Sun Ra > Black Panther

Sun Ra > Black Panther

The Black Panther movie has been out for a little bit now, and posts both pro and con have been circulating on the Internet (Kerim has a quick roundup in a microblog of his). As a white guy who studies the Pacific, I don’t really have anything to say about Black Panther, which I liked as well as any entry in Marvel’s massive movie franchise. I guess it’s not surprising that Black Panther’s hero ends up endorsing an Obama-like liberal internationalism nor that the separatist (his father) and radical revolutionary (the pretender to the throne) both had porridge which ended up being too cool and too hot respectively. Just given the amount of eyeballs and dollars which the movie has attracted, it will probably be debated in the halls of Afrofuturism for a good while to come. But perhaps the release of the movie gives us a chance to return to one of the figures of Afrofuturism who  deserves to be remembered even more than he is today: Sun Ra.

Sun Ra

A musician from Alabama who visited Saturn by accident in the late 1930s, Sun Ra and his Arkestra took music to a higher plane through free jazz. But Sun Ra was not only a key figure in the development of Afrofuturism because of his music. He was also a thinker and, thanks to the magic of the 1970s, a lecturer as well.

That’s right. In 1971 Sun Ra taught African-American Studies 198 — aka Sun Ra 171 — at UC Berkeley. It was a time of tremendous strain for race relations in the US. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had solved a lot of things but hardly everything. In the late 1960s the situation intensified, especially in California, where the Watts riots (or Watts rebellion), Caesar Chavez’s campaigns on behalf of farmworkers, and the Black Panther Party all happened within a few years of each other. The first ethnic studies department in US was founded at San Francisco State University, just across the bay from Berkeley.

It would take a few more years for the turmoil that roiled in anthropology to find its way in to print, but the point is that this period brought about a tremendous broadening of the academic imagination and opportunity for score of new voices, ideas, and approaches. Sun Ra’s course, which was part of his time as an artist-in-residence, was the result of these broader shifts.

And, best of all, it’s preserved on the Internetz! You can find the reading list and listen to a lecture at Open Culture and several other outlets in the web. It gets reblogged every three or four years and so I figured… now was the time to reblog it.

As much as I’d like to, it’s hard to describe Sun Ra as an anthropologist, using even the most capacious definition of the term. I’ll admit that. And yet… and yet… Hmmm. The reading list mixed theosophy and late-Victorian occultism with renderings on jazz, and the lecture includes references to thinkers like James Baldwin. There’s something about the juxtaposition, imagination, and experimentation that seems deeply anthropological to me. Perhaps if Sun Ra was not an anthropologist, we anthropologists should aspire to be Sun Ra — or at least take our own trip to the wayoutosphere.

I hope that Black Panther creates a moment in which some new people get turned on to people like Sun Ra or Octavia Butler (if you think Ursula K. Leguin uses science fiction to explore humanity, try Butler’s Dawn!). So yes: If you like the Black Panther movie, go read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s A Nation Under Our FeetBut if you want to go higher, look to Sun Ra — and see him not just as a musician, but as an intellectual.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book “Leviathans at the Gold Mine” won the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology book award. He is interested in political anthropology, the anthropology of virtual worlds, the history of anthropology, and public anthropology and open access scholarship.

3 Replies to “Sun Ra > Black Panther”

  1. Ok. So this entire post is problematic. First, the argument is based on some imagined tension between Black Panther and Sun Ra. Still, Rex could have made his case in a number of ways. He could have discussed the fact that Stan Lee is a white man. He could have brought up the movies ties to Disney and made a case for the taint of neoliberalism. He could have discussed the history of afrofuturism as an underground, grass roots movement and how Black Panther strays from that legacy. Instead, he wrote on this topic without doing his homework. He uses his postionality as a white man to get out of discussing race. Then he relegates the movie to “just another Marvel gimick”. So, unprecedented box office success, the African Diaspora and world at large treating this like the cultural event of the century, black women portrayed as the queens that we really are. None of this seems worthy of critical investigation by a CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGIST? I shouldn’t be surprised since Rex consistently writes about the mythical past when white men decided what was worthy of importance to the unintellectual brown masses. I can read between the lazy social commentary and what I see is “Make America Great Again”. Yes. I am going there.

    1. Micknai, I see you, and I appreciate you. Can I follow YOUR blog, or do I have to settle for searching the comments on anthrodendum for your much-needed critical reflections on the blog posts written by anthropologists wearing blinders?

  2. I remain unconvinced of the original argument “Sun Ra [is greater than] Black Panther,” for the lack of supporting evidence.

    While the jury continues to deliberate on that, I thought I should point out that Sun Ra was deeply influenced by anthropology, not least of which was the Senegalese anthropologist (and physicist) Cheikh Anta Diop. Diop, a student of Marcel Griaule’s, popularized the idea that pre-dynastic Egyptians were Black, which served as a major argument against the Hegelian notion that Africa is without history. He made these arguments with historical evidence, archaeological data, radiocarbon dating, and mass spectrometry. His strong and very controversial case for the Blackness of ancient Egypt became a major theme in Panafricanism (which Diop’s work pre-dated; also, George James’ “Stolen Legacy” a few years later certainly didn’t hurt) and that’s how Sun Ra got his ancient Egyptian aesthetic and name.

    Also, did you know that there is a major university in the world named for an anthropologist? Université Cheikh Anta Diop, right here in Dakar. I think that’s pretty cool.

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