Sun Ra’s Full Lecture & Reading List From His 1971 UC Berkeley Course, “The Black Man in the Cosmos”

A pioneer of “Afrofuturism,” bandleader Sun Ra emerged from a traditional swing scene in Alabama, touring the country in his teens as a member of his high school biology teacher’s big band. While attending Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, he had an out-of-body experience during which he was transported into outer space. As biographer John Szwed records him saying, “my whole body changed into something else. I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn.” While there, aliens with “little antenna on each ear. A little antenna on each eye” instructed him to drop out of college and speak through his music. And that’s just what he did, changing his name from Herman Blount and never looking back.




Whether you believe that story, whether Sun Ra believes it, or whether his entire persona is a theatrical put-on should make no difference. Because Sun Ra would be a visionary either way. Combining Afrocentric science fiction, esoteric and occult philosophy, Egyptology, and, with his "Arkestra," his own brand of free jazz-futurism that has no equal on earth, the man is truly sui generis. In 1971, he served as artist-in-residence at UC Berkeley and offered a spring semester lecture, African-American Studies 198, also known as “Sun Ra 171,” “The Black Man in the Universe,” or “The Black man in the Cosmos.” The course featured readings from—to name just a few—theosophist Madame Blavatsky, French philosopher Constantin Francois de Chasseboeuf, black American writer and poet Henry Dumas, and “God,” whom the cosmic jazz theorist reportedly listed as the author of The Source Book of Man’s Life and Death (otherwise known as the King James Bible).

Now we have the rare opportunity to hear a full lecture from that class, thanks to Ubu.com. Listen to Sun Ra spin his intricate, bizarrely otherworldly theories, drawn from his personal philosophy, peculiar etymologies, and idiosyncratic readings of religious texts. Hearing him speak is a little like hearing him play, so be prepared for a lot of free association and jarring, unexpected juxtapositions. Szwed describes a “typical lecture” below:

Sun Ra wrote biblical quotes on the board and then ‘permutated’ them—rewrote and transformed their letters and syntax into new equations of meaning, while members of the Arkestra passed through the room, preventing anyone from taping the class. His lecture subjects included Neoplatonic doctrines; the application of ancient history and religious texts to racial problems; pollution and war; and a radical reinterpretation of the Bible in light of Egyptology.

Luckily for us, some sly student captured one of those lectures on tape.

For more of Professor Ra’s spaced out presentation, see the Helsinki interview above, also from 1971. And if you decide you need your own education in “Sun Ra 171,” see the full reading list from his Berkeley course below, courtesy of the blog New Day.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead

Radix

Alexander Hislop: Two Babylons

The Theosophical works of Madame Blavatsky

The Book of Oahspe

Henry Dumas: Ark of Bones

Henry Dumas: Poetry for My People eds. Hale Charfield & Eugene Redmond, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press 1971

Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, eds. Leroi Jones & Larry Neal, New York: William Morrow 1968

David Livingston: Missionary Travels

Theodore P. Ford: God Wills the Negro

Rutledge: God's Children

Stylus, vol. 13, no. 1 (Spring 1971), Temple University

John S. Wilson: Jazz. Where It Came From, Where It's At, United States Information Agency

Yosef A. A. Ben-Jochannan: Black Man of the Nile and His Family, Alkibu Ian Books 1972

Constantin Francois de Chasseboeuf, Comte de Volney: The Ruins, or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires, and the Law of Nature, London: Pioneer Press 1921

The Source Book of Man's Life and Death (Ra's description; = The King James Bible)

Pjotr Demianovitch Ouspensky: A New Model of the Universe. Principles of the Psychological Method in Its Application to Problems of Science, Religion and Art, New York: Knopf 1956

Frederick Bodmer: The Loom of Language. An Approach to the Mastery of Many Languages, ed. Lancelot Hogben, New York: Norton & Co. 1944

Blackie's Etymology

Countless other free courses from UC Berkeley can be found in our collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

via Dangerous Minds and audio courtesy of Sensitive Skin Magazine

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Space Jazz, a Sonic Sci-Fi Opera by L. Ron Hubbard, Featuring Chick Corea (1983)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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Comments (17)
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  • Future Twin says:

    “YOU LOSE THE LANGUAGE & YOU LOSE THE VIBRATION”

  • TRIPPO MARX says:

    If we came from nowhere here why can’t we go somewhere there?

  • gerhard koehler says:

    where can i get dics of sun ra?

  • Jesus R says:

    Gerhard:

    A great starting point is the new Sun Ra compilation curated by Marshall Allen, “In The Orbit Of Ra”:

    http://www.strut-records.com/deep-into-the-world-of-sun-ra/

    Hope that helps. Originals are very hard to find or incredibly expensive. Some labels have been reissuing his work and there has been a great re-release campaign on iTunes where you can find newly mastered versions of most of his essential albums.

  • greg.org says:

    seems like kind of a dick move to reskin the mp3 file and hotlink to it on Sensitive Skin without even giving them a mention or a link

    http://sensitiveskinmagazine.com/professor-sun-ra/

    • Dan Colman says:

      Greg, you’re right. We added attribution to Sensitive Skin at the bottom of the post. We’re usually good about giving credit where it’s due, but we erred on this one.

      Thanks,
      Dan

  • Joyce Dade says:

    I listened and I learned. In my wildest dreams, how was I to know I would encounter the live voice of Sun Ra today and become at once, a student of his, and hanging on his every word. I am grateful to the author of this presentation, Josh Jones and Open Culture for this. Thank you. I saw Sun Ra only twic and although some might say, twice ought to be enough. It was the being in the presence of this man and his Arkestra that counted most, that I can say in honesty, I was there. I saw him living and breathing and performing live at two Jazz clubs in NYC when I was young and he was going strong. I am a visual artist. I know little about the mechanics of music, although I have studied Oriental philosophy and Western philosophy, Sun Ra’s spin on philosophy, I find fascinating to say the least. I need to replay and notate and rethink and digest and come to my own conclusions about the statements and declarations he made that day this recording was made, almost half a century ago, and make some comprehensive sense of how it fits into my own bi-racial philosophy and understanding of the meaning of life. If only I could hear Sun Ra sing, “Stars Fell on Alabama,” or “I Dream to Much,” it would be as if the icing had been put on the cake, the cherry on the sundae and the dream realized all at once. Thank you for writing and presenting this article with the rare audio lecture, and now I must return to the everyday, return to earth from the cosmos.

  • Buck Stronghard says:

    Sun Ra is so full of shit, I can’t believe somebody gave him a job teaching.

  • Heidi says:

    I recommend you get in touch with the Hinds brothers, who published a ‘zine, Sun Ra Research, for a decade or so(?).

    They spent as much time as they possibly could with Sun Ra, recorded interviews and basically everything the man said. They’re in San Francisco. It’s fascinating reading. Whenever they couldn’t understand him, they wrote, “undecipherable.” It happened a lot, but you surely would get the gist of what the man was puttin’ down.

    I love Sun Ra. I first saw him in 1980 in Houston. The music was spectacular. Seeing him and the Arkestra perform changed my life. It was live performance/life performance. After seeing them, I understood that I need to be in the room when art/music/life happens. It’s only by being in the room that you enter into a shared organism/experience with the performers. I’m so damn glad I was 20 when it happened. It was an early incorporation into my system of living. (Oh, y’know I’m easily swayed into loftiness and B.S. by talking about Sun Ra.)

    Here’s the link:
    http://www.united-mutations.com/r/sunraresearch.htm

    Here’s a link to their works,

  • brother flagg says:

    Joyce, I feel you. SunRa is way too deep for most. Never the less he had much wisdom to share, and he did. And for that I am grateful.

  • Sam says:

    This was a 1971 course?

    How is it that one of books, Black Man in the Nile, was published in 1972?

  • ntrs says:

    Another quote of his, from the lecture. Funny how white liberals, who are perfectly described in this, purposefully overlook it:

    “Ain’t nothing white good. Everything white is evil and wicked. I ain’t never met a good white person, and i never will. Because they weren’t made good. They were made evil and wicked.”

  • norma baxter brown says:

    I HAD THE AWSUME PLEASURE OF SEEING SUN RAH IN HIS NATURAL HABITAT
    BALTIMORE…AT THE FAMOUS BALLROOM….
    THERE IS NOW WORDS TO DESCRIBE IT..
    DOZENS OF MUSIC MAKERS ON AND OFF THE STAGE AT ALL TIMES..

    IT WAS COSMIC AND I BECAME A TRUE BELIVER

    NORMA

  • erasmus says:

    the lecture ruined sun ra for me. it took me from thinking of him as a quirky eccentric who made great music, to the sad realization that he was a sick, twisted, mentally ill racist who made great music. oh well.

  • brother Tom says:

    erasmus ,
    I hope you live to re track you statement.
    People judge by the way they are and think.
    A person who can not hear the truth from a genuine
    source of wisdom i.e. Le Sun Ra , has not a source of
    wisdom and truth w/in themselves. Think on that for a
    good long while.
    I have met and talked w/ le Sun Ra , He was the most gracious man i ve EVER met. I experienced him and June and Marshall and all of the singers and players of instruments of the ARKESTRA on three separate occasions.
    I was ” Granted audience” , just like meeting a royal King, He and I talked at length on matters concerning the whole (HUMAN) race. The twins recorded it (btw)
    He was a stream of consciousness poet. A very Deep SOUL. Please Sir re- consider your own race related
    negativity.
    Your name is close to a answer to our prejudicial problem here on planet earth …. Erasism , can you Dig it ? Erase ism , we all need to make a inner commitment to doing what we can -seen?
    ( to Erase Racism )
    Sun Ra said himself that he was a test to see if people could handle something different.
    Sun Ra Lives in the hearts and minds of us all who
    innerstand his message and love .
    p.s. after all ( esp. internet ” trollers”)
    KEEP A SENSE OF HUMOR – fer realz!

  • Pablo Diablo says:

    SUN RA LIVES.

  • Robert Dickow says:

    I took this course in ’71 (and got an ‘A’ in it!). At least I think that was the course. The title of the course I took was ‘Pervista’ as listed in the UC course catalog, but–like the name of the ‘Arkestra’– the title might well have changed from day to day. It was kind of hard to know what the gist of the course actually was. Egyptology? Astrology/Astronomy? Social/Race issues? It was a summer session class. The summer was hot. I was impressed that SunRa wore a heavy African style coat and his signature fur hat nevertheless. I stuck out the lectures until one day, when only about 7 people (out of the 25 or so who signed up) were present in the hall. SunRa announced, quite out of the blue, that ‘the reason I’m telling you all this is so you can understand my music.” Ah! He actually only rarely brought up the subject of his music (though he did screen ‘The Cry of Jazz’ one day.). Sure enough, to close the lecture, his band came on stage and they played for a good while, with a couple of his scarf dancers in front of the proscenium, and a slide show of the stars and planets on a screen. To close, the musicians walked off stage one by one, with the remainder still playing– Farewell Symphony style. SunRa was the last on stage, and he slowly walked off s tage as well, while is electric piano/synth seamlessly continued to play without him. Wild!! Anyway, this experience of mine paid off a few years later, when MacMillan press asked me to write the bio article on SunRa that appears in Grove’s Dictionary and the Dictionary of Jazz, etc. To get the ‘A,’ I wrote a term paper. I doubt SunRa himself graded it. He probably had readers to do the grading. The only grade recorded for the entire course was for the term paper. During one lecture he stated that the black people were cursed in the Bible. I researched that topic, and it appeared that the notion was based on the ‘Curse of Ham’ passage. The idea actually is based on a misreading of the passage. The blacks are not cursed in that passage. My argument and report on the analyses of others about the passage in question was evidently looked upon favorably by the grader!

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