Three Things Thursday: Fragments of the Future

An old friend of mine once told me that he wasn’t writing so much any more because writing with an act that assumed a future and he no long assumed that there was a future. At around the time he said this, he left academia and he and his partner left town. The entire sequence of events was not only depressing, but also convinced me that he was much smarter than I and academia (and our community) was going to be much the poorer for his and his partner’s departure. I really don’t know whether he writes any more and I’ve been a bit too nervous to ask.

Over the last few years I’ve found myself thinking more and more about the future. This summer, for example, I read (well, ok, I listened to) Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future (2020) and wrote about it here. I’ve been thinking a bit, on and off, about Afrofuturism and about how archaeology of the present exists in the space between a recognizable past and an anticipated future.

In the spirit of this musing, I offer three little fragments of the archaeology of the future here:

Fragment the First

One of the most interesting things about Sun Ra is his willingness to conflate the past and the future. For Ra this was a response to the excitement of the post-War moment when the potential of new forms of social and economic mobility met the dawning of the Space Age. At the same time, Ra understood that traditional forces in American society would continuously undermine and challenge whether Black people would have access to this new future.

This ambivalent attitude toward the future required Ra to both break with the traditional view of the Black past anchored as it was in their experiences of enslavement and legal, social, political, and economic marginalization. In the place of these experiences Ra imagined new pasts for Black people. He embrace of a wide range of Afrocentrist perspectives on the past allowed him to imagine Africa, and Egypt in particular, as the new foundation for both contemporary and future Black unity and power. His willingness to construct a new past that would allow Black people full access to a Space Age future may well represent an early and significant example of Laurent Olivier’s notion of presentism. For Olivier, presentism represents a view of the present that is no longer linear and is, therefore, no longer the product of the past. The break between the present and the past likewise allowed for the future to drift untethered from current existence. For Sun Ra this makes the future the domain of the impossible. Rationality, progress, and modes of change anchored in evolutionary or developmental ways of thinking no longer point toward a better reality in the future. This required a rewriting of the past and a reimagining of the present in ways that would support a future that could operate either outside the conventional limits of historical causality or despite these limits. The future because the space of the impossible.

Fragment the Second  

This week, while waiting for an evening meeting to start, I read a bit of Rebecca Bryant’s and Daniel M. Knight’s The Anthropology of the Future (2019) which has one fo the most accessible and compelling introductions to the growing interest in the future in the humanities and social sciences. Plus, both scholars have done work in the Mediterranean (Bryant on Cyprus and in Turkey and Knight in Greece). 

The motivation to explore an anthropology (history, archaeology, or sociology) of the future stems largely from the tensions between two attitudes toward the future. On the one hand, we hope that we are in a “late stage” of capitalism, nationalism, or modernism and that the next stage will somehow redeem the horrors that the main stage wrought (massive, global inequality, wars, and technologies with almost infinite capacity to destroy). On the other hand, we are increasingly come to realize that the paradigms established to take care of the future have made it difficult to imagine our way out of the looming existential crises fired by climate change, catastrophic inequality, and a limitless capacity for apocalyptic violence. In this context, there is a growing feeling that the future is foreclosed and that humanity or at least human society will invariably continue to amble toward its ultimate demise. 

It is hard to know what this means for disciplines like history and archaeology which perhaps emphasize the present as a lens through which to view the past more than the future. The 2019 issue of the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology offers a few visions of what an archaeology of the future could be, and as much as I like the articles there, I wonder whether we are open enough to new intellectual or discursive tools necessary to imagine a future that is increasingly impossible?

Fragment the Third

Yesterday on a boring treadmill run, I started the read Joy Williams’ latest novel, Harrow (2021). I’ve made it through the first chapter and it’s beautiful and haunting. I will resist the temptation to try to talk about the book already (especially since Williams has a seemingly limitless capacity to surprise), but I will say that there is something profoundly archaeological about the book. Williams interest in things, places, and landscapes, her attention to entropy and site formation, and her ability to think about how the present will appear from the vantage point of a dystopian, but more or less banal near future. 

At this point, I’m not sure whether the richly drawn setting for the story is merely a backdrop or whether it will serve as a character, but I’m intrigued and excited enough to move this book, delicately, from the “read for fun” to the “read for work” list. 

In short, stay tuned and I look forward to blogging about this book (and others) in the future.

Two Draft Articles on Sun Ra

Over the past few months, I’ve been working on a couple of projects that bring the musician, thinker, poet, and performer Sun Ra to bear on archaeology. In fact, I’ve been obsessed enough with Sun Ra to create a category on my blog dedicated to my musings on this artist.

At first, I wasn’t entirely sure where any of this work was going, but by the end of the summer things started to come into focus. 

My first Sun Ra project was a review of a bunch of the new scholarly publications which include some analysis of his work. It’s going to appear in North Dakota Quarterly probably this fall.

It’s called “Whither Sun Ra?” and you can read that review here.

The second piece is more of a work in progress and I’m at the stage of really needing some good feedback on it. I initially had the idea that it could appear in Near Eastern Archaeology and straddle a popular and scholarly audience, but as I wrote it, it inevitably gravitated to a more scholarly vibe. Now I’m wondering whether it might fit better in an academic journal, perhaps one dedicated to Global Antiquity or even Classical Reception (or maybe, in a pinch, an archaeology journal interested in this kind of oblique disciplinary critique).

It’s called, for now, “Not All Ancient Aliens: Black Alternative Archaeologies in the 20th Century” and you can read it here.

I’d love feedback on the second article, which probably benefits from being read alongside the first.

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.

Writing Ra for Real

As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve been working on a project that considers how the idiosyncratic musician, intellectual, writer, and visionary, Sun Ra fits into the our understanding of both popular and academic archaeology. It’s a weird and rambling and emergent project that tries to make sense of my interests and my eclectic reading.

For most of the last year or so, I was a lost project, wandering around in some blog posts, reading notes, and play lists. This last month, however, the little dust up between Flint Dibble and the directors of a new documentary on Atlantis gave my work some new life. Here are two blog posts that I wrote in response to the Dibble Dust Up: here and here. You’ll notice some recycling (and some revision on a factual level) in what I’ve written below, but this just shows you how the sausage is made.

Here’s the first 2500 words or so of what I’m working on. I’m not sure what this will be exactly, but more and more I think my goal is to recover the stories of ancient alien visitors from the “enormous condescension” of academic archaeologists. 

Working Title: Not All Ancient Aliens

In 1971 Sun Ra arrived in Egypt for the first time. This is not an early example of the repatriation of some artifact looted in the colonial past nor is it a metonym for a future archaeological discovery. This Sun Ra was an American jazz musician, poet, philosopher, and filmmaker. Born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914, by 1971, Le Sony’r Ra or Sun Ra, had already spent over 20 years developing his view of the Black past and future. During a brief time as a student at Alabama A&M, he experienced an alien visitation or abduction and visited Saturn where he had a meeting with a group of extraterrestrials and, at least in one account, given a vision of his own future (Szwed 2000: 29-30). This encounter initiated a transformation in Herman Blount’s life which led him to change his name to Le Sony’r Ra and to a successful career as a musician and band leader in Chicago, then New York, and finally Philadelphia. While he remains best known for his career as a jazz and avant-garde musician, recently scholars have turned their attention to his literary career which served to inform his larger than life personality and musical legacy. Sun Ra’s band, the Arkestra, melded flamboyant stage shows with free and avant-garde jazz, recordings and performances in which futuristic sounds conjured equally futuristic visions, and poetry, film, and public statements that appear to represent Egypt as the wellspring of global Black culture. At once committed to utopian Afrofuturism and Afrocentrism, Ra mid-century attempts to articulate a vision of a Black past combined the social and technological optimism of the post-war space age with long-standing efforts to imagine a Black past freed from the stains of colonialism and slavery.

The views of Sun Ra, and his fellow travelers, offer a distinct counterpoint to the recent spate of popular documentaries purporting to reveal hidden or suppressed archaeological knowledge. In many cases these documentaries, especially the History Channel’s Ancient Alien series, argue that contemporary archaeologists have overlooked evidence that extraterrestrials visited the Earth in ancient times and constructed monuments in Egypt, Central America, and elsewhere. According to these program, aliens may have contributed to the development of sophisticated technologies, science, and culture. In other cases, these programs revealed how archaeological sites unlocked profound mystical or spiritual truths or revealed previously unrecognized connections between cultures. In general, the claims made by these programs follow predictable trajectories and rely on a blend of real archaeology, conspiracy theories, flashy production values, and fuzzy conjectures (Turner and Turner 2021 for a recent survey of these ideas). More damning still, these programs often both rely upon and reinforce racist assumptions that various past societies, especially those that emerged in what is sometimes called the Global South, could not have developed technology or monumental structure without outside assistance. Many of the ideas trotted out on these programs rely on theories developed over the first half of the twentieth century and rejected by generations of archaeologists.

In the last decade, with the growth of social media, efforts to counter pseudo-archaeology and alternative archaeologist have redoubled. Some of this stems from a growing frustration with pseudo-science and conspiracy theories. Archaeologists see this as related to the declining status of experts and higher education at a moment in history where the problems facing human society are not only complex, but also existential. Racial injustice, political and economic inequality, forced migration, and, most of all, climate change present a formidable slate of global challenges only exacerbated by the contemporary pandemic and the rise of conspiracy-driven anti-science. Archaeologists have seen nefarious consequences to the tendency for pseudo-archaeologists to simplify complex situations by offering monocausal explanations, such as the influence of ancient aliens, against a backdrop of often racist assumptions about the capacities of ancient people. Oddly enough, the eagerness to counter the most visible examples of pseudo-archaeology in the popular media has led to a tendency among professional and academic archaeologists to simplify some of the complex contexts where the idea that extraterrestrials introduced ancient technology or architecture developed. In particular, this paper will explore the appearance of alternative archaeologies and histories in mid-20th century Black culture with a particular emphasis on the work of Sun Ra. In some mid-century Black contexts, arguments for extraterrestrial interventions and other unorthodox imaginings of the Black past represented efforts to adapt traditional knowledge to the modern world, to subvert contemporary racist power structures, and to construct identities independent from the painful legacy of slavery and colonialism.

There is a growing realization among archaeologists that the discipline of archaeology has not served Black communities well. This has contributed to a sense of urgency behind calls to recognize the distinct character of a wide range of Black knowledge of the past as well as to reform archaeology as a discipline. In many cases, distinctive Black reinterpretations of the past developed alongside similar white understandings, but had fundamentally different goals. Ongoing efforts to suppress the spread of pseudo-archaeology in the popular media and on the internet, however, have often failed to recognize the diverse legacies of ideas associated with ancient extraterrestrial visitors and mystical homelands. These same ideas produced different legacies: in one context they lent support to racist and far right ideologies, and in another fueled utopian visions of racial justice and real gains in social, economic, cultural, and political power in Black communities. This article will excavate a test trench through the work of Sun Ra with the goal of sampling some of the roles that ancient aliens and the myth of Atlantis played in certain Black alternative archaeologies that emerged in the mid-20th century.

Sun Ra’s personal account of abduction by extraterrestrial did not produce an entirely consistent set of beliefs or understandings. It appears, however, at various times that he understood that ancient Egyptians were not only the wellspring of Black civilization, but that Black people and possible Black Egyptians were also extraterrestrials. This conflation of Afrocentrism and ancient aliens informed Ra’s onstage personal where he combined futuristic jazz and outfits that evoked both a pastiche of ancient Egyptian motifs and futuristic garb that hinted of space travel, UFOs and extraterrestrial visitors. It seems certain that Ra developed his interest in the origins of Black society in Egypt, often called Afrocentrism, the work of authors such as George G.M. James, whose book Stolen Legacy: the Greeks Were Not the Authors of Greek Philosophy, but the People of North Africa, Commonly Called the Egyptians appeared in 1954, but who had taught at Alabama A&M for a time before Sun Ra’s arrival there as a student. James was not the only scholar making claims that Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern civilization, so privileged by white scholars, derived from Egyptian civilization, but his book appeared in Sun Ra’s library and was widely enough to read and republished to attract an attack from no less than Mary Lefkowitz some 40 years after its appearance. In late 1940s and 1950s Chicago, Sun Ra gathered around him a group of seekers who called themselves the Thmei Society and this group read voracious and discussed ideas found in works as varied as the 19th century anti-Catholic Alexander Hislip’s The Two Babylons, or Papal Worship Proved to be the Worship o f Nimrod and his Wife (1853), various diffusionist and hyperdiffusionist world views such as Grafton Elliot Smith’s The Ancient Egyptians and Their Influence Upon the Civilization of Europe (1911) and Children of the Sun (1923) by his sometime collaborator W.J. Perry, and Albert Churchward, who wrote Origin and Evolution of the Human Race (1920) and whose brother would advocate for the lost continent of Mu in the Indian Ocean. Also present in his library were the works of E.A. Wallis Budge, William M. Ramsay, and James Henry Breasted as well as the mystical writings of Helena Blatavsky, Egar Cayce, and others who sought to reveal the undiscovered capacities of human intelligence from past cultures (Szwed 2000; Youngquist 2016). The Thmei Society produced a series of provocative broadsheets which they circulated in Chicago’s Washington Square Park where a cross section of the city’s Black community congregated to enjoy the outdoors, socialize, proselytize, and engage in debates (Sites 2019). In this space, Sun Ra and his Thmei Society colleagues would have had conversations with a wide range of groups including members of the Nation of Islam who frequented the park after their transfer of their headquarters from Detroit to Chicago in the late 1940s.

By the late 1950s, Sun Ra and his band, dubbed the Arkestra, had started to perform and record their unique form of interstellar jazz across the city. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 inaugurated the Space Age and drew the Ra’s alien abductors even closer to Earth By the early 1960s and Ra and the Arkestra’s relocation to New York City, where he and his band continued to work the probe the ambiguous origins of both Sun Ra himself and Black people. This was an incredibly active period for Sun Ra who not only continued to release music from his Chicago days, but also rehearsed, performed, and recorded almost continuously with the Arkestra. As a sample of significant albums released during the 1960s that demonstrate Sun Ra’s interest in both cosmic and mystical. For example, in 1966, tracks recorded in the late 1950s in Chicago were released as the Nubians of Plutonia in 1966. From 1961-1963, Sun Ra recorded albums such as Bad and Beautiful, Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow, and When the Sun Comes Out which combine improvisational music inspired by cosmic themes often marked by electronic instruments with exotic percussion and instrumentation. The names of tracks likewise reveal a blend of Egyptian and cosmic inspiration: “Ankh,” “Solar Symbols,” “The Nile,” and “Infinity of the Universe.” This massively productive period in the Arkestra’s history culminated in their 1965 album Heliocentric World of Sun Ra, which many consider Sun Ra’s masterpiece and the most concise introduction to his distinctive form of cosmic jazz.

In 1969, a number of recording made toward the end of the decade were released as Atlantis. The B side consists of a 21-minute long track titled “Atlantis” that was recorded at Michael Babatunde Olatunji’s Center of African Culture in New York. Olatunji was a Nigerian immigrant who came to the US for college and became immersed in the vibrant Black music and cultural scene in New York City while studying at NYU. His influential use of drumming and 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 album 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.

 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).

Schwaller de Lubicz is exactly the kind of pseudo-archaeologist that academic archaeologists have condemned. He 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, this argument 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. 

In this context, the 1968 English translation of Erich von Däniken’s Erinnerungen an die Zukunft which appeared in the year of its publication as Chariots of the Gods, seems almost superfluous, as does the fleet of late 1960s and early 1970s books on Atlantis that spurred Impulse! records to re-release of Sun Ra’s 1969 album of the same name. Sun Ra’s impromptu 1971 tour of Egypt where he encountered an Egyptian audience that was as ambivalent regarding his views on history as they were enthusiastic about his music, did little to discourage his theatrical explorations at the intersection of the space age and antiquity. Ra and members of the Arkestra filmed themselves in full regalia dancing among Egyptian ruins. During a visit to the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid the electricity failed, but Sun Ra was able to lead his party back to daylight. One of the members of his party, the German musician, poet, and philosopher Hartmut Geerken recalled Sun Ra saying: “Why do we need light, Sun Ra, the sun is here“ (Szwed 2000: 293). Earlier in the same year, Sun Ra was living in a house in Oakland provided to him by the Black Panthers and teaching a class at the University of California-Berkeley titled “The Black Man and the Cosmos.” The course featured a combination of esoteric readings, lectures, and musical performances and attracted more Black community members than Cal students. It would appear that Sun Ra’s ongoing performances, teaching, and travels complemented the growing interest in alternative archaeologies in the mainstream media, but did not appear to derive from them. They nevertheless combined to form a compelling backdrop Sun Ra’s 1974 cult classic film Space is the Place. In this film, Sun Ra clad in Egyptianizing costumes and flying a spaceship comes to Earth to save Black people from the daily injustices and inequality by transporting them to another world through the use of music. At once campy and breathtakingly earnest, Space is the Place reveals that Sun Ra’s blending of futurist and ancient iconography is more than just the playful juxtaposition of opposites, but part of a wider view of Black culture existing outside of the boundaries of time and space.

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.”

Music Mondays: Seasonal Parker, Roy Campbell, and Yellow

It’s the calm before the storm. The semester starts tomorrow, our campus has a mask mandate, my syllabi are ready, and cool fall weather has settled in town as if on cue. Needless to say, I’m pretty excited. The long purgatory of summer is finally over and it’s time to get back at it.

I’m also excited because I have a little gaggle of good music to share. Some of this is really new and some of this is pretty old, but all of it inspired me over the last week as I prepared for the new semester.

First, I can’t recommend enough one of William Parker’s latest albums Painters Winter. It is evidently a complement to his 2001 album Painter’s Spring which likewise features drummer Hamid Drake and all arounder Daniel Carter. William Parker is a bassist and a distinctive one at that. So both albums are not only locked down in terms of bass lines, but also showcase Parker’s distinctive style of both plucked and bowed base as well as his ability to create tonal contrasts with by playing some kind of pocket trombone thing. Daniel Carter who is capable of flight of remarkable intensity as well as passages of tonal exploration which complement Parker’s bass, is a new voice to me. Both albums are typically classified as avant-garde or free jazz, but they’re not the often crass or impulsive displays of technical bravado that folks often associate with this genre. Instead, the offer thoughtful and at times quiet music that draws the listener into the interplay between musicians. What these albums do (at least for me) is force me to think about relationships between the musicians, between the sounds, and between the instruments. Maybe it’s the recent vogue for so-called “relational ontologies” and the like that has me thinking more and more about how relationships create meaning and looking deeper into the relationships between events, individuals, objects, and sound. Maybe it’s that Parker creates a sufficiently solid foundation that almost all his albums have the kind of groove that I need to motivate and inspire me (check out “Happiness” on Painters Winter and if it doesn’t generate feeling in you, I’m not sure what will). Maybe it’s Drake and Carter can follow and play around and with Parker in a conversational way. 

Parker and Carter’s rapport got me exploring Carter’s discography a bit more fully and this led to me Other Dimensions in Music where Parker and Carter collaborate with trumpet player Roy Campbell, drummer Rashid Bakr. This album is four tracks of remarkable grooves and inspired music. If the trio format of the pair of Painters albums could sound a bit spare where space is as much part of the conversation as the notes being played, the addition of a trumpet in Other Dimensions in Music offers the potential for a denser soundscape which the musicians build slowly and deliberately. Roy Campbell’s trumpet may well be the star of this album. He coaxes a range of tones, textures, and melodic lines from it and it dances along with Carter’s reeds in a personable conversation. Parker’s wisdom punctuated by Rashid Bakr’s restrained but never hidden drum work anchors the sets. The opening track “Tradition’s Traditional Omissions Suite/Sailing Toward the Dark Happy Voice” is among the best things that I’ve listened to lately (apparently, there are those who think this group’s next album Now! is even better. I haven’t heard it yet).

Enjoying Campbell on this album drew me to some of this other work. I found what some regard as his best album It’s krunch Time to be a revelation. It features Khan Jamal on vibes (Wilber Morris on bass and Guillermo E. Brown on drums). Unlike the long, simmering grooves and soundscapes that constitute Other Dimensions in Music, It’s krunch Time plays like a pop album with songs rarely extending beyond 6 minutes. The result is a less organic feeling. In some ways, it feels like conversations begin, but then get cut off before they begin to wander and explore. There is, however, something to be said for its diversity of sonic textures. I like vibes and Khan Jamal and his ability to move between laid back etherial tonality and punctuated intensity makes him a natural complement to Campbell’s trumpet. Morris who I don’t know alternates between bowed and plucked bass and Brown tries to keep things moving along without stepping on anyone’s toes. Check out the cover of Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” and the “The Star Spangl’ed Banner” for two of the more accessible tracks. This album is a great afternoon listen and evokes a semester’s worth of classroom conversations in its 40 odd minute run time.

Finally, as readers of this blog know, I was drawn to William Parker through his association with Sun Ra. Of course, Sun Ra’s legacy goes beyond those who played with him and is particularly visible in certain branches of the jazz scene in the UK. Last week I started Emma-Jean Thackray’s Yellow. Synths, groovy electric bass, voices, horns, reeds, free experimentation alternate with tight scores. If the Shabaka Hutchings’ project, The Comet is Coming is about the days before the end, Thackray’s Yellow prepares the way. It feels like the continuation of Sun Ra’s late-1970s explorations (especially Lanquidity and On Jupiter) for the 21st century. It’s not only listenable, but also complex enough to reward repeated visits. Less of a conversation that the works I’ve discussed in already in this blog and more of a proper concert. Let the music wash over you and challenge you to get out of your comfy chair and experience the world differently.  

Music Monday: Sun Ra in Birmingham

I’ve just returned home from a 5000+ mile road trip through the heart of COVID country. We hit 17 states: ND, SD, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, WVa, Va, NC, SC, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee. 

Since we swung through Alabama, this meant a stop in Birmingham to see the final resting place of Sun Ra’s earthly remains. As William Sites has expertly noted, Birmingham exerted a formative influence over Sun Ra’s career and identity. Born in the city as Herman Sonny Blount, he graduated from Birmingham’s Black industrial high school which by the 1930s was the largest Black high school in the US. There he not only honed his abilities as a musician but also developed his life-long appreciation of discipline which he passed along to his band, the Arkestra, through his famous day-long rehearsal sessions.

In some sense, Birmingham was the capital of Alabama’s “Black Belt” despite its location in the state’s Piedmont region and its industrializing economic in the late-19th and early-20th century provided an alternative to agricultural work organized around sharecropping. In this way, movement to the city anticipated the “Great Migration,” and Birmingham’s urban blacks often found it easier to find work in northern cities. Thus, Sun Ra’s move to Chicago in the 1940s followed a well-trod path for Black residents of Birmingham. 

From his early life in Alabama, he carried with him not only his interest in discipline, but also his deep interest in Afrocentric views of Black history fostered through his likely contact with Black masons in the city’s Moorish Science Temple and his brief time at Alabama A&M near Huntsville where he likely encountered the work of George G.M. James and that institutions founding president, William Hooper Councill. In Alabama, he also claimed to have experienced his alien abduction which crystalized his special mission to elevate human existence through his music. That said, he talked very little of his own life, influences, and upbringing in his interviews, and in the case of his alien abduction, his story seems to have changed a bit with each telling.

For an intellectual famously ambivalent about his childhood, then, it is a bit surprising to discover that he returned to Birmingham at the end of his life and was buried there. Ever the performer, perhaps, Ra sought to bring a sense of symmetry to his earthly existence. His travels throughout the world and the galaxy led his band and his listeners along the great parabola that forms a rocket’s path which in the end, brings traveler back toward where they started (even if it’s not the same, exactly place). 

We visited Sonny’s earthly resting place on a Sunday morning about an hour after Sun rise. 

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As a brief aside, his grave is surrounded by the graves of Birmingham’s Greek community in the city’s Elmwood cemetery.

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Music Monday: Whither Sun Ra?

I’m racing the calendar to get my various little projects done before the end of the summer writing season. I’m feeling just a bit hectic and a bit tired, but with a little luck, things will come together in time for a little vacation before the start of the semester.

This morning, I’m working on the conclusion to my little review of recent work on Sun Ra. I’ve ended up adding sentences and paragraphs throughout the review to flesh it out a bit and give it more cohesion. Now, I need to bring it in for a landing.

You can read versions of part 1, part 2part 3, and part 4 here.

Whither Sun Ra?

Sun Ra’s fascination with the impossible might seem irresponsible in light of urgency of the BLM movement, the rise of a strain of toxic and racist populism, and the persistent threat of violence. More than that, his appeals to Afrocentric ideas might seem naive and unsophisticated and his Afrofuturism too abstract and mystical to contribute in a meaningful way to contemporary society. After all, even modern Afrofuturist heroes like the Black Panther derived his powers from extractive industries organized by the state of Wakanda and performed his acts of daring in a world populated nation states and neatly etched notions of good and evil. In contrast, Sun Ra’s view of the future as the domain of the impossible distances it from our current fixation on the real potential of science and narratives set amid lightly reimagined contemporary institutions. In some ways, Ra’s fascination with a lightly defined impossible suits may suit our modern situation as we grapple with global crises of COVID and climate change. These challenges with distributing the COVID vaccine (and convincing individuals to receive it) reveals the limits of the possible when defined by scientific solutionism. Likewise, for all of our scientific understanding of climate change, economic inequality, the politics of nation states, and the rise of crass populism has hampered meaning global action. Sun Ra offered no easy solutions to the world’s problems. By situating the present at the intersection of myth and the impossible, he offered a view of the future decoupled from burdens of the past. The mythic power of Blackness produces a future that flagrantly defies the pragmatic gradualism of so much of the contemporary struggle for rights. In some ways, Ra’s blurring of the Black past and the impossible future anticipates Paul Gilroy’s famous reformulation of W.E.B. Dubois’s concept of the Black double consciousness. In The Black Atlantic: Modernity and the Double Consciousness (1993), Gilroy argues that Dubois concept of double consciousness continues to define the experience of Black people as they work to negotiate the tensions between being European and Black. Ra reconciled this tension by rejecting the temporal division between pre-slavery, pre-colonial, and pre-European Africa and the future.

The influence of Sun Ra’s music continues to flow in contemporary jazz and improvised music. The cosmic themes present in saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s music and performances certainly draw inspiration from Sun Ra’s Arkestra, and their mutual respect came out during a shared festival performance with the Arkestra’s Marshall Allen and Pharoah Sanders in 2016. It may be, however, that the resurgent London jazz scene is where Sun Ra’s influence is the most visible today. Literal manifestation of Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, the diaspora Black jazz community in the UK continues to explore Black music and identity with ensembles like the Heliocentrics making direct reference to Ra’s iconic 1965 album, The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One. More obviously, however, is Shabaka Hutchings’ various projects which drawn upon both Afrocentric and Afrofuturist themes. His ensemble Sons of Kemet has produced two albums of music that blends scathing political critique with tightly arranged music influenced by Caribbean sounds, Afrobeat rhythms, and traditional jazz. The title of their 2018 album, Your Queen is a Reptile, evoked the reptilian conspiracy theories drawn from science fiction stories of alien invaders and bizarrely popular among Q-Anon followers. Hutchings’ ensemble, The Comet is Coming, is blends his saxophone with programed drums and keyboards. Its millenarian name, science fiction inspired song titles, and exuberant use of electronic instruments evokes the Afrofuturist sound of Sun Ra. Their 2019 album, Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery, hints at the potential mystical underpinnings of their endeavor.

While there is no doubt that Washington, Hutchings, and others continue to lace their music with themes influenced by Sun Ra’s work. This complements recent interest in Sun Ra’s music and broader thought in contemporary society. For a world increasingly constrained by the limits of technological solutionism, Sun Ra presents a figure even more foreign than he did to his time. He offered few solutions to problems that he traced with cosmic dimensions. As we confront a series of existential challenges in the 21st century that seem to exceed our imagination, it may be that we need Sun Ra now more than ever.

Thing Things Thursday: More Sun Ra, Sheffield, and Rivers

Every day it feel more and more like the end of the summer season and the beginning of fall. It certainly doesn’t help that smoke from the Canadian wildfires has filled the air giving the entire city a bit of autumnal light. As a result, my attention span is being dragging in multiple directions as I try to wrap up end of the summer tasks and gear up for the fall semester. It feels like a good time to do another three things Thursday.

Thing the First

With all this talk about sending billionaires into space, it was a great time to receive the collections of Sun Ra’s poetry recently republished by Chicago gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey. The reprints are done with meticulous attention to detail and manage to reproduce the feeling of the these sometimes casual and often often simple publications.

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For example, the liner notes from Jazz in Silhouette from 1959 appear in their blurry and smudged mimeograph purple creating an intriguing contrast between their futuristic content and their reproduction which situates them in the past. In these poems Sun Ra reminds us that the future is the world of the impossible and that we have to “consider the negative plain of existence” and

The prophets of the past belong to the past
The space prophets of the greater future
Belong to the greater future.   

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It is great to see the poems reproduced in their original form. Two of my favorites appear his most famous book of poetry, The Immeasurable Equation (1972): “The Cosmic Myth,” and “Black Myth” which so clearly embody key aspects of Sun Ra’s worldview. “The Cosmic Myth” starts with the lines “A new name is always a great adventure | A cosmic name is a cosmic word …”

“Black Myth” engages with Ra’s challenging sense of myth and time declaring:

A better destiny I decree
Such tales and tales that are told
Are not my myths
But other myths of Black mythology
Radiate from beyond the
      measured borders of time.

Thing the Second

Like so many people in the world of archaeology, I’m quite distressed by the closing of the archaeology department at the University of Sheffield. Flint Dibble offers a nice summary of the situation in this Twitter thread. As he and many other commentators note, the most challenging aspect of this closure is that this department was among the most important and successful in the English speaking world.

Like many people, I can’t help but feeling that its closure marks a new phase in the transformation of higher education on a global scale. The debate is no long about metrics for success, which Sheffield would appear to achieve without a shadow of the doubt, or the value of hard won intangibles such as prestige and brand recognition, but about something else entirely. The cynic in me makes it easy enough to attribute the closure to a crass power play on the part of the political leadership of the university. The archaeology program at Sheffield may well be a kind of tall poppy  cut down in a rather pure expression of power.  

It is hard to understand how it would be possible to resist gestures such as these. Over the past decade, in the long simmering crisis in higher education, faculty especially in the humanities and arts have worked to construct strategies designed to promote their programs on campus, to boost enrollments, to demonstrate the utility of their programs for the 21st century, and to extend their reach beyond campus.

At the same time, faculty have often critiqued past generations of faculty for not doing enough to anticipate the changing political, economic, and ideological landscape of higher education. This is often done in an oblique way through criticism of ivory tower faculty who were and remain out of touch with reality and incapable of adapting their programs. As frequent are criticisms of university administrators who are depicted as a hostile to the humanities, arts, and social sciences or simply incompetent. While these critiques have remained in the background surrounding the closing of Sheffield’s program, they often raise their heads when the conversations turn to the challenges facing humanities, arts, and social science programs more broadly.  

I can’t escape the feeling that the increasingly arbitrary cuts to programs will reveal the ultimate futility of well-meaning faculty efforts to preserve their programs and perhaps cause us to pull back from many of the least charitable critiques of faculty in the past. Perversely, it push us to ask much harder questions that do not involve sustaining our programs, our jobs, our careers, or our work and instead focus on what we should do when we know that our work will not matter to our institutions and our fields.

Thing the Third     

I’ve been chewing on an abstract that I need to prepare before the end of the month for the 2021 CHAT conference whose topic is movement. As I’ve mentioned before (somewhere on this blog!), I’ve wanted to write about the Grand Forks Greenway and to reflect on the tension between the walls designed to manage the flow and flooding of the Red River of the North and the river’s movement through the landscape, our engagement (and movement alongside the river’s course), and our ability to navigate over and around the walls put in place after the disastrous flood of 1997.

Unlike a traditional conference, the “pilgrim CHAT” will be a month-long festival open to all sort of multi-, trans-, and new media kinds of explorations of the topic of movement. This complicates my abstract all the more as it forces me to think about my topic not just in the sense of academic content, but also as media. I have almost no experience doing this kind of thing, but this project seems like a great opportunity to broaden my horizons a bit and develop a greater appreciation for how our new media world might change scholarly communications. 

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.