"I can dig it." is not actually what I said, but rather what I felt as I was still a bit too young in the 70s to have a full command of the lingo. I had certainly recognized the flamboyance of his garb as characteristic of the times, but everything else that came with it left me speechless, though resonating with an unknown delight. "Wow" is pretty much all I managed to mutter through the overwhelming bombardment of sight, sound and word wisdoms. Thinking then that I was too young to really understand what was before me, that this was some questionable but attractive weirdness, I stored him away for future reference. Or perhaps it's better said that he aptly and intentionally planted a seed in some curious corner of my mind to nurture itself irrespective of time and place.
Such was Sun Ra.
As that same child, I often daydreamed myself into a future fiction - a science fiction cybernetic utopia, as I couldn't easily locate a comfortable place in the historical past to project myself into. The limitations of historical fantasy for a Black child were clear, and the predefined roles that I would have to occupy in that historical fantasy were quite devastating for my child mind to contend with. As for a possible future utopia, well, it's not that there were never problems in the sci-fi worlds I created, but rather that the nature of the problems transgressed the antiquated bickering over differences of race, gender, economy, standardized intelligence, etc. that so plagued the past, and for that matter, my present.
More important matters were always at hand...
A little embarrassed to admit it now, but certainly I find it relevant that at the time one of the greatest perks of my sci-fi fantasies was that they were completely outfitted in a wardrobe that might have impressed Sun Ra himself, even if I had yet to make a conscious connection. Irrelevant were the didactic or hierarchical connotations that traditionally accompanied ones attire. Come as you are or as you feel--it seemed that most felt towards flowing finery from the wild side whenever possible. No occasion necessary.
Back to other matters. Sun Ra deemed "Space is the place" for the discovery of a self liberated from the earthly weight of prejudices and carnal inequities. The intergalactic future was the location of self projection, and the present (sonic, psychic, etc.) became the location of a reflected manifestation of this future; intense in all forms.
My childhood times were certainly nothing like the times Ra experienced as a child. For an innocent while, my childhood was a utopia in and of itself. Still, I grew up to be constantly reminded of the inescapable presence of the past. It was a harsh reality to learn that the prejudices that plagued previous generations still existed, only masked in other forms. We believed so much had changed, that the times of civil justice were surely right around the corner; times that many of us fought for, times that most of us are still waiting to show up.
In this, one can almost take the environment that shaped Sun Ra for granted. It was simply the Black experience of America. But he wore his sensitivities proudly and crafted his own present by weaving in and out of future and ancient unknowns.
What really struck me once I began to comprehend Sun Ra was the realization that he was a nerd. A flamboyant and charismatic one, but a nerd nonetheless. This revelation still makes me smile to myself. I could relate to that; the book worm, the insatiable questions, the curiosities and obsessions. The nerd has become fashionable of late; the information age, inquiries, invention and calculated eclecticism...but none of the current crop of nerds has the sure footed persistence, wisdom or style of Sun Ra. He was information experimentation made flesh, finding slippages in truths, myths in realities, or even multiple time dimensions in the present.
Today's emergent information technologies afford many the possibility of experiencing life through multiple projected personalities. Online, these personalities, or identities are referred to as avatars, online identities, virtual selves, etc., and are often utilized to 'live' lives that the physical body can never attain, like instantaneous gender and age swapping and other experiential transformations of identity. In these projections of desires from the conscious and unconscious, the projected self may rise in power and seek to take over the embodied user as the primary identity. At other times, these projected personalities almost physically manifest themselves, the classic doppelganger, appearing with a will of their own, demanding at the very least to be acknowledged, never forgotten.
The creator of Sun Ra may have been haunted by history, but he grabbed control of his story. Sun Ra walked amongst us; more than a virtual personality, no shadowing ghost, no doppelganger, but the very incarnation of an avatar.
Sun Ra's true language was music. Often it was not music as one expected to encounter it, but rather, dissonant, piercing, wavering, and uncanny sound thoughts. These wave forms transmitted the past and future in a nonlinear structure more complex than Ra's written texts and verbal theories. He believed his sound was from the future, and to a large extent he was right. The popular rediscovery of experimental music that occurred in the 1990s led many to Sun Ra's sounds. By this time an aural challenge had almost become a convention. Now that the music was speaking to younger and more accepting ears, perhaps more attention could be paid to his message. 13 years after Sun Ra left planet Earth, perhaps we're almost ready for the next step-- teleportation into simultaneously outer and inner realms of consciousness. Wake the mind space!
Sound you can feel and cannot hear, mirrors that refuse to show your reflection and chase you away with piercing tones the harder you try to locate yourself, sounds built upon sounds built upon shadows of other sounds...these constitute a few ways I have built uncanny sound-mind spaces. And the persona, well yes, she too has appeared as well in my gestures. Another being defying time by reflecting all moments as one, challenging the present by reflecting a distorted history. This apparition weaves in and out like a long deep wave, a primal sound, a sonic anomaly. This projected presence, this noise-like interruption, has announced itself as an oscillating dream space in the collective memory of African-American history, both repressed and embraced. It bears the uneasiness of a haunting presence; a presence unverified, but whose existence cannot be refuted.
I never know when and where she will appear.
We all travel through vast peripheral and black hole places, collectively participating in fabricating realities. Just read the newspaper, look in the mirror, socialize. Look in the closet. More and more we question our realities. Our physical life has become just one of the many windows of existence. As June Tyson often sang with Sun Ra and the Arkestra, "If you are not a myth, whose reality are you? If you are not a reality, whose myth are you?"
All we know is that it is not all what it seems, at least, this was the promise of Sun Ra.
Camille Norment, 2006