Book Review: Paul Youngquist—A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism

“Sun Ra certainly came in in a period where I think our generation was thinking similar kind of thoughts, whether it was Albert Ayler, or later Trane, or Ornette Coleman. We had similar kinds of ideas. First of all, transcending American society. And I thought there is a commonality in that, even the science fiction aspect of it was related to the fact that we wanted the society to change, and we were willing even to posit alternate models. I mean, Sun Ra speaks constantly of alterworlds, alterlife. Things that are not this way, parallel but different, you know.” – Amiri Baraka

In “Marienville”, the second Chapter of his extraordinary book A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra And The Birth of Afrofuturism, University of Colorado-Boulder English professor Paul Youngquist retells the harrowing story of Jazz innovator Sun Ra’s imprisonment in a U.S. government service camp during the World War 2. “Before migrating to Chicago in his early thirties, Sonny had an experience, among his most formative, that prepared him for life in that segregated city even more completely than growing up in Birmingham had done. By 1941, the United States Government was seeking able-bodied men for the war effort, harvesting them like summer wheat. Sonny would not be the only African American musician to fall afoul of the draft (others who did included Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus and most notoriously, Lester Young) but the pale touch of the Selective Service System would leave an indelible mark on his life and music” (pg. 10) As the war raged across the Atlantic, Sun Ra (born Herman Blount/sometimes referred to as “Sonny”) was drafted to assist in the United States’ war efforts. Like many young people, the very notion of going off to fight in a war was appalling. After making the case to the Draft board that he was a conscientious objector and morally opposed to killing and military service, Sonny was remanded to Civilian Public Service Camp 48 in Marienville, Pennsylvania. After refusing to appear at the camp, Blount was arrested, detained and found in contempt of court. He spent his time in the Marienville camp in isolation, separated from the music that he loved. For the sensitive, highly creative and imaginative young man, it was akin to torture. A better world, a world founded on beauty, creativity and discipline, not hatred, malice and anger.

Today, Sun Ra exists in the realm of the mythological, a symbol of the artistic heights of 20th century modernity and a talisman of Black art and cultural “otherness”. Sun Ra occupies a space of mystery in the public’s imagination. With his revealing insights into Ra’s personal narrative and detailed examinations of his musical, political and philosophical influences, Youngquist presents Sun Ra as a complex amalgam of both ancient and contemporary forces a man whose unique vision of the future burned so brightly it consumed him from within. Led by his trauma, an unquenchable ambition, discipline and a desire to create a new world, Herman “Sonny” Blount turned himself inside out, shedding his old “earthly” identity and became the Sun Ra. This self-transformation, infused Blount with a power and sense of purpose that drove him to previously uncharted artistic and intellectual dimensions, allowing him to imagine a world beyond the Jim Crow South of his childhood or the segregated North he navigated in his adult years.

Throughout the book’s 21 Chapters, Youngquist puts a unique spin on the biographical narrative by aligning each phase of Sun Ra’s personal life with a formative experience, artistic practice or set of influences that contributed to Blount’s self-reinvention as Sun Ra. Before building on Blount’s early life in Birmingham, Alabama, Younguist defies a strict chronological timeline by opening the book in 1960 with a dramatic retelling of a Sun Ra Arkestra gig at Chicago’s Wonder Inn. Youngquist calls upon an acute attention to detail to bring the reader into the room on a night where the Arkestra embarked on a homegrown exploration of space “Swinging hard on one of Sun Ra’s compositions ‘Space Aura’, sixteen hammering bars of harmonized saxophone jabs punctuated by a slithering trumpet reveille. John Gilmore takes off on tenor for two tone-pounding choruses, attacking the notes from below, garroting them from behind, making them wail. George Hudson follows on trumpet, quavering and snarling over those harmonies until the head returns and the Arkestra churns to a cacophonous finish, resolving on a darkly beautiful chord, Gilmore’s tenor two octaves below Hudson’s trumpet-but a quarter tone above the pitch.” The music played that evening (released in 2002 as Music from Tomorrow’s World) finds the Arkestra exploring a unique and ultimately fruitful juxtaposition of bebop & the avant-garde, old-school showbiz professionalism with exotic mysticism. By opening with this scene, Youngquist not only subverts the linear narrative, but he also sets the tone for the forthcoming chapters with a look into a moment in which the sum of Sun Ra’s influences coalesced into a strange and electrifying whole.

Moving through Sun Ra’s early life story, Youngquist paints a picture of Blount as a curious, introverted outsider growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. Like many Black southerners who embarked upon a mass migration in the wake of World War II, Blount escaped the home of Jim Crow, taking his gifts and boundless imagination up North, landing in Chicago’s Southside in a section affectionately known as “Bronzeville” to residents. As Youngquist illustrates throughout multiple chapters, the city of Chicago had an immeasurable influence on the formation of Sun Ra’s philosophy, music and business practices. While nurturing his own unique ontological perspective, Blount dedicated countless hours as a working freelance musician, arranging and copying charts for many bands and Orchestras throughout the area. Youngquist notes, “It wasn’t a bad life, exactly. He was making his way as a journeyman musician, arranging and copying charts for several successful bands and individuals: The Red Saunders Orchestra, now the house band at Club DeLisa and recording regularly for Columbia and OKeh; the Dukes of Swing and their vocalists, the Dozier Boys, playing regularly at the Persing Hotel with LaVerne Baker, a rhythm and blues vocalist, and appearing frequently in a variety of Southside venues.” It was at least partially through this experience as a working, professional musician, that Blount developed a high investment in the idea of discipline. This dedication to discipline and professionalism would become a central tenant to both Sun-Ra’s personal methodology and that of his world-famous Arkestra. Another important component in the early development of the Sun-Ra philosophy was centered around Blount’s interest in religious mysticism, history and the occult sciences. A budding intellectual and voracious reader, Blount put his insight, frustration, sensitivity and desire to bring a new world into action in curious ways. The product of an interesting tension, between the life of a musician for hire and some of his more fanciful and imaginative interests, Blount’s early days in Bronzeville were marked by his discipline and creativity. These forces took shape as a new form of activism, influenced by Egyptian mythology, Elijah Muhammad’s famous Black Nationalist organization, the Nation of Islam (NOI) and the ideologically diverse atmosphere of Black Chicago. In the years immediately following the war, Chicago’s Southside residents took up the practice of debating political and religious ideology in Washington Park and on the street corners of Southside. Youngquist describes the afternoons that Blount would spend in the park, reading, reflecting, arguing and speaking to crowds of bystanders about the obscure and esoteric wisdom he had recently uncovered: “He sat in the sun. On a bench in Washington Park with a dozen books bearing strange titles splayed spine up or open around him: Egyptian Magic, Anacalypsis, God Wills the Negro, Flying Saucers Have Landed. He liked the park on a Saturday. It was packed with people, kids in strollers or short pants, old ladies carrying sacks of stuff, guys hung over from last night’s spodie, maybe a couple on a blanket trying for some sugar while the world watched. Or didn’t. Everybody seemed to be in motion, even people standing still. He liked the faint touch of cheap perfume that lingered after certain ladies passed, fake roses tattooed on the sinewy afternoon light. Grass and trees and sky and space. Walking two blocks from his apartment and crossing busy Grand Boulevard, he felt like a traveler to another world. Things seemed possible here.” (Pg. 47) During that time in the early 1950s, Blount and his business partner, Chicago-native Alton Abraham founded Thmei Research, an organization that according to was dedicated to “subjects cosmic, spiritual, philosophical, religious, historical, scientific, economical, etc.” Part secret-society, part social activist group, Thmei “fought political ignorance with occult wisdom deriving from esoteric traditions and inspiring biblical critique, always with an eye on real-world social uplift and Black advancement.” (Pg. 37) Sun Ra and his unique philosophy is primarily (and rightfully) attached to the dystopian and speculative ambitions of Afro futurists of the present day. By deeply examining Blount and Abraham’s work in developing Thmei Research, as well as the mentioning of Martin Delany’s early Pan-Africanism, Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, the Moorish Science Temple of America and the NOI, Youngquist makes an essential connection between the Sun Ra philosophy/ideology and a much older tradition of Black Nationalism and Radical Black praxis in the U.S. “Theirs was a Black radicalism from beyond, wisdom and politics for a segregated people. In this, it resembles similar initiatives undertaken to better the lives of blacks in Chicago and elsewhere.” (Pg. 35) Much like Delany, Garvey, the NOI, even more liberal Black freedom organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Council, Thmei Research mixed spirituality with its liberation ideology, but Thmei Research was deeply indebted to Egyptian occult wisdom, not the prophetic traditions of the major Abrahamic religions. As Youngquist points out, Sun Ra and his cohorts sought to uncover and proselytize a form of “countercultural spirituality” and activism that was centered around ”Not Jesus, not Muhammad, neither Marx, nor Mao but Ra: practiced political activism inspired by a wisdom as inhuman as the sun.” (Pg. 37)

Far too often, writers and scholars have characterized the Space aspect of the Sun Ra philosophy as the escapist fantasies of a talented dreamer, but as A Pure Solar World illustrates, a practice of self-determination and independence lay at the core of Sun Ra’s work from the way he independently released his own recordings on the Saturn label to his classic 1974 film, Space is the Place, which was financed, produced and ultimately distributed outside of the Hollywood studio system. The mytho-philosophical aspect of the Sun Ra praxis may have appeared fanciful and impenetrable but its practical applications were a part of a project that sought the liberation of Black people. Sun Ra’s another destiny, an alter-destiny “A call to awakening: cosmo-drama proceeds through confirmation to affirmation, offering the example of Sun Ra as living myth, arising out of nothing and nowhere (the Southside of Chicago) to journey through outer space (infinity). Another space chord: a nuclear detonation of noise within noise to trouble and provoke the spirit. Then Sun Ra sets to testifying: I am the brother of the wind. I cover the Earth and hold it like a ball in my hands. I can take away others to another galaxy. I will take you to new worlds. I will take you to outer unseen worlds that are more beautiful than anything the earth presents. If you are fearful you will die in your fears. If you are fearful, you will have the futile persuasions. We are the pattern for the spirit of man!”

Throughout A Pure Solar World, Youngquist lays out convincing evidence for Sun Ra as a unified whole made up of cultural and intellectual components both ancient and modern, popular and obscure. Filtering all of these parts through the Black cultural tradition known as Jazz, Sun Ra enriched his music with the colorful blossomings of prophetic wisdom while infusing his philosophies with the ecstatic joy of the music. Sun Ra’s work served as a precursor the later development of Afrofuturism as an aesthetic praxis. Sun Ra’s contributions to literature, art and music have been foundational influences for contemporary Afrofuturists seeking to contexualize their work and experiences, these influences culminated as a new blueprint for Black liberation. As DJ/Producer King Britt illustrates, “Sun Ra said that he was from outer space, and I really believe that. He was the first one that took the context of science fiction, and apply it to black people in America. He spoke of alienation within our own country, and trying to get out of this hypnotic funk that programmed us to act a certain way. “You’re black, so you must like this”. Afrofuturism is a hope, a hope for an alternative to how life is here on earth. You can still apply it to the now – you just have to change your trajectory.” Ultimately, the man born on Earth as Herman Poole Blount built a concept that was larger than himself. Blount and crew would take this concept to its logical conclusions, with every aspect of the work designed to develop the Sun Ra concept as a multifaceted, interdisciplinary praxis. His writings, teaching and mythology served as the philosophical and theoretical core and his Arkestra (as well as Thmei Research and the Saturn record label) acted as the practical arm putting his space-traveling, world-building vision into practice.

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