Disappearing Archives: Sun Ra and Henry Dumas, Recorded in Conversation

Harmony Holiday on Jazz, Poetry, and a Rare Record of Mythic Black Friendship

Poet and writer Henry Dumas and poet and pianist and mythscientist Sun Ra were allies and friends, a kind of kin. Dumas revered Sun Ra, trusted his streams of otherworldly testimony as prophetic, knew that he was not spewing rhetoric when he revealed beliefs like people don’t have any business being sick; people don’t have any business dying. Without fetishizing the past or turning it into an impossible dream, we must acknowledge that the intimacy of elective affinities within the Black Liberation Movements of the 1960s was deeper, more urgent and more rooted in the physical world than it is today in similar efforts. Black poets, musicians, and actors had to build their connections on encounter alone and every encounter seemed part of the gestation of aesthetic, moral, and political rebellion.

Dumas and Sun Ra met regularly. Amiri Baraka spoke to Sun Ra almost every day. Bud Powell stepped in between the police and Thelonious Monk during a typical night at The 5 Spot and Bud’s cognition was never the same after the police officer’s baton hit his head as punishment for his intervention between Monk and state violence. When Sun Ra wanted to communicate with Malcolm X he gave him some books on the nature of the omniverse and the occult.

Exchanges were physical, hand to hand, tactile, visceral, and love and combat flourished on a level that is unfathomable in this age, no matter how well we perform solidarity or longing. Our black Berninis with no stone, no statue to keep them on the ground, take flight in us as such fugitive forgetting of the phantom or fantasized but also actual encounter. This keeps us feeling haunted, where haunt is the lack of evidence of accompaniment for a felt and undeniable presence. We dig up our undead, our living, breathing, archives, to resist these haunts and their limitless invasions of our psyches, which persist until we invite them in through the front door.

Dumas enters through the front door of this Ark and brings Sun Ra with him. He took the initiative to record an interview with Sun Ra during a routine rehearsal at the legendary New York jazz venue Slug’s Saloon, circa 1966. The recording we have, 24 cheerfully eerie minutes playing over some of Ra’s space music, sounds like an interrogation during an abduction made more vivid by Sun Ra’s generous refusal to placate normative ideas in delivering his own interpretations of the human condition, which he feels is in utter disrepair. Henry Dumas questions Ra like an entranced acolyte and Sun Ra responds bluntly, elaborately, with a leaned-in glow in his tonal approach to everyday speech, and a calm cheshire smile, beguiling in his certainty about the sources of our collective lying to ourselves, our fugitive black myths. Rather than editorialize every detail of their conversation, I’ll paraphrase and transcribe from memory the soothing ancient-to-the-future paradigm that emerges from the discussion, which is more like a lecture delivered by Ra, more like a messenger telegramming his transgressive ideas before they are stolen from his mind by the same deception they suggest is responsible for the stolen lives all over the globe.

Hearing Sun Ra in conversation with one of the best writers the US has known is a lot like hearing him improvise with John Gilmore.

Negro means “knee-crow” for Ra, we learn right away when Dumas inquires about Black America and its troubles and troubadours to open the conversation. Many of Sun Ra’s ideas begin with his personally invented and deeply researched etymologies. For him words are maps that help establish equations and misusing language or misrepresenting its origins produces such entangled imbalance that only tonal communication is possible under such circumstances. His music’s purpose is to reach the bloodstream in advance of the corrupt thought patterns disseminated by words that have drifted from their intended meanings in both tone and use. This goes over into the raven Ra continues before reciting some Edgar Allen Poe, gloriously, in his needling Birmingham drawl quoth the raven nevermore.

Blackness in impossible flight, refugees-noir charged with the duty of endless re-arrival, is the idea. That and the doom therein, the way the specter of death or undoing looms over those who accept and internalize that they are so-called “negroes,” thus becoming the crow, the singer who announces casualty, the bird no one wants at the window. Ra goes on to explain the relationship between negroes and necropolis, proclaiming that Black America is a city of the dead wherein they don’t really need anything because they’re complete over in the realm of the dead. He deflects Hank’s continued inquiries about lack or what black people need and don’t have with shifts in perspective like this, but Ra does not stray obliviously into that completion/incompletion binary that would force him to divulge his views on eternity and the creation myth explicitly, instead he repeatedly brings it back to karmic cycles of the living, guards his secret understanding of the other side of time as he calls it.

Hank asks why Africa is in such turmoil if it’s a grand civilization and Sun Ra speedily reminds him that people on the continent had a hand in selling blacks into slavery, that karma is on them on this side of time, that there were some very important souls who got sold into bondage as property, and that balance will not return to the planet until those spirits return to their rightful place in the cosmos and evacuate the west and take back what is theirs. Dumas is searching for solace, some kind of reassurance that we can all be redeemed. Sun Ra promises no such prospect, not unless we start paying closer attention to what we call ourselves and how we handle received titles and roles, as well as received geographies. He’s warning Dumas and us without being excessively literal, that we must speak a new language, find a new frequency, access ourselves anew from that alternate destiny.

Sun Ra spends the 24 riddling minutes of this recording telling Henry Dumas why we are a destiny, a meant-to-be people, who will inevitably have to return to our natal land as to our natal language, expressing that these returns are one and the same event horizon. Take words my people and return to me, Sun Ra quotes later in lecture, but insinuates here with Dumas. The glory of Sun Ra as improvisor and scholar is that he can tap into almost any system of knowledge and reinvent it for the purpose of his vision. What he does in his music with uncanny virtuosity and his signature capacity for what he terms Spontaneous Simplicity, moving from blues to space jazz to avant-gardism to doo-wop and back with no sense of whirlwind—he accomplishes this swooping through territory with equal agility in verbal conversation.

About two years after this recording was made, Dumas is killed by the NYPD in a case of  “mistaken identity.”

So-called jazz music is the art of conversation translated and elevated to its pure tones. This is why many jazz men and women speak and write in cadences as powerful as their song. Hearing Sun Ra in conversation with one of the best writers the US has known is a lot like hearing him improvise with John Gilmore. Ra renders the standards they are improvising on unrecognizable, new, his own, and it is Dumas’s duty to decipher them anyways and then go back and shred them on his own as the proof that his skill is in his ability to recognize Sun Ra in the first place.

What do you think the problem is with the Black man? Dumas continues, unconsoled. Well the first problem is he doesn’t see me yet, Ra affirms. Dumas has solved the first problem in himself. He sees and believes Sun Ra wholeheartedly. This conversation turned LP spirals up in the tempo of Dumas’ quiet epiphany about this fact. What Dumas sees, even in the company of it, even as he is accompanied by Sun Ra as force of will and spirit, it haunts him, it’s clear there’s a kind of dejected feeling of isolation in Dumas’s line of questioning, a chanting wish for companionship his probing tone. He wants Sun Ra to say something he can use to convince everyday people of a deeper power in the omniverse but Ra keeps spewing shimmering oblique strategies with no short cuts, ravens or nevers and no haven for the lazy-hearted philistine in between.

What Sun Ra is certain of, knows in his bones and blood, Dumas is taking his word for it in a kind of self-hypnosis, and there is inevitable longing in the once removed position of student of another man’s certainty, it’s easier and safer to be the one who knows than the one who believes the one who knows. Dumas is vulnerable, he now harbors cravings for which he has no natural name, he is now in need of a new name to match his bending frequency, he is beside himself.

The final question Dumas asks Sun Ra before the recording cuts out is what is the name of the supreme being? The tape ends abruptly like it’s fallen off a jagged cliff. About two years after this recording was made, Dumas is killed by the NYPD in a case of 

“mistaken identity.” On the night he is killed, Sun Ra convinces him to give up his gun, he disarms him. Dumas goes to the subway station in Harlem and he’s shot and killed by police. The secrets he wanted Ra to divulge by proxy he now knows as another stolen black life sent to the other side for vigilance, deliverance. The thief who stole Henry Dumas’s days, turned him into a saint who now guards our hidden legacies and this recording is evidence of where he was sent. In West African tradition, the griot or town crier, because he cannibalizes his people’s history in order to tell it, must assimilate it, eat it alive, is not buried with other members of the community when he dies but instead put in a tree to be consumed by maggots.

This record is evidence of levels of self-love and self-interest that we are rarely privy to within black social interaction.

This kind half crucifixion of a loved entity marked Dumas, killed at 33, as if the promised outcome of his line of inquiry into the known unknowns of Ra’s lexicon. The admonishing, almost halting, tone in Sun Ra’s voice as he answers, which is unlike the alacrity in his voice during countless other interviews, is paced as if to give Hank some time to be sure he wants to walk the line he’s walking. Sun Ra sounds like he’s worried about what communicating beyond the recipient’s capacity to conceive might mean and he does not want his friend to become a victim of his morbid ecstatic curiosity. Dumas on the other hand, is too earnest, too sincere to resist himself, he is beside himself and he marches with his shadow into that abyss of forgone conclusions that might require leaving the planet to evidence. Sun Ra has already left the planet according to his personal mythos, he was abducted at a young age and taken to Saturn. His information is coded with that experience and Dumas is a man very close to earth searching for a knowledge that belongs to another world. He must depart to find it.

*

Coming forth by day

Sun Ra wanted us to acknowledge that there is no death, that life is endless. At concerts he would beseech enthralled spectators, asking will you give up your death for me? When, in this recording of his fireside chat with Henry Dumas, he assures we’re already complete in the realm of the dead he is saying, in a way, that eternity awaits, this plane is remedial in comparison to that knowledge, there’s nothing we lack but understanding of that.

He is explaining that death is a western concept we must outgrow if we really expect to be among those who see and hear and know how to listen to Sun Ra. He knows that the Egyptian Book of the Dead, as it’s mistranslated in the west, is really called the book of coming forth by day, of the boat that carries the sun, in its natal tongue. It is a book of endless revivification, it does not acknowledge the life/death binary the west obsesses over, but instead establishes that there is either sun or a limpid accursed sunlessness, enlightenment to the life-giving force or a forest of terrors, and we must seek the sun, Ra, Re, that ravening arrow on the way to never, the saturnine realm Sun Ra governs. If body, mind, soul, and spirit were aligned on the same plane, language would reflect the eternal truths that belong to music and poetry and we would all be coming forth by day in harmonic unison. Beneath his matter-of-fact responses to Dumas’s naive but sincere questions, is the subterfuge of that mythos, its impatience with misinterpretation and its inability to be grasped without being experienced.

This conversation we’re lucky to get to eavesdrop on, these two black poets learning how to override the raven by riding it, is a blatant a rite of passage.

I’m painting pictures, Ra tells Dumas, hoping to make vivid the impossible he is bringing forth by day, resurrecting from the graveyard of the west as our interminable Black future. This conversation we’re lucky to get to eavesdrop on, these two black poets learning how to override the raven by riding it, is a blatant a rite of passage, a reminder of what it takes to come forth into the light of the worlds, part of that being a record of a mundane day announced to eternity as a reminder that privately, in the endless underworld of black social life, we are organized, we are not dysfunctional, we are the raven calling back and forth to one another in the most daily way, creatures of ritual, delivering the most prelinguistic, hyperliterate, untransliterable calls with resonance so deep even the casual instances can be studied as dynamic compositions, and never die.

Even as the maggots eat the flesh of the griot, we keep talking, giving of ourselves defiantly, coming together furtively and unapologetically saying yes to yesterday, to accompaniment, to the disavowal of false curses, to being devoured by our own songs, transcending our haunts with our horrors until we become the heroes we seek in effigy. We, out here in the diaspora waiting to be cannibalized and lied on, are making conversations, new languages, and converting them to tone then song then eating the flesh of our music as this record.

Henry Dumas and Sun Ra’s The Ankh and the Ark is a record of a ritual sacrifice, of two black men agreeing to give up their deaths for one another in order to record a moment in their shared daily lives. The toll of the archive, in this case, was the disappearance of another black heroic subject, the toll of the ark was the ankh, the symbol had to become functional and improvise the boat as human vessel to carry to Sun forth by day. Eternalized evidence of the enduring tenderness of black male friendship is the real heart of this rare, nearly mythic record. They try and incite rivalries throughout the tribe and we need this actual proof of our love for one another, or self-governed connectedness, our loyal and attentive listening to every ramble and murmur to inspire continued solidarity.

This record is evidence of levels of self-love and self-interest that we are rarely privy to within black social interaction. To listen to it is to remember why we keep a record even when it seems we are inundated with data. There are moments that must not go missing in orbit, interactions that must vibrate beyond our capacity to comprehend them intellectually, rhythms that we need in the universe to help us cohere as a culture, moments that we must immortalize without knowing why, and Sun Ra reciting Edgar Allen Poe while Henry Dumas awaits his new neverending black vessel, is many of those moments, it finds us through the ghettofabulous echolocation of the Black Ark and we use it to transcend the purely symbolic and remember the importance of rituals, of small daily acts, of asking the right questions, of real conversation.

Harmony Holiday
Harmony Holiday
Harmony Holiday is a poet, dancer, archivist, mythscientist and the author of Negro League Baseball (Fence, 2011), Go Find Your Father/ A Famous Blues (Ricochet 2014) and Hollywood Forever (Fence, 2015). She was the winner of the 2013 Ruth Lily Fellowship and she curates the Afrosonics archive, a collection of rare and out-of print-lps highlighting work that joins jazz and literature through collective improvisation.





More Story
In the Aftermath of a Plane Crash Translated by Jennie Erikson. Each moment was different from the one before, but each had its own unique threat, its own unmistakable...