AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
Literature was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him. That the poor little fellow because he lied too often was finally eaten up by a real beast is quite incidental. But here is what is important. Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.
Let me tell you a story about a boy. He was born on May 22, 1914, in Birmingham, Alabama. His mother, Ida Blount, was a waitress. Her favorite performer was a vaudeville stage magician named Black Herman, who did all manner of tricks: levitation, rabbit conjure, escape. The highlight of his act was a ghastly, blasphemous miracle: he would get buried alive in “Black Herman’s Private Graveyard,” then be exhumed three days later to make a triumphant return to the stage. Ida admired Black Herman so much that she named her son after him.
With such a bold, phantasmagoric performer for a namesake, it’s perhaps no surprise that young Herman Poole Blount became a musical prodigy. By age twelve, he was sight-reading piano music and composing his own. As a teenager, he could reproduce from memory the big-band concerts that came through Birmingham, led by greats like Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. While attending the segregated Industrial High School, Herman joined a handful of jazz and R&B bands, including one led by his biology teacher, Ethel Harper. When Harper left the group, Herman took it over and renamed it with his nickname—the Sonny Blount Orchestra—for the rest of the tour. An honor-roll student, Sonny got a scholarship in 1936 to study music education at the Alabama State Agricultural and Mechanical Institute for Negroes.
Sonny was on his way to becoming a professional musician. Then something intervened:
These space men contacted me. They wanted me to go to outer space with them…. I’d have to go up with no part of my body touching outside of the beam…. It looked like a giant spotlight shining down on me, and I call it transmolecularization, my whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up. Now, I call that an energy transformation because I wasn’t in human form. I thought I was there, but I could see through myself.
Then I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn…. They teleported me, and I was down there on that 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.
After this visionary experience, Sonny dropped out of college. He became obsessed with space travel and every manner of esoterica. He transformed the first floor of his family home in Alabama into a salon, where he would write, transcribe, record, and rehearse songs with local musicians and drifters passing through. A collective, a galaxy—Sonny at the center as others revolved around him—suited him well.
When he was twenty-eight, Herman Blount was drafted to serve in World War II. He declared himself a conscientious objector on medical and moral grounds. When he failed to show up for the alternate service assigned to him, he got arrested. In court, Blount, representing himself, debated the judge on points of legal and biblical interpretation. When the judge remarked that he ought to be conscripted anyhow, Blount said he’d kill the first high-ranking military officer he met. The judge put him in Walker County Jail until further disposition of his case. “I’ve never seen a nigger like you before,” the judge said. “No,” Blount replied, “and you never will again.”
After thirty-nine “unhappy and bewildered…almost crazed” days in jail, Sonny appealed to be sent to a Civilian Public Service camp. He ended up in Pennsylvania, where he practiced forestry during the day and played piano at night. Psychiatrists there described him as “a psychopathic personality,” prone to neurotic depression and sexual perversion, and as “a well-educated colored intellectual.” After a month or so he was designated unfit for military service (he was given a “4-F” for his hernia) and sent back to Birmingham.
Two years later, Sonny headed to Chicago to reignite his musical career. He drank the Windy City down, its vibrant jazz and cabaret scenes, its Art Deco buildings and monuments, its convoluted history of Black Nationalism. Skipping from band to band, he finally formed his own. He called it the Arkestra. And on October 20, 1952, riffing on Egyptian mythology, Sonny renamed himself once more. He became Le Sony’r Ra, or Sun Ra for short. Herman Blount, he said, was a slave name.
Pictures of Sun Ra often suggest chaotic hybridity: priestly futuristic costumes and sets, ancient Egypt and the planet Saturn forming a palimpsest of past and future utopias. His sound synthesized big band, swing, hard bop, reggae, Afropop, electronic music, and Walt Disney musicals. His references—expressed in his lyrics, poetry, and pamphlets—showcased this eclecticism too: Kabbalah, gnosticism, freemasonry, pan-Africanism, Zen. When he taught a course at the University of California at Berkeley in 1971, his syllabus included The Egyptian Book of the Dead; the theosophical works of Madame Blavatsky, the nineteenth-century Russian medium; Henry Dumas, a brilliant poet gunned down by New York City Transit Police in 1968. He often cited George G.M. James’s Stolen Legacy (1954), which claimed that Greek philosophy had filched its ideas from Egyptian mythology.
In Sun Ra’s various writings and interviews, he always maintained that there was a metaphysical basis for what he called his “equations”: non sequitur chains of koans and runes, of numerology and etymology. He had a bit of the guru’s antiphony of the individual and the collective to him. Sun Ra was always gathering disciples, yet set himself apart from them. His biographer, John F. Szwed, quotes Sun Ra as saying, “I know what they’re talking about, but they don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m in the midst of what they’re doing but they’ve never been in the midst of what has been impressed upon my mind.” He was lone wolf and lupine leader, Anubis presiding over the vast nothing of the black world, the underworld, and outer space.
In 1974 Sun Ra cowrote, produced, and starred in a film that’s often considered the origin text of what we now call Afrofuturism. The premise of Space Is the Place returns us to his interplanetary vision: Sun Ra wants to “set up a colony for black people…. We’ll bring them here through either isotope teleportation, transmolecularization, or better still, teleport the whole planet here through music.”
At one point, he sets up an Outer Space Employment Agency in Oakland, California, where he interviews Bay Area residents for the trip. Sun Ra sits behind a counter, wearing a silver helmet and a robe speckled with stars, trimmed in sparkle. A middle-aged black man approaches, wearing a trilby, a plaid jacket over a pointy collared shirt, and a necklace of beads and bones:
Drunk: My man, what’s happenin?
Sun Ra: Everything is happenin.
Drunk: What is this? I mean, wh-like, uh, where am I? You know, uh, who is you?
Sun Ra: I’m everythin and nothin.
Drunk: Nothing?! Well, you better tell me about this nothin stuff cuz, uh (chuckle), I need a job. And I—and I ’on’t know what to do.
Sun Ra: What have you been doing lately?
Drunk: Uh, huh, huh, huh, nothin really, nothin.
Sun Ra: How long have you been doin nothin?
Drunk: Quite some time, quite some time.
Sun Ra: You must be an expert at it.
Drunk: Got my BA, shiiit.
Sun Ra: We’ll hire you to do that.
Drunk: How much I get paid, man?
Sun Ra: Nothin.
Drunk: Nothin?! Nothin?! But I got to have somethin so I can get me another bottle. I can’t go for that shit…
The applicant’s slang—“wh-like, uh, where am I? You know, uh, who is you?”—and Sun Ra’s Zen—“I’m everythin and nothin”—constitute a jazzy, contrapuntal metaphysics of blackness. Twenty-six years earlier, in his essay “Harlem Is Nowhere,” Ralph Ellison had found black people speaking the same richly metaphorical language: “In Harlem the reply to the greeting, ‘How are you?’ is very often, ‘Oh man, I’m nowhere…’”
Negro Americans are in desperate search for an identity. Rejecting the second-class status assigned them, they feel alienated and their whole lives have become a search for answers to the questions: Who am I, What am I, Why am I, and Where?
This is by now a familiar negative theology of black identity. It also lies like a vacuum, a gyre, at the core of Afrofuturism. When the scholar Mark Dery first coined that term in 1992, he grounded it in absence, wondering at the seeming lack of an Afrofuturist tradition:
Why do so few African Americans write science fiction, a genre whose close encounters with the Other—the stranger in a strange land—would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African-American novelists?… The notion of Afrofuturism gives rise to a troubling antinomy: Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?
But there is a counterstrain to this nihilism in the black tradition as well: nothing can become everything, nowhere can become elsewhere. For Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks,
as soon as I desire…I am not merely here-and-now, sealed into thingness. I am for somewhere else and for something else. I demand that notice be taken of my negating activity insofar as I pursue something other than life; insofar as I do battle for the creation of a human world.
In Space Is the Place, Sun Ra recruits black humans to accompany him to the elsewhere that is Saturn by appealing precisely to this shared ground of nonbeing. “I’m not real,” he says to a group of skeptical young men and women:
I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did, your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real. If you were, you’d have some status among the nations of the world. So, we’re both myths. I do not come to you as a reality. I come to you as the myth. Because that’s what black people are, myths.
Black matter itself—outer space, with all its velvety richness of the nil—becomes the source of black energy, black futures. On the one hand, Sun Ra says, “the darkness. Nobody made that. It just happens. Light and all that—someone made that; it’s written that they did. But nobody made the darkness. My music is about dark tradition. Dark tradition means a lot more than black tradition.” On the other, Sun Ra named himself for the sun itself, that roiling source of a light that glows and splatters and bolts out of that universal darkness.
In his poetry, he writes:
Out of nowhere they come like
embers suddenly aflame
With living reach
Yes, Out of nowhere they come
from the no point
He rocks us gently in:
A beautiful golden nest
Soft and shimmering with many
Radiant like the sun.
Yes, I have a nest;
Out in outer space on the tip of
He conjures with double negatives, like “Never is not,” and presses upon deictics like “this”:
Behold the pre-prophetic symbols of the planes of Never.
Behold, behold this thisness!
He multiplies the negative—“doubly no”—and flips it to “on”:
The on-ness reach demands it be
…rays to envelope them like a net
of kindly prisms…
They will be, they will come forward to the two-wardness of the
Intuition of the On
His jazz, too, oscillates wildly, swerving from muddle to melody, riding dissonance into harmonics, skittering between sparkling notes and abrupt silence—the syncope that makes a rhythm a rhythm. Sun Ra’s art in all forms offers this challenge to black people: If we’re nothing, if we’re just myths, why not make that literal, why not make it material? Why not create, why not become, glittering black matter?
The photographer Ming Smith’s pictures of Sun Ra from 1978 beautifully capture this energy, this philosophy.* Smith started her career in the Seventies as a model, which brought her in contact with many important black cultural figures of the era, including Alvin Ailey, James Baldwin, Grace Jones, Nina Simone, and Sun Ra. In 1973 Smith became the first woman to join Kamoinge, the Harlem-based photography collective; she was the first black woman photographer ever to have works acquired by MoMA. Smith’s photography is best known for its virtuosic blurring, for a vibrational quality that the music writer Greg Tate calls a “visual trill,” and for leveling foreground and background, yet delineating them through precise textural juxtaposition. She sometimes paints her photos with swirls and speckles that surface the prismatic colors within blackness, a kind of precursor to Toyin Ojih Odutola’s drawings.
What we might call Smith’s luxuriant, deconstructive chiaroscuro also arises from her technical innovations in lighting, shutter speed, and the relative movements of camera and subject—all of which derive from immersion, an insistence on taking pictures of black people in black spaces. As the artist Arthur Jafa puts it in a conversation that will appear with this essay in an Aperture volume on Smith’s work, “the technical parameters of what she’s doing are, in fact, structured by a commitment to being in those spaces that Black people occupy. The spaces that are underlit…secret spaces.” The jazz club milieu amps up this aesthetic of secret spaces, jostling bodies, and high contrast. Smith was married to the jazz musician David Murray for a time and accompanied him on tour; their son Mingus is also a musician.
In Smith’s many photographs of black musicians with brass instruments in underlit spaces, chiaroscuro is abstracted and intensified. This isn’t black and white, but dark and shine; we’re not just blending and bleeding and blurring, but shifting and shaking and shuddering. Shine stammers through degrees across the dark, leaving prismatic trails, flame-like scribbles and warps. The result is less of a glissando across absence and presence and more of a rhythm—a syncopated scatting of them. This is how Ming Smith evokes the precision, uncanniness, and joy of Sun Ra’s metaphysics of bright blackness.
In her photograph Sun Ra Space II, light doesn’t just outline him, it constitutes him. Sun Ra is the spotlight, a shape-shifting shimmer, yet also a monument. His suit has turned to imbricated stone, topped by the swinging shine of cape, headdress, and sunglasses—which seem literal, glasses made of sun. Their shape is echoed by the electric bulb above and inverted by the player to the right, who wears shades limned with light. A reflection casts a third eye on Sun Ra’s forehead, bright and twisty—a wonky antenna or the keys of the brass instruments being played by the members of his Arkestra. They are a pale clutter of lines and shapes behind him, their round hats counterpoints to the dark circles on the wall on the left—again like an instrument, like the keyholes of a giant flute. The light is metallic, the shadows articulated—jolted, jarred. The scene is skew, backed by the grid of a ceiling glimpsed mid-fall, reminding us that Smith is there, moving. Sun Ra, too, is moving, mugging for us—semiserious, deadly dignified—as he turns, his cape the flung arm of a galaxy. But he’s also somehow perfectly still, the eye of the storm, the center of the spiral.
In Sun Ra Space I, he’s facing away, pure surface. We see the wingspan of his cape, the back of his head framed with textures: a scratched floor on one side, a machine-like honeycomb on the other, and a white oblong with dark windows—like a train or a façade—above. In the center of the photo, from the coarse bright orb of his headdress, Sun Ra’s back rays out and down, grains of light strewn like stars, tumbling down pleated dunes. Light and dark are atomized, adrift: the moonlit sands of Egypt, a murky constellation. Seen together, the two-wardness of the photos suggests a gestalt shift, Sun Ra mid-turn, Sun Ra turned away, sheer flight, sheer energy—sheerness itself: “I could see through myself. And I went up.” Smith’s dyad thus conveys the lightness of Sun Ra’s wit, his wonder: the trickster spins and vanishes, scatters into the air.
Jafa observes that, in many of Smith’s photos, “you can’t identify anybody” because she embraces “techniques that in a sense void the ability of the photograph to function as evidence.” There’s no doubt this is Sun Ra, though, with all the lapidary aura that beams off filmic footage of him—“the stones speak…through vibrations of beauty,” Sun Ra says of Egyptian hieroglyphs in the 1980 documentary Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise. Here, Smith’s vanishing quality doesn’t disguise or erase him, but rather inheres in his manifest presence. We feel it in the spin, the lapping layers, the granular sheerness, the constellatory cape and spectral community. Sun Ra is there and not there, just as Smith is there and not there: “I’m everythin and nothin.” Rather than relegating the negation of blackness to incoherence or pessimism, these two artists dare us to reimagine black identity—that is, human identity—from the groundless ground up, as an order of being that stutters in and out of nonbeing, that dissolves and gathers itself and others, in turn, in time.
Did Sun Ra truly believe he had once been transmolecularized to Saturn? Did he really want to save black people by sending them to outer space? Was he some kind of intergalactic Marcus Garvey, who sold tickets back to Africa but never set sail? Was he pulling an elaborate prank? Does it matter? Sun Ra never broke character, never said “it was all a joke” or “it was just a scam” or “this world has made me mad.” With his strategic omissions, he turned a “nigger” into “a colored intellectual” into a god; alchemized gold out of thin air; became a tall story, a living myth, a human among humans, a kindly prism. This is what Ming Smith’s dazzling dark photographs of Herman Blount, Sonny, Le Sony’r Ra, Sun Ra, disclose. He’s the boy who cried wolf, he’s the wolf itself, he’s the shimmering go-between.
This essay will appear, in somewhat different form, in Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph, to be published by Aperture and Documentary Arts in October 2020. ↩