The Book Cooks
Mrs. Stowe agreed with the observations of her time that, beyond a certain age, usually the early teens, Negro children ceased to advance under schooling. Bostonians told Lyell in 1847 that they segregated Negro pupils because they could not keep pace with whites after the age of fourteen. An eminent Virginian scholar once candidly attributed this alleged fact to “the advent of puberty and sexual development”; it was well known in North Africa and the Middle East, he said, “that the negro eunuch was a vast improvement in shrewdness and general intelligence over the unaltered black.” – J.C.Furnas, Goodbye to Uncle Tom
I would like to think of Sun Ra as the most celebrated asexual in history. There are many militant gay thinkers who would argue that any claim of asexuality must be read as a self-loathing fiction masking a deeply repressed homosexual identity. In his highly personal discourse on gay artists in popular music, John Gill criticizes Sun Ra for being “out about so many things ... but not about his sexual orientation.” Sun Ra’s gender presence was in fact softened and obscured in a way that might suggest to some a gay male identity. I am not the first person, for example, to see photos of the late gay disco vocalist Sylvester in a metallic sequined skull cap and think, wow, that dude sure looks like Sun Ra.
Shortly after arriving in New York in 1962, Sun Ra began recording much of his music at Variety Recording Studios in midtown Manhattan. The studio was owned by Fernando (Fred) Vargas, a sound engineer, and Warren Allen Smith who was a public school teacher from Connecticut who had majored in philosophy at the University of Chicago. The two met in 1950, and were lovers and companions until Vargas’s Death in 1998. Variety became an important site of production for Sun Ra, and his relationship with its ownership team was a cordial and extended one. Variety was eventually instrumental in helping Sun Ra create some distance from his long-time Chicago-based business partner and Thmei Research cofounder Alton Abraham, with whom Sun Ra’s relationship had begun to fray.
In a 2008 interview, Smith reflected on the nearly thirty years that he and Vargas worked closely with Sonny. He recounts the large (25-30 piece) ensembles that Sun Ra would summon to rehearse during the day, and record deep into the night, with musicians frequently sleeping on the studio floor to avoid hotel expenses. Immediately following the sessions, Sun Ra and Vargas would retire to the control room for marathon editing sessions. Smith emphasizes the long hours Vargas and Sun Ra spent in close quarters to suggest nothing more than the confidence built, and opportunity for candid discussions, while cutting tape. Smith was skeptical of Sonny’s professed asexuality. “I don’t believe that something like that exists. Everybody has his or her sexual orientation, be it secret or open ... I don’t think I ever talked about his sex life, but I am pretty sure that he knew Fernando and I were a gay couple. It made no difference for him, so he was not like a religious fundamentalist who would object to work with people like us, you know. He was just the kind of a guy, if Fernando was drinking wine, he wouldn’t have wine. I heard that none of the guys was ever using drugs. At least they didn’t do it in the studio, but we did have them sleeping overnight. He seemed to be with a pretty clean group.” Smith describes his partner as an outgoing, unreservedly gay man, “a good gossip” who would “tell stories about the pope’s testicles.” Freddie was, in fact, apparently fascinated by Sun Ra’s own medical condition – an undescended testicle that was the source of chronic discomfort. “Fernando and I had a very open relationship without taboos. We would discuss anything.” When pressed, however, Smith’s lover and business partner would offer nothing to clarify the matter of Sun Ra’s sexuality nor to refute his claims of being nonsexual.
Celibacy (pre-meditated sexual abstinence) is not the same as asexuality (absence of sexual attraction). In fact, the two cannot coexist in the same individual at the same time. Asexuality is not pansexuality. That is, it is not the case that the asexual has allowed his or her erotic attraction to migrate out of any gendered human category and onto the world at large. It is not, therefore, a subcategory of sexual fetish. It is like a hunger that is common in others, but that some do not have. Some people like chocolate, some vanilla, some any of a thousand other flavors, but as much as we can appreciate the widespread popularity of ice cream, we can certainly agree that there must be some people who never crave it and some who are repulsed by any thought of eating frozen dairy confections.
Without any substantiated claims of Sun Ra ever having acted as a sexual person over the course of his many decades in public life, we should take him at his word: “I have never been able to think of sex as a part of my life though I have tried to but just wasn’t interested.” Among his many other unsolicited diagnoses, Sonny came here to assert that the hokey-pokey is certainly not what it’s all about. Ra saw sexual attraction and fulfillment as a “gimmick” and an anti-discipline and, if for no other reason, he was just not going to be bothered. Note that, unlike the ascetic acting within a religious covenant who renounces sex as sinful or impure, Sonny saw it as a colossal distraction from his life-consuming mission. Time spent copulating was time better spent composing, and the time spent chasing sex? Well that was just a completely tragic waste of valuable time. Not Sonny.
In an overcrowded world where human sexuality is deeply conflicted in so many painfully demonstrable ways, are we not justified in seeing asexuality as a social frontier of great importance and promise? If sex has become a scorched battle-ground of rape, abuse, exploitation, commodification, disease and commerce, is not the asexual a refreshing beacon of detachment? Capitalism discovered early (very early) that sex sells and everything sells better with sex. And under this free market rubric, our precious children have been sexualized in the name of fashion, thus shortening the innocence of child-hood, occasionally obliterating it in the most bitter of ways. The late Jon Benet Ramsey looked like a sex doll, because her parents dressed her up to look like a sex doll so that she could compete in openly publicized events where other parents also dressed their daughters to look like sex dolls. The end result of all this competitive, free market sex is a borderline neurotic, sex-addicted, sex-deprived individual awash in a 24-hour-a-day, pornoramic mediascape that uses sexual reference (high and low brow) the way newspapers once used ink. There is something woefully unjust about a culture that offers unlimited opportunities to think about sex while only allowing a much smaller number of tightly scripted and normatively delimited opportunities for sexual fulfillment. This is a prescription for inescapable and pervasive frustration, which is, of course, always where the seller wants to meet the buyer. It is also a recipe for countless reported and unreported disasters of a very personal type.
Knowing that Sun Ra was an asexual instantly forced his interpretations of otherwise ordinary love songs to be heard as the seeker’s devotional cry to the object of his devotion. In just this way, Sun Ra could inject a sublime thrill into such quaint standards as “Beautiful Love” and “I Dream Too Much,” elevating them into a celestial myth space far beyond earthly romance. Sonny’s queer lack of sexuality was a part of his innocence and a critical signifier of his core message and the core message of any renunciative path: You’d be quite surprised at what you’re capable of doing without. I have heard from Damon Choice and others that Sun Ra used to turn to his Arkestra and declare: Leaders will ask you to give up your lives for them, I ask only if you’ll give up your Death for me? Nothing that is essentially incorporated into human being – not sex, not Death, not religion, or money – nothing that we are or have been is beyond evaporation as our ontology catches up with our time. And if a brother is willing to make that point – to demonstrate it, perform it – by forgoing sexual pleasure, then I believe that must be one very important point to make.
©2014 Thomas Stanley