Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Appropriating the Master's Tools: Sun Ra, the Black Panthers, and Black Consciousness, 1952-1973

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Appropriating the Master's Tools: Sun Ra, the Black Panthers, and Black Consciousness, 1952-1973

Article excerpt

In 1971 avant-garde jazz musician Sun Ra was expelled from a house in Oakland, California, owned by the Black Panther Party (Szwed 1997, 330). It was the same year that he taught a course entitled "Sun Ra 171" in Afro-American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, the readings for which reflected his eclectic interest in subjects including black literature, bible studies, ancient Egypt, the occult, etymology, and, of course, outer space (Johnson; Sun Ra). On the surface, the pairing of Sun Ra and the Black Panthers is a striking study in contrasts. The mystical Sun Ra, with his philosophies of time and space, flamboyant Egyptian and outer space costumes, and devotion to pursuing truth and beauty through music, must have seemed out-of-place to many residents of a city still watched over by leather-clad Panthers wielding a rhetoric and creating an iconography of revolutionary Marxist struggle as they engaged in direct neighborhood actions. However, at a deeper level, Sun Ra and the Black Panthers stood in relation to the broader cultural and political movements of the post-World War II era that engaged in fundamentally performative projects to change consciousness in response to the psychological alienation caused by racism and the workings of a technocratic, capitalistic society. At the same time, both appropriated technological artifacts and rhetoric and made them central to their identities in their respective projects of liberation. Yet the different artifacts they appropriated and the contrasting ways in which they redeployed and reconceived technologies reveal competing ideologies and broader conflicts over the meanings of black consciousness, politics, and social change during the 1960s.

This paper demonstrates how technological artifacts and metaphors were used as agents of psychological change during the 1950s and 1960s. In his music, performances, and writing beginning in the early 1950s, Sun Ra appropriated artifacts and technological metaphors to create what I call a "mythic consciousness" of technologically empowered racial identity that would enable blacks to recreate and invent technologies and construct utopian societies on outer space landscapes. The Black Panthers redeployed and reconceived technologies to create a "revolutionary consciousness" with the end of political mobilization. Unlike Sun Ra's more mythic and utopian imaginings, the revolutionary consciousness of the Panthers was terrestrially directed at economic and social change. Through the performance of artifacts during direct political action and the rhetorical recasting of advanced weaponry and outer space as a means to educate blacks about capitalist and racist subjugation, the Panthers linked their struggle with international socialist and postcolonial movements.

To date, scholars have pursued separate lines of inquiry into black appropriation of technologies, resulting in the lack of a coherent history or context for their appearance in black social, cultural and political life. As such, this work is informed by, complements, and ties together a number of works around black music, social movements, and technology during this time period. For example, there is a developed body of literature about Sun Ra (Campbell n.d.; Corbett 1994, 2006; Lock 1999), who is recognized as one of the period's seminal musicians and the most visible adopter of technological metaphors, a practice which influenced funk musician George Clinton and many early hip hop artists. With the exception of anthropologist John Szwed's work (1997, 2005), most scholars do not consider the social and historical context within which Sun Ra's music was produced or his connections to avant-garde jazz musicians in New York City during the early and mid-1960s, who used similar metaphors of consciousness and technology to situate their aesthetic practices. While there is a wide body of publications about the jazz avant-garde movement from the standpoint of both musicology and social history (Berliner 1994; Jost 1974; Lopes 2002; Robinson 2005), few scholars expressly deal with the parallel discourses of psychological liberation, cold war science, aesthetic practice, and Black Power. …

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