This weekend, I started to think just a bit more seriously about writing something on Sun Ra and the relationship between his work (both in music and writing) and Orientalism. I’ve toyed with some ideas related to this topic a few months ago, and you can read some of them here. I’m not entirely sure where this project is going, but I wanted to get some momentum behind it.
To help this project along, I took a dive into Kevin McGeough’s massive and impressive (and massively impressive) The Ancient Near East in the Nineteenth Century: Appreciations and Appropriations (Sheffield Phoenix Press 2015). I was particularly interested in the final chapters of volume 3 which deal with the Theosophical movements of the late 19th century and, then, in the final part a quick tour through some of the early 20th century legacies of 19th century views of the Near East with special attention to Freud and H.P. Lovecraft.
McGeough’s attention to Helena Blavatsky’s work drew my attention both because her works appeared in Sun Ra’s library and because she located the source of an ancient and unchanging wisdom in ancient Near Eastern (particularly Egyptian) sources. While Blavatsky’s understanding of the Egyptian, Near Eastern, and Classical texts left much to be desired, her work nevertheless reflected a growing popular and academic interest in the Near East that had fomented over the 19th century. Oddly, her most famous work Isis Unveiled (1877) does not appear in Sun Ra’s library but her subsequent book, The Secret Doctrine (1888) does. Connecting Sun Ra’s rather eclectic esotericism to theosophy of Blavatsky may be useful in disentangling some of the pseudoscientific elements of his thinking which are explicit in both his poetry and his fascination with the space age.
Sun Ra’s library also contained books by Gerald Massey, the eccentric 19th century poet and playwright, who wrote a number of works that sought to trace Biblical origins to the Nile valley. In particular, Sun Ra owned a copy of Massey’s A book of the beginnings : containing an attempt to recover and reconstitute the lost origines of the myths and mysteries, types and symbols, religion and language, with Egypt for the mouthpiece and Africa as the birthplace (1881).
I also want to try to understand works like Oahspe: A New Bible by John Ballou Newbrough which is a mystical text that was dictated to Newbrough while in a trance. It evokes both Biblical and Egyptian motifs in its spiritualism and likewise appears in Sun Ra’s collection. Similarly Sun Ra’s library contains works of James M. Pryse, another late 19th century Theosophist.
The other aspect of Sun Ra’s work that has fascinated me is his connection with African American writers who looked to connect Black culture and race, in various ways, to Egypt, the Near East, and Biblical narratives. The most prominent of these was 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) which anticipated some of Martin Bernal’s arguments in Black Athena and famously attracted the critique of Mary Lefkowitz.
James’s work represents a key early text that we might associate with Afrocentrism. And I’d like to try to understand similar 19th and early 20th century works in Sun Ra’s library. For example, I was not familiar with Boston Napoleon Bonaparte Boyd whose work appear among Sun Ra’s books. His work, Search light on the seventh wonder; x-ray and search light on the Bible with natural science; discoveries of the twentieth century, from what I gather, attempted to link Biblical and historical narratives to the condition of Africa and Blacks in society and the need to reclaim lost knowledge to restore true wisdom to the world.
Similarly, I’m fascinated by the work of Theodore P. Ford, especially his God Wills the Nego (1939) which sought to locate the history of Black people in Ethiopia and Egypt as a way to restore their status in mid-century American society. (There is one line of thinking that connects Ford with Wallace Fard Muhammad, the mysterious founder of the Nation of Islam.)