert E Lee and the following:
artwork from Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist”
an “artistic adaptation” of Aladdin.
It was at this point that a chill ran up my spine.
We are living in an interesting, almost feverish, moment in history that demands (but likely will not receive) our full attention. As the library knows, little details hidden in the froth of grand gestures and good intentions can come back to haunt us long after sweeping (and often irreversible) decisions are made. When a library establishes a “task force” to comb through its “stuff” and packs up the pieces they feel need to be censored, we as citizens should pay attention. No matter how noble the intent may initially be, this genie has a tendency to grow over time and it gets real tough to stuff back into the bottle once opened.
I thought about Ron McNair in light of this e-mail and wondered what his thoughts would have been. As a black man he had to overcome so many obstacles to achieve his dream of becoming an astronaut. He discussed one of those challenges with Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who was training alongside him for the Challenger flight. When she mentioned her concern about not being a strong enough swimmer, he told her that he had once shared that same worry. As was, and still is, the case with many black children, Ron had very few opportunities to swim as a child and being able to swim is a key requirement for the astronaut program.
It’s pretty simple-if you can’t swim, you can’t fly.
So in our zeal to identify obstacles that our citizenry may face, I hope the “task forces” popping up all over the country use their resources to support ideas and programs that truly have a quantifiable and positive impact on people’s lives.
I’m not sure taking down a painting of Aladdin qualifies.
There are ten accidental drownings in the US every day.
If a child’s parents don’t swim, there is only a 13% chance their children will learn to swim.
64% of black kids cannot swim.
The risk of drowning is three times higher for black children than caucasian children.