As part of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum, we interview scholars about a recent article they’ve written for either an academic journal or popular publication. We ask these scholars to discuss their article, as well as some of the books that have most influenced them.
This week’s featured scholar is Jon Jon Moore. Moore is a writer and host of the AbolitionISH podcast. His article is “Starships and Slave Ships: Black Ontology and the UFO Abduction Phenomenon.”
Roberto Sirvent: How did you become interested in the topic of UFO abduction narratives and anti-Blackness?
Jon Jon Moore: I’ve always been interested in the paranormal and unexplained. As a kid I thought the best superpowers were the creepy ones—telekinesis, clairvoyance.
I might be mixing up the timeline, but I think it started after encountering the historian Tiya Miles’ book, Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era. Probably when studying as an undergrad at Tufts University with Matt Hooley a, a scholar of indigenous studies and environmental history. Miles explores how plantations and cemeteries in the US South are now home to new entertainment and pleasure economies, like ghost tours and other haunted experiences year-round.
I’d seen stories about the Hill Abduction on TV as a teenager, but all the photos were black and white, and Barney was a light skin black man. I’d never read and understood that he was black until maybe 5 years ago, when I started reading more about the case after listening to his hypnosis on YouTube, which really disturbed me.
I spent a year looking for another publicized, or public, account of alien abduction by a Black person in the US, and I found nothing. Sightings and experiences, yes, but no abductions. So, further down the rabbit hole I went! And I quickly learned that the modern phenomenon was exclusively American and white.
Who is Barney Hill and why is his narrative an “exceptional” one?
Barney Hill is the first and last popular Black abductee, a term used to identify people who claim to be abducted by UFOs or extraterrestrials. He was a postal carrier living in the northeast US in the 50s and 60s. In 1961, Barney and his wife Betty, who was white, claim to have experienced an abduction while driving through rural New Hampshire. The Hills’ story is exceptional because it inaugurates the modern abduction narrative: the way these aliens and their craft appear, the psychic and somatic effects during and after the abduction, the lapse in memory or “missing time” that the pair reported after the fact. Almost all popular abduction narratives after 1961 are identical or almost identical to the Hill abduction. When they went public with their story, it was sensational because they were an interracial couple, and a middle-class couple. When I visited the University of New Hampshire’s archive of the Hills’ correspondence and ephemera, I learned about Barney’s experience as an organizer. He was very active in the Portsmouth NAACP, where he and Betty took minutes.
In my article, I spend most of the time thinking about what makes Barney’s story unalike modern abduction narratives, including Betty’s. He’s a black man married to a white woman living alongside white folks, a few months after the Freedom Riders are mobbed and a few years before the Freedom Summer murders. So, before Barney sees the UFO, he’s already vulnerable to being abducted and violated by his earthly counterparts. He is driving with a gun in the trunk.
And when he recounts his abduction under hypnosis, we get a very different recollection of events than Betty’s. Betty’s captors are telepathic, amicable, educational. They show her a map of where they’re from. This is not Barney’s experience.
Modern abductee research is clear that when extraterrestrials are racialized, white folks see them as Asian, or Nordic. Barney recalls getting a glimpse of these beings with his binoculars, and he thinks of them as “German Nazis”, or “Irish.” He recounts being probed, having genetic material taken against his will. He doesn’t understand what’s being said, he can’t move, he doesn’t know where Betty is. He’s terrified.
Listening to the hypnosis tapes became more difficult as I wrote into this story, because I stopped thinking of the totalizing terror Barney was expressing as hallucinatory or imaginative. It sounded to me like a shared black —using Toni Morrison’s language— “rememory.”
Spoiler alert: If you’ve seen Jordan Peele’s new film NOPE, a resonant image might be that motionless cloud fixed in the sky, hiding the ET in plain sight. Something was waiting for Barney out there in the mountains, and I’m afraid that Thing hasn’t gone anywhere. Even if we can’t see it. Even if we’re not next.
In your article, you examine the “libidinal relationship between the starship’s technics and the slave ship’s terror.” Can you elaborate on this relationship?
In the literature, the parallels between UFO abduction and the abduction of Africans—the restraints, the total violence, the moving between worlds—these are always glossed over or mentioned in throwaway comments, and never considered alongside the well-known fact that the abductee community is white. This frustrated me.
When I write, “The ontology of alien abduction begins and ends not with a person who stands to be taken but with a being who cannot be taken because they are not,” I’m suggesting that just as alien abductees owe their narratives’ coherence to the Hill abduction, they also owe their human experience to the abductions of Africans and the creation of black chattel.
Another way to think about what animates the phenomenon is to consider our two ships.
If you take NASA astronauts at their word, spaceships are technologically unparalleled in what they allow humans to feel. They talk a lot about how their perspective shifts, and some feel spiritually changed. Betty reports having this kind of life-changing experience, coming into a new consciousness. Who wouldn’t want in on some cosmic comprehension or planetary escape to shake the feeling that this is it, right?
As the destruction of the environment that’s cultivated this species and this organization of life continues unabated, it is likely that we will continue looking to the skies and the stars for guidance or hope. Now, if you study the last few centuries of this world, you learn that slave ships are technologically unparalleled in what they allow/ed humans to feel, too.
I think the slave ship is the spaceship’s progenitor technologically and symbolically, and since I’ve begun approaching science fiction and science (period) with that understanding, it’s affirmed my skepticism of space as some terra nova or utopia in the making.
You cite the work of Calvin Warren and Christina Sharpe, among others. How do these two theorists inform your analysis?
Calvin’s writing on kidnapping was extremely helpful when thinking about the incredulity surrounding Barney’s experience. He is disbelieved by his psychiatrist, who suggests he’s being influenced by his wife’s nightmares. It’s one thing to say, “I don’t believe this happened to you.” But to imply that it couldn’t? This idea that a Black man could not possess a hallucination of his own, that he had to be influenced into believing he had been taken, was curious.
18th century slavecatching was a profitable sport and for Calvin Warren, it’s made possible by the “onto-metaphysical instability” that blacks suffer/ed. Yes, you can have papers that prove you are free, and they can tear them up. They can force you to eat them. We’re not talking about how you’re treated; we’re talking about the fact that you can simply not be. And if your existence is beholden to the master’s whim, what kind of selfhood is that? For Warren, these kidnappings demonstrate the power of being human and the precarious living that black people inherit.
Christina helps us think about The Hold as a place that is also the dispersed condition of blackness. It is the bowels of a slave ship, and a cop cruiser, and a public-school classroom, and the World because slavery is not linear, and its productions are scalar. She writes that black people “inhabit and are inhabited by the hold” and in a sentence, that’s Barney in the hull of his spaceship.
How does your article help us think more broadly about the intersection of anti-Blackness and philosophy of science?
I’m not in grad school anymore, but I’m always chatting with folks who are. I hope the article empowers younger readers of black studies to approach their one-off curiosities with the analytics and understandings our professors and peers have given us, and just say the thing, whatever it is.
Every prevailing discourse fails us. The anti-black assumptions and desires that animate the functions and codify the boundaries of disciplines—whether it’s biology, ontology, gender studies, geology—these aren’t going anywhere. So, I hope we can at least have a good fucking time imploding them, documenting the cover-ups, and leaving something more honest and antagonistic in our wake.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.