Writing Ra for Real 2

This week I’ve been working on my article on Sun Ra and archaeology with the goal of having a completed draft to submit somewhere by the end of the month. It is tentatively titled “Not All Ancient Aliens,” and I posted the first part of the paper on Monday and you can read it here.

It was supposed to be a pretty breezy article that was anchored in a playful (or at least puckish) critique of certain kinds of public archaeology which began with a pair of longwinded responses to a twitter dust up a few weeks ago. You can check out that bloated bloviation here and here

I’m hoping to write some kind of conclusion to this so that it is at least a single cohesive “thing” (which for me is slightly below the level of a manuscript) and maybe circulate it to some readers this fall. It obviously lacks full citation, but that’s in the works too!

“Not All Ancient Aliens” (con’t)

Sun Ra’s efforts to tie together the space age with ancient Egypt represents a distinctive view on the role of ancient (and contemporary) extraterrestrials on our understanding of the past. As a number of critics have observed, however, Ra is not unique in conflating his experience of alien abduction with Biblical narratives especially those relating to Elijah’s chariot and Ezekiel’s celestial vision. Indeed, Graham Locke connected Sun Ra’s abduction narrative to the conversion narratives told by enslaved people in the American South. These narratives frequently involved hearing voices, traveling to celestial destinations by chariot, and a sense of spiritual liberation (Locke 1999: 52-57). The conversion stories of enslave people often served as an image for their own liberation from weight of sin, oppressive circumstances, and, at times, from slavery itself. Elijah’s chariot carried the converted from the painful circumstances of Earthly existence to their divine reward. Henry Blount adapted these narratives and his conversion to Sun Ra to the space age when he replaced Elijah’s chariot with intergalactic travel and voice of God with those of alien visitors. As William Sites noticed that during Sun Ra’s days in Chicago, he interlaced imagery of interplanetary travel with that of Chicago’s EL and adapted the familiar call of the EL conductor announcing stations to interplanetary destinations. As the concluding chant in a Chicago-period recording of his track “Rocket Number 9” announces: ”next stop, Venus!” Sites argued that conflating dreams of interstellar travel with the more mundane experience of riding the El translated the Arkestra’s hopes for interstellar liberation onto the topography of Chicago. Trips to distant planets become trips to the predominantly white middle class suburbs that held out the promise of both racially integrated housing as well as home ownership with the modern amenities promised in Chicago’s new subdivisions.

More powerfully still, the image of spaceship in Ra’s abduction story, in his music, and in his film Space is the Place, appropriated the memory of the slaveship and transformed it from being a vehicle of Black subjugation, to an image of Black liberation and freedom. In the case of Space is the Place, this connection is quite literal as the Sun Ra pilots a spaceship to Earth to rescue its Black population. This conflation of the spaceship and the slaveship takes on even more powerful overtones when Sun Ra combines it with Egyptian and other Afrocentric imagery. In this context, the spaceship becomes a vehicle that can not only open the solar system to Black exploration, but also restore Black people to a legacy which is both celestial and African. Ra’s efforts to connect African culture to extraterrestrial intervention works to bridge the gap between the potential of the space age present (and future) and a pre-enslavement past. His concept of an “Astro Black Mythology” links Blackness to outer space and the timelessness of both myth and the cosmos.

While there might be a tendency to see Sun Ra’s cosmology as it unfolds over his music, performances, and writing, as a kind of utopian fiction, it is important to recognize that connection between space, Biblical narratives, and mythic and historical Black pasts appears in other mid-century contexts as well. For example, it is tempting to see the rings of Saturn as a version of Ezekiel’s wheel tamed by modern astronomy. This allowed Ra to encounter the dreadful power of the heavens and recognize it as benign. Michael Leib’s work on the changing role of Ezekiel’s vision in modern world stressed the role that it played in the eschatology of the Nation of Islam (Leib 1998). The coincidence of Elijah Muhammed’s organization in Chicago during Sun Ra’s tenure apparently led to some interaction between Sun Ra and Nation of Islam members in Washington Park. Paul Youngquist’s reconstruction of these encounters, based apparently on reminiscences of Sun Ra, suggest that these interactions involved debates about cosmology and society and involved mutual respect. Elijah Muhammed took Ezekiel’s great wheeled apparition in the sky and transformed it into a spaceship that would arrive at the end of days. This shapeship represented part of Elijah Muhammed’s view that the Nation of Islam developed from a scientific understanding of reality (Curtis 2016). He promoted his distinctive form of good scientific knowledge produced by Allah and revealing both the best way to live on Earth and a vision of the divine that was not beholden to metaphysics. This profoundly material view of human existence and divinity extended to a literal view of end time and transformed the dreadful vision of Ezekiel into a real spaceship, called the Mother Plane, invented by Allah, and piloted by sentient beings. The spaceship’s mission on Earth was to fire bombs which would kill white people and lead Black believers to a new life. The parallels between Elijah Muhammed’s vision of the Mother Plane and Sun Ra’s visions of spaceships are not precise, but they are sufficiently similar with their Biblical roots and modern inflection to suggest that Ra’s view of interstellar beings shaping both the past and future of Black existence is not the idiosyncratic musings of a modern Menocchio.

Moreover, Sun Ra’s conflation of Egypt with the pan-African origins of Blackness, reflected long-standing notions of Afrocentrism that continued to enjoy prominence in the mid-20th century. While archaeologists and historians have viewed much of this work as problematic, it nevertheless represented a significant tradition in Black thought that continues to have a foothold in both popular and academic works (Howe 1999). As Sun Ra’s album Atlantis demonstrated, New York, the Black Arts Movement, and radical voices such as Amiri Baraka formed an important backdrop to Sun Ra’s view of a transnational Black identity. Baraka, in particular, remained an important collaborator and support of Sun Ra and while Ra rarely spoke explicitly about his political commitments, Baraka vocally championed various Pan-African and Black nationalist programs throughout the 1960s and 1970s (Simanga 2015). Sun Ra’s relationship with Baraka crystalized during his time in New York, where Baraka published some of Sun Ra’s work both in his magazine The Cricket and in Black Fire the influential anthology that he edited with Larry Neal in 1968. The Arkestra also performed for Amiri Baraka’s play Black Mass in 1966, which explicitly combined ideas of racial history present in the Nation of Islam and Sun Ra’s cosmic themes, including his well-known track “Satellites are Spinning” (Szwed 2000: 211-212). Baraka also offered what might be best-known eulogy for Sun Ra after his death in 1993. Even when the Arkestra departed New York for Philadelphia, where the Arkestra made its home from the late 1960s until today, Sun Ra frequented the museum at the University of Pennsylvania and the library at Temple University which emerged as an important American center for Afrocentric thought in the US and through its outlet the Journal of Black Studies (Howe 1999:xxxx).

For archaeologists, this reading of Sun Ra offer a lens for understanding how Black views of extraterrestrials allowed certain thinkers to blur the division between the past, present, and future. This had particular significance in an African American context. Paul Gilroy adapts W.E.B. Dubois’s notion of the “double consciousness” to argue that in the Black Atlantic, Black people continue to renegotiate the tensions of being both European and Black (Gilroy 1993). This tension is manifest in some ways within the disciplines of archaeology and history as certain groups lacked indigenous or national status deriving from a putative premodern existence, especially in a North American context, and have also stood outside the normative, white, male, elite, European standard of being modern. In this way, certain discursive limits within our disciplines reified the dislocation of the Middle Passage, the period of enslavement, and, even the Great Migration of urban and rural Blacks to the north by excluding them from paradigms that anchored identity in a persistent past capable of sustaining the weight of progress. Sun Ra and other Black thinkers, however, turned this exclusion on its head by conflating the past, present, and future into explicit, if fanciful, new identities that likewise defied the modern notion of place by merging an ahistorical Egyptianized Africa with an extraterrestrial existence. Sun Ra explicitly admits that his relationship with time itself is simple or not unproblematic. Without adherence to modern concepts of time and place, comparative measures of progress from some kind of essentialized place of origin falter. An Egyptianizing astronaut piloting a spaceship destined to transport Black people to a new world become possible as part of a “Astro Black Mythology.” These are not efforts to revise or critique archaeological or historical discourses. Moreover, Sun Ra’s ideas do not represent a pseudo-archaeology that derives authority from forensic similarities to academic or professional archaeology. Instead he offers a far more radical alternative.

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