Directly following my period of book immersion, I attended a screening of the 1974 movie classic Space Is the Place. Combining science fiction and blacksploitation, avant-garde jazz musician Sun Ra descends to earth from outer space, where he’s come to elevate consciousness through his intergalactic music and message.
In one scene from the film, Ra materialises in a community centre in Oakland, California, informing the black youth gathered there that he has come to take them to outer space in his ship. ‘Are there any whiteys up there?’ one of them asks. ‘They’re already up there, they are walking there today. They take frequent trips to the moon’, Ra replies. ‘I notice none of you have been invited.’
Through a cosmic existence in which there is no past and no future, Ra confronts the lived moment of the United States in the 1970s. Sun Ra and his generation bore witness to the turbulent African American civil rights movement and the violent assassinations of its leaders: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Fred Hampton, and Harry and Harriette Moore (the husband-and-wife founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or NAACP), among hundreds of others. In the 1980 documentary A Joyful Noise, Ra shares his posthuman outlook tempered by these all too human events: ‘the only thing planet earth produces are the dead bodies of humanity’.
Returning to Sun Ra’s work was an important moment for my project, reconfiguring my understanding of posthumanism in a way that is distinctly postcolonial in its outlook. In The Location of Culture (1994), Homi Bhabha conceptualises the ‘postcolonial time-lag’ through the writings of Frantz Fanon. ‘Time lag’ is that parallel temporality which continuously renders the black man in the past, the white man in the future. For Fanon, the notion of ‘Man’ – a working definition from which he is also exempt – warrants a similar disavowal: ‘leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe. […] Europe undertook the leadership of the world with ardor, cynicism, and violence. […] When I search for Man in the technique and the style of Europe, I see only a succession of negations of man, and an avalanche of murders’ (Fanon quoted in Said 2003: 20–21). Reflecting on Ra and Fanon’s historical moment, the idea of well-being for the African diaspora cannot rest on ideas of future ‘progress’.
In the world of science fiction, however, future justice is present tense, the earth one star in a universe with a wider capacity for justice. From this perspective, Ra’s eccentric outer-space persona becomes clearer. In television interviews, he intermittently refers to himself as an ‘angel’ or as having been ‘born on Saturn’, asserting ‘you can only understand planet earth when you look at its laws – people here on earth don’t know how to treat beings that they don’t understand. If an alien came to planet earth in a spaceship it wouldn’t have any rights. If an angel came down to planet earth it wouldn’t have any rights’ – when I come down here, I don’t have any rights. If I was a human, I wouldn’t need to go around demanding my human rights.