The Nostalgia Trap

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Recently, I sat down with David Parsons for his podcast The Nostalgia Trap.  As he describes it: “This podcast features interviews with academics, writers, poets, artists, filmmakers, and all sorts of other interesting folks, using their personal biographies as the starting point for wide-ranging conversations about the state of our world. By filling in the potholes on Memory Lane, we hope to see the road ahead more clearly.”

You can access the Episode 9 interview with me on The Nostalgia Trap website.  This episode and other episodes of The Nostalgia Trap can also be downloaded on iTunes.

 

A Joyful Noise

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“A lot of people have tried to contain me or to limit me, but you see that is not my type of being to be limited.”

 

Here are two long clips from the documentary Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise. The first clip is the first 12 minutes of the film, and the second clip is the last 19 minutes, which includes a rousing version of “We Travel the Spaceways” at the very end.  Again, check out Robert Mugge’s site for background on the making of the film:

 

 

Why Sun Ra? The Living Myth at 100

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The world needs to know what I’m saying, and these universities need to know what I’m saying, but I’ve risen up above universities, say well, they’re no good. I had to report to the Creator, say the universities are not suitable, on this planet. They talk about universe, and then they putting something down. That’s not proper. But I said so I’m just going to one day establish my omniversity. And in my omniversity, people can learn everything. And I’m going to do that. I’m going to establish my omniversity. Now you don’t have an omniversity on the planet. “Universe” just means “one thing,” they have to deal with the oneness of things.
– Sun Ra

From a 1988 Interview – http://www.plonsey.com/beanbenders/SUNRA-interview.html

Over the past few years I seem to have developed a reputation among my friends as an “expert” on Sun Ra. But really, I haven’t even been a Sun Ra fan for very long. It was only in August 2007 that I really discovered Sun Ra. I had heard of him before. I knew he was an innovator in the jazz avant-garde and that he was experimenting with electronic music way before other artists got into it. But it was in August ‘07 that I found in the Brooklyn Public Library a VHS copy of Robert Mugge’s 1980 documentary Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise. I took it home, popped it into my decrepit little VHS/TV combo thinking I’d watch it while doing some other work. Long story short, I got completely engrossed in it, and blown away by it. I was already pretty well-versed in the history of jazz with a decided preference for the bebop and post-bop sound – Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and so on. (The version of ‘Round Midnight that they played in A Joyful Noise just knocked me out!) I also happened to have stumbled on to Sun Ra during a time when I was re-engaging with black nationalism and Afrocentric thought. In fact, Sun Ra seemed to tie together several different fields I was reading through at the time, including African-American comedy and satire, anthropology and science fiction.


On the occasion of Sun Ra’s 100th arrival day I wanted to share a few thoughts here about why I have found Sun Ra’s work so fascinating. I realize there are plenty of people out there way more knowledgeable about his body of work than I am. My meager knowledge about the Arkestra is nothing compared to other people who I’ve met who saw the Arkestra in its heyday when every concert was truly a happening. But I have seen the Arkestra perform live three times now, in Central Park, at Sullivan Hall, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, and though the spectacle might not be as a grand as I’ve heard about and seen in old footage, the band still brings the energy and liveliness to every show. Unfortunately I missed their performances in the past few months at Lincoln Center and at Drom, and the band is currently on tour in Europe. But I fully expect to be in line for the next shows back in the states when they return.

As I said to a friend I spoke with recently, the thing that immediately struck me about Sun Ra’s music is that it sounded like nothing I had heard before, and everything I had heard before. In the Arkestra’s performance I heard New Orleans jazz, blues, gospel, swing, be-bop, funk, Afro-beat, and the classical avant-garde. The performances included a melding of other art forms including drama, opera, poetry, the sermon, spoken word, dance, and fashion.

I’ve been thinking about the complexities of Afrocentricity for years now, and what I saw in A Joyful Noise made me marvel at Sun Ra’s Afrocentric imagination. I was first introduced to Afrocentric thought in college, reading through copious amounts of George G.M. James, Cheikh Anta Diop, Martin Bernal, Molefi Asante and Frances Cress Welsing. I also read the serious critics of Afrocentricity and took their counterpoints to heart. (And by serious critics, I specifically exclude the white supremacist reactionaries, though I read them too.) I ultimately settled on something akin to Wilson Moses’s take on Afrocentricity in his book Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History. I’ve always been suspicious of romantic racialism, and I completely reject the patriarchy and homophobia that permeates way too much Afrocentricity, but I also appreciate it as folk history, as a popular intellectual tradition created on the margins of the formal academy, and as a body of work which introduced many young black people to an interest in history and an intellectual practice that they might not have encountered otherwise.

What appealed to me about Sun Ra’s version of Afrocentricity that I saw in A Joyful Noise (and which I later discovered in more of his work) was the playfulness in his mythology that seemed to bypass all the self-righteous true-believerism of a Karenga or an Asante, and that circumvented the dour seriousness of doctrinaire Afrocentrics. And by linking Afrocentric thought to futurism Sun Ra also circumvented the trapdoor of nostalgia by not resting on the past but also projecting into the future. While it is easy to mistake Sun Ra’s veneration of ancient Egypt as a simple nostalgia, he was, at the same time, preaching a futuristic vision of science and technology in which he embraced all the newest electronic instruments, embraced the technological wonders of space travel, and called for a cosmic consciousness beyond the reaches of this one isolated planet.

I was also fascinated by Sun Ra’s insistence on the principles of “discipline and precision.” I heard in those words an intentional confrontation with the idea of “freedom” in jazz improvisation. As he was known to say, he played P-H-R-E jazz and not F-R-E-E jazz. In his dialectical ruminations on the nature of freedom and discipline Sun Ra was also theorizing black art and challenging ideas of black primitivism taken up by so many white intellectuals. The Arkestra’s long, arduous practice sessions were legendary, and by emphasizing the notion of discipline, Sun Ra was cleverly exploding the myth that the black artist somehow crawled out of the womb already knowing how to play soaring improvised solos. He was disrupting that condescending idea about jazz that was popular among white beatniks, that anyone could perform black music by simply sloughing off one’s Western rationality and getting in touch with the wild, untrained, primitive self. On the contrary Sun Ra preached that discipline and precision were necessary to operate at the highest levels of any art form. There was spontaneity in the Arkestra’s performance, sure, but that was what Sun Ra spoke of as “spirit.” And that spirit found its expression through discipline, and was activated at the moment of performance. Without that discipline there would be no art.

Sun Ra often encouraged musicians in the Arkestra to push their instruments to their sonic capacity, creating sounds that seemed strange, almost alien. You can still hear that now, in 90 year old bandleader Marshall Allen’s solos, as he pushes his alto saxophone to create squeaks and squawks that seem impossible from a conventional instrument. (Another milestone approaches: Marshall Allen will turn 90 on May 25, 2014.)

I also appreciate the difficult side of Sonny the bandleader. He definitely had his authoritarian tendencies with the way he ran the Arkestra. Many musicians weren’t willing to put up with the demand for complete devotion to his program. One thing I appreciated about John Szwed’s biography is that he didn’t shy away from discussing the complexity and contradictions of the man born Herman Blount who created Sun Ra as a character.

And Sun Ra never disavowed the fact that this was a mythological character that he intentionally created. Taking on the persona of an “angel,” of an alien being outside of the human race, allowed him a certain estrangement from society, and from that estranged position he could make objective observations about this so-called civilization on Planet Earth.

Sun Ra is now seen as one of the most important figures in a movement that has come to be called Afrofuturism. I like to put Sun Ra’s ideas in conversation with another of my favorite Afrofuturists, Octavia Butler, particularly in her novels The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents. In the Parable novels, Butler writes of a philosophical system called Earthseed, a belief system that the book’s main character Lauren Olamina hopes will eventually take root among the stars. Lauren believes that if humanity survives at all, it will have to do so on places other than Earth, and with cosmic values that are beyond these destructive ones cultivated on this planet, values that would allow for survival in the outer worlds.

When I decided to create this blog I borrowed the title of Sun Ra’s 1971 Berkeley course The Black Man in the Cosmos. I had grandiose plans to explore the syllabus in detail and include some close readings of works on the list, but, well, life and the dissertation intervened. Still, I’d like to get back to that plan eventually. It was because of that syllabus that I was introduced to the writings of Henry Dumas, and I listed his short story “The University of Man” (collected in Echo Tree) among my short works of black academic fiction.

Sun Ra offered a cosmology beyond the stale Iron Age myths that still dominate so much contemporary religious thought. (And he apparently pissed off a lot of black folks with his arguments about The Bible.) The planet needs new mythologies based on the new scientific perspectives that we have gained about our place in the cosmos, (a project that I hope Neil Tyson’s new Cosmos series helps to facilitate in the young people who are seeing it now). Joseph Campbell articulated this far more eloquently than I ever could in his last book The Inner Reaches of Outer Space:

This suggests that in the new mythology, which is to be of the whole human race, the old Near Eastern desacralization of nature by way of a doctrine of the Fall will have been rejected; so that any such limiting sentiment as that expressed in II Kings 5:15, “there is no God in all the earth but in Israel,” will be (to use a biblical term) an abomination. The image of the universe will no longer be the old Sumero-Babylonian, locally centered, three-layered affair, of a heaven above and abyss below, with an ocean-encircled bit of earth between; nor the later, Ptolemaic one, of a mysteriously suspended globe enclosed in an orderly complex of revolving crystalline spheres; nor even the recent heliocentric image of a single planetary system at large within a galaxy of exploding stars; but (as of today, at least) an inconceivable immensity of galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and clusters of clusters (superclusters) of galaxies, speeding apart into expanding distance, with humanity as a kind of recently developed scurf on the epidermis of one of the lesser satellites of a minor star in the outer arm of an average galaxy, amidst one of the lesser clusters among the thousands, catapulting apart, which took form some fifteen billion years ago as a consequence of an inconceivable preternatural event. (18-19)

Yes, the mythologies of Earth will continue to involve nations and races and religions and all the other ways that humans have found to categorize and identify ourselves. But stepping out into a cosmic perspective, as Sun Ra did, reveals a story of one planet and of one particular species of beings dominating life on that planet. Whether these beings can find a way to survive on this planet, let alone elsewhere in the cosmos, is a story not yet written.

You People of Planet Earth
You on the Spaceship Earth
Destination Unknown…
—-

Campbell, Joseph. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

Dumas, Henry. Echo Tree: The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2003.

Moses, Wilson Jeremiah. Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Szwed, John. Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. New York: Random House, 1998.

Check out this 2013 interview with Robert Mugge, director of Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise.
http://www.robertmugge.com/interviews/sun-ra.html

Choir Boy

On Tuesday night I went to see Choir Boy written by Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Trip Cullam, now playing at the Manhattan Theater Club through August 4th.

The play certainly resonated with my interests in the history of black education, and I found it to be a lively and intelligent exploration of complex issues related to blackness, sexuality, music and culture.  Being a graduate of an all-male historically black college (and one with a world-renowned glee club at that), I experienced many feelings of familiarity throughout the hour and half that we were there, feelings that resonated through the night and into the following days.  I am deeply grateful to my friend Jordan for telling me about the play and inviting me to go see it.

Choir Boy is set in the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, an all-male black boarding school in the South.  The school is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary.  The choir is an important part of the school’s project of racial uplift, and the play gestures to the historical significance of choirs in the history of black education.  The Fisk Jubilee Singers is perhaps the most iconic of these black college choruses which were used to demonstrate the talent and discipline of black students, express the genius of black music, and to appeal to wealthy white philanthropists for support of these institutions.

The play features an openly gay lead character named Pharus Young (played by the wonderfully talented Jeremy Pope), who is the student director of the school’s acclaimed choir. “Flamboyant” might be a lazy and stereotypical term to describe him, but in this case it is precisely Pharus’s outgoing and energetic personality that animates the play and antagonizes other characters in the production. The playwright deftly uses this characterization to explore so many critical questions about black masculinity.

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Pharus is among four other characters in the play who are in the school’s choir.  The show begins with him singing the school’s alma mater when he is interrupted by an off-stage voice who calls him a “sissy” and a “faggot ass nigga.” This causes Pharus to stumble in the middle of the song.  The school’s headmaster Dr. Morrow (played with booming gravitas by Chuck Cooper), did not hear the slur, and reprimands Pharus for flubbing the song at a critical moment in the commencement ceremony for that year’s graduating class. (The students in the play are ending their junior year and heading into their senior year). We find out that the verbal assault came from Dr. Morrow’s nephew Bobby Morrow, a fellow student who is Pharus’s macho adversary.  The slur lends an air of tension from the outset, and it gets repeated a few more times throughout the play.

The production overflows with the sounds of black music, and particularly focuses on the history and meaning of the “Negro spiritual.”  In one classroom scene Pharus delivers a stirring monologue about the meaning of spirituals and makes an argument that challenges idea that spirituals were always embedded with codes that helped slaves escape to freedom.  I’m still not sure how well that point works in the play.  Having studied black religion and history I was aware of this particular discussion, but I wondered how well that argument translated to audience members who may know less about the history of Negro spirituals.  At the time I also felt that the whole argument was forcefully wedged into the play in an unnatural way.  However, the discussion does help to escalate the conflict between Bobby and Pharus, because Bobby is so invested in the truth of spirituals as a practical tool of resistance, a side effect of his macho ideals of black manhood.  The argument between the two is an example of complicated critical discussions about black aesthetics among scholars in African-American Studies (and Africana Studies), and about the “functional” nature of black art.  Again, the gender representation is also important here, as Pharus makes an argument about black art that some might call “decadent” because he sees value in black creative expression as an end in itself, rather than seeing the need to justify art as a practical and functional tool of some larger political agenda. It is an argument a little more complex than a 100 minute play can handle, but I appreciated the attempt to bring it in.  As I have thought about it afterwards I now have a better appreciation of how this scene relates to the rest of the play.

My criticism of the way this argument works in the play speaks to a larger problem of cohesion.  The narrative at times felt fractured.  Storylines that I hoped would get a more satisfying resolution never do. Songs sometimes erupt without much narrative framing. And yet, it is the music that is the thread which holds it all together.  I loved the way that black music, not just gospel, but also hip-hop and R&B, is used as part of the play’s textual background.  Clips of contemporary music by Frank Ocean and others boom throughout the theater as the characters change the set between scenes.  And in a couple of scenes toward the end of the play, R&B song lyrics play a vital role in helping the characters to express troublesome feelings that they are otherwise reluctant to vocalize.   Though music did not always flow as seamlessly through the storyline as I wanted it to, there were definitely some potent ideas evoked and explored here, and the singing was always powerful and arresting.

After absorbing the play, and having a couple of drinks with my friend at the Ninth Avenue Saloon, I walked out into the hot, humid Manhattan evening bumping my way through the aggravatingly slow crowds of tourists in Times Square.  As I stood on the crowded Q train back to Brooklyn, my mind turned to a recent article written by Jafari Sinclaire Allen, a professor at Yale who taught the first LGBT studies course at Morehouse College last semester.  Allen wrote a Huffington Post article “On a Black Queer Morehouse Commencement” in response to President Obama’s graduation address at the school this spring.  As Allen points out in the beginning of the piece, both Michelle and Barack Obama have been criticized for comments made at their commencement speeches this spring, comments which some critics have interpreted as condescending in that they included a chastising tone that was not part of the Obamas’ usual commencement speeches at predominantly white schools.  Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a provocative piece in The Atlantic which explored the class politics at work in the Obamas’ HBCU speeches.  But Jafari Allen goes on to praise President Obama for his daring acknowledgement of the presence of gay men in the Morehouse community, a particularly important act at a school which is seen as a bastion of black manhood, and at a school which has struggled to deal with issues of homosexuality and gender expression. (Vibe magazine’s sensational 2010 article “The Mean Girls of Morehouse” ruffled more than a few feathers.)  Jafari Allen’s article goes into detail about how the politics of respectability plays such an important role in all of this.  Many black folks are fearful that black gay men reflect badly on the image of the black community, and black LGBT people are often the targets of certain black nationalist ideas about the strong black family, reproduction, and appropriate manhood and womanhood.

Choir Boy addresses these ideas of gender and respectability at several points throughout the play.  Dr. Morrow and the other boys criticize Pharus for the way that he talks and acts.  In one stunning line, Dr. Morrow looks at Pharus with a look of disgust and says “your wrist”, a reminder of his embarrassing effeminacy.  Pharus responds to him: “so is this all about my wrist?!”  In a way, yes, it is!  His “limp wrist” is a great symbol for certain expectations of black manhood and illustrates how any outward expression of homosexuality is seen by some as a threat to those expectations.  Men who do not conform to norms of masculinity are often ostracized from the black community.  And yet the black church and the gospel music industry has at times provided a small space for alternative forms of gender expression.  Anyone who grew up in the black church is familiar with the “church sissy” whose sexuality may be an open secret, but who is given a “pass” because of his musical talents…just as long as he never explicitly says “I am gay and I love men.”  And I wish I could say this is just an issue among straight homophobes, but even within the black gay community effeminate men are often devalued, and gay men who are “straight acting” are assigned a higher social and sexual value.

But I hope I am not giving the impression that these characters in the play are simply “types.”  What was exciting about the play is that all of the characters are presented with intelligence and complexity.  While Dr. Morrow is critical of Pharus, he is not a mean-spirited villain and we see his compassion for all the boys in the school.  Like many black folks of the older generation, he is confused as to how to deal with the changes in the culture, including the acceptance of homosexuality, or their enthusiastic use of “The N Word.”  Likewise, some of the most touching moments come in the friendship between Pharus and his straight roommate Anthony, a strapping straight baseball player who befriends and accepts Pharus and is one of the few people who does not expect him to change who he is.  And Pharus himself is not a one-dimensional victim either.  We get to see him being nasty and vindictive and condescending to the other boys, even though the play ultimately comes down on his “side.”

Most of all, the play works because it is a relatable coming of age story about the confusion of adolescence, a story that transcends race and culture.  The dialogue is sharp and lyrical and often hilarious, and is delivered by the actors with skill and impressive timing.  And these choir boys can “sang” ya’ll!  The musical talent on stage is formidable and shines throughout the whole story.

Harlem History Part III

Here’s a new segment of Destination Harlem TV. In this excerpt I talk about the immigrant history of Harlem, the Great Migration, and the beginnings of the Harlem Renaissance.    Check out the website to catch up on the previous full Episode 2 if you missed it before, and to connect with the show to get updates about forthcoming episodes.