We Can All Be Kings and Gods and Aliens: The Case for Black Utopia
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed
There is a photograph captured by Ming Smith in 1978. Its subject is an arresting, shimmering presence that draws in the viewer; yet, as the eye begins to focus on the creature in the photo, the subject appears to fade, leaving only the mirage of presence. Or of absence. Perhaps it is both, a curious entity manifesting as opposites existing simultaneously. Depending on who you ask, this subject of mysterious nature could be anybody. If you were to ask the staunch realists, the unbelievers, they would tell you it is the image of a mad man. If you were to ask the dreamers, they would tell you it is the portrait of an Egyptian god. If you were to ask the creature in the photograph himself, I am certain he would tell you this: I am an extraterrestrial being, from Saturn, sent to Earth to teach you the language of peace through music.
The photograph, titled Sun Ra Space II, is of the black avant-garde jazz musician and philosopher, Herman Blount, who would come to be known as Le Sony’r Ra, or Sun Ra. His personal mythmaking went beyond the adoption of a stage persona as long-form performance art, as in the case of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, to an actual, lifelong expression of self that was defined not by truth but by pure imagination. He wanted everyone else to aspire to this level of artistic and spiritual recreation as well; he hoped for all of humanity to be freed, as David Martinelli explains¹, from the “outmoded conceptions of life and death when the potential future of immortality awaits them”.
His visions of alternate life, the audacity to dream outside of his sociopolitical reality, made him one of the pioneers of the artistic tradition now referred to as Afrofuturism. There was something magnetic about his theatricality, the fantasy that refused to regard itself as such, the drive to inhabit a plane of existence that was only as limitless as his mind would allow.
Artists like Sun Ra are invaluable to the world, especially the black world. With blackness as a theme often highlighted in today’s cultural climate through the lens of struggle – whether it is cinema (12 Years A Slave, Get Out, THEM, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) or music (To Pimp a Butterfly, Lemonade, 4:44, Black Messiah) – his dedication to the weird and celestial offers a different direction in the exercise of our visions of personhood. It forces us to dream of a utopia where our lives are more than tragedy, where we can grow, live, laugh, love, be.
In “I Am”, the seventh episode of HBO’s Lovecraft Country, Hippolyta finds herself in a new dimension, far from her life as a grieving widow and mother of one living in Jim Crow-era America. She finds that in this new dimension, she is able to “name herself” and become whatever she chooses to be: a colonizer-slaying Dahomey Amazon, gal pals with Josephine Baker, or an otherworldly being with supreme intelligence. These visions ignore the Afropessimist view² of black identity as a constant struggle against, and eventual succumbence to, social death. The story gives ultimate power to Hippolyta, arguably a stand-in for the black viewer, and asks just what she, you, we, would choose if self-determination were possible. If we were to, for a moment at least, disregard what society defined us as, what would we name ourselves? The show’s fate – canceled after one season – is also proof of overtly radical black art’s fragility in an American entertainment industry backed by white money.
Sometimes black utopia does not come in the form of otherworldly ruminations; it can be based on a re-imagination of our past or present. This kind does not conceive of freedom in a galaxy far, far away. It wants paradise here on Earth, and now, even amidst the turbulence of the times its creators live in.
In 2016, Tyler Mitchell³ released the absolutely brilliant “I’m Doing Pretty Hood in My Pink Polo”, a picture collection commissioned by Dazed. With the photos, he created what was described as a “dream-like, colorful world where black men experience the same freedoms as white men”. Mitchell portrays black men – often stereotyped as uber-masculine and aggressive – as soft, vulnerable, gum-popping, child-like. Just like in his earlier work, the appropriately named short film, “Wish This Was Real”, he treats the world as a playground for black boys and men who are not weighed down by the constant threat of literal and political death by white supremacist institutions.
This defiance of death is a common preoccupation of black artists dreaming of perfection. When Lisa-Kainde, one half of the French-Cuban sister-act Ibeyi⁴, was only sixteen, she was racially profiled as a drug dealer by the French police, obscenities screamed at her as she was arrested. This experience inspired their music video for Deathless, in which the sisters defy the human curse of mortality by (literally) giving birth to each other repeatedly while singing the words, “Whatever happens, whatever happened, we are deathless”.
Such re-imagination is the color of Mitchell’s resistance. Talking about the realities he forges, or more specifically, highlights, with his camera, he says: “Some of it hasn’t fully manifested yet. This isn’t yet happening outside your window on a street near NYU, roaming freely in Palo Alto…(but) it is about wishing that was there.” This radical wish-making is the soul of black utopia.
However, there is misinterpretation of the nature of this soul in the form of growing criticism of specific forms of black utopia as flawed because of their inconsistency with historical fact, or their refusal to acknowledge the ugly side of what they purport to celebrate. In a critique of the Disney+ film, Black Is King, Burundian-born feminist and activist, Judicaelle Irakoze, writes: “There is a real danger in romanticizing pre-colonial Africa. The glorification of kingdoms before white men met us erases the reality that Africa wasn’t exactly a paradise. African kingdoms were rife with slavery, imperialism, women’s oppression and class oppression.” That is a fair position. A brilliant one, in fact. But it is applied in the wrong context.
Such statements, and the sentiments behind them, are inspired by the mistaken idea that deliberate expressions of black grandeur, which have their roots in such political and artistic phenomena as Negritude and the Black Arts Movement, need to be tempered by facts. But black utopia is not rooted in facts, that is for the historians to bother about. To make the claim that a film, which was promoted as an exaggerated and fantastical representation of black heritage as an ego boost in a time of media-glamorized black trauma, has the power to “erase the reality” of Africa’s actual complicated history says more about the terrible job of documenting and popularizing factual stories of Africa’s past than about the film itself.
Artists aiming for a utopia should not need to present an accurate representation of blackness. Leave that to documentaries, memoirs, and works that purport to capture life as it is. We must think beyond what is, beyond what could be. Perhaps our focus should be less on compelling black utopia to reduce itself to something as pedestrian as reality, and more on demanding a wider entrenchment of black history in the mainstream that allows for art to be art without feeling the responsibility to work overtime as a history lesson and didactic medium. After all, we are talking about a film featuring black people as spirits and ghosts and glowing women and flying men. Fact was never the point.
Even with this fantasticality, black utopia possesses a historic utility in bettering the conditions of African-descended people at home and in the diaspora. During and after the struggle for independence, there was a rise in Afrocentric art imagining a liberated African consciousness in the works of Chiekh Anta Diop⁵, Ayi Kwai Armah⁶ and Henry Odera Oruka⁷. As Bill Ashcroft notes in Post-colonial Utopianism: The Utility of Hope: “Utopia is no longer a place but the spirit of hope itself, the essence of desire for a better world. The space of utopia has become the space of social dreaming.” The social dreaming spurred the several anti-colonial and anti-apartheid movements of the twentieth century that eventually birthed black liberation in Africa.
But black utopia does not need to justify itself as possessing an extrinsic political value to be valid. Sometimes, it is just good old escapism that has no intention of ticking the right political boxes we tend to burden black creators with. And there should be room for that. It is important to note, however, that none of this is to say black escapism cannot be deemed reckless, or is immune to critique. I am very wary of a black utopia steeped in Eurocentric cultures and narrative traditions. By this, I mean a form of narrative that only seeks to assimilate black people into spaces that have historically been occupied by white people, thereby only making us grateful guests inhabiting the rooms of a civilization built by our oppressors. We do not need a black Superman or black witch-queens in Medieval Europe or black Norse gods. All of this only validates whiteness as the center of cultural expression into which we hope we are allowed in the name of “inclusion”.
It betrays an irritating poverty of imagination and a disrespect to the ancient artistic traditions that were invented in Africa prior to white invasion and much after it, as well as the radical art forms birthed in the African diaspora free from white influence. We can look to Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism to create new forms of black expressions of fantastical existence that stimulate what Congolese philosopher, Ka Mana, calls the African imaginaire⁸. Black mythologies all over the world, both new and ancient, offer a vast range of templates upon which to dream. The Yoruba in West Africa have stories of mere mortals, like Sango, ascending to godhood status after a tragic life. Many Bantu cultures believe our spirits live on after we are dead, as long as there is someone to remember us. The legend of the flying African in black diaspora stories offers dreams of flight away from the life of pain and loss often associated with our kind. Such stories show that black people have an overwhelming wealth of self-owned mythology to pull from; we do not need to be accepted into white spaces. We already have ours. We only need to learn to inhabit them.
One of my favorite pieces of the black imaginaire is Sun Ra’s 1974 film, Space is the Place. In the film, Ra gets lost on tour in Europe. He accidentally ends up on a new planet, and marvels at its magnificence. He starts to see it as a paradise of liberation, a space for his people to inhabit free from the people who would seek to suppress their being. “The music is different here, the vibrations are different here,” he says, observing this new part of the universe no human before him had ever seen. “We’ll set up a colony for black people here, see what they can do with a whole planet all on their own without any white people here. They can drink of the beauty of this planet. It will affect their vibrations for the better.”
In this film, Ra offers a lucid, brilliant and timeless argument that could seem lost amidst the chaos of his own conflicting ideologies: the brightest version of Black future is not when we are, finally, recognized as human by another civilization; but when we learn to be our truest selves according to our own dictates in spaces we have marked for ourselves. To be able to name ourselves kings and gods and aliens and anything we see fit. That is true power.
- David A Martinelli, The Cosmic-Myth Equations of Sun Ra (Los Angeles: University of California) https://web.archive.org/web/20080222063541/http:/www.ethnomusic.ucla.edu/staff/martinelli/Sun%20Ra.htm
- Vinson Cunningham, “The Argument of Afropessimism” The New Yorker, July 13, 2020 https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/07/20/the-argument-of-afropessimism
- Rachel Tashjian, “Inside Photographer Tyler Mitchell’s Radical Vision of Personal Style”, August 20, 2020 https://www.gq.com/story/tyler-mitchell-interview
- “Ibeyi – Deathless featuring Kamasi Washington”, YouTube video, posted by Ibeyi, 3:18, August 31, 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yN8TUgkPnbU
- Cheikh Anta Diop, African Origin of Civilization – The Myth or Reality (New York: Lawrence Hill Books, 1974)
- Jonathan B. Fenderson, “‘Wherever I’ve Gone, I’ve Gone Voluntarily”: Ayi Kwei Armah’s Radical Pan-African Itinerary”, The Black Scholar, Vol. 37, no. 4 (2008): 50 – 60.
- Henry Odera Oruka “Sage philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy”, Philosophy of History and Culture, Vol. 4 (1990): 281.
- Valentin Dedji, “The Ethical Redemption of African Imaginaire: Ka Mana’s Theology of Reconstruction”, Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol 31, no.3 )(2001): 254 – 271.