Service: “Suffer and Survive; The Voice of Octavia Butler” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
Octavia Butler died in the winter of 2006, at the age of 58; she did not live to see either Barak Obama or Donald Trump elected to the presidency of the United States. Which is too bad, because it would have been fascinating to see how she responded to those two events; what kind of stories might she have wanted to tell about our first black commander in chief, and the frightening reactionary shifts that followed in American politics? Butler’s first novel, Patternmaster, was published in 1976, the year of Jimmy Carter’s election, and the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence. It was the first commercially successful work of futurist science fiction by a black woman author. Patternmaster was followed by several sequel books set in the same imaginary universe, as well as three other series in other alternate realities. Her most widely known novel is Kindred, published in 1979; a work of historical fiction in which the black heroine travels in time from the present to the era of slavery, where she is forced to intervene in the lives of her black and white ancestors in order to ensure her own lineage. The enduring popularity of Kindred put Butler on a national stage, where her work became one of the originating strands of the movement known as AfroFuturism.
That movement has also found expression in music, in graphic arts, and in movies. Both the films Black Panther and Sorry to Bother You are recent examples of it. It is a cultural phenomenon that feels to me both surprising and to be expected; a message framed within the society of black America, addressed to and for itself, willing to be observed by the dominant white power structure, but not necessarily concerned with its issues. This morning I want to explore, from a white perspective, obviously, some of the dimensions of AfroFuturism – first, for the sake of our own cultural literacy here, so that we might have some idea what is going on in our world; second, for the sake of our congregational commitment to racial justice and understanding, so that we might gain some insight into what the folks of color in our communities may be thinking about; and third, for the sake of our own spiritual growth, to see how our sense of the world and its possibilities, and the location of the holy, could be expanded by this school of thought. There is much about AfroFuturism that I do not grasp; my age as well as my race is something of a barrier. Yet I am deeply intrigued, as well as confused and somewhat uncomfortable, with what I have learned so far.
Octavia Butler turned to writing science fiction at a very young age, in her early teens. Her literary ambitions crystalized one afternoon, sometime between her tenth and twelfth year, depending on which report you read, when she watched with growing indignation an uninspired sci-fi movie entitled “Devil Girl from Mars.” It features a black-spandex-clad female alien who arrives at a remote Scottish inn for the purpose of kidnapping human men to breed with on Mars. Give or take the allure of black spandex, Butler immediately felt that she could write a more engaging version of such a story. Movie critics of the time were not disposed to disagree with her. Within hours, as she tells it, she had written her first science fiction short story, about a young girl taken on a tour of the galaxy by aliens, and soon was sending that and other works to potential publishers. Though quite unsuccessful in terms of publication, she would continue these efforts throughout her high school and college years.
Although she would remain for most of the end of the 20th century one of the very few black science fiction writers, and for all practical purposes the only black woman in the field, the genre opened three important possibilities for Butler as an author. First, it allowed her to imagine characters of color in situations and outcomes that would have been highly unrealistic for the actual world of black experience. They could be powerful people, in leadership roles, with victorious endings such as had never played out on the stage of this world’s history. Second, she could create a vision of the future not controlled or populated exclusively by white men and their concerns, which was the dominant motif of typical sci-fi writers and readers of her era. Finally, and most important, the interplanetary stage enabled Butler to examine the concept of being alien, and the meaning of human vs. non-human, in a way that unpacked, with varying levels of subtlety, the black experience of alienation and de-humanizing in American culture.
Butler’s writing, and AfroFuturism in general, also contains a prophetic strand. It often extrapolates from current cultural, political, or scientific trends, to speculate about what could happen if those tendencies continue unchecked. Her “Parable” or “Earthseed” series, which stood tantalizingly unfinished at the time of her death, is a significant example. We know from her unpublished outlines and sketches that Butler envisioned a multi-part series that would trace the stories of numerous space colonies that all set out as “Earthseeds” at the same time, observing how their definition of humanity and their understanding of the human condition evolved differently, depending upon the conditions they encountered on the new planets they inhabited. Whether or not they met sentient beings, and whether or not the groups were able to communicate; the environmental situations, hostile or benign, that they faced; she saw it almost as a kind of controlled experiment, starting as much as possible with similar preconditions, and then isolating certain variables in order to ponder the impact they might have. In Butler’s mind, as in other AfroFuturist works, the futuristic journey to the stars was a kind of parallel to the middle Atlantic passage for generations of Africans kidnapped into slavery, arriving as alien creatures to an alien land and culture. How did the ancestors make sense out of an experience for which there could be no preparation, and no morally coherent explanation?
Butler intended to wrestle with this riddle, but the two volumes of the series that she actually completed only serve to establish the backstory, on earth, of how the colonizing effort came to exist. The earth she envisions, in the not very distant future, is dying of global climate change, and the political infrastructure of the once-United States has crumbled to anarchy and fascism. In this dystopian society, a young black woman concludes that the only way to ensure humanity’s survival is to create a community whose mission is to send out ‘earthseed’ human space colonies, and that the most effective way to accomplish this is to teach a novel religion. You heard some passages from its scriptures a few moments ago in the reading. The process of building that community in the midst of post-apocalyptic chaos, and the unfolding of its spiritual teachings, occupy the first volume, Parable of the Sower. The sequel, Parable of the Talents, deals with the unexpectedly powerful resistance of the Christian right, as well as the cost of sacrificing immediate relationships for the sake of longer term goals. This latter question is particularly poignant in the light of traumatized cultural memories of the forcible separations of slave parents from their children, and married couples from each other. It is also probably not irrelevant that Butler’s own mother died during the writing of this specific book.
As you may begin to perceive, Octavia Butler’s science fiction is not easy reading. Although her leading characters are sometimes quite young at the beginning of the story, I would argue that her work does not really belong in the young adult category. Her understanding of human nature is complex and ethically ambiguous. Her take on history is a sequence of moral forced surrenders by individuals under the domination of implacable and arbitrary forces, whether that be technologically superior space aliens, or white supremacy and slavery. In college, she once heard a black activist classmate express his frustration with the elder generations accommodating the structures of racial segregation. “I’d like to kill all these old people who have been holding us back for so long,” he announced, “but I can’t because I would have to start with my own parents.” Butler realized that she also despised the way her mother was treated by the people she worked for as a maid, but the fact that her mother accepted this without protest was what kept them both fed and sheltered and allowed Octavia to grow up. She went on to write the novel Kindred, in which a heroine with contemporary sensibilities is forced to decide how to respond to the dilemmas of life as a slave. The character Dana and the reader both come to understand that individual resistance was often both futile and dangerous, and that there is heroism in sheer survival. Sometimes the only way to survive was to become complicit, to accommodate the evil, but this was what made any kind of future possible.
This theme shows up again and again in Butler’s writing; there is always suffering, and the point is not to make it stop, but to endure and survive, so that other possibilities have a chance to arise. She never had children herself, but it was a larger form of living on that interested her; the survival of a people, a race, a species. Another aspect of survival that she examined was change. As you have heard, in the invented religion of Earthseed, she explores the idea that god is change, the one constant of the universe and of human experience. All of the encounters that Butler sets up between humans and other creatures revolve around how much either can change the other, or both can change, before what they were to start with is destroyed, or turned into something definitively different.
This is, not surprisingly, one of the questions raised by AfroFuturism more broadly, and it is one that troubles the waters of our society generally. How do we value what is distinctive about a particular culture – let us say, for example, black culture in 20th century America – without implicitly disparaging or demonizing all that it is not? How do we remain faithful to any given value – for example, honesty, or mercy, or respect – when the world around us changes, and the old ways no longer lead to the same results? Each of Butler’s characters is challenged to persist in a struggle to hold on to something precious, while encountering the overwhelming forces of change. We can’t stop change, she affirms in the Earthseed gospel; we can only try, through wisdom, forethought, imagination, and learning, to shape change. Not to control it, but to give it a push in the direction that makes sense to us. Dana, the heroine of Kindred, cannot control the way that life and death and pain unfold for her ancestors, but she can nudge events in the direction of a future and a legacy that includes her own life as a free woman more than a century later.
AfroFuturism is above all an act of imagination, the envisioning of a world that has never yet existed. One of Butler’s later short stories, entitled The Book of Martha, consists of a conversation between a black narrator and god, who morphs during the course of the encounter from a conventional white man with a beard to a black woman by the end. This god offers Martha, the narrator, the opportunity to change one thing about the human condition that will serve to improve the world and the lives of people in it. God assigns her this power, and responsibility, somewhat against her will, but can only suggest some of the possible consequences of her decision, not guarantee the outcome. After talking herself out of several other ideas, in the end Martha settles on giving all human beings intense and fulfilling dreams, in the hopes that if their lives contain that amount of satisfaction, they might not be so ambitious for power in their waking lives, and so willing to make others suffer in order to attain that power. God, too, is curious what effect this change will have on humanity as a whole. AfroFuturism often imagines this kind of curious, learning, co-suffering god as a cosmic partner in the human project of creating a livable society. It may be, like much of Butler’s writing, intensely dystopian in its vision of reality in the present and near-time future, but its longer vision is not utopian. This is illustrated well in the movie Black Panther, where the imagined hidden kingdom of Wakanda is not without challenge, stress, and human fallibility. The crucial ingredient, as always, is the hope for legacy and healing; a future with a continuing connection of gratitude to the past. Afrofuturism is a creative resolution of past and present trauma by envisioning a future, not of perfection, but of wholeness, in which the pain of history is integrated both by individuals and by the culture as a whole.
Octavia Butler also urged her characters, and by extension her readers, to bear fruit in spite of the very real reasons for despair. Survival in itself is a virtue, and an achievement against the odds, not to be scorned. Yet survival has a direction, and a collective purpose. We hold on, and hang in, for the sake of what we can envision, for the sake of the stories we tell each other about a world that might yet be. This vision is organic, and open; it is the opposite of empire’s constant grasping for greater control. As Ytasha Womack says, “Perhaps with a desire to improve the world’s conditions, we’ll link into a larger group of people with a shared vision of sustainability and equality. Starting with our imagination and implementing ideas through our actions, we’ll live the future.” This is the heroism that Butler advocates, and that AfroFuturism celebrates. It is not the white male gladiator who with a small team of helpers imposes his will and eliminates all danger; that is the myth of empire, and the seed bed of oppression. Rather, it is a more modest shared longing for a world of less harm; a collective vision that cannot work if it leaves out any part or fails in reciprocity, respect, or mutuality. In this version, violence is not a tool for the creation of order, but a rather a failure of imagination and community. It is a reality to be acknowledged with grieving, including the impulse that dwells within each of us, and then re-imagined with the shaping power of change.
Octavia Butler realized that if only white men tell stories about what the future might be, then that future will always conform to the ways in which white men see the world. She worked consciously to put herself and people like herself, into the stories of what it might mean when humans encounter non-humans, because those concepts are so deeply embedded in the history of her people. She worked through story to untie the knots of generational trauma that keep our communities from our best resilience and creativity. She helped to originate a movement that would see both black experience and black imagination as important resources in a troubled world. She invited us all into a new Copernican revolution; to take our species, and by implication, our race, out of the center of our picture of the universe. That move is an act of imagination so demanding that we can only sustain it for short periods of time; she challenged us to stretch that capacity, because in it might lie the possibility of our survival as a species, and our salvation.