William SitesFeb 24, 2022
Sun Ra's Chicago
Afrofuturism and the City
University of Chicago Press 2021
Poet and jazz band musician Sun Ra, born in 1914, is one of the most wildly prolific and unfailingly eccentric figures in the history of music. Renowned for extravagant performances in which his band “Arkestra” appeared in neo-Egyptian garb, this keyboardist and bandleader also espoused an interstellar cosmology and that the planet Saturn was his true home. In his book, Sun Ra’s Chicago: Afrofuturism and the City (University of Chicago Press, 2021), Dr. William Sites contextualizes this visionary musician in his home on earth—specifically in Chicago’s South Side, where from 1946 to 1961 Sun Ra lived and relaunched his career.
The postwar South Side was a hotbed of unorthodox religious and cultural activism: Afrocentric philosophies flourished, storefront prophets sold “dream-book bibles,” and Elijah Muhammad was building the Nation of Islam. It was also an unruly musical crossroads where the man then still known as Sonny Blount drew from an array of intellectual and musical sources—from radical nationalism, revisionist Christianity, and science fiction to jazz, blues, Latin dance music, and pop exotica—all this to construct a philosophy and performance style that imagined a new identity and future for African Americans. Sun Ra’s Chicago shows that late twentieth-century Afrofuturism emerged from a deep, utopian engagement with the city—and that by excavating the postwar black experience of Sun Ra’s South Side milieu, we can come to see the possibilities of urban life in new ways.
Dr. William Sites is Associate Professor in the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice at the University of Chicago. His fields of interest include urban and community studies, political economy, social movements, immigration, race, culture, social theory, and historical methods.