ABOUT STORMING THE HEAVENS
In Storming the Heavens, Gerald Horne presents the early struggle of African-Americans to gain the right to fly. This struggle involved pioneers like Bessie Coleman, who traveled to World War I era Paris in order to gain piloting skills that she was denied in her U.S. homeland; and John Robinson, from Chicago via Mississippi, who traveled to 1930s Ethiopia where he was the leading pilot for this beleaguered African nation as it withstood an invasion from fascist Italy, became the personal pilot of His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie and became a founder of Ethiopian Airways, which to this very day is Africa’s most important carrier. Additionally, Horne adds nuance to the oft told tale of the Tuskegee Airmen but goes further to discuss the role of U.S. pilots during the Korean war in the early 1950s. He also tells the story of how and why U.S. airlines were fought when they began to fly into South Africa—and how planes from this land of apartheid were protested when they landed at U.S. airports.
This riveting story climaxes with the launching of the Soviet satellite, Sputnik, in 1957 which marked a new stage in the battle for aerospace and helps to convince the U.S. that the centuries-long fixation on the “race race” was hampering the new challenge represented by the “space race.” This conflict was unfolding as the battle to desegregate public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas was spotlighting, globally, the bleeding wound that was Jim Crow and sheds light on how and why depriving African-Americans of skills and education was causing the nation to fall behind. Thus, in this embattled context, barriers are broken and African-Americans who once endured inferior conditions on planes and in airports and in airport manufacturing facilities alike, gained added impetus in their decades long struggle to win the right to fly.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR, GERALD HORNE
Dr. Gerald Horne’s research has addressed issues of racism in a variety of relations involving labor, politics, civil rights, international relations and war. He received his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University, his J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and his B.A. from Princeton University. Dr. Horne’s undergraduate courses include the Civil Rights Movement an U.S. History through Film. He also teaches graduate courses in Diplomatic History, Labor History and 20th Century African American History. Dr. Horne is the author of more than thirty books.
EXCERPT FROM THE BOOK
One minute, John Robinson was soaring through the skies of Ethiopia. The next, his hopes for surviving were plummeting precipitously.
It was late 1935, and this southern-born son of Black Chicago had chosen to take his immense piloting skills to Addis Ababa to assist the beleaguered regime of Emperor Haile Selassie I, His Imperial Majesty, the Conquering Lion of Judah, in foiling a brutal invasion by Benito Mussolini’s Italian legions. Soon, Il Duce’s incursion came to be viewed as a harbinger of what was to be termed World War II.
Robinson had just departed from the city of Adowa in northern Ethiopia after it was bombarded twice. He was en route to Addis Ababa with some important papers when two Italian airplanes attacked him. As he noted later in a dispatch to the Associated Negro Press, the agency that had sponsored his volunteer journey: “[The] Italians started shooting. I will never forget that day and the day after….I really had the closest call I have ever had,” he added with relief, “One part of the wing on the airplane I was flying had ten holes when I landed.”
The man known as Colonel John Robinson of the Imperiale Ethiopenne Air Force was only one example of African Americans’ extraordinary interest and involvement in aviation years before the 1957 launching of the Soviet satellite Sputnik. In his case, Ethiopia and Emperor Selassie were the beneficiaries of that attention. Whenever Selassie had important documents to dispatch speedily to his generals or when he himself wished to travel by air, Colonel Robinson, and he alone, was given that position of trust. Robinson could well be considered one of the founders of Ethiopian Airways—a carrier that, by 2015, was deemed to be perhaps the best and most reliable airline on the continent and, as one periodical stated, “the main generator of foreign exchange” in this sprawling East African nation.
African Americans’ early interest in aviation reflected a longing for modernity and cosmopolitanism, especially since, as one analyst maintained, “Afro-diasporic people,” to their painful detriment, “have been popularly constructed as backward and anti-technology”. Though Wilbur and Orville Wright have been credited widely for the invention of the airplane in 1903, a Negro, Thomas Crump of Fisk University, invented a flying contraption as early as 1889. A Negro by the name of John Pickering reportedly developed an “airship” around 1900. The Negro inventor W. F. Johnson conceived the idea of an electrically powered biplane as early as 1910 while another Negro, William Polite, patented an anti-aircraft gun in 1917—taking time away from his day job as headwaiter at a hotel in Wilmington, North Carolina.
These Black inventors were not alone in this quest. One writer credits the Wright Brothers’ relationship to the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar with helping to spark early Negro interest in aviation. This fascination with aviation was also viewed as evidence of an enlightened self-interest on the part of Negroes in that airplanes were widely viewed early on as the “winning weapon” and yet another tool to be deployed to subjugate African Americans and their colonized cousins in Africa and the Caribbean. The better part of wisdom dictated that Blacks learn more about flying. The airplane fed militarism and allied conservatism, which in turn buoyed a closely related colonial mentality and Negro-phobia.
As early as 1906, Sir Hiram Maxim—whose invention of a fully automatic machine gun had won him pride of place among colonialists—acknowledged the “potency” of aviation “as an instrument of warfare.” He added ominously that “it behooves all the civilized nations of the earth to lose no time in becoming acquainted with this new means of attack and defence.” Lord Robert Baden–Powell, a leading British colonialist in Africa, concurred in 1908, just a few years after the Wright Brothers illustrated the value of flight, that London was “in possession of a power which controls the fate of nations”—namely, aviation.
That same year, when the prolific and progressive H. G. Wells chose to novelize aviation in The War of the Air, he opted not to avoid the odiousness of the “Yellow Peril concept,” suggesting a close tie between white supremacy and the new era of flight. This poisonous discourse did not escape the attention of African Americans. The twin towers of oppression—slavery and Jim Crow—had long confined them on slave ships, plantations, jails, and neighborhoods. However, the forces of production in U.S. society began to erode this shackling and racist social relationship. The advent of steamships and railroads, and later airplanes, provided people of African descent with a motorized escape from their Earth-bound oppression. This conflict between social relations and productive forces induced strains within the system of iniquity—Jim Crow in particular—causing it to buckle as African Americans deployed these forces to their benefit.
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