Shefon Nachelle


black utopia: reclaiming outer space

April 11, 2019
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The Disney theme song, “It’s A Small World (After All)” is a Cold War-era lullaby of affirmation, a reminder that despite borders and missiles, we’re all global neighbors and citizens. For some, this depiction of the world as a quaint neighborhood (after all) brings solace. It has always disturbed me.

The world is small — too small. Whereas our histories and traumas in this world feel too big to move beyond, while the planet feels too small to fit new worlds and ways of being inside of it. On “Down With The Clique,” Solange sings, “We were falling in the deep, bathe in the delight. We were rolling up the street, chasing the divine.” This lyric operates as a type of Negro spiritual for me, proof that I’m not alone with most of the work and delight I take part in here on Earth, being a journey to escape Earth rather than to reform Earth. I roll up the street with the intentions of chasing the divine, even if I am only met with a bodega and a stray cat. My Black imagination is often thinking about transcending this planet, more than revolutionizing people and convincing them that humans can’t be illegal or alien or slave or nigger. I daydream about leaving this small world and entering the big universe.

Space has been the place for a lot of Black intellectual and creative thought, when billed with the task of imagining Black freedoms. It was Ray Bradbury — a celebrated white speculative fiction author — that first pushed me to think of Blackness as both a community of people and a culture that does not have to be tethered to planet Earth.

Bradbury’s short story, “The Other Foot” from his classic book of stories, The Illustrated Man, tells the story of Black Americans going to Mars to start a better, less oppressed life — sans white people and whiteness. This plan has led to a peaceful life for Black people on Mars, until a spacecraft crash happens, and lands a white astronaut. Here is where the Black people on Mars must decide what to do with the white man: Do they integrate him into the society, do they kill him, or do they return the oppression they experienced on Earth on to this white man as a type of historical-intergalactic revenge? Without ruining the conclusion, the story opened my mind to the idea of Black people finding new life in spaces and places beyond this planet.

Visionary jazz musician and afrofuturist, Sun Ra said, “If you can develop an atomic bomb, I’m sure you can develop an altered destiny.” This has been the greater duty of Black people on Earth, even when engaged in cosmic fantasy there has been a loyalty to Earth — namely America. There has been an unwritten law that the most oppressed and brutalized in history are saddled with the responsibility for assisting in changing the country for the better.

In America, our ideas of freedom were borne out of the enslavement of African people. It was abolitionists like Fredrick Douglass and Harriet Tubman who articulated and demonstrated for America what freedom could be and look like, using their own lives as examples. Not just for those who were enslaved, but those doing the enslaving and those witnessing. The concept of togetherness was created out of the intentional separation of Black people from white people in the Jim Crow era. It was activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks that forced us and conceptualized in real time what togetherness looks like — and what it costs. And to be clear: it costs lives. Not just lives taken, but lives that inherited a commitment to create togetherness instead of other things that a life can be dedicated to. It’s almost become foreign to believe that Black people have not been put on this Earth solely to be a pedagogy to those Americans who use domination as a way to experience “freedom.” These are tasks we inherited by proxy of wanting to reach a freedom where our lives are not overdetermined by violence and domination culture. This makes the reaction to transcend America — and truly this planet soaked in colonization and anti-Blackness — reasonable, and to the empathetic heart, that may not be Black, understandable and expected.

Where cinematic and visual landscapes that artists who bend the realms of reality and often deal with the outer space like the album covers of Roy Ayers and the films by Sun Ra, soundscapes have filled those voids.

As a teenager longing for something more, it was the literature of Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany that informed my concept of worlds where domination was broken and my Blackness’ sole purpose wasn’t to correct the toxicity borne from whiteness, but to take on my own heart’s mission — whatever that might be, but it wouldn’t be to fix the evils that are produced by living in the imperialist white supremacist capitalist-patriarchy.

It was soundscapes created by artists like Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra and Rotary Connection that were my meditations on and soundtrack to my fascination with space. Sun Ra’s Arkestra cooing, “The sky is a sea of darkness when there is no sun to light the way,” was more a lullaby than “It’s A Small World.” It was an affirmation that the sky — the grander universe and everything it holds — would be a sea of darkness or Blackness, or a reflection of me, if the sun were to be dipped in Black or disappear. This was an affirmation that no matter how ostracized I might feel on Earth, we’re swimming in a sea Blackness.

As we get closer to space and the phenomenons that exist there — including, this week, seeing a black hole with more clarity than ever before — the longing to space travel away from the things I inherited have only intensified. It might feel comforting for some to recognize that this is a small world, but it preserves my own sanity and radicalism to remember that this is a big black ass universe after all.