My aim in this post is to ask a question I can’t answer. Does there exist an African-American UFO tradition, parallel to but distinct from the UFOlogy of white America?
If so, what are its contours? Its meaning?
I found myself thinking about this after posting two links on my Fan Page last week. One was to an article on huffingtonpost.com, dated September 18, entitled “Big Honors for UFO Congress.” The 2015 “Guinness World Records,” it seems, has introduced “UFO conventions” as a new category for competition. The honor of being the biggest convention goes to the International UFO Congress, held last February in Scottsdale, Arizona (a Phoenix suburb).
Some photos from that Congress are included with the HuffPost piece. Take a look at them–the faces are exclusively Caucasian. Not a single black person.
All right, you say: this is Arizona. There aren’t too many blacks within convenient travel distance. (Something like 5% of the population of Phoenix is African-American, slightly higher than the state as a whole.) Yet I think you’ll find the same thing at pretty much any UFO convention, going back to the First Congress of Scientific UFOlogists in Cleveland 50 years ago–which I attended–and the Giant Rock contactee conventions of the 1950s. In this country, UFOlogy is mostly a white avocation.
“One of the first impressions to strike casual observers of the UFO scene,” wrote religious-studies scholar Brenda Denzler in 2001, “is the fact that the UFO community (in the United States) is overwhelmingly white and male. … When I questioned one African-American conference-goer about the lack of active interest shown by the black community, he gave a short chuckle and said that he supposed the reason was that black people had enough trouble in their lives already without getting involved in something ‘crazy’ like UFOs.”
(It’s sort of like what I was told 50 years ago when I first visited Israel, a teenage UFOlogist eager to explore the Israeli UFO scene, which at the time didn’t exist. No, we don’t have UFOs here–“we are a practical people.”)
Yet there’s a disconnect, and it’s underscored by the other Web story I linked to last week.
This one appeared on September 17 in the online edition of The Final Call, the official organ of the Nation of Islam (a.k.a. “Black Muslims”) as reorganized by Louis Farrakhan in 1977 after the death of the Nation’s long-time leader Elijah Muhammad. The article begins:
“Unlike any national or world leader, the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan is quite distinguished in that he is virtually the only voice who has publicly and consistently expressed his connection and experiences with so-called UFOs.”
The writer is Ilia Rashad Muhammad, author of a book published one year ago, UFOs and the Nation of Islam: The Source, Proof, and Reality of the Wheels. The piece is entitled “September 17–A Divine Sign of Min. Farrakhan’s position,” and refers to Farrakhan’s experience on the night of September 17, 1985, with the “Mother Wheel” or “Mother Plane” central to the eschatology of the Nation of Islam.
The encounter took place in Tepoztlan, Mexico. Farrakhan described it more than four years afterward to an interviewer from the Washington Post:
“The Honorable Elijah Muhammad taught us for nearly 60 years that these planes exist. You call them Unidentified Flying Objects, they’re not that to us. They’re referred to in the writings of Ezekiel the Prophet as the wheel within a wheel that was seen by Ezekiel in a vision 595 years before Jesus was born.
“Now that as a backdrop I said, having believed of course, that these wheels exist … I was down in Mexico and I had a vision, and experience where I was carried up into not just the little wheel but into the major wheel which is, as the Honorable Elijah Muhammad taught us, a half mile by a half mile, a huge mechanical object that is above our heads. … I was carried up in a vision into that wheel and I, in a room not unlike this, but with a speaker in the center, heard the voice of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad just like you are hearing my voice today.”
That’s from the Post for March 1, 1990, as quoted in an excellent undergraduate paper written by Andrea R. for a seminar on UFO abductions and heavenly ascensions that I taught at the University of North Carolina in fall 1996. (I’m not using Andrea’s last name because I don’t want to identify her without her permission.)
Professor Michael Lieb provides a rich and provocative analysis of Farrakhan’s Tepoztlan experience in his book Children of Ezekiel: Aliens, UFOs, The Crisis of Race, and the Advent of the End Time (1998). Like Andrea, he speaks of Farrakhan as an “abductee.” I’m not clear, though, whether Farrakhan used that term for his experience, or whether it’s an import from the categories of white-American UFOlogy.
For Ilia Rashad Muhammad, the author of last week’s Final Call article, the date September 17 is crucial. Basing himself on the “New Living Translation” of the Bible, he points out that September 17 was “the sixth month, fifth day of the month” on which Ezekiel (8:1) had his vision of transport to Jerusalem. (I’m not too sure how the NLT came up with that equation.)
Not only that, but …
“One of the most famous international UFO abduction cases occurred on this date 12 years after Minister Farrakhan’s vision. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, President of the Republic of Kalmykia in the Russian Federation from 1993 to 2010, made international headlines when he reported being abducted by people from a circular UFO. … His encounter with these people occurred on September 17, 1997 while he was residing in his high-rise Moscow apartment. … ‘They took me from my apartment and we went aboard their ship … We flew to some kind of star. They put a spacesuit on me, told me many things and showed me around. They wanted to demonstrate that UFOs do exist.'”
Approve or disapprove of Louis Farrakhan, this man–the moving spirit behind the 1995 Million Man March in Washington–hasn’t exactly been a marginal figure in the African-American community. Nor was he the first to make a correlation between “what you call Unidentified Flying Objects” and the Nation of Islam’s aerial “wheels.” That goes back to the 1950s, according to Michael Lieb.
Lieb quotes from a 1962 book by E. U. Ussien-Edom: “Two Muslim Sisters reported that another Muslim had told them of seeing a ‘huge machine’ in the skies on a Tuesday evening during the summer of 1959. When such things happen, Muslims alert their neighbors and friends either by word of mouth or by telephone. Stories about ‘flying saucers’ are taken seriously.”
The wonderful students in my 1996 UFO seminar taught me other things about UFOs in African-American culture. Andrea wrote in her paper about musician George Clinton, who “was driving down a deserted Toronto highway during the wee hours, with former James Brown bassist William ‘Bootsy’ Collins, when a bright beam of light above the sky struck the car three times before disappearing into the darkness above. From that moment on, the two felt they had been commissioned from a higher order, the ‘mothership,’ to let loose the true power of funk.” (Quoted by Andrea from S.H. Fernando, The New Beats.)
“I am the mothership connection,” Clinton sang; and a replica of his 1970s stage-prop flying saucer–depicted at the bottom of this post, from the cover of the 1975 album “Mothership Connection”–has now found a home in the Smithsonian.
Another student, Thomas N., wrote about the musician Sun Ra (Herman Blount), who claimed to have “been on other planets … seen colors that are indescribable … been in darkness that cannot be described.” It seems to have been in 1952 that Sun Ra began claiming to have been teleported to the planet Saturn 15 years earlier by beings with antennae over their ears and eyes, who charged him to “speak” through his music “and the world would listen.” (1952 was the year George Adamski first made contact with his friendly, didactic visitors from the planet Venus–white and black UFO traditions running parallel.)
Ivan V. introduced me to what might be the dark side of African-American UFOlogy–the “Nuwaubian Nation” (a.k.a. “Holy Tabernacle Ministries”) of Malachi Z. York. York turned out to be a thoroughly sleazy character, now in prison for child molestation. Yet his claims for himself and his followers, to which UFOs are central, clearly resonated with enormous numbers of sincere people.
“In the Holy Tabernacle Ministries … ,” runs one of their brochures from the 1990s, “we also place great importance on the past and the future of our journey back through the stars on the mother ship with The Lamb.” York himself claimed to be a space being who traveled here “By One Of The Smaller Passenger Crafts … Out Of A Motherplane Called MERKABAH Or NIBIRU.” (Merkabah is the Hebrew word for “chariot,” used in traditional Jewish writings for the thing that Ezekiel saw.)
This seems to be a recurrent theme of the African-American UFO tradition: the UFO as something maternal, “Mother Ship” or “Mother Wheel” or “Mother Plane.” I can’t think of examples of this from white-American UFOlogy, though no doubt my readers will be able to suggest some. It feels like it has a different root in the group unconscious from that of the white-American UFO, partly merging with it yet keeping its own distinct properties.
In a classic novel published two generations ago, Ralph Ellison used the “invisible man” as a metaphor for the black condition in America. Is there also an “invisible UFOlogy”? If so, let these notes–fragmentary, disconnected, certainly inadequate–help us begin to see it.
by David Halperin
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