“You can’t say you a man. If you do, you’re filthy and abominable. And you can’t say you’re a man because if you do you’re like the beast that perishes.”
– Sun Ra
In this article, we will take a look at the life of the African-American musician Le Sony’r Ra (1914-1993), better known by his stage name, Sun Ra, and the opposition to war he exhibited throughout his life, through the contextual prism of current events.
These days, it’s easy to fall under the impression that
intensification of imperialist war barely disguised as a humanitarian ‘last resort’ is not just inevitable, but what’s necessary, correct, and just. Across the media and the political spectrum, the supposed righteousness of state-sponsored, socially-sanctioned, extrajudicial killing is being beaten like a drum loud and louder into our collective mind. You’d think maybe ‘we’ would’ve learned something after the debacle of the post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’, but no.
Last Friday the 13th, a mass casualty incident in Paris succeeded in arousing a widespread outpouring of proclamations of sympathy for victims of terrorism and, perhaps more tellingly, belief in and solidarity with ‘universal’ values, which recent bloodbaths of a similar nature in Ankara, Beirut, and elsewhere failed to elicit, the saturation of social media with tricolore profile pics testifying to this fact. Conveniently ignoring the massacre in Paris on October 17th, 1961 of perhaps well over 200 North African immigrants, the selectively amnesic capitalist mass media has widely and erroneously billed the Paris mass casualty incident of November the 13th as “the deadliest violence to strike France since WWII.” Sadly, we’ll never know the precise number of those murdered by Parisian police on October 17th, 1961 since, even when murderous imperialists do acknowledge that they’ve committed crimes against humanity, they “don’t do body counts.” The incident inspired ‘Socialist’ French president François Hollande to declare a ‘state of emergency’, strengthening not only the repressive state apparatus, but also the ideological state apparatuses (by giving the state the power to ‘control’ media). Since then, the ‘state of emergency’ has been extended for at least three more months, the president is calling for reforms to the constitution, and the government has even gone so far as to announce that it will be dispensing with the European Convention on Human Rights. (But don’t worry; human rights lawyers and NGO industrialists assure us that only non-fundamental, alienable, and violable so-called ‘rights’ like due process, privacy, and freedom of movement will be affected. It’s not a carte-blanche to do “whatever”; “human rights violations will simply be judged with more flexibility.” And plenty of other states have already long undone the adage that all rights are “interrelated, interdependent, and indivisible.”)
Meanwhile, in America, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Jeb Bush: everyone agrees, it’s time to contain, degrade, and ultimately destroy these Islamist mofos, they tell ya hwat. Turn on Fox News and you’ll hear folks like Tucker Carlson, Geraldo Rivera, and all the rest of those propagandist pieces of shit railing on about the need to annihilate the so-called ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.’ Tune in to MSNBC and you can hear the same thing, interspersed with timid warnings about why it’s bad to scapegoat migrants. Self-proclaimed anti-imperialists cheerlead the Russian bombing campaign in Syria, and anarchists praise Kurdish fighters, who now collaborate with the U.S. No matter where you stand, it’s virtually never a question of whether or not to wage war, but how aggressive ‘we’ must be in waging war.
On November 20th, 2015, one week after the mass casualty incident in Paris, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution demanding the entire world join in on the action, seemingly indicating that the ‘War on Terror’ may be escalated to heretofore untold epic proportions and comfortingly promising of a temporary surge in mass casualty incidents which will in the long term reduce the number and frequency of mass casualty incidents.
“This world, with American leadership, can and must come together to destroy [ISIS and Al-Qaeda].” –Bernie Sanders at the 2nd Democratic Debate
It was a little easier to be anti-war about a decade ago; with George W. Bush in charge and waging a war in Iraq that was a bit more blatantly based on criminal pretexts, a more active social movement against militarism meant that there were more sizeable numbers of folks with whom one could link up and plot disruptions of the war machine. In certain milieus it seemed everybody loathed ‘Dubya’. There was a popular meme from those years called “same shit, different asshole,” featuring George W. Bush juxtaposed with Adolf Hitler. I myself managed to, using black permanent marker, draw Hitler moustaches on a poster-sized photo of President Bush which one of my high school teachers, a one time Republican representative in state legislature, kept in his classroom. Hilarious to me at the time, the teacher didn’t seem to notice this unsubtle, perhaps juvenile détournement, since it stayed that way for months. But then, the managers of U.S. Empire elected a new approach public relations: white power in black face. Nobel peace prizes delivered by drones simmered down the anti-war movement quite a bit, but it wasn’t long before the cult of LaRouche had its Hitler Obama posters out. Of course, comparisons to Hitler and Nazism are far from cutting-edge. From reductio ad Hitlerum to Godwin’s Law, Nazifying one’s enemies has, for over 60 years, been a convenient and sometimes powerful rhetorical device; one that even the U.S. government itself employs in propaganda against its current boogeyman, an apparent enemy whose mediatized wickedness is bordering on, if not surpassing, comic book levels.
In an article entitled “The Islamic State and the Cynicism of Nazi Analogies”, Natasha Lennard highlights a fact which we will reiterate here: “the subtext of any Nazi comparison by a US official is to invoke a moral obligation to engage militarily.” Nevermind that the United States of America was the primary exporter of eugenics to Germany, or that American industrialists were enthusiastic supporters of Hitler, that its most beloved amusement park was the brainchild of a goddamn Nazi, that the US actively deported German Jews and would-be Holocaust survivors to Europe, and only entered into the Second World War as a result of a rival imperialist power’s attack on what had less than fifty years earlier been an independent country which Theodore Roosevelt declared to be arbitrarily granted to the USA by ‘manifest destiny.’ WWII was ‘The Good War’, the ultimate just war, “a morally clear-cut conflict between Good and Evil.”
It’s not exactly hard to sympathize with the draft dodgers of the genocidal Vietnam War, but to evade conscription during World War II? That could potentially be scandalous. Surely everyone has a duty to stop fascism. “No Gook ever called me a Nigger,” a popular Vietnam era slogan went; but plenty of Krauts did call the local African diaspora, whom they subjected to forced sterilization, ‘Rhineland bastards.’ Evil shit indeed. Perhaps there was no other time when it was more difficult to be anti-war in the USA than during the Second World War. Though the First World War had its Espionage and Sedition Acts, it was a blatantly inter-imperialist war. But out of the First World War emerged the Bolshevik Revolution, and so the former revolutionary defeatists had some semblance of a stake to defend in the Second. And recent and current U.S. wars have been fought by an all volunteer military, so it doesn’t take a lot of guts to refuse to fight these days.
Le Sony’r Ra, better known by his stage name, Sun Ra, nicknamed Sonny, leader of the Intergalactic Myth-Science Solar Arkestra, is best remembered for his prolific jazz career and pioneering role in the genesis of afrofuturism. However, he was also a conscientious objector to war, for which he is far less remembered. Little public record of this episode of Sun Ra’s life existed until the publication of John Szwed’s 1998 biography Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (not to be confused with the 1974 blaxploitation sci-fi film Space is the Place, which stars Ra). Born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914, Sun Ra was drafted into the US military in 1942. This marked the beginning of an ordeal which would eventually lead to his jailing in Alabama and internment in a forced labor camp in the middle of a forest in northwestern Pennsylvania. Known as Camp No. 48, it was part of a theocratic gulag system administered by the Civilian Public Service (CPS) from 1941 to 1947, consisting in total of 152 camps and smaller urban ‘units’ across the United States.
Sun Ra couched his resistance to participation in the war in Christian rhetoric, despite lacking membership in any church. This was probably the best bet for anyone seeking recognition as a conscientious objector, as morally-grounded exemptions from forced transformation into a human killing machine were, since the First World War, effectively limited to followers of the ‘historic peace churches’: Quakers and Anabaptist sects (i.e., Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, and Schwarzenau Brethren). Furthermore, it was not until the 1971 Supreme Court ruling in Gillette v. United States that the possibility would be opened up of conscientious objection based outside of affiliation with a “well-recognized religious sect or organization whose existing creed or principles forbid its members to participate in war in any form” (i.e., ‘historic peace churches’–Quakers or Anabaptists). Gillette called his religious belief ‘Humanism.’ The ‘historic peace churches’ hold state-sanctioned violence as contrary to Christian morality. As religious movements, they were originally conceived in Northern Europe and in North America are rooted in overwhelmingly white congregations. This effectively barred African-Americans from being conscientious objectors. As Sun Ra would note during his draft ordeal, “[my case] has embittered me to such an extent that I am wondering whether a Negro has the right to be a Christian or whether it is even remotely possible that any white man can ever be expected to deal fairly with my race.” During the First World War, conscripted members of these congregations were forced either into ‘noncombatant’ military service or prison, where some were tortured and extrajudicially killed. It was the leaders of these churches, who had united to form the National Council for Religious Conscientious Objectors, and shortly thereafter merged with the Civilian Service Board to become the National Service Board for Religious Objectors (NSBRO), in response to the Selective Service and Training Act of 1940, who actually concocted the plan to set up a network of forced labor camps under their control as a more desirable alternative to either ‘noncombatant’ military service or imprisonment. Camp No. 48, where Sun Ra was interned, was administrated by the Church of the Brethren.
Initially (and surprisingly, since he was not affiliated with a church), the government recognized Sun Ra as a conscientious objector, and the local draft board informed him that he would be granted the right to be detained in a remote forced labor camp as an alternative to military service. But for Sun Ra the musician, the church-run civilian gulag was no more desirable an alternative than ‘noncombatant’ military service or prison. As he appealed this decision, he was in communication with pacifist organizations and the National Service Board for Religious Objectors (NSBRO), whose members were more sympathetic to his case than those of the local draft board. In one of these correspondences, he writes:
My orchestra and the management of it, the arranging and composing, the rehearsing, the developing of potential talent, that is my work and the only earthly pleasure I love. To separate me from music would be more cruel than standing me by a wall and shooting me. I think I would prefer the latter. I hope you understand why I am so staunchly against being in any kind of camp where one must live according to certain rules and regulations and requirements. If it were possible to be in civilian life and be of help I would appreciate greatly this consideration.
In addition to his dedication to his orchestra and his religious objections to killing, Le Sony’r Ra was financially supporting one of his relatives through his musical work, and he was in a poor state of physical health, which made the kind of manual labor required at the work camp dangerous for him. Nevertheless (and despite having been cited Paragraph 652.11 of the Selective Service Regulations which the NSBRO had informed Sun Ra supported his exemption), the all-white local draft board ordered Herman Poole Blount to render himself to Camp No. 48, approximately 850 miles from his home, on December 8, 1942. When Sun Ra informed the draft board that he “would probably not show up at the designated time,” they threatened him with jail. Reporting back to the NSBRO how the local board had handled his appeal, he writes, “Gandhi, Stalin, Christ, and a lot of people who fought for right know of jail.”
As Szwed explains in The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (1998), Sun Ra was shunned by most of his family for his refusal to go and fight the Axis powers. But Ra quite rightly identified the fascist-imperialist ideology as occupying not only Europe and Asia, but also the Deep South he lived in. In his correspondences with the NSBRO, he admonishes the local draft board for “smack[ing] of Hitlerism,” and snatches the wig off of domestic inequities when he writes, “Unfortunately, I am not living in a part of the U.S. but more a section which seems a member of the Axis and which is determined that no Negro will ever receive justice.”
Shortly before Sun Ra’s arrest and forced relocation, Szwed informs us that,
On December 2, he received a sympathetic note from J. N. Weaver, head of the Camp Section of the National Service Board for Religious Objectors, telling him that he would be given another physical examination when he reached the camp, and that he would be discharged if he was not physically qualified. He concluded, “I suggest that you report to camp and we shall do everything in our power to see that you get justice.”
On December 8 Sonny failed to appear at CPS Camp No. 48. A week later they came after him, and took him away to holding rooms set aside for malingerers and subversives at the old post office building not far from his house. His family, still humiliated and angry, refused to have anything to do with him. Only his brother Robert’s wife and daughter came to visit him, where they found him spending his days writing letters to his bedridden great-aunt, the FBI, and President Roosevelt.
One can hardly fault Sun Ra for declining to travel across the country for a physical examination. Three counties southeast of Birmingham, Alabama lies Macon County, where the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments had begun ten years earlier, in 1932, and would continue for another thirty years, until 1972. These experiments, conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service on rural and impoverished African-American men, are remembered as some of the sickest, most fucked up cases of unethical human experimentation carried out by the U.S. government. Black sharecroppers were left with untreated syphilis treatment so that Public Health Service researchers could observe the deadly effects of the curable disease. When some of these human guinea pigs were, like Herman P. Blount, drafted into the military during World War II, draft boards began notifying the men to take penicillin treatment for the disease following physical examinations which were a routine part of induction, only to be prevented from doing so by the Public Health Service.
After he was arrested, Sun Ra remained in jail for 39 days until he was forcibly relocated to Camp 48 in desolate Marienville, Pennsylvania. Szwed writes that “camp life was a daily routine of forestry work followed by evenings of rest, discussions of religious matters, and reading. (…) The camp at Marienville was not segregated, and for the first time in his life [Sun Ra] had daily contact with white people, and he joined in the nightly discussions of the evils of war and the morality of resistance.” Arriving at Camp 48 in early February 1943, Sun Ra’s health rapidly deteriorated under the forced manual labor regime. “Suffering heart palpitations, headaches, backaches, stomachaches, and (…) paralysis on his left side,” he complained to the camp director until he was finally granted medical examinations and the camp’s doctor and psychiatrist both “recommended him for immediate discharge for reasons of physical disability.” At last, in late March 1943, he was set free, classified as a bona fide conscientious objector.
A little over a year after his ordeal had begun, Sun Ra wrote again to the National Service Board of Religious Objectors to request a subscription to their newsletter. “Certain of a sympathetic audience,” Szwed writes, “he went on to talk of morality, and the role of teacher he was assuming in civilian life:”
At all my band rehearsals I talk to the fellows and try to make them see the point of knowing and admitting to oneself whether he is right or wrong and how fine it is to know the ecstasy of being right. Due to many aspects which discourage, the young Afro-American often loses initiative and other valuable principles of life
I never speak of conscience, which makes them listen more eagerly as they think I will. I am beginning to wonder if conscience isn’t like intellect–you either have it or you don’t. The majority of people in the world don’t think, they dodge social problems and many other things which puncture their ego. Is it because they don’t have the brain? Some of them, maybe? Then what about the conscience? … Sometimes I think it is an abnormality to want to help others and to care about anything but self. The world is so selfish that sometimes I don’t care whether I live or die. I’ve tried to be selfish and unthinking, conscienceless, but I can’t.
Since the U.S. military no longer recruits via conscription, the law regarding conscientious objectors is, for now, seemingly irrelevant. But this is actually not such a fortunate thing as it might seem, as what it truly signifies is that there is a large pool of dumbasses who think that Call of Duty or Ghost Recon gameplay and plotlines resemble reality or that spending a couple years as a conscienceless killing machine is a great way to “pay for college” and “get professional experience”, or more desirable than working in a low wage job or being homeless or even suicide.
Unlike another famous so-called, would-be ‘conscientious objector’ named Bernie Sanders, Sun Ra was, legally speaking, an actual conscientious objector. This is because U.S. law on conscientious objectors, clarified by the previously mentioned Gillette v. United States (1971) case, holds that conscientious objectors must be opposed to war in any form. In other words, they have to oppose all war in general, and not only one or more particular war(s). While Sanders refused to fight in the Vietnam War, he later went on to endorse wars in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Gaza, and now, as if that wasn’t enough to permanently tarnish his reputation as some kind of antiwar icon, displays his warmonger credentials by proclaiming that “[the] military option [against Iran] is always a possibility,” and hypocritically calls on the young people of the Middle East to fight as U.S. surrogates in Syria and Iraq while at the same time claiming to “get very upset at people who are so prepared to send other people’s kids into that war.” Sun Ra, on the other hand, had a lasting conscience, exemplified by work from his later years such as “Nuclear War” (1982).
Late 1942 and early 1943 were surely a transformative time in the life of Herman “Sonny” P. Blount. His avant-garde efforts to assert his civil and human rights and to resist war during those years deserve more recognition.
If you were not familiar with Sun Ra or this episode in his life, then you have never read Raving Radicals Bathed in Blax, my 21st century proletarian novel which is also a satirical geopolitical thriller, because in it Sun Ra makes numerous appearances. In Raving Radicals, I have taken a few creative liberties. Unlike the real Sun Ra, who claimed to be from Saturn, the Sun Ra in Raving Radicals inhabits Rátopia, another ringed gas giant in an alien planetary system orbiting around a star called Szulo. Rátopia is similar to TrES-2b, the blackest planet ever discovered, except that it is even darker than TrES-2b and it has not been discovered; this is why it is called “the darkest planet unknown to Man.” Raving Radicals is a novel about jumping beyond the realm of possibility. Because mainstream political thought has pushed proletarian revolutionary change beyond the realm of possibility, it is necessary to embrace the fantastic, to realize the impossible.
“There is a message in all of my music. It’s all about people doin’ somethin’ else other than what they have done. Because what they have done is the possible, and the world the way it is today is the results of the possible that they did.” – Sun Ra
Fantastic literature, in the view of Bulgarian-French literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov, is a present-oriented genre, constantly at risk of vanishing into thin air because it is, in essence, the state of hesitation; it is the occupation of the liminal mental space before one has decided whether the happenings of a tale are feasible or infeasible in relation to a particular worldview. Rather than being an autonomous genre, the Fantastic is situated in between the past-oriented Strange, or the supernatural explained (into which it dissolves when bizarre happenings are better explained in terms previously known conceptions) and the future-oriented Marvelous, or supernatural accepted (which absorbs it when the outlandish overpowers the senses to the extent that a new worldview must be admitted). Raving Radicals as fantastic literature is thus highly extroverted towards elements of conspiracist ideation, from weather modification to melanin theory, posited within a constellation of more conventional social facts to build up this tension. In this particular passage, one of the book’s protagonists, Tisha Ulroy, has just arrived in the Uhuru Union, a Pan-Sub-Saharan Africanist proletarian state, to set up a diplomatic mission on behalf of the Socialist Rromani Republic of the Banat, a communist Gypsy state in Eastern Europe which she previously helped to establish along with her comrades of the Radical Book Club, an ultra left-wing activist group.
Eventually the bus went beyond the outskirts, into the countryside. Afternoon faded into night. Many celestial bodies could be seen. The Dog Star, or Sirius–as it is sometimes known–shone darkly upon the savannah as the speeding metallic block traversed it.
The Dogon members of the Uhuru delegation began to recount with pride to Tisha how the elders of their tribe had passed down knowledge to them of the star system Sirius. Dogon cosmology had been a curiosity to Western scholars since the early 20th century, when French ethnologist and honorary Dogon tribesman Marcel Griaule had brought the tribe’s inexplicable savoir of the star system to the world’s attention. Improvements in observatory and space exploration technologies would later confirm Griaule’s findings, demonstrating that a Dogon hogon, or ritual elder, was able to accurately anticipate the layout of the Sirius star system. Some of the Dogon claimed that the source of this astral knowledge was none other than Sun Ra, the alien jazz musician come from the ancient dream of a Black man via Saturn.
The Twa members of the Uhuru delegation disputed the Dogons’ claim. One Twa man instead attempted to convince Tisha that Sun Ra had actually been a 20th century African-American man who had fabricated his extraterrestrial backstory in a dissociative response to torture inflicted upon him near Tuskegee, Alabama during imprisonment for draft dodging during the Second World War. This first Twa man’s assertion was, however, disputed by another Twa man who claimed that, though Sun Ra was a 20th century African-American man, he was the descendent of a Dogon hogon. Furthermore, Le Sony’r Ra’s abundant melanocyte receptors, not to mention his copious amounts of the consciousness-altering hormone melanin, had allowed him to perform ancestor communion at will.
How could they have possibly known these facts? The Twa people, known for their supple pineal glands, which were rumored to be immune to calcification, were said to be adepts in the art of liminal epistemology, able to abstract invisibility from the visible. It was thus that they knew much about late stage capitalist barbarism, and formed well articulated critiques of it, without ever needing to leave the rainforests.