Gil Scott Heron's Funeral Will Not Be Televised

As I was listening to Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers last night while surfing the web, I discovered that Gil Scott Heron had died. Heron has always been an underappreciated poet, musician and cultural griot. Back in college, I was a protester, forcefully attacking injustice the way some of my fellow students vigorously assailed organic chemistry. I was a regular at The Shrine of The Black Madonna bookstore, where for the first time in my life I was able to touch actual copies of the black protest literature frequently referenced by some of the adults back in my hometown. I was deliberate in my choice of clothes, connecting myself directly to the sixties, at least in my mind, by wearing the very blazers my own father had worn back in his college days.


And then one day, a friend of mine from New Orleans asked if I had ever heard of Gil Scott Heron. I can’t remember how I answered, or what I looked like when I answered, but the expression on my friend’s face was one of incredulity. “All this protesting you do and you don’t know who Gil Scott Heron is?”

A day or so later, he located the cassette tape one of his older brothers had made for him and invited me to his room to check out The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

 

 

I have never forgotten my introduction to the persistence of the polyrhythmic drumbeats, or the eye opening lyrics, but it was Heron’s sharp edged voice, insistent and irreverent and unrelenting, that articulated a me I didn’t even know how to be yet. In retrospect, my college protesting indulged my own sense of self righteousness, especially since I harbored the same bourgeoisie aspirations most of my classmates had. I was merely “acting” like I was ready for a revolution.

Heron’s most famous piece has been transmogrified by the passage of time into an iconic emblem of the social discontent that existed in the seventies.    

The first time I ever heard Gil Scott-Heron, I had no idea whom I was listening to. "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," destined to remain the most popular song of his more than 25-year career, was recorded in 1974. Today, it is still a highly anthologized rare groove classic; with its fusion of percussive jazz and spoken word, it's still in heavy rotation wherever politically conscious Afrocentrics puff on clove cigarettes while sipping coffee (or Long Island iced teas). I was in one of these spots the first time I heard the song and was instantly captivated by Heron's delivery as much as by his message.

"The revolution will not be televised, because the revolution is gon' be live," Heron predicted. And I believed, although it had been twenty years since Heron first recorded those words. Many of us are still waiting for that non-televised revolution. Others put away their black power fist necklaces in exchange for gold ones. Still, during that curious period of my late adolescence, I had internalized Heron's message without asking whom I was listening to. The message in itself was enough of a gift.

Word up, root down: Musing on Gil Scott-Heron By Daniel Gray-Kontar

Crack cocaine seemed to claim what was left of Heron's revolutionary spirit by the time he was middle aged. Almost everyone I've talked to about his death said they thought he was much older than 62. The emotional toll of having to continue to relive the ideals of his youth year after year appears to have presented a significant downside to Heron's status as a cultural icon. And yet, even in the most recent video interviews I watched last night, there did not seem to be any despair in his eyes or any sound of regret in his voice for the some of the choices he has made in his life.

The flowers woke up bloomin'

And put on a color show just for me

The shadows dark and gloomy

I told them all to keep the hell away from me

Because I don't feel like believin' everything I do gon' turn out wrong

When vibrations I'm receiving say

“Hold on, brother, just you be strong”

A Lovely Day   Gil Scott Heron

Something tells me Gil Scott Heron's funeral will not be televised.     

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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