Names changed to initials and location withheld, just in case…
I was visiting T, a buddy of mine at RPI, and our mutual friend D gave us a call. “Sun Ra’s playing tonight; do you want to go?”
I was only vaguely aware of Sun Ra and his Arkestra; since that first time I’ve seen him twice (and won’t ever see him again, as he died in 1993), but if the order of performances were reversed, I’d have still been unprepared for the experience of that first night. I never saw a performance like that again
Sun Ra was playing in the basement of a (black) Baptist Church, and there was a set of dancers with him. The music that night was almost pure percussion, including the electric piano that Sun Ra himself was playing. Hell, even the saxophone that joined in later seemed like a percussion instrument.
The first two dancers were women, dressed in what seemed to be an array of scarves, their arms outstretched to either side and undulating; if you’d told me that they’d had their bones replaced with rubber I’d have considered it possible. Later they were joined by a male dancer, who had feathers attached in what I vaguely remember as being called the “Rooster Dance,” which has Haitian or Cuban roots. I remember him as also playing the saxophone.
The overall impact was powerful and breathtaking, and that led to a bit of a problem. The three of us had consumed a goodly bit of the ceremonial herb on the drive over, and the night was hot, the church basement even hotter, with a ventilation system not meant to accommodate the crush of people there.
These constitute a good way to set off an anxiety attack, and T had one. I sensed him trembling and saw the look on his face, so I wasn’t surprised when he said, “I’ve got to get some air.” He had a bit of trouble standing, so I took his elbow and guided him outside.
Once outside, we walked around corner of the building and we both lay flat on our backs on the cool of the concrete porch at the front of the church while T babbled a little. After a little bit, it dawned on me that he’d just had a racial panic attack.
Okay, the church basement was full of blacks; other than the three of us, there were maybe four other whites in a room that probably held nearly a hundred people. T was having trouble breathing because of the drugs, the heat, and the stifling air. But he was a middle-class white boy from the suburbs and he’d never been in a situation like that and the fear funneled through his imagination and produced jungle stereotype images straight out of Hollywood B movies.
He knew it was dumb; he knew it wasn’t real; he knew his mind was playing tricks on him. But panic is panic and he was smart enough to make an orderly retreat.
And let’s get clear about the other thing: what I had going for me was experience. I knew full well that the people in the basement or the church were the same people (metaphorically speaking), who had cheered our speeches at the Elks Club in Nashville, the same ones I’d ridden the bus with three times a weeks for ten years when I was younger, the ones I’d talked to at the bowling alley when I was younger still. If I’d had a panic attack it would have focused on something different, not because of some intrinsic virtue of mine, but simply because my imagination throws up different panic images. There are classes of people that are scary to me, but deep down inside, I feel that black people are my friends.
So T and I talked for a bit, and then I started making with the funny. Laughter is a good way to remind the body how to breathe, and stoned guys are an easy audience. And when I need to, I can be a pretty funny guy. So a few minutes later, T and I were laughing like fools on the porch of a Baptist Church, and a while after that we went back inside to watch the rest of the show, from the doorway, where you could still feel the hint of a breeze from the dark and blessed night.
And just so no one forgets the important part, that night, in the basement of a Baptist Church, Sun Ra put on one hell of a show.