Author: Ragain, Nathan
Date published: October 1, 2012
Journal code: PCSM
(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)
At least according to a certain critical mythology, the Black Arts Movement begins about a month after Malcolm X is shot in February 1965 and LeRoi Jones changes his name to Amiri Baraka and moves uptown from the interracial, hipster Greenwich Village scene to Harlem to found the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS). In his Autobiography (1984), Baraka describes a triumphal march into Harlem, a moment that has come to serve as a sort of symbolic origin of the movement:
One of our first official actions was a parade across 125th Street. With Sun Ra and his Myth-Science Arkestra leading it . . . [w]e marched down the street holding William White's newly designed Black Arts flag. ... A small group of sometimes comically arrogant black people daring to raise the question of art and politics and revolution, black revolution!1
Part performance art, part ticker tape, part revolution, this scene stages a complex set of questions, both historical and theoretical, with which the broader Black Arts Movement and its later critics would struggle. While the nationalist trappings of William White's flag, the vision of people marching in the streets, and the revolutionary rhetoric all frame the parade as a watershed historical event, Baraka's account still leaves open, as a "question," just how one gets from art to revolution, just what sort of revolution this is, and just how something like Sun Ra's "mythscience" could either substitute for or effect systemic political and economic change.
If, in Baraka's account, the 125th Street parade places Sun Ra at the center of a scene that is at once national, communal, and revolutionary, an oddly similar scene at the end of Henry Dumas's story "The Metagenesis of Sunra" (written ca. 1966-68; first published 2003) imagines a parade of sorts that does, indeed, effect a near-total social, economic, military, and political revolution. Only recently discovered but probably written in the couple years between the parade and Dumas's death in 1968, the story relates the cosmic birth of the prophet Sunra, as well as his travels in various allegorically named lands among the "painted people" and their oppressors, the "Wofpeople." After a period of exile and wandering, the story ends with Sunra's discovery of an "ebony horn" that inaugurates the story's revolutionary climax in which the horn summons the painted people together to march on, and destroy, the Wofpeople. In its broadest strokes, the story seems to be a near hagiography (and sometimes even ham-fisted allegory) of Dumas's friend and sometimes-mentor, writing Sun Ra as the beleaguered prophet he often claimed to be. However, in the nearness of the story's climax to the mythology of the 125th Street parade, "Metagenesis" serves as a sort of origin myth for the scene Baraka places at the symbolic center of the period of radical black artistic production that would follow, and the story likewise evokes an apocalyptic take on Black Arts' combination of historical, aesthetic, and militant desires. At the story's end, Sunra blows his horn, and
[a]ll over the land, from north to south, the painted people - too hot to get near now - began to march. . . . Machines died in the air. An electric power plant reversed its power and the plant electrocuted and melted everything in range of it for ten miles. The ice mountain melted and the freezelines dissolved. Icelands faded, and panic went through the Wofpack. But it was too late. Sunra took panic itself and drove it into them.2
In Dumas's story, the perhaps watershed, certainly vanguardist, but nevertheless quite local event described by Baraka becomes an apocalyptic myth of total revolution in which Sun Ra's aesthetics not only catalyze the spontaneous constitution of a people and a movement but also arm the people, accomplishing, in one blow, a total dissolution of economic, military, and governmental structures of power. It is a myth, then, that shares with the Black Arts Movement more broadly the two central concerns of art's function in the constitution of a potentially revolutionary people and of developing an aesthetics that attributes force (physical, social) to the written and/or performed word. In this way, the story seems to be participating in a fairly party-line negotiation of these concerns. For instance, "Metagenesis" plays Baraka's signal poem "Black Art" (1966) in a mythic register, the specific "miracles" that follow from Sunra's horn calling to mind the aesthetics of force in Baraka's poem's call for "Airplane poems, rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr . . . tuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuh . . . rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr . . ." (suspension points in original). Likewise, the way in which the horn and drum summon the painted people seems to fit clearly into the reformulation of the poetic and dramatic function that Larry Neal describes in his own signal essay, "The Black Arts Movement" (1968): "The poem comes to stand for the collective consciousness and unconscious of black America - the real impulse in back of the Black Power Movement, which is the will toward self-determination and nationhood, a radical reordering of the nature and function of both art and the artist."3 However, I would suggest that the very strangeness of "Metagenesis"'s translation of the Sun Ra of the 125th Street parade into the Sunra of a broad, systemic, and violent political revolution opens up a conflict at the heart of Black Arts' simultaneous avowal of aesthetic and political revolution.4
Dumas's work shares much with what Graham Lock calls Sun Ra's "Astro Black Mythology," or "the creation of an alternative mythic future and mythic past for African Americans." Likewise, John Szwed reports that "Dumas hung out at Sun Ra's especially between 1965 and 1966 . . . and of all the young black writers of the time, he was closest to Sun Ra, and was inspired to draw on Egyptian and West African mythological material as well as Deep South folksay and science fiction," whereas Scott Saul argues that "Dumas considered himself one of Sun Ra's coreligionists, and the supernatural side of his work can be seen as the literary equivalent of Sun Ra's music, motivated as it is by the desire to re-enchant the world by offering up an alternative cosmology." However, very little beyond a 1988 special issue of Blac\ American Literature Forum has been written on Dumas. Although both Dumas and Sun Ra were certainly active in the movement, and although Sun Ra is arguably central to its early development, the aesthetic concerns of these two have been difficult to situate within the dominant concerns of the broader movement. James Smethurst's recent exhaustive account of Black Arts includes only a single reference to Dumas, and that comes in a list of other notable New York writers, nor is Dumas included in the Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997). But if, as Baraka remarks, Sun Ra was "resident philosopher"5 to the movement as a whole, then Dumas's extended engagement with his thought needs to be accounted for in any understanding of the relationship between movement aesthetics and politics.
In his excellent introduction to the most recent collection of Dumas's fiction, John S. Wright goes a good deal further in tracing the implications of Sun Ra's aesthetics on Dumas's work. Drawing on earlier assessments by Baraka and Neal, Wright sees Dumas's contribution as creating a "New Blackness," aesthetically centered around what Baraka labels "Afro-Surreal Expressionism." Further, Wright argues that Sun Ra, particularly in his development of "the highly disciplined and precise 'cosmic mathematics,'" provides Dumas with "primary techniques of estrangement" fundamentally different from those associated with surrealism, particularly in the latter's "abandonment of a consensual framing 'reality', the deliberate randomness of its featured automatic writing, and the designedly irrational juxtaposition of realistic and fantastic phenomena." Ultimately, what Wright is suggesting is Dumas and Sun Ra's insistent revision of the nature of the real, in the sense of ontology rather than in the sense of unconscious reality, and the terms "nature" and "ontology" recur throughout Wright's introduction. Wright concludes by relating these categories in Dumas's work to the work of Wilson Harris, a move I find particularly suggestive, but one that still leaves unresolved just how Dumas's ontological concerns engage with those developed by Sun Ra himself and just how these ontological concerns get linked to movement politics and the creation of a "new blackness."6
The tension in the relationship between ontological concerns and movement politics is perhaps most evident in an interview Dumas and Sun Ra recorded at Slug's Saloon in Lower Manhattan in 1966. Rediscovered and released on Ikef Records as the album The Ar\ and the ???f (2004), this recording serves as a unique point of entry into the broader Black Arts Movement. Dumas, who had been meeting with Sun Ra off and on since the early 1960s, and who had written the liner notes for the Arkestra's 1963 album Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy, questions Sun Ra on topics ranging from African wars for independence to the book Sun Ra lent Malcolm X just before his death to wild theological speculation and criticism of "new thing" jazz. One exchange in particular seems noteworthy for the way Dumas seems to be attempting to establish Sun Ra's position within the new Black Arts Movement:
Dumas: What you're saying is that, particularly, you come out of the Negro heritage. Do you feel that your music would touch the Negroes first, before white people, or do you think they're more in need of it than white people, or what do you think ofthat?7
Sun Ra never addresses the question about white people directly. Instead, he replies, somewhat cryptically, "Well, [Negroes] aren't really in need of anything because they're already complete over in the world of the dead." This refrain of the Negro inhabiting the world of the dead had been a common one with Sun Ra since at least the mid-1950s, when he was composing and distributing odd prophetic leaflets in Chicago's South Side. Still, the return of this conceit in 1966, two years after the "long hot summer," after Malcolm X's assassination, after the Watts uprising - but also in the midst of such revolutionary moments as the founding of the BARTS - sounds a discordant note: "[T]hey don't need anything, they're already complete."
Dumas, who doesn't press Sun Ra on much throughout the interview, does want more here, and asks, "How do you revive a people that are dead?" It is not hard to read behind the question the most pressing concerns of the movement: the relationship between revolutionary politics and aesthetic practice, and the role of art in the constitution of a people, as well as, perhaps, the relationship between the stories and poems Dumas was then composing and his work as a community organizer. Sun Ra's response, however, bears little resemblance to the more programmatic articulations of, say, Larry Neal's "The Black Arts Movement" or of the debates that had occupied and often split groups like Umbra in the years immediately surrounding the interview:
Sun Ra: . . . [S]ome people may not be in need of rain, and it rains, when it's a force of nature. So, that's what's going to happen, because you can't wait till they feel they need something. When a force of nature is supposed to do something, it does it. You might say I'm a force of nature, representing all the forces of nature ... I saw in one book where it said when man reached a certain stage where they can't move forward, a force of nature incarnates among them and achieves what they can't do. It's over in a Yoruba book, I think. It's an African doctrine, or African statement, that that happens, that it always happened like that. It could be the wind or the sun or the rain or anything, whichever force of nature is needed.
In identifying himself as a "force of nature," Sun Ra has clearly adopted the mantle of prophet, a mantle we can see him slowly claiming over the course of the aforementioned mid-50s leaflets. Likewise, his appeal to the unnamed Yoruba book points to the revisionist historiography he and Dumas (like he and the Thmei Research Group ten years earlier) had been engaged in since Dumas's arrival in New York. However, what is perhaps most striking about Sun Ra's reply is the way it displaces Dumas's original question onto nature. Dumas had spent much of 1963 and 1964 in and out of the city, organizing relief aid to Southern tent cities, and had returned in 1965 as a social worker, and it is clear that his question attempts to shift Sun Ra's fairly abstract appeal to "the world of the dead" back to a question of movement practice. One can only imagine how such a displacement might seem to somebody like Dumas, engaged as he was in on-the-ground struggle: as a metaphor of hope for an eventual resurrection from the world of tent cities and urban ghettoes, perhaps - one that ties "moving forward" to the inevitability of a natural process. On the other hand, it is also a displacement that seems to foreclose the efficacy of Dumas's own local struggles in a deferral awaiting an eventual "force of nature" (and one can detect a hint of incredulity in Dumas's voice on the recording). And yet, in the mouth of Sun Ra - who had been deeply engaged in his own, albeit eccentric, sort of community organizing since his Chicago period, and whose work, both musical and literary, can be read as an extended engagement with philosophies of nature - there is at least the possibility that we should pause over his appeal to nature at this moment, that he is suggesting some more nuanced relationship between social movements and nature.
Likewise, this exchange highlights a particularly interesting feature of Dumas's own work: that this movement writer wrote far less about the movement and far more about nature. The Blac\ American Literature Forum special issue on Dumas includes some sixty contributions (most of them brief appreciations), and among the few notes about Dumas's work that repeat, "nature" emerges as a central, though undertheorized category. Clyde Taylor, for instance, remarks that "Dumas makes an extraordinary discovery for an Afro poet: nature," whereas Michael Castro observes that "nature . . . represents the key to restoring our full humanity and our sense of relatedness to others."8 Picking up on such comments, I would add that Dumas's appeal to nature, while certainly not wholly indebted to Sun Ra, can be read fruitfully as an extended engagement with the sort of displacement of politics onto nature to which Sun Ra subjects Dumas's own 1966 interview question. If Sun Ra's appeal to "the wind or the sun or the rain" in the interview suggests the sort of nature the Blac\ American Literature Forum's commentators seem to have in mind, most of his work up to this point suggests an expanded category of nature, encompassing the nature of the physical world, but also an attempt to revise the related categories of being, representation, death and life. In what follows, I will examine the hints at ontological concerns in Sun Ra through a reading of the leaflets he distributed in Chicago in the mid-50s, before returning to the ways Dumas's fiction draws on these concerns in its own figuration of the relationship between aesthetic practice, nature, and revolutionary politics, particularly as it relates to his own attempt to imagine the movement through nature writing.
Further, I would like to suggest that this turn to nature in part represents an attempt to think through a sense of historical stalemate. While Sun Ra is certainly given to transhistorical utterances, it is worth considering his remarks in the context of the limitations of a Civil Rights coalition politics, the sometimes violent competition among various revolutionary and cultural black nationalisms, or the uncertainty of events like the Watts uprising - an uncertainty registered in the deep ambivalence of John O. Williams's Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light (1969), with its worry that the uprising had become merely a series of endlessly repeated long, hot summers, or in the cautious optimism of Dumas's own story, "Riot or Revolt?" Whatever of these or other possible contextual references Sun Ra may have in mind when he remarks that "they're already complete over in the world of the dead," his exchange with Dumas clearly reads their moment as poised between a form of social death and a revolutionary potential, figured as a force of nature. But, in this, everything depends upon what Sun Ra and Dumas might mean by death and nature. The Sun Ra- Henry Dumas relationship thus represents an engagement with the problem of death and representation, and a peculiar turn to the philosophy of nature as a way out.9 Since, for Sun Ra and Dumas, the motivation for turning to nature is largely an attempt to think a way out of a historically determined death, a focus on their works reveals a strain of Black Arts that is more engaged with a sense of historical stalemate than the works of Neal, Baraka, and others might suggest. The two together represent a sophisticated attempt to square the revolutionary rupture suggested by such moments as the 125th Street parade with a simultaneous sense of historical stalemate.
Sun Ra's own literary engagement with these issues can be seen as early as the mid-50s, when he began handing out leaflets in the South Side of Chicago. One of these leaflets develops the theme that reappears in the 1966 Dumas interview, the link between "the Negro" and death. Headed, in all caps, with the title "JESUS SAID, 'LET THE NEGRO BURY THE NEGRO,'" this leaflet proceeds, in the Aquinian mode, as both self- interview and biblical exegesis on the text of Luke 9:60:
QUESTION: Does the Bible contain anything about the Negro?
ANSWER: Yes. Jesus said, "Let the Negro bury the Negro." At least that is what he said in the original Greek Version of the New Testament.10
This opening question resounds with the whole history of biblical justifications for slavery, but, if we are at this point expecting a simple refutation or inversion of such ideological manipulations of scriptural authority, Sun Ra does not quite deliver. He does not reference the mark of Cain or the sons of Ham. Instead, he switches the text, and in a way that still appeals to scriptural authority, but in a manner that both claims revision ("in the original Greek") while advancing a claim that goes beyond the stakes suggested in the question. The argument that follows is conducted across a series of linguistic substitutions characteristic of Sun Ra's hermeneutics and poetics more broadly:
But according to genesis C and G are interchangeable and for this reason the words of Jesus also reads, "Let the Negro bury the Necro." ... In the present day language, the sentence just quoted reads: "Let the dead bury the dead." The original Greek and Ancient Hebrew definition of Negro or Necro is dead Body. (66; suspension points in original)
It is as if, in the middle of the 1950s and at precisely the wrong moment, given the contemporaneous revitalization of the Civil Rights movement, Sun Ra were subjecting scriptural authority to a revisionist reading in order to advance precisely the wrong historical counternarrative. In his review of the White Walls collection of the leaflets, Brent Hayes Edwards notes how troubling this move is, remarking that
[f]rom one perspective this appears to be a disturbing instance of internalized racism . . . [b]ut in the context of the 1950s, at the threshold of the civil rights era, it also might be understood as a political rejection of the old, conciliatory label of racial community, and the demand for its replacement with an adequately righteous term of self-determination.11
Sun Ra's development ofthat "righteous term," though, involves a textual process that puts the very category of determination through the ringer. For one, his equivalence of "Negro" and "Necro" is etymologically specious. In "the original Greek version of the New Testament" he cites, the word for "the dead" or "dead body" is V£K,pos (nekros). The word for "black" in Greek is µe?aß (mêlas). The word "Negro" is from the Latin niger, meaning black. While "Negro" and "Necro" visually resemble each other, the latter is not actually a Latin root, but an English latinization used to import the Greek ... (substituting a "c" for the kappa, "?,"). The two words "Negro" and "Necro," then, have no etymological connection: the English usage of "Negro" derives from a Latin word unrelated to the Greek root of "Necro." There is, however, a logic to Sun Ra's claim here, a logic that relies on the positional homology of letters across languages and that reads a later linguistic morphology anachronistically back onto the "genesis" of the word "Necro."
We can see this logic at work in Sun Ra's play with the letters C and G. If we take Sun Ra's appeal to "genesis" as also a reference to biblical Hebrew, then the claim that "C and G are interchangeable" is also not true - as there is not a letter C and the letter Kaph is distinct from Gimel - nor would the claim apply to the Koine Greek of Luke even if it were true. However, it is the case that the Latin, and thus English, letters C and G both derive from the Hebrew Gimel. Likewise, the C of "Necro" is in the third position of the English and Latin alphabets, whereas the third position in Greek and Hebrew is occupied by the gamma and Gimel, respectively. In other words, C and G are interchangeable only by dint of occupying the third position in the languages in question. Thus, behind Sun Ra's argument lies a rejection of etymological historicity in favor of a different sort of logic, one that is panlinguistic but still reliant on a sort of law, a positional law, governed by what Jacques Lacan refers to as "the agency of the letter."12 Sun Ra's own agency of the letter begins to seem like a sophisticated play with the relationship among sign, essence, and historicity, especially as these are racialized. After his discussion of C, G, Necros, and Negros, Sun Ra goes on to dissociate the term "Negro" from its racialist designation:
Many people think that Negro means Black but if it really meant Black only black people could be called Negro . . . Unfortunately for the Negro the word Negro means dead body . . . The Cemetery itself is named after the word Negro: Necropolis or City of the dead. (66; suspension points in original)
We can first of all hear in this riff on Necropolis an early echo of the "world of the dead" conceit of the Dumas interview, but the chains of equivalence and nonequivalence that get us here are hard to parse. Besides the fact that it is unclear just who, besides "black people could be called Negro," Sun Ra continues to refer to "the Negro" as if that category existed as a people while simultaneously dissociating the category from the word used to designate the category. ("Unfortunately for the Negro the word Negro . . .") This move puts constitutive priority on the signifier over the signified, but the terminological slippage here also writes "the Negro" into a sort of ontological limbo, both existing and not existing. I will discuss below how the later pamphlet "JOHNNY ONE NOTE"13 develops this ontology of "the Negro," but here it is worth noting that it is precisely the grammatical quasi existence of "the Negro" (as opposed to "black people") that finds the former term equated with the "dead body" and landing in the cemetery. That is, the grammatical status of the word "Negro" determines the ontic status of whatever type of being might be designated as "the Negro," and this in turn determines the organization of social space.14
However, if the "LET THE NEGRO BURY THE NEGRO" leaflet is in part a riff on the ontological status of racial signification, it should also be read as a narrative of linguistic and ontic conversion. William Van Deburg has discussed the narrative of "the Negro-to-Black conversion" as prototypical of Black Arts and 1960s black writing in general.15 After writing the Negro into the cemetery, Sun Ra abruptly introduces an opposing term that suggests a version of this conversion narrative: "The word Niger is a Latin word meaning Black and Simon the Apostle upon whom the Church was built was called Niger because he was a Black Man" (66). Clearly this move banks on the resemblance between "Niger" and "nigger," but the elision of the "g" and the Latin etymology, while retaining the resonance of the epithet, alters its signification significantly. The process of resignifying "nigger" involved here is fundamentally different from, say, the move of speaking and writing that term as "nigga." Rather than resignifying the epithet from within its usage in a particular social space, Sun Ra instead links it etymologically to an alternative source, and one that becomes not only affirmative but also foundational in its genealogical link to "Simon the Apostle on whom the Church was built." The leaflet then doubles this linguistic conversion with a call for individual conversion:
Question: Is it better to be a Negro or a Niger?
Answer: Negro means dead body . . . Niger means black . . . If you like death and like being one of the living dead then call yourself a Negro and continue to be rejected by the world as firstclass citizens. (66; suspension points in original)
Many of Sun Ra's other 1950s leaflets retain this symbolic association of "the Negro" with death while developing a philosophy - including an aesthetics centered on force and an ontology centered on the denial of death - that seems in total to aim at a sort of ontological Negro-toBlack conversion. Thus, the leaflet "JESUS SAID . . ." continues with the question "How can one stop being a Negro?" which in the logic of the rest of the leaflet reads both "How can one become a Black Man?" and "How can one stop being dead?" And, indeed, the answer that follows reads, "By the simple act of studying and understanding true life-giving wisdom" (66). The rest of this leaflet does not really develop this call to "life-giving wisdom," but many of the other leaflets can be read as elaborations on Sun Ra's philosophy of life as it relates to the ontic status of "the Negro."
For instance, the two-page "JOHNNY ONE NOTE" is a vicious, relentless improvisation on prophetic invective, biblical exegesis, jazz criticism, and numerology, written mostly in all caps and designed to berate the reader into choosing life over death. The reader is identified in the first line as Pops through the repeated address "WHATCHA SAY POPS! WHATCHA SAY POPS! WHATCHA SAY POPS!" (104). Sun Ra's poetics soon associates this figure, drawn from a jazz idiom and a possible reference to Louis Armstrong, with the "pops" of burning flesh: "POPS, YOU ARE A BURNING ASS- IT'S YOU THAT'S COOKIN! YOU'RE BURNING! SAY POPS AREN'T YOU TIRED OF BEING IN THE FIRE?" (104). The leaflet, then, shouts its reader into a hell associated both with spaces like the jazz club ("EVERYTIME I GO IN A NIGHTCLUB I SEE YOU POPPIN'") and more significantly with a static aesthetics later identified with "living death" and developed through the leaflet's title figure, Johnny One Note, who is also both Pops and the Negro:
THAT'S A HELL OF A NOTE, ISN'T IT . . . ONE NOTE ALL THE TIME IS A HELL OF A NOTE. ONE NOTE ALL THE TIME IS A HELL OF A NOTE. [. . .] IT'S A HELL OF A NOTE . . . IT'S A HELL OF THE NOTE . . . IT'S JOHNNY ONE NOTES HELL . . . IT'S A HELL OF JOHNNY THE NOTE. IT'S A HELL OF A NOTE . . IT'S A NOTE HELL . . . IT'S ONE NOTE HELL. (105; nonbracketed suspension points in original)
In passages like these, an insistent repetition evokes the "one note" that stands in for both historical and aesthetic stasis, while the differences (between "hell of a note" and "hell of the note," for instance) slide the reader from everyday speech and the space of the nightclub into a "hell" suggestive of both the "living death" evoked later and the status of "the Negro [as] dead body" from the earlier leaflet. But the upshot of the leaflet is a reverse move by which Sun Ra suggests an aesthetics running counter to the "one note" and with the force, to recall Dumas's question, to "revive a people that are dead." Thus, the leaflet asks,
[I]f negroes are not Johnny one note, WHY DO THEY ASK ONE ANOTHER, "HOW YOU GOIN' TO SOUND?" .... i know how i'm going to sound, i'm going to sound so loud that it will wake up the dead. HOW YOU GOING TO SOUND, MAN? . . HOW YOU'RE GOING TO SOUND, MAN? (106; suspension points in original)
Once again, Sun Ra resignifies everyday idiom to suggest a metaphysical underpinning, both that "negroes" are indeed trapped in the one-note hell evoked earlier, but also that this expression suggests the rather tenuous desire to "sound so loud that it will wake up the dead," tenuous given the lowercase whisper wedged between the shouted questions and the uncertain identity of the speaker.
What is perhaps most interesting in this leaflet is its very play with sound, both the signification of the word "sound" and the textual performance of the aural - for instance, in its homonymie associations and typographical tonal shifts.16 After evoking a sound that seems to have some sort of power over death and hell, Sun Ra's homonymie logic ties the aural to the ontological:
SOUND also means FOUNDED ON TRUTH OR RIGHT.
ARE NEGROES SOUND? EVERY NEGRO WHO LOVES GOD IS SOUND.
sound means founded on truth or right.
EVERY NEGRO WHO LOVES GOD IS SOUND.
sound doctrine is base doctrine. BASE is FOUNDATION.
YOU ARE THE SONS OF THE LIVING GOD.
THE SOUND OF GOD IS THE FOUNDATION OF THE WORLD. (106)
Earlier, the leaflet had equated sound with the one-note hell, the zero of death: "ONE NOTE IS A SOUND . . . negroes are sounds" (suspension points in original). But in the passage just cited, both "negroes" and "sound" take on new significations and a new relation to each other via the homonymie association of aurality with foundations. In this logic, a people, "the negroes," can exist as aural sound rather than as a substance with a physical reality. Likewise, this lack of substance, this quasi existence as sound, carries also the sort of force suggested in the line "sound so loud that it will wake up the dead." Both this force and this people, though, must be "sound" in the sense of having a "base" or "foundation," and while the foundation remains vague, described in such terms as "truth or right," the passage at least suggests that Sun Ra wants to link something like revolutionary aesthetics and movement politics not only to the new mythology and cosmology for which he is so famous, but to something approaching an alternative ontology. Thus, "sound" in the leaflet's first usage carries an ontological resonance: "negroes [exist as] sounds." In the second usage, "sound" concerns knowledge and belief: "sound doctrine." But the passage moves toward a third usage that at least suggests a resolution of the previous two: "the sound of God" is not only right doctrine but also "the foundation of the world."
Such ontological concerns are suggested throughout the leaflets, and everything about Sun Ra's poetics suggests a desire to evoke (but not quite to systematize) an alternative foundation that is at once mythological, etymological, and ontological. This foundation, as I have suggested, seems somehow necessary to the leaflets' attempts to found a new people from the "dead body" of "the Negro." Along these lines, it is perhaps telling that the most frequently used word in the leaflet is "is," suggesting also that a new people requires a new form of being. Brent Edwards has noted that Sun Ra's poetry - all of it written much later, from about the mid-60s through late-80s - can be characterized as "a poetics of recombination." For Edwards, this "recombination" points to "a willingness to read the 'light of pure cosmic wisdom' by recombining a wide variety of texts" and aims at exploring what Sun Ra himself calls "the ultradimension of being."17 Something similar is going on throughout the Chicago leaflets, in which one term is linked to another term and then another via a series of substitutions and equations across the word "is." The process of creating series of equations suggests, at the very least, an impulse toward resystematizing disparate elements. It also puts great stress on the copula - and thus on being itself - the status of which is implicitly strained for Sun Ra. For instance, the leaflet "THE WISDOM OF RA" opens with the following improvisation on being and time:
The movement called time is based upon 2. In the English Alphabet 2 is ten (X) from ? which is a non curved 2. Z then is equal to 2 because the first is the last. The last in alphabet-numerical form is 2 because the first being ? is two. The way to True Living Life is the phonetic of two which is to because the way to is the way ot and the way owt is the way two, the way tuo is the way tu and to. (123)
The passage is clearly concerned with establishing a concept of time that could run counter to the sense of stasis evoked in "JOHNNY ONE NOTE," an ontology that would oppose death with the "True Living Life" and that would allow for movement, both as escape ("the way owt") and as progress ("the way to"). Likewise, the emphasis on number resonates with a whole history of ontological systematizers, from Pythagoras to Alain Badiou. However, the leaps in logic that ground movement in the number 2 belie the very sense of system the passage as a whole seems to effect: the appeal to an "alphabet-numerical form," the equation of ? and 2 via their similar shape, the phonetic logic equating 2 with "to," and the logic of mirroring equating the way "ot'V'owt" with the way "to'V'two." Perhaps this wild equation of elements typically regarded as occupying different orders of being (number, language, physical shape) is what Sun Ra means by "the ultradimensions of being," and yet the different logics by which elements are equated in the passage, again, put enormous strain on the very copula that must do the work of equating.
A "movement based upon 2" returns in the title conceit of Dumas's "Metagenesis of Sunra" and determines the birth of the prophetrevolutionary. In this story, Dumas seems to be tying Sun Ra's "ultradimensions of being" even more emphatically to an image of collectivity. Drawn from evolutionary biology, and perhaps from the group's attempt, as Szwed reports it, to seek "an alternative to Darwinian evolutionary theory,"18 metagenetic reproduction concerns the variable response of an organism to selective pressures in which the organism will reproduce sexually under normal conditions and asexually within contexts of relative isolation and scarcity. As a social metaphor, metagenesis seems to emphasize flexible, tactical, almost guerilla modes of struggle. It also suggests a response to historical moments when, as Sun Ra describes them in the 1966 interview, "man reache[s] a certain stage where they can't move forward." In Dumas's story, it is also tied, metaphorically, to the ontic status of sound and thus reflects Sun Ra's own model for historical change based in music: "Sunra was not born but was made, not as one makes an object, not as the earth makes a tree out of a seed, not in this way, but in the way which sound becomes energy and energy becomes sound. That is, by metagenesis."19 This is, admittedly, just one of a handful of accounts of Sunra's birth the story offers, but it is at least the account privileged by the story's title. In its relative distance from sexual reproduction, this Sunra myth in part participates in a parthenogenetic myth typical of masculine prophets and vanguards. The inclusion of the sound/energy trope, however, revises this significantly, suggesting that Sunra's parthenogenesis is not quite the main point - he is, after all, still "made." The main point instead seems to be his status as a different sort of being, one whose ontic status participates in a sort of dialectic of sound and energy, nature and force; a participation that, at least for Dumas, grounds the story's later constitution of a collective and leads to social, historical change.
The nature of this dialectic depends on how sound-becoming-energybecoming-sound counts as being made, and how it results in a form of being. Dumas's negative refinements suggest that this is to be opposed to a Hegelian movement from nature to culture, or being for others ("not as one makes an object"), but also to be opposed to an organic naturalism ("not as the earth makes a tree"). In both of these discounted formulations, a new, distinct substance is made, whether by "one" or by "the earth." It is unclear, though, what sort of genesis is at work in the movement between sound and energy: Who makes, and what do they make, in this process of becoming? There are clues in the passage's revision of the Nicene Creed's "begotten, not made," since the latter must disavow that Christ was made, in order to avoid heretically suggesting an ontic difference between God, the father, and Christ, the son. Dumas's phrasing, "not born, but made," then insists that Sunra is a different order of being, not of the same substance as the father. This move breaks out of a patrilineal logic, which is also to say that it breaks out of a model of phylogeny. In Blac\ Skins, White Masías, Fanon credits Freud with replacing phylogeny with an ontogenetic focus on the individual, to which Fanon adds the category of sociogeny. But if sociogeny in Fanon still works through a process of (mis) recognition, then Dumas's metagenesis seems to be, at the very least, an attempt to avoid a visible logic of blackness, particularly when we add in its troping of a biological metagenesis with sound and energy. There is a biological register here, but there is not a body.
A version of this peculiar dialectic of sound and the body (individual or collective) can likewise be found in the most widely circulated of Sun Ra's leaflets, "Solaristic Precepts." This leaflet combines all the major themes I have been exploring - the relationship between number, being, life/death, sound, collectivity, and language - into two pages that proceed through a dizzying poetics of resignifying and deferral to develop a "twofold sequence of life" clearly striving to run counter to the ontic status of the Negro as dead body:
The fabulous ramifications of the vibrations of sound in the outer sense which is the center and middle of the solaristic Eternal Thought can easily result in the creation of a Phi Beta sequence of life, which is twofold. The Divisions of Two: First Two: The sequence of life is the thorough consideration of the patterns of the past because coming events cast their shadow before, therefore the keys to wisdom are revealed in the unfolding of Hebraic SHD-ology in the lifegiving form and principles of ancient Sinology plus the sealed and hidden books of the angels of God, namely the Teutonic race of angels which are the visible host of the Eternal God according to the earth grammatical conception but according to our conception for every angel who is for US because you are either for US or against US. Us IS, Us ARE, Us BE, Us AM (RE AM). Second 2: The sequence of life is sound diminished to its smallest point, the we of the Time to Live which is not revealed in the bible and therefore is in opposition to those who do not have a sine.20
I won't attempt to develop this into a coherent system. Indeed, much of the point seems to be that these precepts both simultaneously feel like a system and deny coherence. They are not always, for instance, grammatical: the long clause developing the "Teutonic race of angels" suggests a series of predicates that are never actually given, apparently operating by a grammar other than "the earth grammatical conception." However, a certain logic does emerge - one that strains to link a collective (US, the we of the Time to Live) to a sense of nature or being and time. Thus, the passage begins with the category of sound. As we saw in the "JOHNNY ONE NOTE" leaflet, "sound" carries for Sun Ra a multiple and conflictual ontological status: as opposed to substance, it does not exist in any traditional sense, and yet it is also foundational and at least potentially a principle of force.
Sound's peculiar relation to being, then, seems to open it up to possibilities beyond the "living death" associated with the number one in "JOHNNY ONE NOTE." Here, sound splits life in two, resulting in movement, creation, and pattern, and Sun Ra's passive construction and use of the phrase "can easily result" figures one's participation in sound and life as the participation in a natural process rather than as an agonistic struggle. Likewise, the sequence is twofold because it is divisible and therefore also the sequence of the "way to" and the "way out." John Szwed reads the leaflet's "Phi Beta sequence of life" as a bit of punning - "Phi Beta/far better"21 - a reading that should certainly be carried into any conclusions regarding this "sequence of life," but also one that does not quite exhaust the details of this sequence as Sun Ra goes on to develop it.
Beyond this, though, the sequence seems to split into the diachronic and synchronic, suggesting a complicated relationship between people and history. Readings of Sun Ra's historical sense tend to focus on his strategies of either revisionist historiography or mythographic reenchantment. In this leaflet, at least, Sun Ra seems to be doing something a bit different, a bit closer to developing a peculiar dialectic between diachronic and synchronic. The "first two" concerns the constitution of a people in diachronic history - a history understood both as pattern but also understood as not quite linear, subject to retroaction, as with the function of the letter in "JESUS SAID . . ." The "second two" concerns some sort of synchronic sense of time suggested in the image of "sound diminished to its smallest point," which would presumably be all sound and thus all of time, motion, and energy all at once. As "Solaristic Precepts" develops it, this form of time constitutes a collective "in opposition to those who do not have a sine." Sine here is of course a bit of punning, referring both to the linguistic sign and the sine wave, and thus yolks together a process of linguistic conversion and the peculiar ontic status of sound, here existing as a "point" but also as a wave, suggesting time, trajectory, and force. Whatever form of the collective this linguistic and aural performance attempts to call into being, it at the very least involves a remodeling of the historical dialectic based on sound itself and likewise attempts to fashion a new, dynamic concept of being, with the formation of the collective involving a struggle with a dialectic of being and nonbeing, signs and time.
Perhaps the most significant connection between Dumas and Sun Ra, then, lies in the way that "offering up an alternative cosmology"22 allowed both of them to reimagine collective struggle and its relation to broad historical change. The vision of collectivity and historical change is admittedly oblique in Sun Ra's leaflets, as it is in the interview with Dumas a decade later. I would argue, however, that it is nevertheless central to the way Dumas's writing develops its own unique vision of collectivity. As in his move, in "Metagenesis," to place Sun Ra at the vanguard of a revolutionary moment of rupture, Dumas's work in general might be read as a more insistent translation of Sun Ra's ontological concerns onto social space and into history. On the one hand, the two write revolution into nature itself and imagine historical change as, in some ways, grounded (perhaps inevitable): "When a force of nature is supposed to do something, it does it." On the other hand, while this displacement of the political onto the natural could arguably be read as a sort of retreat from the political, in the works of Dumas and Sun Ra the naturalization of politics is instead a way of imagining total revolution, a sort of harmony between political struggle and the cosmos. When revolution gets written into nature, not only do social structures change, but Being itself changes fundamentally. This includes one's own being (the ontologized Negro-toBlack conversion), as well as the nature of Being itself. And finally, this vision of a sort of ontic revolution reflects back onto the social. For both Sun Ra and Dumas, social struggle involves a disciplined participation in a revolutionary cosmos.
If this ontic revolution seems a bit abstracted from the social in Sun Ra's leaflets, two stories published during Dumas's lifetime - "Fon" (1968) and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" (1966)- more emphatically tie revised categories of being to forms of social collectivity. "Fon" opens abruptly: "From the sky. A fragment of black rock about the size of a fist, sailing, sailing. . . . CRAACK! The rear windshield breaks" (suspension points in original).23 The image of the "black rock about the size of a fist" of course calls to mind the raised fist, symbol and expression of Black Power. It also, however, displaces the fist onto the cosmos, suggesting one of those "forces of nature" Sun Ra may have had in mind in his 1966 interview with Dumas: a force that is at once natural - a meteor - and, in its displacement of the black fist, also a condensation of the social. And, if the fragment of black rock is a sort of cosmic judgment on the windshield it smashes, it also initiates a narrative of local Southern resistance. The windshield belongs to Nillmon, a Southern white racist who attempts to lynch the title character, Fon, for throwing the rock. Most of the story relates Nillmon's drunken attempts to gather a posse to track down Fon, whom they eventually nearly kill by stuffing dynamite into his pockets. The story ends with Fon saved and Nillmon and his friends killed by a barrage of arrows from nearby trees - perhaps fired by Fon 's unnamed brother, perhaps emerging from the trees themselves.
The natural elements in the story - for example, the rock from the sky and the forest that kills the would-be lynch mob - seem overdetermined in their social referents. Commentators on Dumas have noted the way that nature in his work seems to function as a negotiation of North and South. Here, the rock from the sky seems to be a displacement of modes of resistance coded as urban (e.g., the Black Panther) onto a Southern setting. However, this very displacement also suggests an entire, occluded history of violent Southern resistance to lynching, perhaps recalling the Deacons for Defense or Robert F. Williams, the NAACP organizer who advocated armed resistance to the Ku Klux Klan and published such tracts as Negroes with Guns (1962) before taking asylum in Cuba.
The connection between radically different levels of struggle - cosmic and local - also carries a temporal dimension in which history, too, gets registered in nature and in which nature in turn reflects collectivity. The white men finally track Fon to a neighborhood of shacks near a church. As they take Fon, the story records a strange, disembodied cheer that seems to rise both from a vague crowd near the church and from the earth itself:
Suddenly they see Fon inside, and a cheer leaps up from them such as the white men have never heard. A sound of distance and presence, a shaking in the air which comes from that invisible song, that body of memory, ancient. A long sustained roar from the body of the land, rising, rising . . . (125; suspension points in original)
The vision of collectivity here is tenuous but nevertheless powerful. Like their cheer, the crowd around the church is both distant and present, not quite registered by the story as a material presence but rather as sound. In this, it seems to turn Sun Ra's "sound" into the status of a collective: something with force and foundation but without definite physical being. This status of the collective is highlighted by the otherwise unnecessary note that their song is invisible. What does get registered as material, as a body, are instead memory and the land. These lines perhaps anticipate Toni Morrison's later sites of rememory in Beloved (1987) in their linking of history and place, but here the "body of memory" that is both registered in and arises from the land is specifically keyed to a fairly apocalyptic revolutionary vision and an organic relationship between the crowd's roar and the earth's. A bit later, after the arrows from the trees kill Nillmon and his men, Fon himself returns to this theme of history inaugurating apocalypse, noting that "[f]our centuries of black eyes burning into four weak white men would've set the whole world on fire" (126)
Unlike "Metagenesis," "Fon" does not attempt to narrate the revolution, but it does narrate a revolutionary collective; or, rather, the preparation of a revolutionary people in which these people are mostly absent. Thus, the story registers them obliquely through recourse to nature. The repetition of "rising, rising" recalls the story's opening repetition of "sailing, sailing," suggesting also a relationship between the people's cheer, the earth's roar, and the Black Power fist that breaks Nillmon's windshield. And if, as I argued, that fist/rock can be read as a displacement of the social onto nature, it also returns in the story's closing lines as an integral part of whatever revolutionary collective the story imagines in preparation:
The light from the church reaches out almost to him. They are expecting him back. . . . When the tower is finished . . . One more black stone. He will be able to see how to walk back. A fragment of the night, kicking, kicking, at the gnawing teeth of the earth. (127; suspension points in original)
Scott Saul reads this ending as an example of Dumas's tendency to "end with an intimation of pained wisdom, as if making a concerted effort to avoid an inspiring cadence, rather than with the promise of transcendence or the discovery of a beloved community."24 Admittedly, the tone of the last line is pained, whether that "fragment of the night" refers to the black stone or to Fon or, what is most likely, to both at once. However, it might be better to read the "pained wisdom" here as an image of struggle that does indeed offer some promise of community or collectivity. Fon is, after all, returning to the church, and, further, the oblique reference to "the tower" suggests some sort of preparation or collective project. Likewise, the lines suggest that this tower is being built with black stones such as the one that breaks Nillmon's window in the first place. Thus, if Fon is himself a "fragment of the night," isolated, and his struggle so far no more than "kicking," he is also tied to a much broader collective project anticipating revolution - one that encompasses "four centuries" of history, a participation in a revolutionary cosmos, a "long sustained roar from the body of the land," as well as the local site of the church itself.
If "Fon" imagines local struggle as intimately connected to the earth and the cosmos, the story "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" stages an even more radical yoking of ontic tropes and social collectivity. The story - published in Negro Digest and in many ways a parable of the very move uptown announced by the Arkestra's 1965 parade - opens with Probe Adams and a group of musicians in the Sound Barrier Club engaged in a collective improvisation and waiting for Probe to "reveal the new sound" (105). After a period of exile, Probe has returned with an "afro-horn, the newest axe to cut the dead wood of the world" (105), and this horn has become the stuff of legend.
Probe's afro-horn is a sort of mythic object. A musicological note late in the story gives its history: "There are only three afro-horns in the world. They were forged from a rare metal found only in Africa and South America. No one knows who forged the horns, but the general opinion among musicologists is that it was the Egyptians" (109). As a mythic object, it is very much of a piece with those forged by Sun Ra. As Szwed notes, "[TJhere was an element of secret knowledge about the names Sonny gave to some of the instruments the band used: lightning drum, space gong, space harp, space -dimension mellophone, sun horn, sun harp, Egyptian sun bells, ancient Egyptian infinity drum, cosmic tone organ, dragon drum."25 The historical trajectory of the afro-horn is equally important. First, the material matters: the horn is forged of rare metal and seems to be the harnessed form of some sort of natural force offered up by the earth itself. Likewise, this metal comes specifically from Africa and Latin America, two regions that certainly featured prominently in the revolutionary imagination of the United States in the mid-60s, and thus could be read as another natural displacement of contemporary global struggle. Finally, the horn itself is most likely forged by the Egyptians. As noted before, Dumas spent a good deal of time studying Egyptian mythology with Sun Ra, and his move to bring Egypt uptown in the form of the afro-horn carries elements of implied historical counternarrative. Alongside this counternarrative impulse though is an impulse to find what Clyde Taylor calls "that part of hipness that preserves an African ontology," an African ontology that I would argue grounds local struggle. Indeed, the story stages a sort of ontological revolution, thus suggesting what Amiri Baraka elsewhere suggests, that "the liberation of African American people and the destruction of Imperialism are inherent in nature itself."26
The story's initial description of this performance, before Probe has taken up the afro-horn, merges intimations of social collectivity with musical descriptions that are by turns cosmic and organic. "The black audience," for instance, is "unaware at first of its collectiveness," while the musicians' performances "all [fall] separately, yet together" (105). Dumas's interest in the relationship between performance, performer, and people here mirrors in some ways those developed in James Baldwin's 1957 story, "Sonny's Blues."27 Like Baldwin's story, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" banks on an "us" constituted by performance and likewise seeks to establish a space of freedom within the jazz club: the waiters, for instance, are early described as "dark pillars holding up the building and letting the free air purify the mind of the club" (105). And yet Baldwin's narrative of freedom established in social recognition takes on an entirely new valence when coupled with Dumas's description of the performers themselves. Probe's name, connoting both medical and cosmic exploration, makes him a figure less of existential struggle with expression through sound and more a figure of what Sun Ra sometimes referred to as "the tone-scientist," searching for the "real" of sound discussed in the Sun Ra leaflets. (Thus his move, at the end of this description, into the "inner ranges of the sax," ranges suggesting both sound and space.) Likewise, the musicians sit in a "spiral" that both evokes galaxies and doubles with the sound of the performance, "as if the ring of sound from the six wailing pieces was tightening, creating a spiraling circle" (105). In such descriptions, it is not so much the interplay of individual self-expression and social recognition that creates the freedom of the jazz club. Rather, it is the mutual participation of audience and musician in a common ontic space created by (but also reflected in) the musicians' exploration of sound itself that leads to the sort of social freedom imagined in the story's opening paragraphs. Thus, social recognition is not paramount. The audience is, after all, "unaware at first of its own collectiveness," but this collectiveness is nevertheless created by a tenuous sound when, in the next move, they begin "to move in a soundless rhythm as if it were the tiny twitchings of an embryo" (105).
The story pits this initial vision of black collectivity grounded in a mutual participation in sound and space against a competing vision grounded in self-expression and social recognition in the figure of three white hipsters - Jan, Tasha, and Ron - who try to gain access to the club. Jan, Ron, and Tasha seem almost to be lifted directly from Amiri Baraka's early 1960s works such as "Jazz and the White Critic" (1960) or Dutchman (1964). For instance, Ron, "bearded and scholarly," is a Yale graduate and apparently dilettantish music critic who has "kicked around the music world" and whose "articles and reviews had helped many black musicians" (106). He is basically Baraka's white critic and is consequently heavily ironized. For instance, we learn that Ron would like to enter the club on his merits as a blues singer, but can't tell the difference between Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) and Mississippi John Hurt, and that the "best compliment he ever got" was when Muddy Waters tells him, "Boy, you keep that up, you gwine put me back on the plantation" (106). Ron, then, like all three, clearly wants access, and not just to the Sound Barrier Club - though he has "almost carried the result of one attempt to court" - but also to blackness. Thus, he is "not fully satisfied that he ha[s] found the depth of the black man's psyche. In his book he ha[s] said this" (106). With Tasha - a "Vassar girl" who has "dyed her hair black" - the irony is far less thick, more uncertain. She is, like Ron, a white critic, publishing in Down Beat on the fictional jazz musician Oliver Fullerton, but she has also been Fullerton's lover, and the story seems tonally uncertain on this point. While there is a hint (but only a hint) of Ron's desire to find "the depth of the black man's psyche," or even of Dutchman 's Lula in the way the story describes Tasha's love for Fullerton ("her little black secret and her passport to the inner world that Oliver had died trying to enter"), the story seems to take this at least provisionally seriously (107).
Of the three, Jan is central. Not a critic but a musician, he "had blown with Probe six years ago on the West Coast" and is looking to repeat his performance. Suspicious of the "new philosophy" (105) of black nationalism, Jan is perhaps at this point also a figure like Baraka's white critic, erring on the side of musical universalism. Thus, he believes about musicians like Probe that "theirs was no different from any other artist's struggles to be himself, including his own" (105). Such an emphasis on freedom in self-expression derives, of course, from Jan's whiteness, but he nevertheless also identifies as black, referring to Tasha and Ron as "two of the hippest ofays in town," claiming for himself, "I am blood," and later, after their attempt to enter the club is repulsed, telling the doorman, "[I]f you can't recognize a Brother, you better let me have your job" (107).
These two visions are ambiguously resolved by the story's end, when a final performance (this time including Probe's afro-horn) both radically alters the space of the jazz club and (at least as most readings of the story would have it) kills the three white hipsters. At this moment, the collective improvisation becomes a force of nature, channeling the wind and natural force in order to destroy the present of the jazz club and to create an entirely new world in its place: "The blanket of the bass rippled and the fierce wind in all their minds blew the blanket back, and there sat the city of Samson. The white pillars imposing but how easy it is to tear the building down with motives" (109). This movement appeals to Samson as a historical model of struggle, but also literally brings the force of his struggle into the present, uptown. This force is rooted both historically, in Egypt as the foundation of civilization, and elementally, in the wind. Indeed, just before the horn unleashes the shock waves that (perhaps) kill the white intruders, the space the music creates is described at the most elemental level, the atom: "Inside the center of the gyrations is an atom stripped of time, black" (109).
Most readings of the story assume that the hipsters have been killed by the afro-horn's "lethal vibrations." However, the story is never quite clear on this point: it closes by twice repeating the word "dead" followed by question marks, and it registers their "deaths" as Jan's "mind [going] black" (109) and Ron's "heart silent in respect for truer vibrations" (110). Such narrative ambiguity suggests that "Circle" might be read less as a Dutchman-style murderous fantasy and more as a fantasy of interracial collectivity that centers on a revision of the ontic status of death and sound consonant with that developed in Sun Ra's leaflets. Indeed, the line describing what I will call Jan's symbolic death ("his mind went black") occurs only a few lines after the line describing the center of the new social space as "an atom stripped of time, black," suggesting that Jan does, in effect, participate in the collective space created by Probe's afro-horn. The description of Jan's symbolic death continues,
Before his mind went black, Jan recalled the feeling when his father had beat him for playing "with a nigger!" and later he allowed the feeling to merge with his dislike of white people. When he fell, his case hit the floor and opened, revealing a shiny tenor saxophone that gleamed and vibrated in the freedom of freedom. (109-10)
If Jan's goal all along has been to participate in blackness by blowing with Probe, he does in effect achieve this goal. To be sure, this is a far cry from the multiracial fantasy of the East Village bohemia from which he comes, but Jan's symbolic death does initiate him into a new order of freedom - what the story calls "the freedom of freedom." In other words, the story seeks to achieve a sort of collective freedom involving even Jan through a symbolic death that effects a dissolution of the self and self-expression within a new order of being that is founded on collective sound. Thus, Jan becomes neither "blood" nor "a brother" (as he earlier claims to be, with all of the potential racialist connotations of those terms), but rather "black" and "sound." I would like to suggest, in closing, that Dumas is here imagining a sort of collective that derives from Sun Ra's reconception of social ontology, with Jan's "black" mind and Probe's "black" atom recalling the end of "Solaristic Precepts:" "Warning: This treatise is only for Thinking 'Beings' who are able to conceive of the Negative reminiscences of Space-Time, as is expressed in Is, Are, Be, and reconcepted 'AM' which to the initiate is - , a symbol of Not or Non."28
1. Amiri Baraka, The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (New York: Freundlich, 1984), 205.
2. Henry Dumas, Echo Tree: The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas, ed. Eugene B. Redmond, Black Arts Movement Series (Saint Paul, MN: Coffee House Press, 2003), 359-60.
3. Amiri Baraka, "Black Art," in Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro -American Writing, ed. LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal (New York: William Morrow, 1968), 302-3; and Larry Neal, "The Black Arts Movement" (1968), in Visions of a Liberated Future: Blacf(Arts Movement Writings, ed. Michael Schwartz (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1989), 62-78, quotation on 66.
4. If Sun Ra can, in some ways, be seen to draw together the major aesthetic practices and aims of Black Arts and black nationalism in general, his relationship to both is quite fraught. For instance, Daniel Kreiss reads Sun Ra's 1971 expulsion from a Black Panther Party-owned house in Oakland, California, as emblematic of a tension between cultural and revolutionary nationalism. Kreiss argues that both Sun Ra and the Panthers "engaged in fundamentally performative projects to change consciousness in response to the psychological alienation caused by racism and the working of a technocratic, capitalistic society," but that nevertheless
[t]he Panthers dismissed Sun Ra's techno-utopian imaginings and approach to myth in light of what they saw as their own expressly revolutionary political activities. For his own part, Sun Ra eschewed the guns, advanced weaponry, and the Panthers' vision of colonial space, positing instead a contrasting notion of black consciousness and a different, Utopian end for social change. (Daniel Kreiss, "Appropriating the Master's Tools: Sun Ra, the Black Panthers, and Black Consciousness, 1952-1973," Blacf( Music Research journal 28, no. 1 : 57-81, quotation on 60)
It is in part a tension between a revolutionary mythography and revolutionary political activity that I would like to explore by turning to the relationship between Henry Dumas and Sun Ra.
5. Graham Lock, Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Worl of Sun Ra, Ouke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 14; John F Szwed, Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (New York: Pantheon, 1997), 223; Scott Saul, "The Devil and Henry Dumas: A Lost Voice of the Black Arts Movement," review oí Echo Tree, by Henry Dumas, Boston Review, OctoberNovember 2004, http://bostonreview.net/BR29.5/saul.php; James Edward Smethurst, The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 100; and Baraka, Autobiography, 204.
6. John S. Wright, introduction to Dumas, Echo Tree (see note 2), ix- xxxvii, quotations on xxix- XXX.
7. This, and all exchanges between Sun Ra and Dumas hereafter, are from Sun Ra and Henry Dumas, The Armand the An\h (Ikef, 2004), CD-ROM.
8. Clyde Taylor, "Henry Dumas: Legacy of a Long-Breath Singer," in "Henry Dumas Issue," special issue, ed. Eugene B. Redmond, Black American Literature Forum 22, no. 2 (1988): 353-64, quotation on 356; and Michael Castro, "Henry Dumas's Poetry of a Natural Man," ibid., 182-87, quotation on 182.
9. Nature of course held considerable currency for Black Power in general, particularly in its cultural nationalist variant. Celebrated in such cultural forms as "the natural" hairstyle or soul classics like Charles Wright's "Doin' What Comes Naturally" (1973), the category was variously associated with an Africanist retention, Southern retentions and strategies for survival in urban spaces, or a romantic anticapitalism. It is also, of course, an ideologically dangerous category, whether lampooned by detractors such as Tom Wolfe or more seriously in grounding ideologies of exclusion, essentialism, or masculinism. The Sun Ra- Dumas relationship, then, provides one of the most extended engagements with this category and therefore provides an opportunity to revise assumptions about Black Power's appeal to nature more generally.
10. This, and all quotations from Sun Ra's leaflets hereafter, are from Sun Ra, The Wisdom of Sun Ra: Sun Ra's Polemical Broadsheets and Streetcorner Leaflets, ed. John Corbett (Chicago: White Walls, 2006), 66.
11. Brent Hayes Edwards, review of The Wisdom of Sun Ra, in "Technology and Black Music in the Americas," special issue, ed. George E. Lewis, Journal of the Society for American Music 2, no. 2 (2008): 258-65, quotation on 264.
12. See Jacques Lacan, "The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious; or, Reason Since Freud," in Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: W W Norton, 2006), 412^13.
13. The dates for these pamphlets are unknown, but they appeared between roughly 1950 and 1955. Because of Sun Ra's play with typography, I have retained his title caps.
14. This process might fruitfully be read as a twist on the link Joseph Roach traces between the history of burial practices and the modern, segregated city:
Under a regime of newly segregationist taxonomies of behavior in several related fields of manners and bodily administration, the dead were compelled to withdraw from the spaces of the living: their ghosts were exorcised even further from the stage; their bodies were removed to newly dedicated and isolated cemeteries, which in New Orleans came to be called "Cities of the Dead."
Roach goes on to sketch the ways this initial attempt to move dead bodies outside the city center both became further refined (into separate spaces for Catholic and Protestant, rich and poor, civilized and barbarian) and then in turn these "Enlightened Cities of the Dead" offered themselves up as conceptual prototypes for the cities in which prosperity lives." Sun Ra's claim that "the Negro means dead body" is likewise drawing a link between segregation and death, but this link is not historically determined in the way Roach's is. Rather, the link for Sun Ra concerns the way signification determines meaning, which in turn determines being, which in turn determines social segregation. If we return to Dumas's interview question, "How do you revive a people that are dead," then this leaflet seems to answer that "the Negro" cannot be revived since it "means dead body" and is tied to the cemetery by chains of signification ("already complete") (Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum -Atlantic Performance, Social Foundations of Aesthetic Forms [New York: Columbia University Press, 1996], 50-54).
15. William L. Van Deburg, New Day in Babylon: The Bfoc\ Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 51-62.
16. After noting that "Sun Ra does not have a great deal to say about music in these broadsheets," Edwards ends his review by quoting from "Johnny One Note" as an example of "a few brief passages where the texts link vernacular declaration to critical insight, in a kind of intimation that music may be the most powerful (the 'soundest') means of public address" (review of Sun Ra, The Wisdom of Sun Ra, 264-65).
17. Brent Hayes Edwards, "The Race for Space: Sun Ra's Poetry," in The World in Time and Space: Towards a History of Innovative American Poetry in Our Time, ed. Edward Foster and Joseph Donahue (Jersey City, NJ: Talisman House, 2001), 609-35, quotations on 627-29.
18. Szwed, Space Is the Place, 75.
19. Dumas, Echo Tree, 345.
20. Quoted in Szwed, Space Is the Place, 76-77.
21. Ibid., 78.
22. Saul, "The Devil and Henry Dumas."
23. Dumas, Echo Tree, 116. All quotations from "Fon" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" are hereafter cited in the text.
24. Saul, "The Devil and Henry Dumas."
25. Szwed, Space Is the Place, 95-96.
26. Taylor, "Henry Dumas," 355; and Amiri Baraka, "Henry Dumas: Afro-Surreal Expressionist," Black American Literature Forum 22, no. 2 (1988): 164-66, quotation on 165.
27. This comparison with James Baldwin's story, as well as my description of the hipster's notion of freedom that follows, are indebted to Scott Saul Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't: Jazz and the Maying of the Sixties [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003], 72-76).
28. Quoted in Szwed, Space Is the Place, 77-78.
Nathan Ragain, a postdoctoral preceptor at the University of Virginia, is currently wording on a book project that examines how writers associated with ethnic nationalist movements developed experimental aesthetic forms to represent collective political subjectivity.