What Time Is This Place (Part 1)

I have a phobia of reading old books. It’s irrational as most phobia are, but nevertheless guides my actions to an embarrassing extent. As a result, it took a particular nudge from my buddy Kostis Kourelis (and a generous copy of the book) to will myself to read Kevin Lynch’s What Time Is This Place? (MIT 1972). 

This book blew my mind. To make everything about me: this book was like a cross section of my recent interest in time, ruins, urbanism, campus life, and even teaching. It’s like I was simply living in a world sketched out by Kevin Lynch. 

The book in broad strokes is a meditation on time and place. Lynch fearlessly traces the role of time in our daily lives, our building environments, and, as you’d expect, our lived experiences. In particular, Lynch is interested in the experience of time as change.

Here are some running notes chapter to chapter. 

1. Cities Transforming. The first chapter considers change on the level of the city and the way in which people’s experience and idea of the city shaped the transforming of cities. It made me think a good bit about my work on the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission and our efforts to document (and in some ways influence) the transformation of the city of Grand Forks. For example, my wife and I produced a massive study of mid-century housing in the city that traced its transformation from a city largely anchored in its pre-war pedestrian plan to one defined by cars, post-war prosperity, and the rise of the suburb. You can read the report here

2. The Presence of the Past. This chapter is even more relevant for my wok on the GFHPC. It focuses on the role of ruins and material evidence for the past in creating a sense of presence in a community. This is literally the mission of the Commission, but as Lynch points out, one that is not as straight forward as preservation for the sake of preservation might allow. Over the past five or six years, we’ve talked more and more about the value of attempting to preserve and document buildings and districts not limited to the obvious or even elite building which often carry the burden of the past for a community. Instead, we have shifted at least some of our attention to apartment buildings, schools, commercial spaces, and (if I had my way) neighborhood bars that preserve the workaday landscapes of the city. We’ve also talked more about how to make present a past that has disappeared as a result of the city’s floods, urban renewal, and social change. What do we do to inscribe the memory of these places into the urban fabric?   

3. Alive Now. Lynch’s brilliant contribution to urban planning is that he foregrounded the experience of the city and sought to create urban forms sensitive to the needs of an individual. In this book, he considers time as more than simply made manifest on a collective level (so that everything doesn’t happen at once), but also experienced individually. As readers of this blog might know, I am obsessed with time both personally through my modest collection of watches (or my collection of modest watches) and professionally through my work as an archaeologist. It is hardly surprising that I’ve been fixated on the concept of slow as not only an antidote to the sense of urgency that suffuses so much of our professional life, but also as way to make explicit the tension between clock time and the time of experience. 

4. The Future Preserved. When Kostis sent me this book, he made explicit reference to the world of Sun Ra who has become an obsession for me. For those of you unfamiliar with Sun Ra, he is one of the founders of mid-century Afro-futurism which he expertly grafted to afrocentric views of the Black past (as his name suggests). As Lynch recognizes in this chapter title, there is a crucial need to preserve the past not only as a way to remember past presents, but also to remember past futures. The growing interest in Afrofuturism reveals the potential of past futures to shape present futures and to make us aware of how we have and have not lived up to our aspirations (however well intended). It goes without saying that continued struggle for racial equality offers a sobering context for mid-century Afrofuturism. It is also a good reminder that as much as we cringe or even protest at pseudohistory, pseudoarchaeology, and other “false” views of the past, the line between false pasts and false futures is a fine one indeed and the goals of both projects tend to intersect in the messy politics of hope. 

5. The Time Inside. One of the more fascinating chapters of the book considers how our internal sense of time clashes with external constraints. Anyone whose body resists the tradition of eight continuous hours of sleep is familiar with this feeling. I’ve speculated on this as it applies to the length and rhythm of the academic semester. Lynch clearly recognizes that time is a factor in learning and how and when we learn, remember, and think various not only as individuals but also collectively. Last year, for example, I started to notice how student workloads, commitments, and time often doesn’t serve to advance student learning.  Instead, the time for student learning is a constantly negotiation of space, finances, and other commitments. This is inevitable, of course, but it nevertheless reinforces how the personal time of student experience is not entirely under their own control.  

I’ll come back with Part 2 tomorrow!

Three Things Thursday: Flow, Sun Ra, and NDQ

I feel like I haven’t done a Three Things Thursday for a while and at this point of the semester, I feel like I’m doing all I can just to keep various balls in the air.

So here goes:

Thing the First

This week, my students in my introductory level World Civilizations class are working to revise the papers that they’ve been writing all semester. As they prepare to revise their latest drafts, I asked them to make a list of things to work on in their final draft. The top thing on their list was working on FLOW. 

I love the idea of flow especially when it refers to that state of semi-consciousness when things just seem to come easily. I see it used when describing musicians who are improvising and athletes who are immersed in a performance. But I don’t think that the students are referring to that. Instead, they see flow as something that they can inject into their writing. For many of these students, flow is something that exists at the level of the sentence or the paragraph and that smooths transitions between ideas, statements, and phrases. It makes a text easier to read.

It’s been interesting to try to convince them that flow isn’t something to be added at the end, like a sprinkling of salt or a garnish on a bowl of soup, but something that is inherent in how we organize our ideas. Flow comes from the synchronization of our ideas and arguments with the language that we use to express them.   

Thing the Second

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota works closely with its authors to promote their work, but we also acknowledge that we don’t have a marketing budget, we don’t have resources to run the flag up at conference, and we don’t advertise much if at all. 

As a result, we work to amplify the efforts of our authors to promote their work. Here’s a great example of this.

You can can get a copy of Sun Ra Sundays here.

Thing the Third

As readers of this blog know, we’ve been working on the pulling together the North Dakota Quarterly archive. Building an archive is always a work in progress (it would seem) and we discovered that we missed a volume of the journal during our first round of scanning.

My student collaborators on this remain relentless and they scanned this volume to add to the collection of archived North Dakota Quarterly.

Here’s a link to a story by Michelle Disler (who is also contributing to the most recent volume of NDQ some 15 years on!).

NDQ 75 3 4 OCR pdf 2022 12 01 09 56 00

New Book Day: Rodger Coleman’s Sun Ra Sundays

This is a big NEW BOOK DAY for The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

We are very excited to announce the publication of a long simmering book project: Rodger Coleman’s Sun Ra Sundays, edited by Sam Byrd.

And, yes, I did schedule the release date for the book to be the day before the annual ASOR meeting!

This book is an incredibly accessible and personal guide to Sun Ra’s most artistically vibrant decades of the 1960s and 1970s. For those of you who don’t know Sun Ra, this is the perfect place to start to explore the work of this important jazz visionary, Afrofuturist, poet, and thinker. And this is the perfect time to familiarize yourself with his work as the Smithsonian readies its landmark exhibition on the history of Afrofuturism.

The book is a heavily revised and reorganized version of Rodger Coleman’s iconic blog series “Sun Ra Sundays” (2008-2016) which anticipated the revival of interest in not only Sun Ra’s musical legacy, but also Afrofuturist music, art, and culture more generally. As Irwin Chusid, the administrator of the Sun Ra estate, remarked: “The opinions herein are exhaustive, authoritative, and worth reading. They are a valuable addition to Sun Ra scholarship…”

For a recent review of recent scholarship on Sun Ra, check out this review essay that appeared in the most recent North Dakota Quarterly.

What makes this book unique in the recent flurry of work on Sun Ra is that both Rodger Coleman and Sam Byrd are musicians. This produced perspectives are not only accessible and entertaining, but steeped in the sensibilities developed over decades of playing improvised and jazz music.

For Rodger, this book also offers a tonic for our age: “In our current era of profound cynicism and bad faith, it is all too easy to dismiss Sun Ra’s schtick as so much showbiz hokum, filtered through a nostalgia for a “Space Age’ future that never came to be—but that would be a mistake. Whatever you might think of the music, there are lessons to be learned about discipline, DIY entrepreneurship, and the virtues of collective action…”

As with all Digital Press books, Sun Ra Sunday is available as a free, open-access, download. If you like the book and want to support the Digital Press’s approach to open access publishing, please consider buying a paper copy.

The press release is “below the fold” as they say:

Sun Ra Sunday Cover

Sun Ra in the Spotlight:
A New Book on the Music and Art of a Foundational Afrofuturist

As the world eagerly awaits the next episode in Marvel’s Black Panther film franchise and the Smithsonian prepares a massive retrospective on Afrofuturism, the visionary musician, writer, and thinker, Sun Ra enjoys growing acclaim as the grandfather of Afrofuturism.

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is proud to announce the publication of Sun Ra Sundays. This groundbreaking book offers readers an accessible window into Sun Ra’s musical legacy from 1961-1979, which includes many of his most revolutionary and inspiring releases.

Born Herman Blount, Le Sony’r Ra (or Sun Ra) took his new name when he moved from Birmingham, Alabama to Chicago. In Chicago, he became active in the booming post-war music scene and assembled a band comprised of some of the best young musicians in the city. Under Sun Ra’s direction, this group produced some of the most sophisticated jazz music the city had seen and combined it with space age costumes, stories of alien abduction, and distinctive interpretations of Black history. By the late 1950s, Sun Ra relocated with his band, known as the Arkestra, to New York where he became a mainstay in the city’s experimental music scene and recorded and released a bewildering number of albums. The number and variety of releases has long overwhelmed the casual listener.

Rodger Coleman started Sun Ra Sundays on his blog NuVoid as a way to introduce Sun Ra to a wider audience. His weekly posts exploring Ra’s discography ran for several years before he got discouraged and “pulled the plug” on his efforts to unpack the complicated history and legacy of Sun Ra’s music. By then, however, Coleman’s musings had already become an invaluable touchstone for Sun Ra fans and curious newcomers alike.

Coleman remains modest about his work: “Ra’s discography is vast and bewildering and these scribblings were my attempt to at least partially come to grips with it.”

Sam Byrd, who took the lead in editing Rodger Coleman’s blog posts into the book Sun Ra Sundays is more forthright: “There is no one proper way to approach Sun Ra’s massive output, but Rodger Coleman gives us a start with comprehensive overviews and in-depth musical analyses of every official Sun Ra album from 1961 to 1979, as well as invaluable examinations of an astounding number of unreleased concert recordings and other rarities.”

What makes this book unique is both Byrd and Coleman are musicians.

Coleman notes: “It wasn’t until Sam and I started covering some of Sun Ra’s music back in the ‘90s that I could really wrap my head around it. Make no mistake: no matter how “out there” the music may seem to get, it remains deeply rooted in the entire history of African American musical practice. These roots may be obscured but can still be discerned.”

When asked why someone might pick up this book and explore the music, thought, and legacy of Sun Ra, Coleman offered this observation:

“Whatever you might think of the music, there are lessons to be learned about discipline, DIY entrepreneurship, and the virtues of collective action. Over the course of decades, Ra attracted a core group of gifted musicians who eschewed fame and fortune to fulfill his vision of self-sufficiency and artistic integrity.”

Like all books from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, Sun Ra Sundays is available as a free download or a low-cost paperback.

You can listen to some of Sam and Rodger’s music here:


And their adventuresome cover of Sun Ra’s “Dancing Shadows” as the first track here:

Deloria, Comets, and Aliens

Lately, I’ve been delving a bit into Vine Deloria’s imposing and impressive corpus in an effort to understand Native American religion in a more thoughtful way. A number of folks nudged me to start with Deloria’s God is Red: A Native View of Religion (1973; Rev. Ed. 1992, 2003). It’s a fantastic book (so far!) with some intriguing perspectives on Native American religion that coincide with some of what I know, but also ground it in a richer, more regionally nuanced, and more political view of the world. This did not surprise me as I’ve read enough Deloria to appreciate both his insights and his sometimes offbeat style.

I was not prepared, however, for how complicated (and even contradictory) some of his arguments would become in God is Red or some of the more heterodox perspectives he would embrace in the book. On the one hand, I recognize that Deloria was attempting to cover a vast amount of territory in this book, Native American religious attitudes, beliefs, and rituals are not always appropriate for public discussion, and, of course, Native American religion has changed over time. It is inevitable that any treatment of Native American religion would be complicated.

That said, I was particularly surprised to see a lengthy discussion of Immanuel Velikovsky’s work. Velikovsky is one of the key mid-century “pseudoarchaeologists” who have attracted my attention recently. He argued, most famously in Worlds in Collision (1950), that sometime around 1500 BC, Jupiter ejected the planet Venus from its famous red spot. Venus took the form of a comet which looped very close to earth at least twice before assuming its current place in the solar system. The galactic drama that this event created accounted for any number of Bronze Age stories from the sea turning to blood and the parting of the Red Sea in Biblical narratives to earthquakes, tsunamis, and social collapse on a global scale as Earth’s axis shifted, rotation slowed, and general cosmic comportment upset. Needless to say contemporary archaeologist, astronomers, physicist, historians, and the like have a fairly dim view of Velinkovsky’s arguments, but they had enough traction in the 1960s and 1970s to prompt no less than Carl Sagan to refute them in print and by the mid-1970s, the American Association for the Advancement of Science convened a major conference to refute Velinkovsky’s ideas. Of course, today, they continue to hang about the pseudoarchaeological fringes and pop up in comments sections of nearly any article that has to do with the end of the Mediterranean Bronze Age or cataclysmic destruction. 

Deloria reckoned that at least some of the ire directed by academics toward Velinkovsky stemmed from his position outside the academy, his popularity with a general audience, and from the fact that he was probably right. Deloria then goes on to suggest that Biblical scholars struggled with Velinkovsky’s thesis partly because they found it impossible to reconcile their symbolic or metaphysical reading of the Old Testament with the possibility that it was literally correct and explained by Velinkovsky. Native American groups, in contrast, whose deep commitment to spaces and places had far less trouble accommodating their traditions to the cosmic events that Velinkovsky proposed. For Deloria, the failure of the Western scientific establishment to appreciate Velinkovsky’s ideas paralleled the inability of the Biblical (and archaeological) to reconcile their views of Near Eastern history with the possibility that scriptural texts were literally true. In contrast, Native American groups, with their strong attachment to physical places in their lived landscapes, had less of a problem with literal interpretations of their religious traditions (made manifest in the literal presence of sacred sites in their daily lives). More importantly for Deloria, however, was that Velinkovsky’s heterodox science was both true, but also so incommensurate with European and American scholarly, religious, and lived traditions that they could not accommodate it and therefore had to reject it as a threat to their superiority and authority.

Deloria then goes a step a further and connects Velikovsky’s ideas to Zecharia Sitchin’s argument that technological, social, and political advances in the Near East happened as a result of prolonged contact with extraterrestrials. According to Sitchin, these ancient aliens came to earth to mine gold which they then used (somehow) to reinforce their planets thinning atmosphere. These ancient aliens soon discovered that it was easier to breed humans to do the hard work of mining. Ultimately, these ancient workers rebel against their alien overlords and constructed societies based essentially on the same social organization that they had endured. Thus the hierarchical basis of Near Eastern society and the similarities across any number of ancient civilizations relate back to their common origins among these rebellious human workers. Deloria admits that some of Sitchin’s ideas are implausible, but at the same time argues that they have clear parallels with conventional arguments for the development of Near Eastern society. Here he invokes the work of no less a personage than Samuel Noah Kramer. More importantly, for us, Deloria argues that colonial practices inherent in, say, British colonial attitudes in North America and India reflect the legacy of Near Eastern world views, which, in turn, derived from the division between alien overlords and their slaves and the notion that the world was there to be exploited.

In contrast, Deloria shows that Native Americans did not arrange the world hierarchical, nor did they see nature as a resource to be exploited. The traditions among some groups of visitors from the skies, suggest, however, to Deloria that Native American groups did have some contact with the ancient aliens and perhaps even interbred with them to some extent. That said, he still seems fairly certain that Native Americans are racially and, one would guess, genetically as well as socially and historically distinct from Near Eastern groups who the aliens bred as slaves. 

Needless to say, this is pretty weird. 

It is hardly surprising that many scholars of Deloria feel most comfortable simply ignoring his digressions into the world of pseudoarchaeology or aligning it more broadly with Deloria’s interest in presenting Native American oral traditions as a valid counterweight to modern science, which he deemed racist and colonialist. Deloria develops some of these ideas in a more sustained way in his book Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact (1997). 

Craig Womack has recently offered another reading of Deloria’s dalliance with spacemen, comets, and pseudoarchaeology. In a 2014 article, he suggested that we might best understand Deloria’s embrace of these counter cultural and often anti-establishment arguments as a kind of performative camp (sensu Susan Sontag). For Womack, then, Deloria’s willingness to accept Velinkovsky’s and Sitchin’s pseudoarchaeological views of the world is as much about his willingness to defy scholarly conventions and pry apart the practices of white knowledge making. This is consistent with Deloria’s larger goals of challenging academic science, archaeology, anthropology, and the study of religion. Womack suggests that Deloria is does this not only by emphasizing the roots of these disciplines in racism and colonialism, their complicity in genocide, and their hierarchical, elitist, and exclusionary practices, but also by mocking their epistemic foundations. Elevating heterodox scholars like Sitchin and Velinkovsky to the status of valid and significant interlocutors and contributors to understanding the nature of white (western, European, colonial) religion effectively inverts the paradigm long favored by white science for understanding Native American religious practices, history, and society. In other words, Deloria is using pseudoarchaeology as a tool to demonstrate the cultural situation of archaeology more broadly as a discipline, by emphasizing the arbitrary and ultimately fragile nature of scientific knowledge when viewed from the perspective of an outsider. Womack seems to argue that Deloria’s effort to exaggerate and parodies academic knowledge inverts the parodic and exaggerated approach used by white scholars to understand Native American religious traditions. 

(Lest we think this approach to using camp to lay bare the assumptions that shape archaeological practice, we can appreciate David Macaulay’s brilliant send-up Motel of the Mysteries (1979) which drew in which excavators from the future excavate and hilariously misinterpret the campy confines of a modern travel motel!)

It is worth observing that Sun Ra was also inspired by Immanuel Velinkovsky’s work to such an extent that his biographer, John Szwed playfully notes in his 2000 book, that Ra’s account of his own alien abduction echoes “Velikovsky revised by von Daniken—Worlds in Collision reimagined through Chariots of the Gods?” I suppose we have to replace Jupiter with Saturn, but this certainly adds an interesting subtext to the song “Rocket Number Nine Take Off for Planet Venus.”  I unpack some of my thoughts on Sun Ra here.

Sun Ra’s embrace of campy costumes and over-the-top pronouncements (not to mention the wonderfully campy aesthetic present in his 1979 film Space is the Place) hints at a similar willingness to flaunt convention as a way to critique both the serious world of jazz music, but more importantly (at least for here), the way in which the exclusionary practices of science, archaeology, and white society fall short of their emancipatory claims. The future imagined by Sun Ra presents a freedom that is as disciplined as it is absurd, is as grounded in the traditions of Black and jazz music as it is transformative, and is as committed to disrupting conventional notions of power, authority, and science as it is to elevating arts, music, and performance to new and transformative roles in society. In this way, Sun Ra and Deloria embrace pseudoarchaeology as a way to induce a kind of discursive whiplash that playfully emphasizes the painful contradictions and shortcomings of established (and establishment) knowledge making.  

Unfortunately, recent public efforts to undermine pseudoarchaeology have emphasize its use by white supremacists, its association with Nazi archaeology, and its flawed forensic, methodological, and epistemic foundations. None of this is wrong, per se, but it runs the risk of reducing the claims of Sun Ra, Vine Deloria, and other significant thinkers who do not conform to racist paradigms common to some strains of pseudoarchaeology to the status of “Not All Pseudoarchaeologists!” After all, it is difficult to align the beliefs of Deloria or Sun Ra with those of white supremacists or to see Velinkovsky or Sitchin, both Jews, with the goals of the Nazism. 

In a previous post (that was probably a bit impulsive and impolitic) I referred to the tendency of aligning pseudoarchaeology with white supremacy as “white washing” pseudoarchaeology which served both to bolster the claims of disciplinary (and academic) archaeology with the forces of good and to marginalize groups ethically and politically who use pseudoarchaeology as a tool to advance their own sense of identity. In some cases, this is commendable, of course. We all have a responsibility to weaken the claims of white supremacists and Nazis.

At the same time, folks like Deloria and Sun Ra demonstrate how pseudoarchaeology can represent an important “weapon of the weak” and form the basis for playful, but also politically incisive critiques of the colonial foundations of science. Craig Womack concludes his paper on Deloria and “the Spacemen” with a reference to the call to “Keep Austin Weird” and the suggestion that we apply that to Native Studies as well.

I think that this could easily extend to archaeology. After all, “Keep Archaeology Weird” is much nicer than “Not All Pseudoarchaeologists.”

Music Monday: Sun Ra Sundays

Over the weekend, I started the final push on a long simmering project over at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. This project is called Sun Ra Sundays and it involves the converting a well-known blog by musician and music collector Rodger Coleman into a book. Sun Ra Sundays was a long running blog which explored Sun Ra’s musical output during the 1960s and 1970s.

Sam Byrd, a librarian and musician, took on the considerable task of editing and organizing Rodger’s posts and we ran the entire gaggle of them through the editorial wringer to create a more cohesive volume that nevertheless preserved some of the spontaneity of the original posts. 

This book is going to be good. 

First, it’s going to be timely. People are interested in Sun Ra these days not only as part of a new appreciation of his music and improvised music more broadly, his role in the development of Afrofuturism, his poetry and philosophies, and his connection with the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Arts Movements. A few months ago, I published a review of recent work on Sun Ra and it only scratched the surface. You can read it here.

Second, despite this recent outpouring of interest, there has been remarkably little accessible engagement with his musical legacy. While any number of scholars recognize the significance of his dense and often obscure music, it remains incredibly difficult to untangle his music from its convoluted discography. In fact, Ra’s discography is so complicated that it requires a massive scholarly book by Robert L. Campbell and Chris Trent called The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra (1998) that runs to nearly 500 pages. This book for all its erudition does little, however, to help the average listener appreciate, understand, or even identify key recordings from this singular musician.

Sun Ra Sundays does just that. In an accessible and conversational style, it offers a guide to Sun Ra’s music from the 1960s and 1970s with enough context to give a reader the foundation to explore more widely on their own. 

This weekend, I produced a draft of a cover for the book. It’s not a great cover right now, but I think it captures some of the informality of Sun Ra’s discography and makes a certain graphic impact. I think I want to add a kind of hieroglyphic element to the cover before we go to press probably down the right side of the page.

Trim View 2022 04 02 15 09 22

The interior book design is pretty convention visually, but incredibly challenging. Not only are there over 130 individual chapters, but they vary in length considerably.  

SRS TEST 2 pdf 2022 04 04 07 29 48

This through a spanner into my efforts to always start chapter on the recto, for example, and pushed me occasionally start a one-page chapter on the verso. Notice the slight misalignment of the line separating the chapters title from the text. I’ll have to fix this before we go to press.

SRS TEST 2 pdf 2022 04 04 07 37 10

For the record, I love Tisa OT as the font in these chapters. It not only produces an incredibly readable text block but also gives it just a bit of contemporary swagger appropriate for one of the founders of Afrofuturism.

Keep an eye out for this title later in the summer!

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.”