UU minister Victoria Safford says, “The awakened eye is a conscious eye, a willful eye, and brave, because to see things as they are, each in its own truth, will make you very vulnerable. An eye that invites a kind of curiosity with the courage to ask a question that risks a change.” In this service, I will ask such a question (it’s a
surprise) and explore a new way of being in conversation with the wisdom and literature of Afrofuturism. We will also celebrate the dedication of Aurea Newbold. What joy!
Followed by our Annual Meeting.
Reading: Ytasha Womak
To give you context for the reading, last month in Pittsburgh, an illuminated billboard that read “There are black people in the future” was taken down suddenly after concerns were expressed about its “distasteful offensive, erotic, political content. In her book :Afrofuturism the World of Black Sci-Fi, Ytasha Womak points to the lack of black and other people of color characters, world views and stories in our most culturally prominent future visions. “Even in our imaginary future,” she writes, “a space where the mind can stretch beyond the Milky Way to envision routine space travel, cuddly space animals, talking apes, and time machines, -when people can’t fathom a person of non-Euro descent a hundred years from now. A cosmic foot has to be put down.” Afro-futures is that cosmic foot. In populating the future with black people, Womak says “Afrofuturism unchains the mind”. When people who’ve never imagined themselves in the future are able to do so-even a wild, seemingly impossible future, or a dystopian, post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested future-it has the power to generate creativity, commitment, resolve and action.
I asked my friend Dave Malakoff who works for Science Magazine “who is out there in the media talking to people about climate change in a way to help them face it and hold all the uncertainty?” Last year his team received a distinguished journalism award for their series of over three hundred articles on climate change, yet he grew silent as he considered my question. Finally saying “conditions will change and this is something our kids will most likely lead. “ He speaks as a scientist, but as a mother and minister, I feel a responsibility to find a way to overcome our denial, enter our grief, hold the uncertainty to engage with the inevitable changes coming our way. This sermon is about figuring out how to do this, how to find a new way of being using the embodied wisdom and literature of Afrofuturism as our guide. A literature that considers African American concerns and mythology to figure out an enhance future. In the words of Afrofuturist adrienne marie brown, we have to figure out how to survive the end of the world with grace, rigor, and curiosity. Which is a title of a podcast she produces with her sister Autumn.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been wanting to ask this question out loud but I’ve been afraid to. Afraid to talk about the end of the world likes it’s a sure thing. After all we’re all about hope right? Maybe my reluctance, ok, my denial is why I am one of the eighteen million people who anticipated all last week the next episode of the Game of Thrones. You too? I am a little concerned though that the show fails to inspire our moral imagination. For example, when I sent a link to adrienne’s and Autumn’s podcast to my daughter Morgan, a huge Game of Thrones fan she texted back “or we all just take what’s coming and die.”
I know she was for the most part she is joking, humoring that part of her that knows how overwhelming anticipating climate change can be. David Wallace-Wells in his new book, The Uninhabitable Earth provides in stomach wrenching detail of what it will look like when “parts of the earth become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.” An overwhelming prospect that he says makes the crisis incompatible with the individual journeys we like to tell about ourselves in our contemporary fiction. Journeys where we overcome a challenge to be wiser maybe a hero even. An incompatibility he says that keeps us from integrating “our conscience with a vision of our collective miasmic social fate.”
This is where David is wrong. Afrofuturistic fiction is a narrative that acknowledges we have to learn a completely new and different way of being and invites our imagination to do so. A genre that gives voice to a long history of Black culture’s embodied resistance and survival. A genre with a vision that emerges from those whose realities are forged in the crucible of interlocking oppressions. A vision that dismantles both the ubiquitous narratives of racism and climate change denial/defeatism in such a way to merge the power of our interconnectedness so that we see how to survive with grace, rigor and curiosity. If you saw the Black Panther movie, you get a sense of this power. I’ve delved into the literature and fell in love with Abebi in this story called Spider the Artist written by Nigerian author, and Afrofuturist Nnedi Okorafor. This a short version-
Abebi, is a young wife married to a husband who is both physically abusive and an alcoholic. They live in a village on the Nigerian delta where oil pipelines run like a web through every villager’s back yard, pipelines guarded by zombies, terrifying robots, built in the shape of spiders, known to tear apart anyone who comes close to the pipeline. One day, after Abebi’s husband beats her for no apparent reason, Abebi goes out to her back yard, throws caution to the wind and sits right down next to the pipeline to get out of her neighbors view. She starts to play her only true possession , her father’s guitar made from the last abura timber of the delta, “smelling like fresh cut wood, like it wanted to tell you it’s story because only it could.” Abebi says out loud to no one “I wouldn’t exist without this guitar” She remembers how her father could weave anything with his music, sunrises, rainbows ,spider webs sparking with morning dew. He taught her to play, and she knows she is good, really good.
She knows as well, that her husband, like many of the delta men use alcohol to control their anger at the oil companies, for destroying their land, and polluting their rivers. She knows that it hasn’t helped that her body continues to refuse him children. She weaves all this sorrow into the golden sunset, the dancing fronds of palms, until she hears the metallic click of a zombie close by. She freezes. She hears, “Twang,” and feels the sound coming through her still fingers on her guitar. Something sharp and cool lifts her finger. She opens her eyes, and looks into the zombie spider’s azure blue eyes, level with hers, its body so polished she can see her own reflection. She realizes it wants her to play as it presses her hand against the string. So she plays like her life depends upon it. And when she is done, the spider robot touches the tips of her aching hands, gently.
Abebi names her spider Udide Okwanka, which means “Spider the Artist.” They meet, night after night. Udide, actually spins a wired instrument from its belly from which it makes its own music, so beautiful and so complex, Abebi cries tears of joy. Her husband becomes kinder, she gets pregnant, she dreams of teaching.
Until the night the pipeline near the school breaches and everyone runs to horde the precious oil. Her husband comes out to get her and reacts angrily when he sees her sitting with Udide. Udide makes a loud click to sound the alarm and then joins the other zombies. Abebi run to the rupture, sees her husband, with everyone in the community, children too, carrying buckets of oil and tries to warn them but it’s too late. The zombies ignite the oil. She is the only one to survive. The only one left to wonder, what kind of world will I bring my daughter into with only Udide and myself to stand in between a flat-out war between zombies and the humans that create them?
A question so present in the fight to address climate change. How do we hang on to our humanity? Yet, something about the story gives me hope. I am surprised to be drawn into Abebi’s power and her sense of agency. After all, like all Afro-futurism, this story considers African American themes, addresses their concerns, and uses their symbols and African indigenous wisdom to imagine an enhanced future. How can I as a white person, even preach on a genre that Afrofuturist author Samuel Delany says is the most honest and effective when it is from the margins. But I realize now that what he means is that the science fiction loses its power when identities become centered. That fighting fragmentation, and oppression, with a fixed and centered identity just won’t work. Living the story from the margins, no matter your identity, creates the space for the naming of suffering, the emergence of truth. And in that space, we can discover a new way of being.
Nnedi, uses the symbol of the spider God, the West African creation deity known as Anansi to make visible the oft overlooked reality and and wisdom of the Black experience. Anansi, is a trickster God of her tradition known for teaching moral lessons in surprising ways. In this story, Anansi the spider god, makes visible the web of violence caused by the oil industry’s presence. Violence against the land, the village culture, the bodies of the women and the lives of the river. A web of violence in which we Americans, significant consumers of Nigerian oil are complicit in creating. We too are zombies, yet Anansi presence is also teaching us that we are divine. A divinity that we can use to reclaim the technology that now oppresses and redirect its energy towards sacred purposes.
Anansi’s presence also changes the perception of time, in which we can see the ancient and the things yet to come coexist in the present. That we can connect the wisdom of our past to change the future now. A connection that is magical. Abebi’s, music passed down from her father draws from the zombie its own innate intelligence to resist the violence. Together they create a melody of mutuality that that convinces the zombie and Abebi that another world is possible. Toni Morrison says that such writing, “is not to be considered fiction as it is based on the lives of ancestors where you use a little information and a lot of guesswork, to journey to a site to see what remains and reconstruct the world that these remains imply.”
What she is saying, as well as Nnedi, and adrienne marie and so many other Afrofuture artists is that we have the sacred capacity to create a different future now. That we live on a planet that is alive and sacred full of a million sacred relationships. Relationships we have lost because at every decision point in our lives we have been taught to choose material success. Each of us need to go back, and reconnect with the earth to create the sacred capacity within to heal on a spiritual and energetic level. A capacity with the power to hold the grief each time you realize that the climate system that raised you, is now, like a parent dying. You need to find the place in your soul that knows this brokenness, and grieve. Let your fragility mix and be molded by the pain and power of others. And in that place of connection, find, like Abebi and Udide, the skillful suppleness of the spirit to find a new way of being. A place in which to imagine a response to climate catastrophe that integrates the journey of your conscience with our collective fate. A journey that centers your divinity in relationship.
Sometimes, I see this future happening. I think of Sister Sara Dwyer of Lancaster Pennsylvania who partnered with Mennonite leaders to organize a protest against an oil company trying to build the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline through a cornfield owned by the nuns. Inspired by Standing Rock, Sister Sara taps into the radical wisdom of her nun ancestors and knows “the goal is not just resistance, but spiritual conversion.” She files a law suit to block the company from laying the pipeline on the grounds it went against their religious beliefs, rights they believe are protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. In February, they learned that the Supreme Court refused to hear their case, which means the lower court’s ruling against them prevails. Though gas flows through their field now she warns her people and us to abstain from a spirit of defeatism by connecting as we can, in prayer and in solidarity with those impacted by climate change, people who are and will be pre-dominantly people in color. This is especially true for the people of color living in Boston and they are taking the lead in the New Green Deal. You too can discover your sacred capacity to join in the struggle. Sara is staying in the struggle, considering solar panels for her field. But while her case was pending, her state joined Ohio, and Wyoming in considering a bill that would make a felony to trespass near the pipelines.
Who will you be, who will we be, in this story? A zombie, or will we be more like Udide and Abebi reclaiming what is sacred to transform violence and despair into learning, growing and connecting in the midst of and perhaps because of the chaos. Will we, will you stay in the struggle? Will you, will we, hold the uncertainty to access deep insight, and create a collective narrative, a vision of mutuality, to survive and maybe thrive with grace, rigor and curiosity? Just imagine.
- Andrew Harvey, “Savage Grace”