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Space is our place: How an Alabama city became a launch pad for afrofuturism

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More than two decades before the Space Race, Sun Ra was already imagining a better life for Black people among the stars.

He spent the majority of his 79 years in the earthly realm empowering Black people by radicalizing the big band jazz music that inspired his career. It was all part of a cosmic mission he received from Saturn, which Sun Ra claimed as his true home. His own band Arkestra has a discography that spans across more than 100 albums. The band’s name speaks to the mythology that defined Sun Ra’s legacy. The “Ark” is a nod to the ark of the covenant in the Old Testament and the ark that carries the Egyptian sun god Ra.

The theatrical way he synthesized Egyptology with space elements is why Sun Ra is known as the innovator of the Afrofuturistic aesthetic. Afrofuturism uses Black history, culture, science fiction and futurism as a way to reimagine the past and create a better present and future that doesn’t center oppression. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is now hosting an Afrofuturism exhibit that includes the music of Funk Funkadelic and Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther costume.

But before Le Sony’r Ra created music that transcended his own lifetime, Sun Ra was born Herman Poole “Sonny” Blount on May 22, 1914 in Birmingham, Ala. After jazz legends nurtured his musical talent, Sun Ra decided to attend Alabama A&M University, a historically Black college in Huntsville, Ala., in 1935. He only spent about a year on campus. But during that time Sun Ra said he was beamed up to Saturn, where aliens warned him about Earth’s impending doom and how he “would speak, and the world would listen.” This message set Sun Ra’s trajectory to create an artform that would later help shape Black culture.

As a native of Huntsville, I can say that this city is obsessed with space. Known as the “Rocket City,” Huntsville is not only the home of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, but has schools named after space shuttles and astronauts. We have an arena named after the German space engineer Wernher von Braun. The Saturn V rocket – one of three 1960s-era space vehicles in the world – welcomes you into the city at the U.S Space and Rocket Center located right off the highway.

But there’s little, if any, mention of the man who said, “Space is the Place” for Black people. Which is why Huntsville artists Jahni Moore and Willoughby Hastings started Southern Galactic, a month-long celebration honoring Sun Ra in multiple ways.

During several textile workshops held throughout the city, attendants stitched star-shaped cloth on T-shirts dyed with Alabama red clay and made their own solar system out of cardboard cutouts and paint. The screening of both Cauleen Smith’s film “Space is the Place (A March for Sun Ra)” and Sun Ra’s own 1974 sci-fi flick “Space is the Place” kicked off Southern Galactic’s weekend-long “Sun Ra Fest.” A panel of historians and artists shared their knowledge during panels. Afrofuturistic artist Simone Taylor Cunningham received a grant from Southern Galactic to continue her artwork. Beats pulsed in the air as Black musicians performed during Sunday’s festivities. The community, dressed in elaborate Afrofuturistic garb, did a walking parade that orbited around Huntsville’s Big Spring Park.

Moore said this is the “first voyage” of Southern Galactic and hopes the festivities become an annual celebration. Although Moore is also from Huntsville and Alabama A&M alum, he didn’t learn Sun Ra - or any Black artists for that matter - until late into his college days. I talked to Moore about his love of Black art, how afrofuturism inspired his work, why he centers Black women in his art and the importance of celebrating Sun Ra.

Starr: So before we get into Sun Ra, I wanted to talk about your own story and how your relationship with art began.

Moore: I was a child of nature. Even when we lived in the city, I was out in the backyard. I remember climbing the trees at four years old and being so excited about a new adventure. I could actually see on top of the house. Saw other people when they couldn’t see me. The apple tree. We had a garden in the backyard. So the cucumbers and the plants – I began to get fascinated by all of that stuff. The way things fit together. The way things looked. The colors.

So when I moved to north Huntsville and went to school, I remember always being drawn to art. Art projects were always my favorite thing about school. In second grade we had to draw Martin Luther King Jr. on those little paper plates with the scallop edges. I remember looking at all of our plates hanging up, and Miss Tucker, my second grade teacher said, “John yours was really good.” And I was looking at her thinking, “Yeah! Mine is really good. I think it’s better than everybody else.” And of course, everybody else was also saying it too. And I think that’s my first revelation that I had some ability in that arena. As I progressed through elementary school, I became known as the boy who can draw and that was it.

In the real world, nobody in my family was an artist as a profession. I didn’t know anyone who was Black as an artist. I didn’t know anybody who was an artist for real in those days. In high school, I continued with art, but never saw it as a profession until I left high school.

Starr: How did the lack of access to the knowledge of Black artists shaped the way you saw art at first?

Moore: I never saw it as a professional because I didn’t have anything in front of me, that led away. In fact, I didn’t really learn about any Black artists or African American artists until I think it was my junior year [of college at Alabama A&M]. Before that, I was doing a lot of Greek mythology. That was where the energy was…So I went through the catalog, and I saw this class called African American art. I went to the chairman and I said, “Is this offered?” He said, “Yeah, Dr. Logan teaches it, but he hasn’t taught it in years.” And I said, “Well, I want to take that class.” And He said, “Well, you have to get enough students to have the class.”

So, I got a sheet of paper and went around and convinced other students – I think I had to have 12 students – to take this course. It was in that course that I was able to connect the mechanics of art, with the passion of purpose because before, I did it just because I liked art, but there was no purpose behind it. But once I learned about Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, Aaron Douglass and Jacob Lawrence, my world opened up. You know how Tupac said, “In my mind, I couldn’t find a place to rest. Until I got Thug Life tatted on my chest?” I found my space. I knew what I wanted to do. I want to use art as a social bomb so to speak to bring about a liberation of mine and, consequently, people from situations that they didn’t want to be in. I want to use art as a means of social change.

Afrofuturism uses Black history, culture, science fiction and futurism as a way to reimagine the past and create a better present and future that doesn’t center oppression.

—  Jonece Starr Dunigan

Starr: So you said you use art as a means of social change. What is the change for you?

Moore: Art to me is an acronym. And the acronym is “A Resurrecting Truth.” That resurrecting truth is going to be different for everybody. If you’re an eagle, you will recognize another eagle’s call. If you are a lion, you will recognize the language of another lion. So whatever it is that makes you wake up and want to go and live in this world, not just exist, that’s your heart. And sometimes you have to go and create a new path.

I want my work to inspire people. It’s like I’m stoking this fire and as I stoke my fire, it warms and catches those around to go and do something. It happens when I watch people like [Muhammad] Ali, and Bruce Lee do things. I’ve been watching Gabby Douglas do her thing and I’m like, “Wow.” When someone does what they do so well, it makes you want to go and do your thing better…I remember Lauryn Hill saying in one of her songs that music is supposed to inspire. My artwork is going to go places that I may never see. So when people look at my work, I want them to feel something that makes them want to go out and do something. That’s the social change I’m talking about. It’s that ripple effect. Once again I’ll make reference to Tupac. He said, “I may not change the world, but I guarantee you I will spark the brain that will change the world.”

People can always say, “Well, I don’t know if he actually went to space or not.” But you know what, in the grand scheme of things, whether the actual thing took place doesn’t matter. It’s what was produced from that day.

—  Jahni Moore

Starr: So why go so hard when it comes celebrating Sun Ra’s legacy here in Huntsville?

Moore: I think he’s a figure that, to me, is the epitome of what the city looks like from the outside. This is the Rocket City, and then for Sun Ra to actually have his revelation here? I mean, it’s like it was something that was made to be. It’s hard to believe or to even understand how it has not been done before now. Afrofuturism is big in other places. Here, it seems to be something that people have never really heard of, but this is where it all began. Literally. so I mean, we’re supposed to do it. It’s ours to do.

I was in Nashville about a month or two ago, and I went to the [National Museum of African American Music]. Of course, I’m looking for Sun Ra. Of course, he was there and the suit that one of the guys of Parliament Funkadelic wore. I think people sleep on Huntsville. There’s so much culture here than we give it credit for. So we want to underscore those things with the arts, and serve as a beacon of light. And as Andre 3000 said, “The South got something to say.”

There was an article I read that summed it up perfectly that said Sun Ra taught us how to believe in the impossible. It was 1937 when he got the revelation to be that forward thinking…People can always say, “Well, I don’t know if he actually went to space or not.” But you know what, in the grand scheme of things, whether the actual thing took place doesn’t matter. It’s what was produced from that day.

Starr: When were you introduced to afrofuturism and how did you start to use it in your work?

Moore: I remember growing up and loving “Star Trek,” “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” “Battlestar Galactica.” Something about those futuristic and post-apocalyptic shows, like “Mad Max,” always caught my attention. But if you look back at those films, aside from Billy Williams’ character, and then lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek, there weren’t really any characters who looked like us. Then people like Geordi La Forge came in and helped that out. But what about us in space? It was like we were non-existent in those arenas.

So I went to Chicago in 2017, and a professor talked about this intersectionality between science fiction, Black culture, the imagination, Egyptian culture. Then she used the word Afrofuturism. When I heard that term I thought, “Wow. I like that.” So I went and talked to a professor who wrote a book on Sun Ra and she told me all about their research and the work they’ve done in Chicago on Afrofuturism. I learned about Mark Dery, who coined the phrase Afrofuturism in [the essay] “Black to the Future.” Over the next few years, I immersed myself in the ideals of Afrofuturism.

Also in 2017, I was approached to do a mural for Google. And I knew I didn’t want to do rockets. So I came up with the idea to center a woman. I had several names [for the mural,] “Baby, I’m A Star” was one of them. I wanted something that sort of defined the area. Then I said, “Let’s go with ‘Space is the Place.’” And I was told there may be a copyright infringement with that. And so I’m thinking about the name and I’m listening to this documentary that opens up with, “In a small town called Huntsville, Alabama…” I looked over at Sun Ra, and I’m thinking, “What? Huntsville, Alabama?” After listening to the rest of the documentary, I started doing research and learned he went to A&M. At that point, I knew I was going to name the piece “Space is Our Place.” In fact, a year after I did that mural, I went back and added a man being elevated to represent Sun Ra. So that’s how that piece came along.

The idea of situating ourselves in a future of our choosing rather than one that’s imposed upon us has always been very important to me. And Afrofuturism talks about that. Our past – we can’t change that. And for some of it, we had no say in it if it came before us. But we can make up our own future, and what we are, we are those bridges. We are on a fantastic voyage.

Starr: So, I saw that you decided to dye y’all’s T-shirts with Alabama red clay, which you have used in your previous pieces. Why such a connection to this soil?

Moore: I grew up in Alabama, and on the weekends, my dad would take us out to the country for rides because we lived in the city. I remember looking at the red clay – looking at those fields and how they would converge in the red clay. Of course, that’s only clay. I knew. When I began to travel to other places, I was always like, “We have something that’s fairly unique here.” I always liked the way it looked – that color.

So some years ago before they started building Stovehouse, there was a guy who wanted me to look at the old buildings and be like, “We want to redo this building. We want to do a mural here.” I remember walking underneath one of the buildings, and it was red dust that had probably been there for 100 years and hadn’t seen water. So I asked, “Hey, man, can I take some of this?” I took it back to my studio and I started playing around with it. I ended up dying some clothes: T-shirts, bags, and even a pair of shoes. I remember when we were little and the clay would get on our clothes and it would take a while to come out. Sometimes it would get on your skin and it would take a while to come off. And I like how it all came out.

What’s so significant about the red clay for me deals with something that was said to me my senior year of college during my senior show, and I must have been down about something because Dr. Eugene Nicolson came up to me and she said, “Keep your head up. Your success is inevitable because this Alabama red clay is rich with the blood of your ancestors.” That triggered something in me. So, I wrote the statement down and everywhere I traveled after that, I would take a vial of red clay with me as a reminder that your success is inevitable. When I am using the blood of the ancestors through my artwork, they’re being resurrected once again to serve again and be a representative for the people.

So what I started doing lately is not only am I using the red clay, but I go downtown to Big Spring Park, which was part of the Black community at one time, and where they would have baptisms in the springs. I get my water from those sacred waters, and I mix that with the clay. That’s what my work is about. It’s about resurrection. It’s about redemption. It’s about revival. When I’m using the red clay, I’m really resurrecting my ancestors.

Starr: So as a native of Huntsville myself, I have admired your work for a long time. One of the things I like about your art is that you often feature Black women in your work. “Space Is Our Place” is an example of that. Can you talk about the importance of centering Black women as a Black male artist?

Moore: I call my studio “church” because, first of all, it is in an old church, and it’s an acronym for “Come Help Us Restore Cosmic Harmony.” I think one of the things that has been out of whack for a long time is that we have been in a hyper masculine society. When you talk about wars and all these things, that’s hyper masculine. Now, you need that, but you also need that balance. In a lot of the early cultures, women were just as valid. When you think about the creativity, the nurturing – that’s a woman. We have that masculine side and we also have that feminine side. Oftentimes, it is creative people who tap into both sides.

I want to make sure there’s a woman because we need to situate women at the center. Because to me, the greatest representative of God would have to be a woman. I mean, she’s a portal between nothing and life. She’s a spiritual portal. So with [Space Is Our Place], we talk about space as a portal, I wanted to put a woman in that space.

Jonece Starr Dunigan

Jonece Starr Dunigan |

Jonece Starr Dunigan (She/her/hers) is a journalist who gives the microphone to communities that are often ignored by mainstream media. Guided by empathy, her reporting centers the stories, movement work and voices of Black, brown and queer people. Her writing strives to amplify and empower readers instead of exploiting them of their traumas.

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