Sun Ra, Papyrus, and Ancient Aliens

A recent New York Times article on the latest album from the Sun Ra Arkestra included an interesting lede: “In the early 2000s, the pianist Farid Barron read that his idol John Coltrane had once received a papyrus from Sun Ra that was said to stop time.”

I immediately skimmed the article for a reference to Dirk Obbink or Karen King assuming that any reference to papyrus in the national media was likely tied to the recent controversies in papyrology. Since Coltrane died in 1967, I quickly came to realize that this story did not involve academia, but, instead, was simply a very brief, and potentially innocent (if not apocryphal) reference the exchange of papyrus between two members of the jazz aristocracy. Of course, the exact character of the papyrus in question remains unclear and the papyrus is now lost. It might not be ancient. It might not be papyrus, and if the papyrus could stop time, it is possible that Obbink was somehow involved after all. 

Sun Ra’s legacy is getting a good bit of attention lately. His eponymous band, the Sun Ra Arkestra, under his long time tenor player Marshall Allen, released its first live album in 20 years, Swirling, and it’s good. Sun Ra’s estate continues a regularly flow of re-releases and many fans eagerly await the re-release of the recordings from his tour of Egypt in 1971 on Friday

There has also been a growing interest in Afrofuturism. The popularity of the 2018 film, Black Panther, has almost certain contributed to the interest in recent work by Marlon James (Black Leopard, Red Wolf) and newly-named MacArthur Fellow N.K. Jemisin and brought renewed attention to the work of Octavia Butler. As Blacks and People of Color struggle for freedom and equality in the present, they continue to imagine emancipatory futures, often anchored in significant and expanded perspectives on the past, that complicate and subvert the persistent paternalism rooted in myths of progress and development. Modern scholarship, such as Paul Youngquist’s A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth  of Afrofuturism (2016), recognizes Sun Ra’s work in the origins of both Afrofuturism and distinctive forms of Black mystical history that links the Space Age with a Black African past. Considering the growing interest in this work, it is hardly surprising that Duke University Press has republished John Szwed’s expansive biography of Sun Ra, Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra, this year with a new preface. 

As Ra’s name suggests, he was particularly interested in the history of Egypt and the role of Egypt in Black culture, religious power, and identity. In this way, he was similar to any number of jazz artists in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s from Nina Simone (High Priestess of Soul (1967)) to Miles Davis (Nefertiti (1968)), Pharoah Sanders, and John and Alice Coltrane. Despite his over the top theatrics, Ra’s interest in Egypt was not casual. As his biographer John Szwed makes clear, Ra read extensively not only 1950s pop-Egyptology, various mystical writers seeking to explore and unlock the power of Egyptian religion and culture, and scholars seeking to find the origins of Black people in ancient Egyptian, Nubia and Ethiopia, but also the work of academic Egyptologists James Henry Breasted and Sir. E.A. Wallis Budge. During Ra’s time in Chicago (from the end of World War II until around 1960), Ra had access to the Oriental Institute and the Field Museum with their collections of Egyptian Antiquities. From the late 1960s until later in his life, after he relocated to Philadelphia, he not only gave interviews at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, but also performed concerts there (some of which appear in the brilliant 1980 documentary, A Joyful Noise.)

Ra also encountered George G.M. James‘s work, Stolen Legacy: The Greeks Were Not the Authors of Greek Philosophy, But the People of North Africa, Commonly Called the Egyptians (1954), although it is possible that Ra had overlapped with James when he was a student at Alabama A&M and James a professor there. James’s book sought to locate the origins of Greek thought in Egypt. While many scholars have read it with a jaundiced eye, it not only anticipated academic works like Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1984), but  its wide circulation among African Americans contributed to a growing interest in Egypt as a source of contemporary Black identity in the 1950s and 1960s. Paul Youngquist argues that Sun Ra’s interest in Egypt formed the roots of an identity that sought autonomy from the oppressive anti-Black character of White society in 1950s Chicago.

Considering the depth and sincerity of Ra’s interest in Egypt, it is entirely possible that sometime in his life he acquired a papyrus fragment which he, in turn, gifted to John Coltrane. I’m not familiar with work on African American collectors of antiquities, but I suspect that folks like Coltrane and Ra would have seen collecting as part of a larger effort to consolidate their cultural and intellectual roots. 

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Part of my wanted to name this post: Not All Believers in Ancient Aliens are Racist. I obviously though better of it.

Sun Ra’s interest in the space age complemented his interest in Egypt as even a quick viewing of his 1974 film Space is the Place reveals. Starting in the 1960s, space related imagery and sounds (e.g. the theremin and various electric organs) played a more and more significant role in Ra’s music. This coincided with the launch of Sputnik, the US-Soviet space race, and the growing interest in American culture. Unlike the lily-white Jetsons, Ra anchored his view of the space age in a continuum that begins with the celestial beings of ancient Egypt and especially, Ra, the sun god. To the best of my knowledge, Sun Ra never directly credits celestial beings with, say, building the pyramids or creating Egyptian culture. It is nevertheless clear that for Sun Ra, there is a direct line from the celestial deities and especially Ra (the god) to Egyptian culture to Black culture to outer space. This trajectory is not meant to somehow alienate (heh heh) the achievements of the Egyptians from their humanity, but to elevate the status of Black culture by connecting them to the origins in the first, mystical, celestial, space age.

This connection was emancipatory as it broke Black culture free from narratives of development and progress and disrupted time — as his putative papyrus suggested — by saying that Blacks have always been celestial beings and living in the space age.

To make all this more clear, Ra famously claimed to have been abducted by aliens sometime in the 1930s (although his earliest account of the abduction appears to have been in the 1950s). As Szwed cleverly notes, Ra’s account of his abduction echoes “Velikovsky revised by von DanikenWorlds in Collision reimagined through Chariots of the Gods?” It’s anachronistic, of course, as Chariots was not published until 1968, but it would seem that Szwed recognized the allusion to “ancient aliens” or at very least extraterrestrial influence on the past.

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To be clear, I’m far from an expert on the thought of Sun Ra, Afrofuturism, and Egyptology. The lede from the New York Times, a recent article on the Society for Classical Studies blog on “Casting Cleopatra” (part 1, part 2), and a piece at Hyperallergic on Egyptology cosplay, however, got me thinking about the relationship between Sun Ra and contemporary concern for “Everyday Orientalism.” The sophisticated work at the intersection of the popular and the academic by these scholars has inspired my own, far more modest, musings especially as my press has a book that will deal with Sun Ra’s music (and bewildering discography) in the works. 

On the one hand, it is clear that Sun Ra’s view of Egypt is the stuff of Orientalist (especially Modernist) fantasy and his interest in the esoteric and mystical character of “the East” confirms this. At the same time, Ra’s goals are less invested in a desire to perpetuate colonial relations of power by “othering” the Orient. Instead, it would seem, that Ra sought to negotiate his own sense of alienation from White society in the US by locating the spiritual, racial, historical, and, indeed, cosmic roots of Black people in ancient Egypt. The celestial origins of Ra, his own abduction, and the space age character of his music and thought do not seek to somehow deprive ancient or contemporary Egyptians of their historical legacy as pyramid builders, but to elevate Black culture and society to the space age by arguing that they have always been celestial. Thus, Sun Ra’s emancipatory music and thought short-circuited any pride in the technological progress of the Cold War “space race” and sought to reinforce the primacy of Egyptian culture as a way to elevate the status of Black people in America. 

In this context, a papyrus that stops time makes perfect sense.

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