I’m talking about something that’s so impossible it can’t possibly be true. But it’s the only way the world’s gonna survive, this impossible thing. My job is to change five billion people to something else. Totally impossible. But everything that’s possible’s been done by men, I have to deal with the impossible. And when I deal with the impossible and am successful, it makes me feel good because I know that I’m not bullshittin’. – Sun Ra
Many thanks to Kazembe Balagun, outreach coordinator at The Brecht Forum, for posting a note on Facebook with the actual reading list from “Afro-American Studies 198: The Black Man in the Cosmos” a course taught by Sun Ra in the spring of 1971 at UC-Berkeley (and the inspiration for the title of this blog).
John Szwed’s wonderful biography Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, is an impressive study of Sun Ra’s work (no small feat since Ra could be a difficult character to get a handle on). A good brief introduction to some of Sun Ra’s recording is this short guide written by Szwed in the Village Voice.
In Space is the Place, Szwed listed the works Sun Ra assigned in the Berkeley course and described the course this way:
“Although a respectable number of students signed up, after a couple of classes it was down to a handful…But a large number of local black folks regularly attended, always distinguishable from the students by their party dress. The classes ran like rehearsals: first came the lecture, followed by a half hour of solo keyboard or Arkestra performance. But it was a proper course – Sun Ra had after all trained to be a teacher in college – with class handouts, assignments, and a reading list which made even the most au courant sixties professors’ courses pale.”
The Egyptian Book of the Dead
Bill Looney, Radix (a book of astrology)
Alexander Hislop, Two Babylons
The theosophical works of Madame Blavatsky
The Book of Oahspe
Henry Dumas, Ark of Bones and Poetry for My People
Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, edited by Leroi Jones & Larry Neal
David Livingston, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa
Theodore P. Ford, God Wills the Negro
Archibald Rutledge, God’s Children
The spring 1971 issue of Stylus (vol. 13, no. 1), a black literary magazine of Temple University
John S. Wilson, Jazz: Where It Came From, Where It’s At.
Yosef A. A. Ben-Jochannan, Black Man of the Nile and His Family
Count Volney, The Ruins, or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires, and the Law of Nature.
The King James Bible (which was listed on the syllabus only as “The Source Book of Man’s Life and Death”)
P.D. Ouspensky, A New Model of the Universe.
Frederick Bodmer, The Loom of Language: An Approach to the Mastery of Many Languages.
[…and other recommended books on hieroglyphics, color therapy, the Rosicrucians, Afro-American folklore, and ex slaves’ writings.]
(pp.294-295, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997)
The collection Sun Ra: The Immeasurable Equation: The Poetry and Prose is an expensive and rare anthology. I’m saving up my pennies to get a copy at some point, but if you look at the Amazon and Google Books previews you can get a glimpse of what’s in it. Along with Ra’s prose and poetry there is also a bibliography of his book collection compiled by Arkestra member James Jacson and other scholars after Ra left the planet in 1993. Szwed’s biography gives a good portrait of Ra’s voracious reading habits and his insatiable thirst for books on music, history, religion, the occult, science, language and just about anything else he could get his hands on.
I’ve been especially thinking about Sun Ra’s music this week what with the uprising going on in Egypt. Of course Egypt was near and dear to his heart and its ancient history was the source of the Arkestra’s mythology. Here’s a selection from an Arkestra concert in Egypt in 1983 with Salah Ragab and the Cairo Jazz Band.
All Power to the People.
UPDATE: You can listen to one of the lectures from the course here: