Art Doc of the Week | Exploring Sun Ra’s Afrofuturism

This brief documentary synopsis of Sun Ra's life and work explains both his legacy and the timelessness of his message.

Ernest Hardyby Ernest Hardy

Afro-pessimism and Afrofuturism, as more than one Black scholar/artist/perpetual malcontent has already pointed out, are flipsides of the same coin. The loop of injustice, inequality and dehumanization in which the collective Black American body and mind are trapped is one that produces reams of theory (highbrow and street) and cultural production including music, film, literature, and the visual arts. Afro-pessimism sees the grim social condition of Blackness as permanent, and argues that its clear-eyed honesty about it that will allow for smart, workable plans for survival. Afro-Futurism, which throws the past, present and future into the Cuisinart of the Black imagination in order to map out new possibilities of being, argues for imagining new space & time configurations in which Blackness and humanity are synonymous in ways they absolutely are not in the here and now (and yesterday and probably tomorrow).

The term Afrofuturism first appeared in the article “Black to the Future,” by Mark Dery in 1994. But the theories and practice of it began decades earlier in Huntsville, Alabama in the late 1930s. That’s when Herman “Sonny” Blount had a vision/close encounter in which he foresaw that the only way Black people would ever escape or overcome the brutality and bigotry with which they lived was to forge their own home in outer space – Space is the Place. Thus his persona Sun Ra was born, and along with it his hugely influential experimental jazz. The resulting body of music, theory and aesthetics he came up with lay the foundation for funk and inspired a lot of hip-hop, literary works, and academic treatises. The miniature mini-doc Exploring Sun Ra’s Afrofuturism (part 1 of a 5-part series on Afrofuturism by DUST) gives a surprisingly effective overview of his work and its meaning. Future series installations will look at the work of Missy Elliott and George Clinton.

Below is the documentary. The clip above is from Sun Ra’s classic 1974 cult film Space is the Place.

The top photo is a still from Space is the Place, courtesy the Sun Ra estate.