They say that space is curved—traveling long enough in one direction will connect you to your origin. So is history, as one generation directly impacts another.
Nowhere were the space-time and historical continuums more at play than at last month’s San Diego Comic-Con, when Congressman (D-Ga) and civil rights icon John Lewis met astrophysicist and media icon Neil deGrasse Tyson.
“How are you doing young man?” Lewis said, smiling.
“Doing good! Trying to, you know, keep the universe real,” Tyson grinned back.
“So my father extends his regards,” Tyson continued. “I don’t know if you remember him, but he was one of the original 100 Black Men, Cyril Tyson.
“Please tell him I said hello,” said Lewis. “I remember your father very well."
Not only did work by Lewis help pave the way for men like Tyson to be regarded on the basis of their intellect instead of skin color, but Tyson’s father had been an integral figure in the New York civil rights movement. Cyril deGrasse Tyson, a sociologist, had served as a commissioner for New York City Mayor John Lindsay, working to keep peace in New York, when riots were erupting in other cities around the country, and as nearby as Newark, New Jersey. He was an original member of the 100 Black Men, formed in NY in 1963 to improve conditions in their community. The group has since grown into a national organization.
“I was pleased and honored to meet him,” says Lewis. “He’s so smart and so gifted, and he’s recognized and respected, not just in America, but around the world. I have known of his father and his leadership and what he did in New York that helped to hold the city together during a time of great crisis.”
Hours before their meeting, Tyson sat with his Cosmos colleagues, executive producers Ann Druyan and Brannon Braga, as they took turns looking at Lewis’s graphic novel. In another cyclical encounter, Druyan’s late husband, the astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who starred in the series precursor Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, had tried to recruit a young Tyson to Cornell University, where he taught. (Tyson ended up at Harvard.)
“This brings back strong memories for me,” says Tyson, flipping through the pages of March, the first of a trilogy that chronicles Lewis’ early civil rights efforts through 1965.
“Those were turbulent times,” he says. “We were going to the moon, there were civil rights protests, antiwar protests. It was a peculiar mixture of forces operating on the mind of a child. Given my age, my sensitivity to that era comes entirely through the efforts of my father. He gave me hope that it would all one day be resolved.”
Tyson’s experiences of racism were more subtle—taxis that wouldn’t pick him up, security guards trailing him in department stores, teachers who encouraged sports over physics. “There are no stories I can tell that rival those of my parents’ generation, where you couldn’t stay in the same hotel [as white people] or had to walk in a different entrance,” he says. “In my era, there were no laws preventing access, but there were attitudes that interfered with access. I knew I wanted to be an astrophysicist from age 11, so this friction between my ambitions and society’s acceptance of them has existed my entire life. I just knew that society saw me differently than I saw society.”
A pivotal moment that would help shape Tyson’s eventual media brand came when, as a Columbia University graduate student, he accidentally landed on the evening news talking about an Earth-bound solar flare when the inquiry came to his department while his colleagues were at lunch.
Viewing himself that night on TV, “I had kind of an outer-body experience,” he says. “I was watching a black person—me—being interviewed on a topic that had nothing to do with being black. And I’d never seen that before. It was always the preacher, the person worried about urban enterprise zones or inner city schools, the entertainer, or sports figure. I realized, `How is anyone going to view the black community as intellectual equals if they never see them in an intellectual capacity?’ From that moment on, I said, `I will not do interviews where they lead off with, 'What’s it like being a black scientist?’ That’s a distraction from what I’m after.”
He stops and laughs. “And, of course, I’m here right now in the middle of an interview on that topic,” he says. “But this interview isn’t about me—it’s about this book, March. We all love John Lewis, so I’m doing it for him.
“To see this book by John Lewis tell the story—it looks very real and relevant, sort of haunting in the graphic novel form,” he adds. “Knowing what other stories have been told in that medium, perhaps it’s overdue to come out in this way.”
[Photos courtesy of Susan Karlin]