Elder Charles Beck and the Roots of Afrofuturism

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Sun Ra: Afrofuturism writ large

The term Afrofuturism was originally coined by critic Mark Dery to refer to “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture.” Understanding that the term’s implications were wider than this definition allowed, Dery added that it could also more generally refer to any “African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.” When the term first appeared in print in 1994, it was immediately taken up by scholars and applied beyond the literary, especially to visual media and music. With this move also came a widening of its scope. Soon the idea was being applied to the African diaspora as a whole, which allowed for the inclusion of things like the more space age experiments of Caribbean dub producers such as Lee Perry and Scientist. Some tendrils of thought have even extended the idea to writers and artists on the continent of Africa itself, although this angle is often debated, with detractors drawing the line around the diasporic experience.

Once an idea as powerful as Afrofuturism appears in the intellectual landscape, scholars will naturally begin a sort of cultural archaeology in an attempt to trace its origins. Although earlier works that hint at the idea have been suggested as precursors—such as W. E. B. DuBois’ 1920 short story “The Comet” or Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man—these texts reflect steps towards the development of the theme, rather than being examples in themselves. Most treatments of the subject agree that that first appearance of Afrofuturism “writ large” in wider culture was the work of jazz musician Sun Ra. Although he had been claiming since at least 1952 to have been taken on an astral trip to Saturn, it wasn’t until the late 1950s that he and his band began performing in space age costumes that were equal parts Egyptian Revival and science fiction B-movie. At the same time, he began to publically espouse his esoteric philosophy—a cocktail of mythology, mysticism, Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Gnosticism, and black nationalism—while his music began to move away from more standard jazz forms into something decidedly more avant-garde. But several years before Sun Ra ever appeared on stage dressed as a pharaoh from the Pleiades, an African-American holiness preacher showed up at the Pentagon carrying a strange painting.

In 1944, Elder Charles Beck had a dream powerful enough to decide the course of his life for many years to come. In this dream the Russians had invaded the United States and killed off most white people. Some 50,000 African Americans then rose up against the invading army, holding them back long enough for a fleet of flying saucers to arrive and disintegrate the invaders by shooting fire from their portholes. During these events a “large angel” gave Beck a running commentary, telling him “how to go about saving the country and winning better understanding for all Negroes.” When he told people about the experience and that he took it seriously as some sort of prophecy, most of them scoffed. So he stopped discussing it until the late 1940s, when reports of sightings of flying saucers began to regularly appear in newspapers and gave him confidence to take the subject up again. Around this time, he had the dream on two other occasions. By this point he was no longer referring to it as a dream, but as a vision. Beck then commissioned an artist to create a visual representation of his vision. The resulting painting was executed “in good bright colors” and showed not only the saucers, but also Beck himself depicted as a latter-day Jacob “in the act of dreaming.”

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Elder Charles Beck and parishioners, 1956

In late summer 1952, Beck experienced the vision for a fourth time. This inspired him to travel to Washington, where he brought the painting to the Pentagon in an effort to convince the Air Force to take his prophecy seriously. He told them that the flying saucers being reported in the media were “advanced [sic] agents being sent to earth by God to break up the Atomic war which is being planned.” He backed up his interpretation by citing both Ezekiel’s vision and a garbled version of an incident in northern New Mexico (later proven to be a hoax) reported by Frank Scully in his 1950 book Behind the Flying Saucers. The Pentagon referred him to “the flying saucer expert” at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, who, according to Beck, “refused to listen to his story.”

If you wanted to find a mystic among fundamentalist Christians, a good place to look would be among the holiness people. There’s something about a theology that emphasizes a literal possession by a metaphysical force as its starting point that tends to both attract and create mystics, albeit usually of a literalist sort. Elder Charles Beck was one such mystic. Probably born in Alabama around the turn of the last century (sources differ), by the mid-1940s he was a prominent holiness minister serving the African-American community in Pittsburgh. He was also a gospel recording artist, having recorded for Okeh Records in 1930 and for Decca in 1937, as well as having a successful local radio program. Most of the research that has been done on Beck focuses on the musical aspect of his career. What is rarely mentioned, however, is that he was very much an early civil rights activist and was also involved in the black nationalist movement. In 1945, he appeared before the newly founded United Nations, urging that the problem of anti-black discrimination around the world be addressed. During this visit he also met with delegates from “half a dozen colored nations.” A year later, he and a group of parishioners picketed the White House, protesting a recent spate of lynchings in Georgia. In early 1947, he toured the east coast with the choir from his radio program to raise money for the Willie Francis Defense Fund. Francis had been the victim of a botched execution attempt in Louisiana. His attorneys were appealing his case to the US Supreme Court, claiming that proceeding with the execution would be a violation of a number of laws. Sadly, Francis would lose the case and be executed later that year.

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By the time he visited the Pentagon in 1952, Beck had relocated his ministry to Buffalo, New York, and was now well known across the region for his radio show based there. For Beck, his prophetic vision marked the beginning of something of an obsession with flying saucers and their deeper meaning. In the fall of 1953, he launched a tour of public speaking engagements with an unlikely sidekick. Orfeo Angelucci was a nervous, eccentric Italian American who worked in an aircraft plant in California. Beck seems to have learned of Angelucci when his article “I Traveled in a Flying Saucer” (ghostwritten by Paul M. Vest) appeared in the November issue of Ray Palmer’s Mystic magazine. If this is indeed the case, then Beck acted very quickly in contacting Angelucci, as the issue could not have been on the stands for more than a couple of weeks before the pair appeared together in New York City. Angelucci was one of the more unusual “contactees” of the 1950s, those individuals who claimed to have been in touch with space aliens. The main proof of these claims usually took the form of very clichéd narratives that even by the standards of the day seemed more pulp fiction than reality. Given Beck’s standing as a well-known activist and respected figure in the African-American community, his decision to appear with Angelucci seems bizarre from a modern perspective. But Beck seemed to believe his story, which also served to reinforce Beck’s own prophetic vision.

In the May 1954 issue of his magazine, Ray Palmer referred to Elder Charles Beck as “a staunch reader of Mystic” and “a true mystic.” Mystic could be purchased on newsstands, so it’s no surprise that someone with esoteric interests may have come across it accidentally and been drawn to it. What is more surprising, is that Beck seems to have been actively exploring what was something of an occult underground, and searching out others involved in the study of both UFOs and esotericism. A letter from Beck appeared in the February 15, 1955, issue of Saucer Sentinel, a mimeographed fanzine published by a group of UFO enthusiasts in Michigan. In it he mentioned his radio show on WKBW in Buffalo, and added that he was also about to start broadcasting from the border blaster XEG in Monterrey, Mexico, a monstrously powerful station that would greatly expand his audience. He told the zine that he would be discussing UFOs on these programs. He said that he was a friend of Gray Barker (a well-known publisher of UFO books and playful hoaxster), and occult publisher Meade Layne, and that he was a member of Layne’s Borderland Science Research Association. He also claimed to have recorded interviews on location with witnesses of the Flatwoods Monster in West Virginia and a reputed saucer landing in Sudbury, Ontario. What he did not mention was that his US radio show was syndicated to some 30 stations around the country, with a total audience of around three million, and the terms of his contract with XEG called for him to receive a payment of $150,000. This was big media—and big money.

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Beck continued to release a handful of gospel recordings in the 1940s and 1950s, but these days he is probably best remembered from his appearance on a Folkways LP. Released in 1957, Urban Holiness Service was basically a collection of field recordings made at his church over a two-day period. William Tallmadge’s liner notes make it abundantly clear that the primary interest of the project was to exhibit evidence of the survival of Africanisms in Beck’s services. This is the last known recording on which Beck appears. In later years, other ministers—such as Frank Stranges, O. W. “Bud” Spriggs, and Bill Riddick—released UFO-themed records, each reframing the phenomenon through the filter of his own worldview. No recordings, commercial or otherwise, of Elder Charles Beck speaking on the subject of UFOs are known to exist, however. It is also not known whether he went forward with his plan to talk about them on his radio program. It is likely, though, that any such attempt would have been quashed by the program’s various producers, networks, and sponsors for being too fringe. As support for this hypothesis, any association of Beck’s name with UFOs vanishes from the record at this point.

According to the Encyclopedia of Gospel Music, Elder Charles Beck relocated to the newly independent nation of Ghana to do missionary work in 1960, and died there in 1972. This seems a fitting final chapter for a clergyman so interested in a better world for Africans and people of African descent. Ghana’s recent independence and the presidency of Kwame Nkrumah were seen by many at the time as symbols of hope for the future. And isn’t hope for a better future what Beck’s dream of 1944 was actually about? Neither Sun Ra’s claim to have traveled incorporeally to Venus, nor Beck’s account of an angel-guided prophetic vision were particularly radical when compared to other claims of the era. It must be remembered that early ufology was as much obsessed with metaphysics as it was with science, perhaps even more so. What was remarkable, and new, was that in Beck’s story African Americans engaged with futuristic technology in a struggle against oppression, and emerged the victors. It is important to note that this occurred only after white society was defeated by those very same forces. What is not specifically stated, but is implied, is what the future would hold for the black community after these events. It stands to reason that having become the heroes of the hour, along with the support of the aliens, that African Americans would now gain the respect, and perhaps the political and economic power, that had so far been denied them. This is textbook Afrofuturism.

In the histories of gospel music, the civil rights movement, and black nationalism, Elder Charles Beck is at most a minor character. But at the same time that Sun Ra was exploring the themes that were later to become known as Afrofuturism, Beck was following similar lines, apparently unaware of Ra’s activities. This leads me to two conclusions. The first is that there were certainly other African Americans in the 1940s and 1950s who were actively exploring this intersection of esotericism and identity. In fact, Sun Ra was a member of just such a group in Chicago in the 1950s, often overlooked under the dismissive term “book club.” Hopefully, in time, leads will drift to the surface of the archive that will enable scholars to further trace this important aspect of intellectual history. The second is that because early Afrofuturism was part of a wider trend, however small, any subsequent treatment of the subject should include these other voices. This in no way diminishes Sun Ra’s role as a major figure in the development of Afrofuturism, but acknowledging that there were others following the same intellectual trajectories serves to more firmly place him in context. And there is no doubt that Elder Charles Beck is part of that context.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Elder Charles Beck – (Anti) Rock ‘n’ Roll Sermon, 1956

Liner Notes to Beck’s Folkways LP

 

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