Saturday, January 23, 2021

William Sites's "Sun Ra’s Chicago"

William Sites is associate professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago and the author of Remaking New York: Primitive Globalization and the Politics of Urban Community.

Sites applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book Sun Ra’s Chicago: Afrofuturism and the City, and reported the following:
Page 99 comes early in Chapter 5 of the book, where I analyze the urban context and hermeneutic import of a set of writings from the early 1950s by Sun Ra and his colleagues in the Thmei Research group. In this sense, the test effectively drops the reader into an intellectual world that does much to illuminate Ra’s music to come. These texts, or polemical broadsheets, take the form of fifty typed sheets of paper that at first glance offer a series of disconnected and obscure religious commentaries on race and the Bible. Close reading, however, reveals a quite coherent – if deeply disturbing – vision of postwar black Chicago as a world in spiritual and cultural crisis, the catastrophic legacy of a multi-millennial racial lie that can only be exposed through creative re-readings of Biblical scripture:
The broadsheets are harshly dismissive of the conventional forms of black communal striving and self-assertion in the postwar American metropolis. The respectable term ‘Negro,’ for example, is here associated— via the quasi-biblical etymologies typical of these writings— not with race pride but with racial death.
Question: Does the Bible contain anything about the Negro?

Answer: Yes. Jesus said, “Let the Negro bury the 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. 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.

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.
Elsewhere in the broadsheets, the African Americans of the early postwar city are seen as lost beings: ‘THEY HATE THE THOUGHT OF BEING WHAT THEY ARE . . . THEY WANT TO BE WHITE RATHER THAN THE BLACK AND BROWN THAT GOD MADE THEM.’ Lost souls, they are compared to the residents of the fallen biblical cities of Babylon and Tophet, oblivious to their own imminent destruction.
The chapter goes on to investigate how these texts and their themes emerged from a heterodox religious milieu centered in Washington Park on Chicago’s South Side, where various black nationalist, Ethiopianist and Orientalist understandings of history became the intellectual raw material for the Thmei group’s iconoclastic vision of racial oppression and African American emancipation. In subsequent chapters, I explore how Sun Ra later in the decade carried this critical-utopian sensibility into musical performance and creative cosmology. Drawing from the community’s religious counterculture to reimagine the musical traditions of South Side nightlife culture, Ra and the Arkestra – a jazz ensemble that melded swing, bebop, blues, Latin dance music, Africanist percussion, pop exotica, space chant and more – increasingly offered themselves to local audiences as interplanetary emissaries from an ideal future. Sun Ra, refusing the oppressive reality of a shadow world on Earth, promised an entirely new, black-centered civilization in outer space.

The modern city, and postwar Chicago in particular, loomed large as inspiration for Sun Ra’s space vision. Much like earlier utopians from Sir Thomas More to Le Corbusier, Ra found in the city – in his case its black public spaces, its dynamism, its endless appetite for serious entertainment – the stimulant for his own notion of an African space world where ancient past and technological future might come together. Filled with new and unsettling sounds yet old songs too in reimagined settings, Sun Ra’s utopian music imparted a double existence to the streets and trains of Chicago, mingling the immediate experience of daily life with dreams of other, better worlds. Sun Ra’s Chicago, by exploring its protagonist’s urban spaces and places, reconstructs the social and cultural grounding of a musical imagination that gave expressive shape to twentieth-century Afrofuturism.
Learn more about Sun Ra’s Chicago at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue