Space Is The Place: The Black Man In The Cosmos
by Molly Lambert
This Recording is often ahead of its time. I write about plant monsters and triffids, then Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz mentions them on The Colbert Report the next day. Suddenly the walking killer plants show up in Google trends. I blog about outer space and the Mars lander finds water ice on the Ginger Planet. Mere coincidence? Lies! There are no coincidences.
Adventure In Space – Sun Ra: (mp3)
Sometimes when I let a post sit in the bank for too long some other writer slips out of the woodwork and nips my hot lead. Not that every thought I have is original, but while I’ve been talking about my Afronauts post for months some kid named Jonah Weiner hacked into my brain and wrote this little ditty for Slate. He also wrote something about Wes Anderson’s race politics, which I offered to write recently for Alex after finally seeing The Darjeeling Limited and Alex was like “What is this, 2007?”
Since Danish has lowered the bar such that I no longer feel the need to communicate in full sentences, this post might read like more of a list than an essay. Don’t sweat it. It’s summer. If Alex had his way we’d be rerunning early TR cheesecake photo posts.
Blues On Planet Mars – Sun Ra: (mp3)
Here at This Recording, every month is Black History Month. You may remember this epic post about Matthew Henson, the first (Black) man to reach the North Pole. So I bear no ill will towards Jonah Weiner, he of Unlimited Chirp, although I can’t help but picture him in my mind as some ungodly hybrid of Jonah Hill and Mad Men‘s Matthew Weiner.
Matthew Henson Says “Booyakasha, Robert E. Peary!”
In 1955 EC Comics published a story in Weird Fantasy #18 about a Black astronaut visiting the Earth and contemplating racism toward Blacks. The Comic Code Authority, the industry-controlled self censuring watchdog demanded that the story be removed. When the publisher threatened to go to the Supreme Court, over the matter, the Comic Code’s administrator backed down.
The first person of African ancestry to make it into outer space was Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, who was also the first Cuban cosmonaut. Tamayo, along with Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Romanenko, was launched into space aboard Soyuz 38 from Baikonur Cosmodrome on September 18, 1980.
Guion S. Bluford
The first African American astronaut to successfully make it into space was Guion S. Bluford. Before Bluford, there was Major Robert Lawrence Jr., the first Black man admitted to NASA, who died in a plane crash. His relatives endured a lengthy struggle thereafter getting the Kennedy Space Center to recognize him.
Robert Henry Lawrence Junior
In 1995, Bernard A. Harris Jr. became the first Black man to walk in space. “To be the first was great, it really was,” he said. “But to me, it signifies that there would be many more behind me. For Harris, the experience was a high point of a journey that began years ago.
From the time he was eight-years-old, he dreamed of becoming an astronaut. On the way to his dream, he reached many other personal goals — pilot, flight surgeon, scientist, mission specialist.
Bernard A. Harris Jr.
As Harris explained, his dream, his trip to the stars, had its roots in history. “I think it’s kind of ironic,” he said. “When we look at history itself, you realize that astronomy, the study of the stars, that whole origin (was) being done by people from Africa. And now I get to fly amongst those same stars.”
Cosmo Extensions – Sun Ra: (mp3)
To talk about Afrofuturism and Black Music from Outer Space, you must start with Sun Ra (Herman Poole Blount). Blount had few or no close friends in high school but was remembered as kind-natured and quiet, an honor roll student, and a voracious reader.
By his teens he suffered from cryptorchidism, a chronic testicular hernia that left him with a nearly constant discomfort that sometimes flared into severe pain. It also left him with a sense of shame and increased his sense of isolation.
The Inimitable Sun Ra
The Black Masonic Lodge was one of the few places in Birmingham where African-Americans had essentially unlimited access to books, and the Lodge’s many books on Freemasonry and other esoteric concepts made a large impression on him.
In 1936 he was awarded a scholarship at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University. He was a music education major, studying composition, orchestration, and music theory, but after a year, he dropped out and then attended some other musical college.
Journey To Saturn – Sun Ra: (mp3)
In 1936 or 1937, in the midst of deep religious concentration, Sun Ra claimed that a bright light appeared around him, and, as he later stated:
“My whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up…I wasn’t in human form…I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn…they teleported me and I was down on a stage with them. They wanted to talk with me. They had one little antenna on each ear. A little antenna over each eye. They talked to me. They told me to stop attending college because there was going to be great trouble in schools…the world was going into complete chaos…I would speak through music, and the world would listen. That’s what they told me.”
The trip to Saturn allegedly happened a full decade before flying saucers entered public consciousness. He was both prophesying his future and explaining his past with a single act of personal mythology. After leaving college, he became known as perhaps the most singularly devoted musician in Birmingham.
He rarely slept, citing Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, and Napoleon as fellow highly productive cat-nappers. He transformed the first floor of his family’s home into a conservatory-cum-workshop where he wrote songs, transcribed recordings, rehearsed with the many musicians who were nearly constantly drifting in and out, and discussed Biblical and esoteric concepts with whoever was interested.
Enceladus, the 6th largest moon of Saturn
In October 1942 Blount received a selective service notification that he had been drafted into the Military of the United States. He quickly declared himself a conscientious objector, citing religious objections to war and killing, his financial support of his great-aunt Ida, and his chronic hernia.
His case was rejected by the local draft board, and in his appeal to the national draft board, Blount wrote that the lack of black men on the draft appeal board “smacks of Hitlerism“. His family was deeply embarrassed by Sonny’s refusal to join the military, and he was effectively ostracized by many of his relatives.
Enlightenment – Sun Ra: (mp3)
In court, Blount declared that even alternate service was unacceptable to him, and he debated the judge on points of law and Biblical interpretation. Though sympathetic to Blount, the judge also declared that he was clearly in violation of the law, and was risking forcible induction into the U.S. Military.
Blount declared that if he were inducted, he would use his military weapons and training to kill the first high-ranking military officer he could. The judge sentenced Blount to jail, and then declared “I’ve never seen a nigger like you before;” Blount replied, “No, and you never will again.”
In January 1943 a desperate Blount wrote to the United States Marshals Service from the Walker County, Alabama jail in Jasper. He said he was facing a nervous breakdown due to the stress of imprisonment, that he was suicidal, and that he was in constant fear of sexual assault.
His conscientious objector status was eventually reaffirmed and Blount was escorted to Pennsylvania where he conducted forestry work in the day and was allowed to play piano at night. Psychiatrists there described him as “a psychopathic personality and sexually perverted” but also as “a well-educated colored intellectual”.
Saturn Moon – Sun Ra: (mp3)
After his beloved great-aunt Ida died in 1945, Blount felt no reason to stay in Birmingham. He dissolved the band, and moved to Chicago, part of the wave of southern African Americans who moved north during and after World War II. In addition to professional advancement, Chicago also changed Blount’s personal outlook.
The city was a center of African American political activism and fringe movements, with Black Muslims, Black Hebrews, and others proselytizing, debating, and printing leaflets or books. Blount absorbed it all and was fascinated with the city’s many ancient Egyptian-styled buildings and monuments.
He read books like George G.M. James’s Stolen Legacy, which argued that classical Greek philosophy actually had its roots in ancient Egypt. Blount was convinced that the accomplishments and history of Africans had been systematically suppressed and denied by European cultures.
By 1952 Blount was leading the Space Trio with drummer Tommy “Bugs” Hunter and saxophonist Pat Patrick, two of the most accomplished musicians he had known. They performed regularly and Sun Ra began writing more advanced songs.
Love In Outer Space – Sun Ra: (mp3)
In Chicago, Blount met Alton Abraham, a precociously intelligent teenager and something of a kindred spirit who became the Arkestra’s biggest booster and one of Sun Ra’s closest friends. The men both felt like outsiders and shared an interest in fringe esoterica.
Abraham’s strengths balanced Ra’s shortcomings: though he was a disciplined bandleader, Sun Ra was somewhat introverted and lacked business sense; Abraham was outgoing, well-connected, and practical.
Though still a teenager, Abraham eventually became Sun Ra’s de facto business manager: he booked performances, suggested musicians for the Arkestra, and introduced several popular songs into the group’s repertoire.
Ra, Abraham and others formed a sort of book club to trade ideas and discuss the offbeat topics that so intrigued them. This group printed a number of pamphlets and broadsides explaining their conclusions and ideas.
Message To Earthman – Sun Ra: (mp3)
It was during the late 1950s that Sun Ra and his band began wearing the outlandish, Egyptian-styled or science fiction-themed costumes and headdresses for which they would become known. These costumes had multiple purposes: they evidenced Sun Ra’s abiding fascination with ancient Egypt and the space age.
They provided a sort of distinctive, memorable uniform for the Arkestra; they were a way to take on a new identity, at least while onstage; and they provided comic relief. Sun Ra thought avant garde musicians typically took themselves far too seriously.
After moving to New York in the mid-sixties Sun Ra’s popularity reached a new peak, as the beat generation and early followers of psychedelia embraced him. Regularly for the next year and a half (and intermittently for another half-decade afterwards), Sun Ra and company performed at Slug’s for audiences that eventually came to include music critics and notable jazz musicians.
High praise came from two of the architects of bebop: trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie offered encouragement, once stating, “Keep it up, Sonny, they tried to do the same shit to me,” while pianist Thelonious Monk chided someone who said Sun Ra was “too far out” by responding, “Yeah, but it swings.”
Outer Space Plateau – Sun Ra: (mp3)
In late 1968 Sun Ra and the Arkestra undertook their first tour of the US West Coast. Reactions were mixed; even hippies accustomed to long-form psychedelia were often bewildered by the Arkestra, which included 20–30 musicians, dancers, singers, fire-eaters, and elaborate lighting.
John Burks of Rolling Stone wrote a positive review of a San Jose State College concert that led to Sun Ra being featured on the cover of the April 19, 1969 cover of the magazine and introducing him to millions. Also in 1969, NASA managed the first manned landing on the moon, trailing Sun Ra’s trip to Saturn by some thirty years.
In early 1971 Sun Ra was artist-in-residence at University of California, Berkeley, teaching a course called “The Black Man In the Cosmos”. One half-hour of each class was devoted to a lecture (complete with handouts and homework assignments), the other half-hour to an Arkestra performance or Sun Ra keyboard solo.
Reading lists included the works of Madame Blavatsky and Henry Dumas, the Book of the Dead, Alexander Hislop’s The Two Babylons, The Book of Oahspe and assorted volumes concerning Egyptian hieroglyphs, African American folklore, and other topics. During 1971 Sun Ra fulfilled a long-standing desire by performing with the Arkestra at ancient Egyptian pyramids.
Saturn – Sun Ra: (mp3)
Sun Ra was among the first of any musicians to make extensive and pioneering use of synthesizers and other various electronic keyboards; he was given a prototype Minimoog by its inventor, Robert Moog.
Though often associated with avant-garde jazz, Sun Ra did not believe his work could be classified as “free music”: “I have to make sure that every note, every nuance, is correct. If you want to call it that, spell it p-h-r-e, because ph is a definite article and re is the name of the sun. So I play phre music—music of the sun.”
Black Music From Outer Space:
Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different, proto-Badu, ex-wife of Miles Davis and paramour of Jimi Hendrix
LaBelle: sing like canaries, dress like weirdos
The Neptunes/N.E.R.D. especially with Kelis
Erykah Badu: Interplanetary traveler
Outkast: Especially circa ATLiens
Janelle Monáe (above): Is an alien from outer space
Joi: Tennessee Slim is the bomb
Parliament/Funkadelic: atomic love bombers
Bootsy Collins and the Rubber Band: This clip of Bootsy and co. live jamming out on “I’d Rather Be With You” for seven and a half minutes is heavier and freakier and nastier than any noise band will ever be.
Timbaland: Formed a supergroup in VA with Pharrell and Magoo where they wrote a song called Big White Spaceship
Lil’ Wayne: He is a martian
White Music From Outer Space
Brian Eno c. Roxy Music
David Bowie c. Ziggy Stardust
“Rocket Man” by Elton John does not count because it is just an even gayer rip of “Space Oddity”
Molly Lambert is the managing editor of This Recording
The Sun One – Sun Ra: (mp3)
Supersonic Jazz – Sun Ra: (mp3)
Sky Blues – Sun Ra: (mp3)
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