Saturday, October 17, 2015

When Neil deGrasse Tyson Spoke at the Virginia Military Institute

Recent events have conspired, one more time, to paint the Southern United States in a bad light. People are so negative and instead of lauding the fabulous cuisine (grits, cornbread, Smithfield ham), for example, they always emphasize the same old negative stuff. You know, racism, slavery, segregation, separate but unequal schools, that sort of thing.

So much for tolerance of cultural diversity.

But I am here to testify to you that at least parts of the South has changed in recent years and I have an example that is pretty amazing, and very specific to Virginia.

A few days ago, while throwing away my life while surfing the Internet, I came across an article on the AAAS website (American Association for the Advancement of Science) about science education that featured Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson who was a speaker at a conference on the subject. You can find this article at the following URL and I have provided some screengrabs of it at the end of the post.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is, of course, the very eloquent spokesperson for Astrophysics at the Hayden Planetarium of the American Museum of Natural History. A PhD in astrophysics, a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, an author of many books, the star of the recent Cosmos reboot, and so forth, Neil is very entertaining and is very well known in the New York area and now because of Cosmos is also well known nationally.  I worked with Neil for a few years as a consultant on the Hayden Planetarium rebuild and the NASA Digital Galaxy project and Neil was very entertaining even when he was not in public.  He is also, apparently, a nice guy.  Or at least he was with me.

Here is a picture of Neil.

I don't know if you noticed, but Neil seems to be an African American. Well I am not sure what the whole story is, but no doubt Neil is definitely a person of color, we might say. Or maybe a scientist of color. I dont know, whatever.

Now we get to the point. I can prove to you that Virginia, at least, has come a long, long way since the war, even if it may still have a long way to go.

The conference on science education (STEM) where Neil was a speaker was held at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, VA.

(pause for reaction)

Well, I can tell that you are not from Virginia, because if you had been from Virginia and I had just told you that Dr. Tyson had spoken at VMI and your jaw did not drop, or your eyes bug out, or you fell out of your chair, then that is a pretty clear indication that indeed you are not from the Old Dominion.

Its a long story but it goes something like this. VMI is considered to be a bastion of Virginian aristocracy. It was said for many years that if you wanted to become Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, that it was helpful to have attended VMI. Many famous people have been alumni of VMI including Gen. George Marshall who was the Chief of Staff of the US Army during WW 2, George Patton's grandfather, who died in the War Between the States defending liberty and grandson, the third George Patton, and the one they made the movie about, attended VMI before he left to go to West Point.

There are many other colorful stories one might tell about VMI that would help to illustrate how tightly VMI is tied into the self-image of Virginians. Here is the well-known story behind a famous Southern nickname, not of a student, but of one of the early VMI professors. It seems this professor of Philosophy from VMI got his nickname during the very first battle of that destructive and stupid war between the states when he refused to retreat from the field and the commander of a Texas regiment, exhorting his troops, said “There stands Jackson like a stone wall”, although some people think he was saying that Prof. Jackson was dumb as a rock.

In other words, no less than the Country Club of Virginia, and maybe even more so, VMI is a part of the established order of the very aristocratic would-be aristocracy of Virginia who are still pissed off about the whole slavery thing.

That a black man, however famous, spoke at VMI is not to be sniffed at.

At the very least it surprised me and I grew up there.

Should I want you to conclude that there is racism in Virginia? Of course there is racism in Virginia and I wish it would go away. But things do change slowly for the better. A few years ago there was actually a black governor of Virginia which is a pretty amazing situation right there.

At least many Virginians realize there is racism present which is more than I can say about most of my friends in Southern and Northern California who seem to be in complete denial of the racism in their own communities.

Here are some scans of the article and quotes from Neil that prompted this post.

Virginia Military Institute

Cosmos (2014) on IMDB

Bronx High School of Science

Stonewall Jackson on Wikipedia

Stonewall Brigade on Wikipedia

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