A Mothership Connection: Past Futures of Resurrection and Absence
Posted February 21st, 2018 by Andrea Carlson
Artist Andrea Carlson takes us on a deep meditation across time and space into the origins and implications of Afro- and Indigenous Futurisms.
The word Afrofuturism is immediately bright. Our imaginations are painted with artwork of album covers from Earth, Wind & Fire and Parliament Funkadelic, and we may recall imagining the time-slip worlds within novels by Octavia Butler or Samuel R. Delany. But the name Indigenous Futurism may conjure up fewer images from our popular imagination, but it has been here all along. Afrofuturism and Indigenous Futurism both defy chronology and linear time; their roots, histories, and inspirations are parallel if not indistinguishable at times.
2012: False Endings/False Starts
The year 2012 offered Indigenous ideas a special platform. Thanks to the popular curiosity around the Mayan Calendar, which was set to recycle in the year 2012, Indigenous creative people found a spillover effect of having our voices amplified. In the years leading up to this end and renewal of a world, a group of Indigenous curators organized the exhibition Close Encounters, The Next 500 Years.1 Originating at Plug In Institute for Contemporary Art in Winnipeg, Close Encounters was a tremendous multi-venue exhibition of contemporary art by Indigenous people on the theme of the future, the end, and the confluence of both. The year 2012 was also the year that the first anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, Walking the Clouds, was published. This publication is often cited as the place the term Indigenous Futurisms was first coined by Grace L. Dillon.
Indigenous Futurism(s) most certainly extends a tap root into the vivid themes, metaphors, and analogies of Afrofuturism. The term Afrofuturism was coined by Mark Dery in his 1994 essay “Black to the Future” and has been applied to the aesthetics and narratives of artists and writers pre-dating the inception of the term.2 It seems fitting that both futurisms — which subvert linear time models with anachronisms and malleable or cyclical time — are named retroactively. Both futurisms have produced art, literature, and music that draw from histories that are often buried in textbooks under white presidents. Imagining ourselves into the future despite all efforts to eradicate our pasts means that we have to carry it with us. The future will always be filled with absence, ruptures, and rapture, but as N. Scott Momaday so perfectly states, “The greatest tragedy that can befall us is to go unimagined.”3 Existing unimagined is a form of absence that appears to run contrary to futurism. The idea of survival through absence — leaving one world for the next — is an idea that is present in both Afrofuturism and Indigenous Futurisms.
What does it mean to leave one world for the next, or to leave the present time for the future? There are many terms that characterize the movements of people. Abduction, banishment, colonization, deportation, emigration, immigration, migration, exile, extraordinary rendition, pilgrimages, refugees, and settlers are a few words that qualify how people have come to occupy a place. Each word positions a person’s sense of belonging to a place against the biases inherent to our terminology. It is political for any people to live in any land. The future, or the idea of the future, is an unoccupied space, or a space in theory only. One can imagine a future existence as hopeful, but the possibility of annihilation and absence loom in our imaginations from the conflict-saturated stories of history. Themes of absence are part of both Afrofuturism and Indigenous Futurism with different, but overlapping, historic frameworks. Some examples of 19th century African-American and Native American visions for the future contain biblically inspired prophecy, colonial intersections, and dreams for resurrections and self-determination.
An examination of these movements and moments need not be chronological, instead viewed as a thread drawn through the entire history of the Americas. 1974 seems as good a place as any to start.
Still from the film Space is the Place (1974)
The Chariot DeVille
In 1974 Sun Ra, the musician attributed with being the grandfather of Afrofuturism, presented his thesis for a new mythic paradigm in his film Space is the Place. His argument was that the Earth was no longer serving African Americans and that, as the title suggests, space is the place — the place where black people were not bound by the systems and vibrations of Earth. Space is the place where human vibrations would be restored and set to joy. The film’s story begins with Sun Ra’s mothership coming to Earth while voices cry out, “It’s after the end of the world! Don’t you know that yet?” The phrase seems to suggest that one shouldn’t fear the end of the world, because it has already happened. It is reminiscent of that post-apocalyptic phrase that could be seen in the late 1960s spray-painted around the University of California, Berkeley: “The bomb has already dropped, and we are the mutants.”4 Hindsighting the apocalypse may nullify its power, but it does not preclude future calamity. We soon find out the film may be set between apocalypses.
Still from the film Space is the Place (1974)
Sun Ra enters the film with a courtly entourage, walking on another world filled with animate instruments while dressed in the regalia of Egyptian gods. Assessing the state of the Earth by the vibrations that Earthlings make (the sounds of gunfire), Sun Ra suggests that the vibrations of another world could heal the vibrations of black people on Earth. To achieve his mission for the souls of man, Sun Ra challenges The Overseer, played by Ray Johnson, to a game of cards he calls The End of the World. On a red card table set against a desert landscape, The Overseer spreads a deck of Tarot cards and says, “Okay, you named the game… My cut.” The Overseer first pulls The World card from the deck which suggests the stakes: they are playing for the world.
The Overseer then pulls the card by which he will win the world, drawing The Chariot card which depicts a large, white 1966 Cadillac DeVille. His chariot is a terrestrial, earthbound vehicle, the Cadillac: a big American car, a symbol of wealth and status. The messaging of the car seems to suggest that The Overseer’s game favors keeping systemic oppression intact. Sun Ra pulls The Judgement card with an image of his Mothership. Sun Ra’s game is to bring about the judgment of man, gather his people and leave Earth for another world in his spacecraft. The remaining cards pulled throughout the game introduce short-story vignettes that depict scenarios where the two men vie for the souls of man. The full film can be found here,5 but let me spoil it for you: Sun Ra wins. As the Mothership leaves the Earth with his colony, we see The Overseer left behind with his chariot in flames. The Earth explodes to the sound of voices exclaiming, “We will wait for you in another world... in another world... in another world.”
But there's a problem here: Space Is The Place is itself fundamentally colonial. The aspirational process of decolonization, or at least learning to recognize the pervasiveness of settler mentality, is part of why Decolonize This Space has screened this film.6 Space as a final frontier is exactly why all Science Fiction films are just Western genre films with silver wagons. This seems like a surprisingly conventional trope for a musician so removed from convention. Sun Ra may not be considering the legacy of colonization from the vantage point of Africa or from the perspectives of Native Americans. In the film he tells a room of black youth that they should approve leaving Earth on his ship, because a ship is how their ancestors arrived in America. In this way he appears to want to create an inverse of the transatlantic slave ship with his Mothership, much like how an inverted, or upside-down Tarot card is interpreted as a weakened state or a reversal of the meaning of the card. This is, of course, my interpretation. The Tarot was a major organizing structure within Sun Ra’s mythology. In 1971 Sun Ra taught a class at UC Berkeley titled “The Black Man in the Cosmos” with a reading list and lecture that firmly plants the pillars of an Afrofuturist aesthetic movement.7 It is possible that Sun Ra may have interpreted The Chariot card from The Theosophical works of Madame Blavatsky because the book is included on his reading list. According to Blavatsky the Chariot is an individual bodily vessel piloted by the mind or will of the charioteer.8 This contrasts with Sun Ra’s spaceship, which is not an individual’s transportation machine, but a mass emigration vessel. The Overseer’s chariot is an earthly machine for the few and privileged. It may represent personal freedom upon the Earth, but not from it.
Still from the film Space is the Place (1974)
Dead Space and Resurrection
The Judgement (XX) card in Rider-Waite tarot deck depicts an image of people rising from their graves, perhaps referencing the Christian “Final Judgement” as described in the book of Revelations. As stated, Sun Ra’s Judgement tarot card depicts his Mothership, but it still references resurrection. It is likely that Sun Ra’s spaceship on the Judgement card was influenced by another work on his UC Berkeley reading list. The short story Ark of Bones by Henry Dumas is the tale of two boys walking along the Mississippi River who encounter an ark that comes down from the sky. The boat is filled with the bleached bones of Africans killed in the middle passage. One of the boys is invited to be the keeper of the ark and is told that one day the flesh and life of the deceased will be returned to these bones. Dumas’s ark is a biblical ship, a reserved space of preservation floating above the chaos of a human-made Earth. Adetokunbo Pearse writes,
Ezekiel was the Biblical prophet who was captured in a siege of Israel and lived in exile in Babylon where he had several visions, among them a divine chariot that foretold the further destruction and restoration of Israel. Pearse explains that one of the reasons that the Bible plays a role in Ark of Bones is that “it is a story plagued by attempts to dodge deadly blows aimed at the cultural lifelines of the community. The church appears to be the only institution still left standing.”10 Dumas sets his characters in a post-apocalyptic world where an ark coming down from heaven was possible. Nothing is too surprising in an apocalyptic setting, and the antebellum South was, no doubt, an apocalyptic setting for the people enslaved there. Biblical stories were, generally speaking, the only sources of myth self-described Christian slaveholders tolerated. The transmission of all others came at a high peril to the storyteller. This epistemological break attempted to further sever enslaved Africans from their cultural autonomy and ancestral wisdom. Instead it was forced underground and survived in new expressions and combinations. Native American teachings also found new outlets of expression and abstracted symbolism to protect Native knowledge during a long era of United States cultural assimilation policy. Native religions were illegal until the passage of The American Indian Religious Freedom Act passed in 1978. In essence, Africans and Native Americans were not reading the Bible stories in the same way as settlers and slaveholders, who sought to use the Bible as a tool of enslavement and assimilation.
In Ezekiel 37, the Bible relays the story of Ezekiel’s vision of the “Valley of Dry Bones” which describes a future restoration of a people. In this vision, Ezekiel is shown a valley of dry bones representing Israelites in exile. Ezekiel is instructed to share his prophecy and instruct the people, after which the sinew, fleshy tissue and skin would be restored to the bones and the people would be resurrected. Biblical resurrection and judgement seems so absolute that it becomes desirous for those who have lost so much.
Similarities to the Ezekiel prophecy can be found in one particular prophecy of Native Americans: the Ghost Dance. Native Americans hoping to induce a rupture in the trajectory of settler advancement found a prophet within their midsts. In the book Beyond Settler Time, Mark Rifkin thoughtfully and succinctly describes the conditions that brought about The Ghost Dance and the Wounded Knee Massacre:
Although the exact number may never be known, more than 250 Lakota people lost their lives in the Wounded Knee massacre.12 It should be restated that the Ghost Dance is just that: a dance. The spiritual aim of the practice was to vacate white people from the continent, resurrect the buffalo, and to bring fallen relatives back to life. North America would be bathed in water and rid of settlers and sickness, and in their stead Natives would rise from their graves. In a piece titled Why Can’t Beauty be a Call to Action?, Candice Hopkins writes that the “Ghost Dance shares similarities with conventional apocalyptic narratives, particularly those stemming from Christianity, instead of bringing about a wholly new age, its practitioners were attempting to resurrect the past as a means to reconcile the problems associated with the present.”13 The most beautiful future imagined in the late 19th century by Native Americans was a vision of the past, a not-so-distant past, a past that seemed just fleeting, just out of grasp.
Excavation of Indian Mound, 1850. Painted by J.J. Egan in 1950 (accessed January 23, 2018)
Wovoka’s prophecy didn’t include a chariot in the Ghost Dance, no ark from which to gather bones for resurrection. Before Columbus, Native American bones were buried in elaborate earthworks, in mounds, on platforms, and in spirit houses. After Columbus, the bodies of the dead would be buried in mass graves, dug up and studied, grave-robbed and placed in museum collections. Wovoka couldn’t imagine another world worth having. Wovoka’s restorative mothership was the Earth itself.
Stop and... Let Me Ride!
Stars are the stuff of freedom. The Big Dipper constellation within Ursa Major can be used to find the North Star, and it was used by escaped slaves of the antebellum South to find freedom in the North, forever memorialized in songs, such as “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”14 Knowing that history, it is no stretch of the imagination to equate these stars to freedom and survival. Spaceships, chariots, and motherships may be a more complex metaphor. These vessels may represent spaces that exist beyond the reach of systemic oppression: reserved, safe spaces. They may be co-opted vessels as a foil to earthly bondage, as they are vehicles used as symbols for biblical freedom and heavenly pacts. 18th and 19th century desires for freedom can be seen in codes worked into Christian-themed hymns, spirituals, and stories. The River Jordan of the Bible became the Mississippi River; the promised land of the Hebrews became the freedom found in the North. The biblical chariot became a code for the means of freedom, flight, and the Underground Railroad. This chariot was not Ezekiel’s chariot, but that of another biblical prophet, Elijah. Elijah’s chariot is most likely the chariot that made lasting inroads into the Afrofuturists’ lexicon through the song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
Novgorodian 16th-century icon. Source
“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is not officially accredited with an author but is widely acknowledged to have been written by Wallace and Minerva Willis while enslaved in Choctaw territory in Oklahoma. The married couple bore the name of their slaveholder Britt Willis, a Choctaw man, who would periodically hire them out to a Choctaw boarding school for boys called the Spencer Academy. The school’s superintendent befriended the Willis family and arranged to have them sheltered in Old Boggy Depot during the Civil War.15 The accounts of how the hymns survived vary, but at some point they were transferred, most likely by the Spencer Academy’s superintendent, to the Fisk Jubilee Singers in Nashville who made the oldest known recording of the song.16
I tell this story here to weave two histories that are often presented as forever parallel without intersection. Native Americans participated in the slavery of Africans in North America as slaveholders. Native Americans were enslaved too, but in no way should this second fact diminish the significance of the first. After the Civil War, the freed slaves of tribes in Oklahoma were granted citizenship within the nations of their slaveholders. Wallace Willis was of African and Choctaw descent; after the Civil War, he and his family became Choctaw Freedmen. Some accounts of the Willis story have the family removed with Britt Willis from Mississippi in the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Ponca nations from their homeland. The misery of walking the death-strewn Trail of Tears is heartbreaking within itself. Imagining a man enslaved, singing and dreaming of a chariot taking him home while actively relocating and burying the dead along the way, the song takes on a more complex and intersected historic framework.17 The line “carry me home” could mean to freedom in the north or back to Mississippi in the east or to heaven as traditionally understood.
Where the Willises would have placed their home under other circumstances is uncertain, but their Sweet Chariot is a space set apart, not a fixed point, reservation, or prison. Their chariot is a transitional space, a space of freedom and self determination, a space that George Clinton, of Parliament Funkadelic, identified and made actual. The catchiest line from the Parliament 1976 song “Mothership Connection (Star Child),” so recycled in music — “swing down, sweet chariot, stop and let me ride” — was a reference to the Willises’ spiritual and a metaphor for a spaceship on a Universal plane. George Clinton said as much in the 1996 documentary The Last Angel of History: “I had to find another place where they hadn’t perceived black people to be and that was on a spaceship.”18
Derailing the Chariots of the Gods?
As an artist of Ojibwe (Anishinaabe) descent, I find myself drawn to and inspired by things related to my ancestry. Traditionally, Anishinaabe believe that when a person dies, their spirit moves from the Earth to the moon before traveling the Milky Way. Our deaths are a new beginning, a freedom from our bodies, and a journey. The origin story of my people is also a celestial story. The name Bugonaygeshig translates to Hole in the Day, and it is the name of a historic chief among the Ojibwe living in Minnesota.19 There are many versions, but it is generally stated that the first human was lowered from the sky on a spider’s string through a hole in the day onto a large turtle’s back. The story is beautiful; it draws parallels to birth, but it doesn’t displace us, it doesn’t alienate us from our home. Citing human origin among the stars is as truthful as Carl Sagan calmly stating, “We’re made of star stuff.”
Often settler mentality not only wishes to dispossess subjugated and Indigenous people of their land and bodies, but also of our stories. We are called the Lost Tribes of Israel, while a Bering land bridge theory attempts to claim our origins.20 Our narratives are used against us to displace us, to discredit us, and our science is attributed to others, to of all things, space aliens. Indigenous people exercised a collective amount of humility and frustration abatement when the year 2012 came and went. Arrogant people, scientists, and skeptics hurled jokes and insults directed at what they didn’t know about the Mayan calendar, at what they assumed the end of the world would look like. The end of the world would not be in 2012, but it was never meant to be. Native people have survived the end of many world cycles. It came as no surprise that Indigenous knowledge, understood as a one-sentence axiom, would be willfully misunderstood.
Erich von Däniken. "Chariots of the Gods?", Effone Electronic Press (scan 2002) 1968.(accessed January 22, 2018)
Indigenous people speaking of our origins in terms of outer space presents an opportunity for those eager to displace us, happily citing what they feel are our own admissions. Erich von Däniken’s 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? was a manifesto for the ancient astronaut theory, a speculative theory which claims that the technology of the ancient world originated in extraterrestrials. Däniken’s “evidence” ranges from petroglyphs to the Egyptian pyramids, the Mayan calendar and the Nazca lines, all of which, he postulates, come from the technologically superior aliens’ interaction with ancient people of inferior intellect. The extraterrestrials are described in terms of race, and the book was heavily edited by the Nazi journalist and film producer Wilhelm "Utz" Utermann under a pen name. White supremacists often claim collective responsibility for art and science originating in Europe (see contemporary fascist group Identity Europa’s poster campaigns). To claim a false origin – to credit space aliens for the brilliance of, say, the Mayan calendar – is meant to alienate cultures of today from the wisdom of their ancestors passed down from time immemorial. On the profound intellect of the Mayan calendar, Däniken appeals to the prejudices of his readers and writes “it is difficult to believe that [the Mayan calendar] originated from a jungle people.” Some critics point out that the ancient astronaut theory espouses a bleak view of humanity in general, while others have noted that biases against the capabilities of ancient people are contained to those ancient people of color. After all, nobody postulates that aliens were whispering in Socrates’s ear. Despite its criticism, the ancient astronaut theory found a welcoming home in Science Fiction becoming a genre within itself found today on the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens, the opening shots of the film Prometheus (2012), and the list goes on and on.21
The ancient astronaut theory has permeated Science Fiction. Since Science Fiction has become the subtitle of texts on Futurism, I want to draw a sharp contrast between the ancient astronaut theory and elements of Indigenous and Afrofuturism that may seem to endorse it. First and foremost, Afrofuturism and Indigenous Futurisms should not seek to displace ancient intelligence, they do not try to impose epistemological breaks upon the histories of people of color,22 and thirdly, Afrofuturism and Indigenous Futurisms are not sub-genres of Science Fiction. There is nothing “sub” about these futurisms, and they do not serve under a dominant cultural view of Science Fiction. If Däniken’s book is sincerely asking if our creations were delivered by chariots of the gods, the Indigenous Futurists and Afrofuturists’ response should always be, “No, we built the pyramids.”
Decolonize the Future
My childhood was of the Jazz-concentrated variety. By high school, I found myself in possession of many Sun Ra albums and spent hours traveling the landscape of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew album cover art. I knew what Afrofuturism was the first time I heard the word, and can recall the first time I heard the word. Artist Ernest Arthur Bryant III and I were schoolmates and friends at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. In 2005 Bryant co-curated the exhibition AFROFUTURISM at The Soap Factory, an experimental art space in Minneapolis. The word was new to me then, but the aesthetics and theory was not. The exhibition was met with a word-soup review, where the history of slavery was hinted at through bizarre word choices.23 Although racialized as black, Bryant is Native American too, and I may have expressed to him my desire for Native people to have a voice under futurism as well. When Grace Dillon identified the term Indigenous Futurism in Walking the Clouds, I was waiting for it, perhaps too eager to find strength in numbers, to find a club or a place where my work had context outside of the anthropological collection. Now that we have the term, and it is well established,24 I no longer desire it as I once did. I liked it before I could visualize it. I liked it when it was a fiery chariot or thunderbird within my mind, something we all recognized but couldn’t name. As an artist I don’t want to make work from within a known vessel, I don’t want to fantasize about colonizing Mars, I don’t want to project myself into Star Wars, and I don’t want to go to the moon and travel the Milky Way until I am good and ready, until I die.
1 Racette, Sherry Farrell, and Candice Hopkins. Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years. Winnipeg: Plug In Editions, 2011.
2 Womack, Ytasha L. Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-fi and Fantasy Culture. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2013:16.
3 N. Scott Momaday, “The Man Made of Words,” in Indian Voices: First Convocation of American Indian Scholars. San Francisco: Indian Historian Press, 1970:55.
4 "ABOUT." We Are the Mutants. January 06, 2018 https://wearethemutants.com/about/ (accessed January 22, 2018).
5 "Space Is The Place.” Sun Ra 1974. YouTube. November 17, 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXriDeoisGA (accessed January 22, 2018).
6 "Space Is the Place: Screening and Potluck Dinner" event invitation, posted in, Decolonize This Place. http://www.decolonizethisplace.org/post/space-is-the-place (accessed January 22, 2018).
7 Full Lecture and Reading List from Sun Ra’s 1971 UC Berkeley Course. Open Culture. http://www.openculture.com/2014/07/full-lecture-and-reading-list-from-sun-ras-1971-uc-berkeley-course.html (accessed January 23, 2018).
8 Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Collected Writings Vol. III 1881-1882. Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, IL 1968:463.
9 Pearse, Adetonkunbo. The Mystique Factor in Dumas’s “Ark of Bones” in Black American Literature Forum Vol. 22, No. 2. Indiana State University Press, (Summer 1988):325.
11 Rifkin, Mark. Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination. Duke University Press, Durham, 217:129.
12 Samuel L. Russell, "Lakota Casualties at Wounded Knee" Army at Wounded Knee. Carlisle, PA: Russell Martial Research, 2015-2016, http://armyatwoundedknee.com/ (accessed January 22, 2018).
13 Candice Hopkins, “Why Can’t Beauty be a Call to Action?” in Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years. Winnipeg: Plug In Editions, 2011:66.
14 Joel Bresler. "Follow the Drinking Gourd" What the Lyrics Mean 2008-2012 http://www.followthedrinkinggourd.org/What_The_Lyrics_Mean.htm (accessed January 22, 2018).
15 Judith Michener, "Willis, Uncle Wallace and Aunt Minerva," The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, www.okhistory.org (accessed January 22, 2018).
16 Eversley, Melanie. "Story behind spiritual 'Sweet Chariot' emerges." USA Today. August 15, 2006. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/movies/news/2006-08-14-chariot_x.htm?csp=34 (accessed January 22, 2018).
18 "The Last Angel of History (1995)." YouTube. October 25, 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQ54DdUSwRk (accessed January 22, 2018).
19 "Bugonaygeshig." Wikipedia. December 22, 2017 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bugonaygeshig (accessed January 22, 2018).
20 Deloria Jr., Vine. Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact. Fulcrum Publishing, Colorado. 1997:67-91.
21 For an exhaustive list of Ancient Astronaut Theory in popular culture: "Ancient astronauts in popular culture" Wikipedia. January 20, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_astronauts_in_popular_culture (accessed January 22, 2018).
22 Cults, such as the Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, have promoted harmful and irresponsible theories that displace Indigenous people and African American histories.
23 Christopher Atkins. “Afrofuturism (Oops) Drops the Science” on mnartists.org. November 7, 2005. http://www.mnartists.org/article/afrofuturism-oops-drops-science (accessed January 24, 2018).
24 William Lempert. “Navajos on Mars” on Medium: Space and Anthropology September 21, 2015 https://medium.com/space-anthropology/navajos-on-mars-4c336175d945 (accessed January 24, 2018).