Music Monday: Sun Ra, Pseudoarchaeoogy, and Atlantis

This weekend, I listened to Sun Ra’s great 1969 album Atlantis while I thought about the recent twitter dust up between Flint Dibble and the director of a new documentary for the Discovery channel that purports to reveal the location of the lost continent. 

Dr. Dibble does a masterful job unpacking the problems with this documentary and moreover argues that this kind of pseudo-archaeology is harmful to society. I am not particularly interested in addressing the particulars of this documentary (and probably won’t watch it) and share some of his concerns about pseudo-archaeology. At the same time, over the last few years I’ve struggled a bit to understand pseudo-archaeological arguments as inherently racist. To be clear, Dr. Dibble doesn’t make the claim that pseudo-archaeology is inherently racist, but he clearly connects pseudo archaeology surrounding the myth of Atlantis to any number of contemporary white supremacist groups and racist lines of thinking. Moreover, the connection between pseudo-archaeology, white supremacy, and racism is so regularly made by well-meaning scholars that it has taken on the character of Giorgio A. Tsoukalos’s famous meme: I’m not saying it’s racist, but it’s racist. 

Of course, I realize that most archaeologists understand that pseudo-archaeology is a big tent and includes a wide range of ideas, methods, and theories that mimic the practices of academic and professional archaeology to greater and lesser extents. Moreover, the reception of pseudo-archaeology needn’t lead directly to views of the world that are, say, anti-Black, for example, even in cases when authors advance arguments with obvious racial intent. That said, the dangers of parroting or reconfiguring ideas derived from authors with racist intentions is real especially if it encourages others to explore their work and absorb their ideas. I’d also gently contend that this is a risk that academic and professional archaeologists take every day as we seek to disentangle the origins of our discipline and sometimes legitimate disciplinary knowledge from its original social, political, and intellectual context.  

All these caveats and equivocating leads me to Sun Ra’s Atlantis. If you haven’t listened to it, you should. Originally recorded in 1967 and released in 1969, this album is in many ways the culmination of the Arkestra’s seven-year residence in New York City. John Szwed, in his definitive biography of Sun Ra, argues that the mid-1960s were a crucial time for the musician as he sought to reconcile the tension between his Southern past was his hopes for a future. While he had always been reluctant to discuss his childhood and early professional life in Birmingham, Alabama, by the late-1960s Sun Ra had started to deny the existence of Herman Blount and to attempt to erase his connection with Birmingham, particularly after the 1963 Baptist Church bombing in the city. He also had become more involved in the Black Arts Movement in New York and its radical efforts to transform the meaning and purpose of Black art in the aftermath of Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965.  

Ra’s Atlantis was recorded at Michael Babatunde Olatunji’s Center of African Culture in New York. Olatunji’s influential use of drumming which sought to evoke African rhythms  had exerted a significant influence of Sun Ra’s use of percussion and, according to Szwed, the two musicians often exchanged band members. Olatunji was well known among New York jazz musicians and had performed with John Coltrane and influenced contemporary recordings of Archie Shepp (especially his The Magic of Ju-Ju). Atlantis also witnessed one of Sun Ra’s most ambitious efforts to integrate electronic instruments, such as his famous “Solar Sound Organ” and the Clavinet into his recordings. The merging of the futuristic sounds of electronic instruments and the polyrhythmic African drums reflected Ra’s commitments to both Afrocentric views of the past and Afrofuturist views of the world and paralleled his own disinclination to publicly discuss his own early life and career. In other words, Ra’s music and personal representation embraced new forms of continuity that sought to erase the painful experiences of Black people during their enslavement and ongoing struggle in the American South. More than that, he used his music and his persona as Sun Ra to imagine the deep roots of the Black experience in Africa and the potential for the liberation of Black people in the future.  

It might come as some surprise, then, to learn that Sun Ra’s invocation of Atlantis likely derived, at least in part, from his reading of a wide range of pseudo-archaeological, pseudo-historical, theosophical, and mystical works on Atlantis.  

This is not subtle. For example, track titles on this album evoked various visions of Atlantis: “Mu,” for example, refers to the lost continent proposed by Augustus Le Plongeon, whose 19th century work in the Yucatan involved trying to connect the Mayan to Egypt and Atlantis. His works influenced the theosophical thinking of Helena Blavatsky and Minnesota politician and lawyer Ignatius L. Donnelly, whose late-19th century writings on Atlantis represents an important landmark in 20th century pseudo-archaeological writing about the “lost continent”  (It is worth noting that throughout his political career Donnelly was a Radical Republican and later a Agrarian populist). The second track is titled “Lemuria” which evoked work of zoologist Philip Sclater (1829-1913) who argued that Lemuria once stood between Africa and India before sinking into the sea. His ideas both anticipated theories of continental drift and found favor as the home of humanity in the works of Helena Blavatsky. “Yucatan” and “Bimini” likely refer to various ideas of Atlantis in the work of the influential medium Edgar Cayce (1876-1945) whose books, including On Atlantis, appear in Ra’s library and who advocated for racist theories of polygenism for humanity (which cast a shadow over Ra’s thinking on race as well).

It may be that the greatest influence on Sun Ra’s vision of Atlantis came from the Alsatian mystic and pseudo-archaeologist R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz (1887–1961).To be clear Schwaller de Lubicz is exactly the kind of pseudo-archaeologist that Dr. Dibble seeks to root out of the popular discourse. Schwaller de Lubicz argued that the weathering on the Sphinx and its enclosure was the result of water and this suggested some of the monuments in Egypt should pre-date the Biblical flood and connected them with the destroyed continent of Atlantis. This allowed some readers (and many pseudo-archaeologists) to connect an Egypt and the construction of its great monuments to a much more ancient culture that was destroyed by the flood. This, like so much pseudo-archaeology, sought to disassociate the Ancient Egyptian known to archaeologists (and by extension contemporary Egyptians) from many of its greatest monuments. In the hands of some, this served to sever the Egyptian cultural achievement from a Black, African past and contribute to racist arguments for the primitive and subordinate character of Black culture in the contemporary world. 

At the same time, it is worth pointing out that Sun Ra’s reading of Schwaller de Lubicz could hardly be seen as conventionally racist. In other words, the reception of these arguments among different groups produced different reading. For Sun Ra (and a certain strain of Black readers), the mystical (or even alien) origins of Egyptian society did not sever contemporary Black culture from an African past, but anchored it in a technologically, intellectually, and spiritually superior civilization that white society had sought to suppress. When set against the narrative of the Middle Passage and the Atlantic slave trade which severely compromised Black ties to an African past, the story of Atlantis and alien interventions in Egypt create an alternative legacy that overwrites the painful legacy of their time as an enslaved and marginalized group.   

I’ll blog more on the recent controversies on Atlantis and pseudo-archaeology tomorrow, but as a kind of warm up, I wanted to put something together that makes an effort to unpack one little sliver of the complex ways that pseudo-archaeology and the myth of Atlantis has played in American culture.  

And, as his band sings at the end of the album, I hope that “Sun Ra and his band from outer space have entertained you here.”

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