New Equations of Meaning

“A pioneer of “Afrofuturism,” bandleader Sun Ra emerged from a traditional swing scene in Alabama, touring the country in his teens as a member of his high school biology teacher’s big band. While attending Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, he had an out-of-body experience during which he was transported into outer space. As biographer John Szwed records him saying, “my whole body changed into something else. I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn.” While there, aliens with “little antenna on each ear. A little antenna on each eye” instructed him to drop out of college and speak through his music. And that’s just what he did, changing his name from Herman Blount and never looking back.

“Whether you believe that story, whether Sun Ra believes it, or whether his entire persona is a theatrical put-on should make no difference. Because Sun Ra would be a visionary either way. Combining Afrocentric science fiction, esoteric and occult philosophy, Egyptology, and, with his “Arkestra,” his own brand of free jazz-futurism that has no equal on earth, the man is truly sui generis. In 1971, he served as artist-in-residence at UC Berkeley and offered a spring semester lecture, African-American Studies 198, also known as “Sun Ra 171,” “The Black Man in the Universe,” or “The Black man in the Cosmos.” The course featured readings from—to name just a few—theosophist Madame Blavatsky, French philosopher Constantin Francois de Chasseboeuf, black American writer and poet Henry Dumas, and “God,” whom the cosmic jazz theorist reportedly listed as the author of The Source Book of Man’s Life and Death (otherwise known as the King James Bible).

Now we have the rare opportunity to hear a full lecture from that class, thanks to Ubu.com. Listen to Sun Ra spin his intricate, bizarrely otherworldly theories, drawn from his personal philosophy, peculiar etymologies, and idiosyncratic readings of religious texts. Hearing him speak is a little like hearing him play, so be prepared for a lot of free association and jarring, unexpected juxtapositions. Szwed describes a “typical lecture” below:

Sun Ra wrote biblical quotes on the board and then ‘permutated’ them—rewrote and transformed their letters and syntax into new equations of meaning, while members of the Arkestra passed through the room, preventing anyone from taping the class. His lecture subjects included Neoplatonic doctrines; the application of ancient history and religious texts to racial problems; pollution and war; and a radical reinterpretation of the Bible in light of Egyptology.

Text: Sun Ra’s Full Lecture & Reading List From His 1971 UC Berkeley Course, “The Black Man in the Cosmos”

Image: Film Still, Afronauts, Frances Bodomo (2014)