The title of Ishmael Reed and Al Young’s anthology Yardbird Lives! jumps out, meets me, sits with me on the page. It’s a utopian exclamation, analogous in sentiment to Octavia Butler’s “Earthseed,” the science-fictional revealed religion in her Parable novels. I think, too, of Hummingbird and Green Fly’s adventures “in time immemorial” in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony. Read beside “Earthseed,” the others seem like allegories of space travel. Reed runs his Afrofuturism in a way similar to Sun Ra. Time and space travel are returned from Western futurity to their home in Ancient Egypt. In Silko’s Laguna Pueblo cosmology, travel involves movement among “the world of the people” and “worlds below.” In Frederick Douglass, we encounter a similar narrative of flight, do we not? Leaving behind the Garden-that-is-in-fact-a-Slave-Plantation, Douglass travels to another world. With Gary Snyder, meanwhile, the focus is on saving this world, the continent and world of Turtle Island, or what Snyder in another of his books calls Earth House Hold.
Literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. appears as himself in the recent Watchmen series on HBO. Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo figures prominently as a primary object of study in Gates’s groundbreaking book The Signifying Monkey. Watchmen is a work of alternate history, as is Mumbo Jumbo. Both works help us remember our history, parts of which have been buried in the white political unconscious. The Tulsa Massacre, for instance, is an event dramatically reenacted in Watchmen‘s opening episode, and the US invasion and occupation of Haiti reappears to consciousness in much the same way as one reads Mumbo Jumbo. The two works rhyme with each other — “repeat with a difference,” as Gates would say — in other ways as well. Reed’s secret, conspiratorial white-supremacist Atonist Order finds its correlate, its contemporary near-equivalent, in Watchmen‘s secret “Cyclops” conspiracy. Each work also features as its hero a black detective: PaPa LaBas in Mumbo Jumbo, and Det. Angela Abar, aka Sister Night in Watchmen. Yet there are differences. As Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Attribution of that saying to Twain appears in print in 1970, as in “A Said Poem” by Canadian artist John Robert Colombo. But Twain’s actual words appear in The Gilded Age, a novel Twain co-wrote with his neighbor Charles Dudley Warner: “History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends.” The old legends and their systems of order are in pieces due to migration, diaspora, forced separation of people from the lands of their ancestors. The crack in the cosmic egg. With these multicultural fragments let us assemble a mosaic — something colorful, like the drawing by Cuban-born artist Alberto del Pozo on the cover of The Signifying Monkey.
Butler’s version of Afrofuturism is far more pessimistic than the versions crafted by immediate precursors like Sun Ra and Samuel R. Delany. Christianity appears prominently in her work as both early influence and adversary. Think, for instance, of her use of gospel parables as structuring principles. Her narratives are “true” to the parables — grant the parables a kind of truth — even as they formulate Earthseed, a new religious movement discovered by Butler’s heroine and put into practice as Baptism’s replacement and successor.
Earthseed, the religion founded by Lauren Oya Olamina, the heroine who narrates Octavia E. Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower, resembles other faiths (including the Baptism of Butler’s upbringing) in its evangelical cast. Lauren spreads the word and seeks converts, her church being a kind of mutual aid society. Together, she and her followers form a traveling, changing community — a “team” or “tribe” of sorts, decisions made organically based on the group’s capacity to survive amid thieves, murderers, cannibals, junkies, wild dogs, and arsonists. Lauren’s view of the world is paranoid, but it’s a paranoia borne out by lived events of trauma. She “experiences” and “shares” the pain of others due to what she calls “hyperempathy syndrome.” She has an ability that makes her vulnerable, and thus cautious of who she can trust. We needn’t think of this as mere delusion. The reactions to bodily harm sometimes manifest physically, another’s pain sometimes drawing blood. However we view this aspect of Lauren’s experience, it leads her to seek followers. She wants others to believe her, offering in exchange a path toward survival.
The baby falls asleep to Parliament Funkadelic, Spaceship Earth reimagined as the Mothership Connection. “Are you hip to Easter Island?” asks singer George Clinton late in the song. “The Bermuda Triangle? Well all right / Ain’t nothing but a party.” Time to live light years in the future, in a time-space proposed by Afrofuturists. “One Nation Under a Groove.” Re-constitute the social order and make it funky: “Feet don’t fail me now!” Out of fear of its wrath, I refrain from playing Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry & The Upsetters’s “War Ina Babylon,” opting instead to play Bob Marley & The Wailers’s beautiful “Redemption Song” as the baby wakes. Afterwards, we dance around, her in my arms, me on my feet, to Jorge Ben’s Africa Brasil — on which I discover to my surprise a song called “Hermes Trismegisto Escreveu.” Later, by myself, I climb to the room above the garage and bliss out to J Hamilton Isaacs’s Circumzenithal Arc.
Songs from baby toys replay in my thoughts as I think about Samuel R. Delany’s character Lo Lobey, the Orphic hero in his novel The Einstein Intersection, who performs songs telepathically overheard from the minds of those around him. Delany’s novel is set in a far future among beings who have replaced humans of ancient times, but who inhabit and perform the roles, live out the narratives and myths, of those past peoples. Delany interrupts this narrative with excerpts from a “Writer’s Journal” kept during a several-month tour of Mediterranean cities in the fall of 1965. Why is the Orpheus character of ancient Greece reinvented, re-imagined, reinterpreted as Delany’s character Lo Lobey? Orpheus is famous for his musicianship and his poetry. He’s one of the Western tradition’s archetypal figures, portrayed and alluded to in countless works of art, music, and literature across the centuries. Why does Delany reactivate this figure on a posthuman Earth of the far future? What might this setting tell us about what we can now recognize in hindsight as Delany’s emerging Afrofuturist sensibility?
I steal away from work midafternoon and watch Space is the Place — the original 64-minute version. I think of it as an act of study — perhaps even what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call “fugitive planning.” Ra imagines a colony in outer space free of the white people of planet Earth. “Equation-wise, think of time as officially ended,” he explains early in the film. Once time is ended, he says, we “teleport the planet here through music.” Sun Ra’s jazz is the sign-system equivalent of a riot — and when the Overseer comes ’round to make him pay, Ra holds up a card, casts a spell, relocates the confrontation elsewhere, into the Space Age, technic surrounded by void. Through his music, Ra creates “a multiplicity of other destinies.”
After a nap in a park under a sunny blue January sky, Parliament helps me loosen up and release stress I’ve been carrying in my shoulders, neck, and upper back. Time to blow the cobwebs from my mind with the Mothership Connection. That is where I’m at and it feels good.
P-Funk had its own mythology. George Clinton performed at times as his messianic alien alter-ego, Star Child. My first encounters with “Mothership Connection” came by way of Dr. Dre’s sample of it on “Let Me Ride” from his debut solo album The Chronic, released the year of my fourteenth birthday. Robin D.G. Kelley discusses artists like Parliament-Funkadelic and Sun Ra’s Afrofuturist brand of hippie modernism in his book Freedom Dreams. These were artists who “looked backward to look forward, finding the cosmos by way of ancient Egypt.” I love the idea of a revolution you join by putting “a glide in your stride and a dip in your hip,” projecting one’s body here and now into a 3-D realtime utopian Afrofuturist “world within the world” known as the Mothership. The P-Funk song’s reference to the famous spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” used by members of the Underground Railroad as a coded form of communication to help people escape, reminds me of the Trystero group’s use of the posthorn symbol in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Other P-Funk tracks are also worthy of analysis and comment. The early Funkadelic song “Can You Get To That,” for instance, alludes to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Dream” speech with its metaphor of the bounced check.
“America has given the negro people a bad check,” King intoned, “a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.” This stuff definitely ought to find its way into my course this semester — as should the work of jazz poet Ted Joans and illustrator Pedro Bell. The latter created the liner art for several key P-Funk releases. As George Clinton notes on his official website, “What Pedro Bell had done was invert psychedelia through the ghetto. Like an urban Hieronymus Bosch, he cross-sected the sublime and the hideous to jarring effect. Insect pimps, distorted minxes, alien gladiators, sexual perversions. It was a thrill, it was disturbing. Like a florid virus, his markered mutations spilled around the inside and outside covers in sordid details that had to be breaking at least seven state laws. […]. He single-handedly defined the P-Funk collective as sci-fi superheroes fighting the ills of the heart, society and the cosmos.”
Twenty-eighteen ends with a friend recommending Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance to the sound of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” and P-Funk’s “Mothership Connection,” two powerful Afrofuturist expressions of hippie modernism. Twenty-nineteen begins with Chaka Khan’s “Like Sugar” and the mystery of the dancing queen.
Radical disconnection from the discourse of the community, including the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) community. Others tell tales about a YouTube character known as The Thrift Shop Dude. Public transportation. Something having to do with a basilisk. Fascinating conversations as reality evolves, jumps levels from one year to the next. “We’re actually on 2016, version 3,” says some dude at the party, as if each year since has been a failure to self-actualize, both for me and for the society as a whole. There’s a strange sense of stasis. I want Sarah and I to have a kid, I want us to improve our living conditions and move into a better home, I want us to pay off our debts. I also want an end to Trump and a reorganization for the better of our relations with the General Intellect. People are smart. How do I activate that intelligence in my classroom? The new year began with a reminder of my limited knowledge of dance and funk and partying (epitomized, perhaps, by my ignorant former fondness at an earlier stage in my being for the playing-to-stereotypes cash machine known as “Jungle Boogie”), only to then unfold into an allegory leading toward a choice between Christian Socialism, Democratic Socialism, and Left Accelerationism. I pulled a Bartleby and remained throughout the night a fence-sitter. When I asked the three allegorical figures, the three wise men speaking on behalf of these positions, inhabiting points on a spectrum from less to more bearded, if there was still time to choose between augmented intelligence and artificial intelligence, they shook their heads adamantly, especially the Left Accelerationist, and told me that that train had already left the station. “Empathy” appeared initially as a term around which we could agree, but the representative of Christian Socialism seemed troubled and unwilling to assent to even so modest a commons as that, worrying that it amounted to short-sighted, guilt-absolving but otherwise ineffective efforts to “put people out of their misery.” I begged pardon to consult with Sarah, only to be shoulder-rubbed gently and told by the Left Accelerationist that it was unfair to burden others with what were no more than thoughts improvised in the spur of several moments. Why do years leap like this, each moment containing infinite branching pathways toward radically incommensurate futures? The lesson, I guess, is that I remain unsatisfied with existing options, despite the clock’s advance.
Anthony Reed contributes to an understanding of hippie modernism in his essay “After the End of the World: Sun Ra and the Grammar of Utopia.” He causes us to ask ourselves: By what means did hippie modernists intervene in reproduction of the hierarchies and contradictions of the dominant society, the oppressor, the Empire as it manifested in their moment? Intervention of some sort is necessary if there is to be positive social change, for it is by way of its hierarchies and contradictions that the Empire produces the shocked consciousness, the defensive ego formation that buries consciousness within labyrinths of ideology, so as to postpone recognition of the War in Heaven, the fundamental class conflict. Through deliberate pursuit of consciousness-raising, however, hippie modernists relaxed habitual thought and behavior mechanisms, and thus gained sight of and came to embody in certain of their lived actions, aspects of the world-to-come. But is this world-to-come merely a mythic future, an alternative to a more “authentic” world-picture, where all are enslaved to a tragic destiny? Or is the future always-already mythic, a metaphor used to enable choice of hopeful ways of being? “Outer space” was Sun Ra’s metaphor for this hopeful future elsewhere, though he fused it with recovery of a glorious Egyptian past, thus allowing release of it from any point of access within the established harmonic framework, no matter one’s time or place. I see the future not just in Sun Ra’s work, but in all who attempted to leave the game. See, for instance, the Dutch Provos and their “white bicycles” program. In the early 1960s, the Provos teamed up with a Dutch designer named Luud Schimmelpennink to create a system of sustainable transportation. They covered several hundred bicycles in all-white paint and distributed them around Amsterdam. The system is similar to today’s Bird scooters, but without any fee. “My White Bicycle” was also a song by UK psychedelic band Tomorrow.
Members of the band claim the song was inspired by the program in the Netherlands. Nazareth released a successful cover of the song in 1975. John Lennon and Yoko Ono can be seen posing with a Provo white bicycle during their Bed-In for Peace in Amsterdam in March 1969.