Skip to content

Memorialized on Mercury: A Monument to the Life and Work of Maya Angelou

February 25, 2020
Left: Angelou Crater on Mercury. Right: Portrait of Maya Angelou by Steve Dunwell

“You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”

 – Maya Angelou, Still I Rise 

As we celebrate Black History Month, there is no better time to remember the life and work of the poet, memoirist, dancer, singer, actress, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou (1928-2014). This year, her legacy deserves extra attention. On September 19th, 2019, 50 years after the publication of her most famous work and first autobiography, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”,  a new and permanent monument to her contributions to literature and the arts was approved by the International Astronomical Union (a.k.a the IAU). You may be wondering what outer space has to do with the first Black woman to publish a nonfiction best seller–and that is a reasonable question. 

In order to understand the relationship, you’ve got to know what the IAU does. The IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature determines the official names for different geologic features on planetary bodies throughout the solar system. From the Moon to the Kuiper Belt objects out beyond Pluto, the IAU is in charge of approving the naming–or nomenclature–of different surface features, like mountains, plains, and craters. Each planetary body has a specific set of criteria or naming conventions which all proposed names must meet in order to be considered. The individual(s) proposing the name must also make a case for why the feature (crater, mountain chain, etc.) is worthy of being named. This typically boils down to scientific value–whether some aspect of the feature in question is being actively studied by scientists; or whether there is a future plan to study it. 

Having official and universally accepted names for geologic features makes it easier for others to follow, and often reexamine, the research other scientists have completed. For example, it is much easier to locate Montes Alpes than it would be to find “that set of mountains on the northeast edge of one of those big impact basins on the nearside of the Moon.” 

For craters on Mercury, the IAU only considers names of “artists, musicians, painters, and authors who have made outstanding or fundamental contributions to their field and have been recognized as art historically significant figures for more than 50 years.” Angelou made her mark on history with a long list of firsts: she wrote the first original screenplay by a Black woman to be produced into a feature film (Georgia, Georgia, 1972), was the first Black woman to direct a major motion picture (Down in the Delta, 1998), published the first nonfiction bestseller by a Black woman (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969), worked as the first black cable car driver in San Francisco, and countless more. She was a true master of written and spoken word, and in 1993 was the first poet to recite their work at a presidential inauguration since Robert Frost in 1961. 

Angelou’s accomplishments are truly outstanding, and she received many awards for her work including three Grammy Awards for her spoken-word albums (1993, 1995, 2002), the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2010), and the National Medal of Arts (2000). These awards are proof of her impact on the arts and her influence on literature and pop culture. 

Image of Angelou crater acquired by the MESSENGER spacecraft.
Angelou Crater as seen by the MESSENGER spacecraft (circled in red). Center latitude/longitude   80.3° N, 293.3° E (66.7° W). Northernmost latitude: 80.5° N, Southernmost latitude: 80.1° N, Easternmost longitude: 294.6° E (65.4° W), Westernmost longitude: 292.2° E (67.8° W). Feature Diameter: 17.4 km. 

This past summer, while working at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, it came to my attention that one of the interns, Matthew Tagle, was working on a proposal with his mentor, Dr. Nancy Chabot, to name six craters near the north pole of Mercury. These craters are of scientific interest because they contain regions which are permanently in shadow, and these regions have the proper conditions to support stable water ice. 

When I looked into the criteria for crater nomenclature, I immediately thought of Maya Angelou–that she deserved to be memorialized alongside so many of history’s other great artists. After suggesting the name to another intern who was more involved with the proposal, and realizing that she was unfamiliar with Angelou, I waited until I had a chance to pitch the idea to Dr. Chabot. She and her intern had already chosen names for the six craters they were initially interested in, but she was enthusiastic about the idea, and so found a seventh crater of interest to include in the proposal. On August 6th, 2019, the proposal was submitted to the IAU, and on September 19th, all seven names, including Angelou Crater, were approved. 

North Polar View of Mercury. Map provided by the IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature. Angelou Crater circled in red.  

Seeing a Black artist honored alongside such great artists as Tolkien and Rachmaninoff is important in so many ways. To realize their potential, people need to feel welcomed. Creating an inclusive community begins by recognizing the achievements of all people. As a Black woman with a physics degree pursuing a PhD in Planetary Science, it is especially important to me to do everything I can to create a more diverse and inclusive community in the geosciences for those that follow. I take Maya Angelou’s words to heart; “if you don’t like something, change it. And if you can’t change it, change your attitude.” 

According to the American Geosciences Institute, in the US, only about 3% of all geoscience graduate students are Black or African-American. Studies show that there has been little to no improvement in these numbers in over forty years. I aim to do my part to change the attitudes of current academics while educating the community on inclusivity, and to encourage future scholars to investigate possible careers in geoscience. 

Having the opportunity to permanently honor the contributions of Maya Angelou on the surface of another planet has perhaps been the most meaningful experience of my nascent scientific career. 

Angelou crater will forever memorialize the life, work, and powerful words of Maya Angelou. 

“Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.” 

– Maya Angelou, Still I Rise 

Jordan Bretzfelder is currently working on her PhD in the Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences at UCLA.  Follow her journey through graduate school and pilot training on instagram at  @onesmallstepforjordan and on twitter at  @JordanAdAstra

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: