Remembering and Imagining: Time Travel as Spiritual Practice

Rev. Josh Pawelek

On your program cover there’s an image of the sankofa bird. Sankofa comes from the Twi language of Ghana in West Africa. A common English translation is “go back and get it.” The sankofa bird is an example of adinkra. Adinkra symbols make up a highly symbolic language—similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics. They are common among the Akan people of Ghana, and have made their way into the wider African diaspora. The symbols express complex thoughts and proverbs. The sankofa bird’s head faces backward as it attempts to catch its lost egg in its mouth. Its feet face forward. One translation is, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have lost,” or “that which was taken.” Learn your past so that it may guide your actions in the present for the purpose of shaping the future. Another translation: “remember the past to protect the future.”[1]

Past, present, future. This sermon is about time travel. In the absence of an actual time machine, how do we visit the past? How do we visit the future? The sankofa bird isn’t a time machine. It is an assertion that the act of visiting matters.

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I am an admirer of UCONN physics professor Ron Mallett, who convinces me time travel is possible—in theory certainly and, perhaps one day, in practice. I want to share with you a clip from a lecture he gave a few years ago. The lecture outlines his book, Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality.[2]

[While preaching this sermon, I showed the following video until 3:45, though the entire lecture is worth viewing.]

I love Professor Mallett’s questions: “Who of us has not wondered what’s going to happen in the future, what’s going to happen next? Or thought about the past, maybe to visit some significant historical event, or … to change something in our lives?”[3] These are human, spiritual questions. They might emerge in us from any number of sources: curiosity, wonder, anxiety, fear. For Professor Mallett they emerge out of a ten-year-old’s potent grief, a desire to see his father again, to maybe save his life.

There’s a sankofa dimension in Professor Mallett’s pursuit of time travel. Go back and get it. Go back and retrieve what was lost, that precious egg. Throughout his career he has been looking back—while his feet have faced forward, while he’s studied the impact of black holes on time, the intricacies of circulating light created by strong lasers. He’s produced no time machine, but his backward look has motivated him to advance human understanding, thereby shaping the future, and possibly inspiring some as-yet-unborn savant to build the machine he longs for. Who’s to say his father’s life won’t yet be saved?

Go back and get it.

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In May Rolling Stone magazine featured on its cover singer, composer, actress, filmmaker and founder of the Wondaland artists collective, Janelle Monáe. The article, entitled “Janelle Monáe Frees Herself,” was helping to promote her new album Dirty Computers. If you aren’t familiar with Monáe’s music, you may still know her as the actress who played Teresa in Moonlight, winner of the 2016 Oscar for best picture; or Mary Jackson in Hidden Figures, the story about the black, female NASA mathematicians during the 1960s space race (also a 2016 best picture nomination). I knew Monáe was a musician. I was not familiar with her music. What I’d heard about the Rolling Stone article before actually reading it seemed strange. It seemed to be introducing Monáe as a human being—as if she’d never been one before. There was something to that. “‘Let the rumors be true’” trumpeted the opening paragraph. “Janelle Monáe is not … the immaculate android, the ‘alien from outer space/The cybergirl without a face’ she’s claimed to be over a decade’s worth of albums, videos, concerts and … interviews—she is, instead, a flawed, messy, flesh-and-blood 32-year-old human being.”[4]

Wait, what? Android?

I have been exploring Monáe’s music all summer, including the videos (she calls them ‘emotion pictures’) that accompany her songs with an amazing science fiction story. In a sense she really hasn’t been human until now. She’s been writing, performing and appearing in emotion pictures as a rebellious, time-traveling, messianic android named Cindi Mayweather. In the futuristic city of Metropolis, sentient androids serve humans—they’re essentially slaves—an explicit metaphor for racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression in our society. Cindi Mayweather becomes fully aware of her oppression when she illegally falls in love with a human, gets caught, and is slated for disassembly. She fights back, leading a nonviolent rebellion against the Great Divide, a secret society that uses time travel to suppress freedom and love across eras. Deploying the weapons of music, dance, inclusion and love, her rebellion seeks to unite androids and humans as equals.[5]

To give you just a taste of how Monáe tells these stories, here’s a quick clip from the emotion picture for her 2013 song, “Q.U.E.E.N.”

[While preaching this sermon, I showed this video until 0:55.]

About Monáe’s 2010 album, ArchAndroid, the writer Charles Pulliam-Moore says: “While time travel is established as being an integral part of the album’s story, it’s unclear specifically how you [as the listener/viewer are] supposed to string its timeline together or whether you’re meant to at all. At various points throughout the [album], Cindi’s staring down death at the Droid Patrol’s hands, wandering through an asylum for folks whose dancing is a subversive form of magic, or imploring people to join her as she’s slipping into the time stream…. She weaves in and out of moments throughout time, all the while spreading her messages of love, raging against her oppressors, and encouraging you to do the same.”[6] I call this hyper-sankofa. Cindi Mayweather goes back to find what was lost, but she also goes forward, sideways, up, down and around. She appears in multiple times and spaces at once, always fighting the forces of oppression with love, music, dance, creativity, individuality. Earlier you heard an example of this hyper-sankofa time travel in the reading of the cybernetic chantdown from in the song “Many Moons.”[7]

While all these temporal boundary-crossings are happening in the emotion pictures, Monáe’s music seamlessly crosses boundaries between styles and eras. She combines the sounds not just of R&B, soul, hip hop, funk, spirituals, jazz and big band which we associate with Black artists, but psychedelic rock, Broadway, European classical music and movie soundtracks. The opening song on her new album is a collaboration with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys[8]–possibly the whitest band of all time!

She wants her audience to cross boundaries as well. She used to hand out a pamphlet at her concerts called “Ten Droid Commandments.” The seventh commandment read: “Before the show, feel free to walk about the premises impersonating one of the many inspirations of the ArchAndroid Emotion Picture: … Salvador Dali, Walt Disney, Outkast, Stevie Wonder, Octavia Butler, David Bowie, Andy Warhol or John Williams.”[9] Artistically she goes back again and again to recover the past, weaving it into a present expression that envisions a compelling future. In a sense, she doesn’t need a time machine. She is a time machine, driven by a potent yearning to manifest humanity’s interconnectedness through music—and to invite her audience to manifest it with her. It’s another version of sankofa: redeem the past by transcending its divisions in the present. In so doing, create a future that enables people to exist beyond labels and stereotypes, to freely live multiple, intersecting identities, to be creative, to be whole. There is much at stake in the act of visiting past and future.

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Some critics and scholars classify Janelle Monáe’s art as Afrofuturism, an artistic movement that imagines Black people and culture in the future. One might think there’s nothing extraordinary about that. Of course there will be Black people and culture in the future.’ But that doesn’t account for a historic lack of Black and other People of Color characters, world-views and stories in our most culturally prominent future visions, especially in science fiction and fantasy. In her book, Afrofuturism, scholar and sci-fi writer Ytasha L. Womak says: “Even in the imaginary future—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.”[10] Afrofuturism puts that foot down.

Womak discusses various lineages of black artists—sci-fi and fantasy writers like Octavia Butler; musicians like Sun Ra, George Clinton and Janelle Monae; visual artists, poets, deejays, film-makers, museum curators, conference organizers—people who imagine Black and other peoples of color in the future through their artwork. This comes in response to dominant culture futurism’s failure to imagine Black and other peoples of color in the coming centuries or in imaginary, fantasy settings. In populating the future with Black people, Womak says “Afrofuturism unchains the mind.” It liberates the imagination, liberates creativity. When a person can imagine themself in the future—even a wild, seemingly impossible future, or a dystopian, post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested future—it generates hope, resolve, and action.

But Afrofuturism also looks back. Womack points to artists who refer to their ancestors, or to the ancient histories, mythologies, and cultures of the African continent. She quotes poet Khari B., who says, “It’s the sankofa effect…. One step into the future while looking back…. We’re evolving using the strength and characteristics of things that [brought us to where we are today]. We … pull from our past to build our future.”[11] Go back and get it!

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I want to leave you with three thoughts regarding how Afrofuturistic time travel might influence a historically white culture Unitarian Universalist congregation.

First, as a person descended most recently from White, European ancestors, it feels critical to me to approach Afrofuturism, as well as sankofa, deeply aware of the ways in which White, European culture historically has—and even today continues to—misunderstand, misrepresent, belittle, denigrate, appropriate, steal, and at times, destroy the cultural expressions of non-European cultures. The short-hand for this is ‘cultural racism.’ Mindful of it, I’m digging deeply into Afrofuturism, stiving to do so with the utmost humility and reverence.

Second. We live in the future’s past. contemplate that for a moment. Since we live in the future’s past, what is our responsibility for creating a future worthy of our principles—one that corrects the flaws of white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism and environmental injustice? One that is inclusive, loving, joyful? Womak says “the idea of time travel, oddly enough, reemphasizes the present.” That is, given the future we imagine, how should we act now? Who should we be today so that a loving, inclusive future becomes a reality? I read to you earlier from the hip-hop artist Gabriel Teodros’ story, “Lalibela.”[12] Teodros has a spoken word piece called “Colored People’s Time Machine,” in which he acknowledges, “I’m the future ancestor to my unborn seeds.”[13] He means we need to be conscious, aware, accountable to the people who are coming after us. We want them to come back and get us, to bring us into their present so that our example can help them shape their future. That’s time tavel.

Finally, I talked about the way Janelle Monáe collapses the boundaries between past, present and future in her music. Gabriel Teodros makes a similar statement in “Colored People’s Time Machine.” He says “Everything’s happening at once, right?” [14] The more human beings consciously travel in time—remembering and imagining, remembering and imagining, remembering and imagining—the more the boundaries between past, present and future actually disappear. Maybe they were never real in the first place. Maybe they are just illusions our minds create to make sense of our existence. Teodros continues: “ I see it in moments and I feel it in dreams  / and it would be so easy If I could let go of me. / It’s a constant process unravelling / You call it hip hop, I call it colored people’s time machine. / Made of music you feel what you don’t see, / I ride the vessel, the vessel is also me.” Arriving at that kind of enlightenment—that sense of oneness in time and space—is the goal of many spiritual practices. Sankofa suggests yet another approach. Go back and get it. Bring it forward. Shape the future by living well in the present. Ride the vessel, knowing you are the vessel.

Go back and get it.

Amen.

Blessed be.

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[1] For a general statement about Sankofa, see the article “Sankofa, What Does it Mean?” at the blog Sankofa: Filling the Digital Divide, Feb. 15, 2013: https://lnwatsonblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/sankofa-what-does-it-mean/.

For a general statement about adinkra, see the article “Adinkra Symbols” at the blog An Afroetic Narrative, 2016: https://afroetic.com/adinkra-symbols/. Also see reflections on sankofa and the sankofa bird in Womack, Ytasha L., Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2013) pp. 160-161.

[2] Mallett, Ron L., Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality (Basic Books: New York, 2009).

[3] UConn Talks, “Time Travel Fueled by Love,” with Professor Ron L. Mallett. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etJv4yTY4Ig.

[4] Spanos, Brittany, “Janelle Monáe Frees Herself,” Rolling Stone, Issue 1313/1314, May 17-30, 2018, pp. 34-36. See: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/janelle-monae-frees-herself-629204/.

[5] Sterritt, Laura, “Janelle Monáe’s Hidden Sci-Fi Epic,” Transchordian, October 24th, 2013. See: http://www.transchordian.com/2013/10/metropolis-janelle-monaes-hidden-sci-fi-epic/. Also see Womak, Afrofuturism, pp. 74-76. View further analyses of Janelle Monáe’s work at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMqng3HmPOA and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdylle_hPgQ.

[6] Pulliam-Moore, Charles, “From Metropolis to Dirty Computer: A Guide to Janelle Monáe’s Time-Traveling Musical Odyssey” at io9 We Come From the Future (Gizmodo), May 2, 2018. See: https://io9.gizmodo.com/from-metropolis-to-dirty-computer-a-guide-to-janelle-m-1825580195.

[7] View the emotion picture for Janelle Monáe’s “Many Moons” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHgbzNHVg0c.

[8] Listen to Janelle Monae’s “Dirty Computer” featuring Brian Wilson on Yutube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFK6k-pvXmI.

[9] Womak, Afrofuturism, p. 75.

[10] Womak, Afrofuturism, p. 7. Incidentally, Ytasha Womak is the creator of Rayla 2212—a multimedia series with music, books, animation and games that follows Rayla Illmatic … a rebel strategist and third generation citizen of Planet Hope, an Earth colony gone rogue some two hundred years into the future. Check out: http://rayla2212.com/welcome-to-the-world-of-rayla/.

[11] Womak, Afrofuturism, p. 160.

[12] Teodros, Gabriel, “Lalibela,” in Brown, Adrienne Maree and Imarisha, Walidah, eds., Octavia’s Brood (Oakland: AK Press, 2015) pp. 123-133.

[13] Tedodros, Gabriel, “Colored People’s Time Machine.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuIxAkZXsKI.

[14] Tedodros, Gabriel, “Colored People’s Time Machine.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuIxAkZXsKI.