I grew up in the beating heart of the gallant south. In fact, for years, a tagline on the local license plates read,”Heart of Dixie.” Navigating this plane in a black body has been more than interesting. Along the way, I’ve encountered what most meet on any lengthy travel; traffic jams, roadblocks, dead ends, spans of open roads and the ever challenging notion of space between myself and other travelers.
In 2017, I came to know of Sun Ra. I’d heard of him before and knew of him only as an eccentric musician. Not much beyond that. It was in Chicago, where I came to know him. One of my professors was a collaborator in a book about him. She set me on the road to the Alabama native via Chicago. Sun Ra signaled to me in various forms. It was in innerspace, a few years later, where I met him.
In 2018, I was commissioned by Google to do a mural in Huntsville. The final destination for the piece was a large metal wall facing the Butler green at Campus 805, a local brewery and entertainment venue. I submitted a number of concept sketches, wanting to expound on the “Rocket City” theme without focusing on overdone rockets. Each one came back with notes from too racy to too sexy. Finally we landed on an idea that would fly. Now I was wrestling with the wording that I wanted to add to the piece. While sitting at my desk at the school where I was teaching at the time I pulled up a documentary on Afrofuturism as part of my continued research. It started out with the words…
“The term Afrofuturism first appeared in an essay titled, Black To The Future, by Mark Dery, in 1994 – but its roots go back to a fateful night in the late 1930’s in Huntsville, Alabama. On that peculiar evening a beam of light shot down from the sky, and lifted Herman “Sonny “Blount into an alien spacecraft. On a voyage to Jupiter [actually it was Saturn], his captors prompted him with a mission: To transport Black people away from the racism and violence of planet Earth. “Sonny” became Sun Ra…”
I turned to look at the video and replayed it to be sure I heard what I thought I’d heard. Sure enough, it went on about Sun Ra, who has been billed the father of Afrofuturism, and how he had received his vision and charge lifted from the edge of a corn field on the outskirts of the campus of Alabama A&M University. Yes, Alabama A & M University, my alma mater. I knew in that moment, the name and wording of the mural. I was also reminded that I was born in this space capital, at this time, in this body, and set on a cosmic quest.
Once I began play on the mural, the rains decided to come and work with me. I took every dry moment I could, to paint. I slung paint in the mornings before school, after school, and on weekends. With the rain, I had less that two weeks to fully complete the piece. Nature definitely put me to the challenge. One morning I came back after an evening of painting into the night to find that a misty rain had melted the face of the main image. I kept going. We don’t stop. One day a man from the neighborhood walked up an asked if I was really putting “one of us on a wall. Bruh, that’s alright.” He said, and walked away in pride. A blonde woman from inside the venue would come out daily to watch me paint on her break. “Thanks for doing this.” She said one day. ” I was so glad when I saw you were painting a woman there.” Another day, an Asian woman walked by, stood gazing at the piece for awhile, got my attention, and simply said, Thank you so much.” I knew the nature of her gratitude. Even before completion, the art was doing its work.
Finally I completed the piece and stood back to look at what we’d done. An employee came out of the building and exclaimed, “Dude, it’s so cool that you’re honoring Sun Ra, and on his birthday.” “Uh, yeah for sure.” I replied, totally physically unaware that is was Sun Ra’s bEARTHday. When the gentleman walked away, I snatched out my phone and checked the facts. Sure enough, It was May 22, Sun Ra’s bEARTH date. There it was, that connection beyond connections.
Summer of 2019, I invested an insane number of hours pouring over mountains of Sun Ra archives in the University of Chicago Library. On my return to Huntsville, I went back and added to the mural, the image of a man levitating to the heavens, honoring Sun Ra’s space baptism. Sun Ra’s revelation led him on the quest for liberation by way of music, claiming space as our place, pulling heavily from ancient Egyptian culture. I honor that celestial philosophy and take artistic license to add that the space between us is also vast and in need of exploration. There are worlds of possibilities that vibrate in that space, if we could just see past the limiting notion that it only separates us, and realize that it also connects us. In all of its forms, space is our place.