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The Radical Experimentation of Black Psychedelia

The New York Times Magazine:

One of the most lasting and influential artistic movements of the 20th century was created with and for Black artists. Why has their contribution been so overlooked?

The psychedelic movement generally describes the convergence of accessible hallucinogenic drugs with youth movements such as antiwar agitation, civil rights and the New Left; its soundtrack was music that evoked the time-bending, echoic, disorienting effects of an acid trip; its visual aesthetic privileged color blends and a meta-perceptual flourish, as in the poster for the 1968 rock musical “Hair,” with its racially ambiguous mirrored images in green and red, or Milton Glaser’s iconic 1966 poster of Bob Dylan, in which the singer’s black silhouette sprouts yarnlike strands of multicolored hair that appear to contain the word “Elvis.” The few historians who take psychedelic culture seriously assume its most important actors were white.

The whiteness of these figures aligns with the scientific and philosophical architecture that lent them legitimacy and gave the psychedelic movement a cerebral edge over hippies’ appeals for peace and free love. Like many countercultural movements (including Surrealism, the 20th century’s earlier consciousness-altering project), white psychedelia looked to people of color, whose cultures seemed to form the marginalized counter to the mainstream culture, for visions of an alternative life. But Black artists were creating their own concurrent psychedelic scenes, initially centered in the musical realm but later expanding to literature and visual art. While their experiments might have looked and sounded similar to those of their white counterparts (with whom they once collaborated), the meaning of Black psychedelia, shaped as it was by Black history and culture, was distinct. While white psychedelics were using drugs to achieve mind-expanding glimpses of a universal human community of which they were the default center (and the ones with the power to call others to “come together,” in the words of the Beatles), Black psychedelics were testing and extending the contours of Black art and community.

The political stakes of their work are easy to miss. They did not espouse any particular program, were often monastically devoted to their work and seldom addressed race explicitly. While civil rights protesters dressed like churchgoers and the Black Panthers adopted military uniforms, the Black psychedelics wore platform shoes and rainbow-colored jumpsuits. But Sly and the Family Stone’s interracial, mixed-gender coalition showed what integration (a rallying cry of civil rights) actually looked like — bringing the future into being before people were ready for it, and dealing with the consequences. Other Black psychedelic artists carved out spaces that reclaimed aesthetic practices associated with Africa and explored the inner depths of Black life. The movement, for all its seeming abandon, therefore functioned as a quite disciplined, pointed exercise of freedom that worked in tandem and in tension with more organized Black radical movements, by reasking questions that Black activists tended to regard as settled: What is Black Power? What is the Black community?

The Black psychedelic canon includes musicians and groups such as the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Chambers Brothers, the 5th Dimension, Rotary Connection, Sly and the Family Stone, Miles Davis, Betty Davis, Funkadelic and Earth, Wind & Fire — all of whom united the esoteric insight of the Age of Aquarius with an equally esoteric understanding of new recording technology in order to expand the sonic and lyrical possibilities of jazz, soul and rock. Their music, like all psychedelic music, was marked by heavy reverb and an elastic approach to time. A similar impulse animated the experimental approach to narrative form, poetics and storytelling advanced by writers such as Ishmael Reed, Alison Mills Newman, Clarence Major and David Henderson. Black psychedelics also included visual artists such as Sam Gilliam, Betye Saar and Senga Nengudi, all of whom made intensely beautiful, abstract but also visceral works that challenged the borders of canvas, as well as the museum and gallery itself; filmmakers such as William Greaves (“Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One,” 1968) and Bill Gunn (“Ganja & Hess,” 1973), who broke with linear form to tell riveting yet elusive stories; and architects such as John W. Moutoussamy, whose flamboyant Johnson Publishing Company Building, erected in Chicago in 1971 (with colorful carpeting and swirling abstract wallpaper), was the home of Ebony and Jet magazines. These artists took paintings and made them sculptures; took pop songs and strung them into operatic concept albums; made poetry out of memoir and art films out of horror movies. They took galleries and theaters and brought them outdoors. The Modernist mandate to make it new had birthed the more specific New Age impulse to make it bigger, take you higher, push things further out.

A poster for Isaac Hayes’s 1973 concert film, “The Black Moses of Soul.”Credit...Courtesy of the Everett Collection
A poster for Isaac Hayes’s 1973 concert film, “The Black Moses of Soul. Credit: Courtesy of the Everett Collection

Lush and immersive, dreamlike and daring, Black psychedelia was a world of big colors and feelings. While Afrofuturists such as Sun Ra, Samuel R. Delany and Octavia E. Butler tended to privilege future worlds or outer space — the “absolute otherwhere,” as the Black poet Robert Hayden once wrote — Black psychedelics tended to focus on the present, the earthly plane. They drew absurdity and sublimity from ordinary sites, such as New York’s Central Park (as in Greaves’s postmodern documentary “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm”) or a highway underpass in Los Angeles (as in Nengudi’s 1978 performance “Ceremony for Freeway Fets”). Their totems of transcendence were birds rather than stars; their vehicles of transport were dreams and drugs, not time machines or spaceships.

THE TERM “PSYCHEDELIC” is thought to have originated from the Greek words for “soul” (psyche) and “reveal” (deloun). The force of that revelation was audible. At a time when everyone seemed to be stretching out and taking the true believers in, the interplay between Black and white men had just as much impact on rock innovation as, say, the legendary day when Dylan introduced the Beatles to cannabis at Delmonico’s Hotel in New York.

The paintings of Sam Gilliam’s 1968 “Double Merge,” at Dia:Beacon in New York.Credit...© Sam Gilliam/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York, courtesy of the Dia Art Foundation
The paintings of Sam Gilliam’s 1968 “Double Merge,” at Dia: Beacon in New York. © Sam Gilliam/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York, courtesy of the Dia Art Foundation

Still, such interracial scenes didn’t ensure Black psychedelics’ visibility or success. Sam Gilliam, despite being among the most inventive members of the artist enclave known as the Washington Color School (which included white painters such as Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, in addition to Black artists like Gilliam and Kenneth Victor Young), was long overlooked. While his colleagues were engaged in the fairly conservative project of extending Abstract Expressionism, Gilliam, who at 88 is now garnering the attention that eluded him at other points in his career because his work did not fit into any tidy narrative or genre, was painting 150-yard-long abstract canvases that he sprang from their frames and hung from ceilings and walls. He once described these Technicolor paintings turned sculptures, known as drape paintings, as enactments of “confidence”: “That attitude that allows you to spread, to use the whole shop in working.” But they express another form of confidence by claiming the right to be elusive. Two of these works make up the installation “Double Merge” (1968), which has been on view at Dia:Beacon in upstate New York since 2019. Encountered today, it is a kind of monument to an alternate history that is still too often ignored. One is struck not only by the suspended expanse of silver and emerald splatters against sunset color fields but also by the small, nubby heads of canvas, carefully gathered and tied with leather strips, from which aircraft cables have been attached to hold the whole thing up. Just as poignant as these reminders of the craftsman’s labor is the intimation that some of the spectacle remains hidden from view. Parts of the paintings are obscured within the drapery’s folds, and the drapes work together with the museum wall to form a soft, irregular cube. It’s a room we can’t see inside — an interior in public. This combination of scale and mystery — what one might call the Black sublime — is a key to Black psychedelia. At a moment when Black artists were expected to produce realist depictions of Black identity, Gilliam’s aesthetic of audacious evasion constituted its own political statement.

THIS INDEPENDENCE, OFTEN coded as racial separatism, is one reason the Black psychedelic movement has been excluded from histories of the American counterculture. It was easier for the dominant culture to imagine, as Wolfe did in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” that Black people had simply vanished from what Wolfe describes as the “dying” culture of the Haight-Ashbury district (“It had … gotten to the point that Negroes were no longer in the hip scene, not even as totem figures,” he writes) than that they had left to create their own scenes. The art created in these scenes, moreover, operated at a scale and with a level of abstraction that challenged conventional ideas about what Black art was supposed to be. Instead of clear-cut, self-contained statements of protest and self-affirmation, Black psychedelics privileged intimate encounters with the unknown, be it private desire or inarticulable experience.

The American legal system in the ’70s and ’80s, partly as a response to the more liberal 1960s, restigmatized recreational narcotics, and generally targeted Black and brown people for using illicit substances. It’s why the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson — who, like Stone, was a celebrated musician from the West Coast who turned toward harder drugs and a reclusive lifestyle — is remembered as a complicated genius, while Stone is framed as a bitter, pessimistic menace (or, at best, because of his 1971 album, “There’s a Riot Goin’ On,” as an unwitting prophet). And Stone does indeed look menacing compared with the corporate parody of white psychedelia produced later in the 1970s by bands like the Eagles, who blithely encouraged listeners to “take it easy,” or a group like the Grateful Dead, who preached mellowness and fun.

One final reason Black psychedelia has not been heralded or even identified as such is that its distinctive contributions have been usurped by discussions of Afrofuturism — a longstanding movement that critics named in the 1990s and that drew energy from psychedelia once the 1960s’ fight for radical change ran up against radical backlash. This was an era of political conservatism and economic downturn marked by Richard Nixon’s “benign neglect” approach toward Black and brown communities, an increasingly militarized police force greenlit by the war on drugs, and the channeling of Black Power’s remaining energies into electoral politics. No wonder that the architect of otherworldly Black dreams, Sun Ra, amped up his own extraterrestrial efforts in the experimental 1974 film “Space Is the Place.” At the end of that film, Earth explodes, and he and his followers escape on a spaceship.

To seek out finer distinctions among different forms of radical Black creativity is to see that the story of Black psychedelic culture is the story of coalitions of artists who made new worlds closer to home. When Sly and the Family Stone sang about wanting to “take you higher,” they were conjuring sensual, possibly drug-enhanced experiences that you could have without leaving the ground. The future wasn’t distant, it could be tomorrow, and space didn’t signal far-flung galaxies so much as enclaves of people and the plain fact of air. Gilliam once said of 1968, “Something was in the air, and it was in that spirit that I did the drape paintings.” He was, on the surface, describing a cultural zeitgeist. But his comment also points to the way those works give shape to the actual atmosphere in a room. These figures serve as embodied reminders that the space of Black psychedelia was no less powerful than the dark side of the moon, but also not as distant: It was right around the corner, just above your head.