- A “Reconcepted Am”: Language, Nature, and Collectivity in Sun Ra and Henry Dumas
At least according to a certain critical mythology, the Black Arts Movement begins about a month after Malcolm X is shot in February 1965 and LeRoi Jones changes his name to Amiri Baraka and moves uptown from the interracial, hipster Greenwich Village scene to Harlem to found the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS). In his Autobiography (1984), Baraka describes a triumphal march into Harlem, a moment that has come to serve as a sort of symbolic origin of the movement:
One of our first official actions was a parade across 125th Street. With Sun Ra and his Myth-Science Arkestra leading it . . . [w]e marched down the street holding William White’s newly designed Black Arts flag. . . . A small group of sometimes comically arrogant black people daring to raise the question of art and politics and revolution, black revolution!1
Part performance art, part ticker tape, part revolution, this scene stages a complex set of questions, both historical and theoretical, with which the broader Black Arts Movement and its later critics would struggle. While the nationalist trappings of William White’s flag, the vision of people marching in the streets, and the revolutionary rhetoric all frame the parade as a watershed historical event, Baraka’s account still leaves open, as a “question,” just how one gets from art to revolution, just what sort of revolution this is, and just how something like Sun Ra’s “myth-science” could either substitute for or effect systemic political and economic change.
If, in Baraka’s account, the 125th Street parade places Sun Ra at the center of a scene that is at once national, communal, and revolutionary, an oddly similar scene at the end of Henry Dumas’s story “The Metagenesis [End Page 539] of Sunra” (written ca. 1966–68; first published 2003) imagines a parade of sorts that does, indeed, effect a near-total social, economic, military, and political revolution. Only recently discovered but probably written in the couple years between the parade and Dumas’s death in 1968, the story relates the cosmic birth of the prophet Sunra, as well as his travels in various allegorically named lands among the “painted people” and their oppressors, the “Wofpeople.” After a period of exile and wandering, the story ends with Sunra’s discovery of an “ebony horn” that inaugurates the story’s revolutionary climax in which the horn summons the painted people together to march on, and destroy, the Wofpeople. In its broadest strokes, the story seems to be a near hagiography (and sometimes even ham-fisted allegory) of Dumas’s friend and sometimes-mentor, writing Sun Ra as the beleaguered prophet he often claimed to be. However, in the nearness of the story’s climax to the mythology of the 125th Street parade, “Metagenesis” serves as a sort of origin myth for the scene Baraka places at the symbolic center of the period of radical black artistic production that would follow, and the story likewise evokes an apocalyptic take on Black Arts’ combination of historical, aesthetic, and militant desires. At the story’s end, Sunra blows his horn, and
[a]ll over the land, from north to south, the painted people—too hot to get near now—began to march. . . . Machines died in the air. An electric power plant reversed its power and the plant electrocuted and melted everything in range of it for ten miles. The ice mountain melted and the freezelines dissolved. Icelands faded, and panic went through the Wofpack. But it was too late. Sunra took panic itself and drove it into them.2
In Dumas’s story, the perhaps watershed, certainly vanguardist, but nevertheless quite local event described by Baraka becomes an apocalyptic myth of total revolution in which Sun Ra’s aesthetics not only catalyze the spontaneous constitution of a people and a movement but also arm the people, accomplishing, in one blow, a total dissolution of economic, military, and governmental structures of power. It is a myth, then, that shares with the Black Arts Movement more broadly the two central concerns of art’s function in the constitution of...