More than his space costumes and stories about Saturn, I am obsessed with Sun Ra because of his conception of himself as a myth. He talks about other black people in the same way. In his absolute gentleness and pacifism, his ideas spoke directly to the DuBoisian “double consciousness,” imagining compositions to play into the ears of Fanon and Wilderson as they mourned the humanity that black people never had.
Sun Ra was never a human; he was a myth.
In invoking our friend Sun, I hope to begin to explore some of my own ideas around “future,” “art,” and how these things intertwine in service to black people.
I am writing from Cape Town, South Africa, where black people have been subjugated on their lands, and within their societies and cultures. Racialized violence in Cape Town is different than violence perpetrated across the black diaspora, on other colonized continents, and even in African nations that were colonized by European countries with strategies of assimilation, rather than segregation. But no matter where we are, racism and the process of racialization – whether as a system invented purely to maintain and support capitalism, or as a social relationship of dominance (existing despite capitalism) to maintain the “psychic health” of white bodies – exploit and dehumanize black people in order to benefit and “humanise” whites.
In the face of racism and the threat of having his humanity stolen, we must a way to be ourselves.
In the face of racism and the threat of having his humanity stolen, Sun Ra found a way to be himself. Ra was himself in the kind of radical way that Fanon proposes might only happen through a re-enactment of violence upon the oppressor. Somehow, through his creative practice, Ra managed to, of course, make weird, sometimes hilarious and always otherworldly sounds – but more than that, he worked so hard on making a space in which that creation was possible. It might have been outer space, or ancient Egyptian history, or numerology that helped him in forming this world. But his unwavering assertion was that here, on planet Earth, in the midst of these oppressive and violent forces, he would not be provided with the resources he needed as a maker, and the vibrations he required as a creator.
And so, Sun Ra became a myth in the present. He was not interested in the so-called “humanity” defined for us here, a humanity that only exists where it finds its antithesis in the exploits and abuses of others. Whiteness, masculinity, cisgendered-ness, nondisabled-ness, heterosexuality, wealth – these constructs are still the measurements for how we determine how close to or far from the ideal “human” we are. Sun Ra took one look at that picture, shook his head, and was like “nah.”
Sun Ra did something that I love so much, something that I also try to do – he took his imagination very seriously, and he allowed his fantasies to form the departure point for his work. This, I feel, is radical. Essentially, he used his imagination as the infrastructure and the resource base from which to create actual things that are still available to us now. What I am saying is that Ra drew on imagination, knowledge and ideas from histories, stories and religions that came before him without limitation on how he brought all of these together into his own vision. And I really think that we can do this, too – and actually already do.
So I suppose that in thinking through the really difficult question, What is the importance of art for black people throughout the world?, I would prefer to address it in a very vague sense. That is to say, to me, the things we make are not significant. It is the creation of the space in which making is possible that is so crucial. And to create those spaces, we must do the impossible and find each other in the cracks of the system – find each other as wholes beings who remain whole within the world against all odds. From this impossibility, creation emerges.
What I am framing as “impossible space,” might also be described as spaces in which we, often alienated black folk, feel seen. We exist in this impossibility all the time – amongst friends, family and good conversation – but we also create these spaces by more overt means. We create impossible space in the occupation of land and the re-appropriation of places and buildings as acts of resistance. Impossible space collides with the status quo, and living within it can pose danger to an establishment whose prerogative is in benefitting through the exploitation of us as bodies, and the exclusion of us as humans.
Oppressed people, those of us who have been “othered” and ousted simply need more space for our imaginations to live, produce children, cultivate and comfort each other, laugh and be well fed. I do not want to step into a fully-fledged fantasy of what art could be for black people “in the future,” because I think that we each have an idea of what these spaces feel like in the present. I think we just need more of them, and I think we need to be safe within them.
So, while my fantasy is not full on, I will paint a little picture that illustrates some of the ways I feel art should be used. The art practices I imagine would have a different name (which I am still working on), and these different practices would be useful, communal and fun; our objects would not need to be precious because the spaces in which they are made would be safe, and reliable and always available to hold and honor more process and more production. There would be no art “status quo.” And while whiteness might always come hand in hand with hegemony, a useful art production is absolutely anti any socio-cultural reproduction. For this reason, spaces are multiple and varied, nobody is bored and everything is in flux. Art does not function as separate from anything else. It lives among us and informs and helps us think through our lives. We use art to think about our approaches to learning, thinking, seeing and conscientising, and we use these other processes to inform our “art.”
For me, this future is about microcosms of impossibility, ruled by black people – myths – with ideas that produce spaces that produce things that produce ideas that produce spaces that produce ideas and so on. It is easier than we think to invite people to come and make things with us in our personal parallel universes. We are all in existence as we speak, and like Sun Ra, it’s time that we begin to think of ourselves as “impossible,” here, as myths of the present.
This post is part of the Black Futures Month blog series brought to you by The Huffington Post and the Black Lives Matter Network. Each day in February, look for a new post exploring cultural and political issues affecting the Black community and examining the impact it will have going forward. For more Black History Month content, check out Black Voices’ ‘We, Too, Are America’ coverage.