Reviewing Sun Ra (Part 4)

This weekend, I read and enjoyed two recent books on Black utopian thought that included chapters on Sun Ra: Alex Zamalin’s Black Utopia: The History of an Idea from Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism (Columbia 2019) and Jayna Brown’s Black Utopias: Speculative Life and Music of Other Worlds (Duke 2021). The two books follow a very similar organization and survey major Black thinkers of the 18th, 19th and 20th century who engaged with utopian themes: Sojourner Truth, Martin Delany, W.E.B. Dubois, Richard Wright, as well as Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, and Sun Ra. 

You can read part 1, part 2, and part 3 here, and below, the next part of my somewhat flailing effort to write a review of some recent contributions to our appreciation of Sun Ra.

Graham Locke’s Blutopia (1999) which considers the utopian visions in the work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton, noted that Ra’s journey to space and his cosmic claims had parallels in African American experiences of heavily journeys associated with Christian revelation. Ra’s spaceship finds a scriptural parallel in Elijah’s chariot on which the prophet escaped escape from the earthly realm. Locke also recognizes allusions to spirituals and in the chants and dances of the Arkestra during their performances parallels to rituals in the Black church which evoked the Exodus or the incantations that brought down the walls of Jericho. Sun Ra, of course, was uninterested in explicit references to the Bible which he considered, at best, a book laced with secret knowledge accessible through cryptic readings and wordplay and, at worst, an obsolete icon in an age where spaceships replace flaming chariots (Locke, 41). His broadsheets from his Chicago days reflected a sustained effort to find new meaning in scripture on the basis of substitution and numerology, and he dismissed Christianity and organized religion as meaningless. At the same time, the often mystical references to scripture, parallels between his cosmic journey and Christian spiritual experiences, and the Afrocentric impulses that celebrated the accomplishments of the Egyptians create a public personal that simultaneously looks toward both the space age and a Black past. For Locke, the contradictory and ambiguous character of Ra’s utopian vision reflects part of the genius of his “Astro Black Mythology” situated at the intersection of specifics of history and the past and the universals of myth and the future.

Jayna Brown’s recent book on Black Utopia’s noted that Sun Ra once quipped “Me and time never got along so good—we just sort of ignore each other” (Brown 2021, 158). She goes on to argue that, for Ra, time represented a linear understanding of human experience and progress. For Ra’s utopian view, the concept of utopia as literally placelessness complements its timelessness. This created space for Ra’s commitment to the impossible and the potential for “radical alterity” (Brown 2021, 159). Nowhere is this embodied more clearly than in Ra’s identity which regularly defied definition. He was neither human, nor alien, he was not living in the past, present, or the future and his poetry, in particular, continuously sought to . This radical conceptualization of his own existence finds parallels in the science fiction of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany which feature creatures that defy our notions of personal identity and who exist outside of conventional time. For Alex Zamalin Ra’s willingness to operate at the level of impossible paradoxically pushed his audiences to ponder the limits and potential of new possibilities that could transcend the restricted notions of Black experience, planetary existence, and humanity itself. 

Kara Keeling’s starts her 2019 book Queer Times, Black Futures (NYU 2019), with a study of Sun Ra’s cult 1974 film, Space is the Place. Her chapter begins with a quote from an Arkestra performance in the middle of the film: “It’s after the end of the world. Don’t you know that yet?” In the film, an extraterrestrial visitor played by Sun Ra arrives in late-1960s Oakland intent of leading Black people to a new planet in a spaceship powered by music. A mysterious antagonist called the Overseer, however, works to thwart Sun Ra’s efforts both in the present and in the past where he appeared in a Chicago club in the 1950s only to be vanquished by the power of Ra’s music. Scenes of Ra and the Overseer playing a kind of cosmic card game in a timeless and spaceless setting punctuate the film and have clear consequences for Ra’s efforts to rescue Black people on Earth. Throughout the conflict, the power of Ra’s music neutralizes the efforts of the Overseer as well as other forces, including NASA scientists, who seek to disrupt his plans. Ultimately, he manages to save Black people in Oakland by teleporting them onto his spaceship and departing the planet. Keeling notes that Ra’s vision a Black future is laced with impossibility from the music-powered space ship to the dream of colonizing another planet. Keeling’s discussion of Space is the Place opens the door onto critiques of the world anchored in progressive trajectories tied to capital and narratives political development which so often serve to deny Black people equality. By queering the tidy linearity of time, Ra creates space for new impossibilities and new pathways that are limited neither to the present nor the future. 

Sun Ra’s contributions to Black utopian visions find their embodiment in the Arkestra’s performances which were often simultaneously unstructured and highly disciplined, futuristic, yet anchored in the tradition of improvised and jazz music, and both humorous and sincere. The Arkestra’s recordings continues to combine music from across Sun Ra’s career demonstrating in practice how the rules of time need not apply. 

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