Sun Ra: ‘I’m Everything and Nothing’

Sun Ra Space II, New York City, 1978
Ming Smith/Aperture
Ming Smith: Sun Ra Space II, New York City, 1978

Literature was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him. That the poor little fellow because he lied too often was finally eaten up by a real beast is quite incidental. But here is what is important. Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.

—Vladimir Nabokov

Let me tell you a story about a boy. He was born on May 22, 1914, in Birmingham, Alabama. His mother, Ida Blount, was a waitress. Her favorite performer was a vaudeville stage magician named Black Herman, who did all manner of tricks: levitation, rabbit conjure, escape. The highlight of his act was a ghastly, blasphemous miracle: he would get buried alive in “Black Herman’s Private Graveyard,” then be exhumed three days later to make a triumphant return to the stage. Ida admired Black Herman so much that she named her son after him.

With such a bold, phantasmagoric performer for a namesake, it’s perhaps no surprise that young Herman Poole Blount became a musical prodigy. By age twelve, he was sight-reading piano music and composing his own. As a teenager, he could reproduce from memory the big-band concerts that came through Birmingham, led by greats like Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. While attending the segregated Industrial High School, Herman joined a handful of jazz and R&B bands, including one led by his biology teacher, Ethel Harper. When Harper left the group, Herman took it over and renamed it with his nickname—the Sonny Blount Orchestra—for the rest of the tour. An honor-roll student, Sonny got a scholarship in 1936 to study music education at the Alabama State Agricultural and Mechanical Institute for Negroes.

Sonny was on his way to becoming a professional musician. Then something intervened:

These space men contacted me. They wanted me to go to outer space with them…. I’d have to go up with no part of my body touching outside of the beam…. It looked like a giant spotlight shining down on me, and I call it transmolecularization, my whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up. Now, I call that an energy transformation because I wasn’t in human form. I thought I was there, but I could see through myself.

Then I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn…. They teleported me, and I was down there on that stage with them. They wanted to talk with me. They had…

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