Octavia Butler and America as only Black women see it

Contributed by
Oct 17, 2018, 6:05 PM EDT

Science fiction has always presented itself as an avenue to boundlessly reimagine the infinite possibilities of existence. It’s dystopian backdrops are — more often than note — the ruined landscapes of idealistic, noble and brave protagonists, with antagonists portrayed as somewhat misunderstood and broken down. The genre has been positioned as an escape from the monotony of oppressive human structures, led by characters unblemished by the primitive, calculated and efficient system of anti-black racism.

It is a rare writer who can use sci-fi not simply to chart an escape from reality, but as a pointed reflection of the most minute and magnified experiences that frame and determine the lives of those who live in black skin. Octavia E. Butler was one such writer. This year marks 20 years since the publication of one of her most inspired and radically profound novels, Parable of the Talents. This is a book which saw America through the “double consciousness” which W.E.B. Dubois asserted that only black people have cultivated, and which black women have sharpened to an extreme degree. An America that is bloody, unyielding, violent and tentatively united to mask a history never reckoned with.

The forewarning in Parable of The Talents is eerily accurate and so phenomenally prophetic, one is forced to consider whether Butler had solved the quantum mechanics of time travel, journeyed to the future and saw what was set to happen. She set the book in a post-apocalyptic America — the Pox — which was ravaged by, “coinciding climactic, economic and sociological crises, that lasted from 2015 until 2030. The main characters are two introspective and insightful black women: Lauren Oya Olamina and Larkin Olamina, a mother and a daughter whose community is threatened by the tyranny of the current President of the United States, President Andrew Steele Jarret. He is a president who crushes anything deemed different and longs for the simpler times when America was an isolated and singular Power, and whose people worshipped the same Christian God. He is a man whose desire for a golden America does not include refugees, religious tolerance or racial and gender equality. Small outlier communities that have decided to exist outside of Jarret’s iron fist are terrorized by militia clothed in black garments and emblazoned with large crosses. Under veil of night they burn homes, rape women, kidnap children and beat and kill those seen as enemies of the state.

Historically, Christianity has been used to justify unimaginable violence and most times it seems to be a religion that is only faithful to heterosexual white male lives. It’s not surprising then that for Butler, the end of the world would be paved with Christian fundamentalist beliefs which found fault with anything deemed unholy. “Jarret condemns the burning but does so in such mild a language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear,” Butler wrote.

Last year, much like President Jarret’s reticence to call evil by its name, President Trump refused to fully condemn the fascist white mobs who congregated in Charlottesville, and whose rally led to the death of Heather Heyer after a white supremacist ran his car into a crowd of peaceful protestors. President Trump insisted that violence had been perpetrated on “both sides” and his refusal to call out racism meant that those at fault heard what they wanted to hear, that their actions and beliefs were valid. Butler was exceptionally ahead of her peers with her ability to look at the America before her, look at the one she was born into and trace the America that would emerge 20 years later. 

Parable of the Talents was published during a particularly grueling time in American history. The year of its release, 1998, saw two school shootings and the conviction of another school shooter, Luke Woodham, who had killed two students the previous year. An abortion clinic was blown up in Birmingham, Alabama, and Paula Jones accused President Bill Clinton of sexual harassment. Matthew Shepard, 21, was murdered in Colorado in what became one of the defining acts of violence to make public the brutality of homophobia. James Byrd Jr., a black man, was killed by white supremacists in Texas; who after beating, urinating and defecating on Byrd, chained him to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged him for three miles on asphalt road. His head and arm were severed from his body. 

In 1998, the rights of women, the sanctity of black lives against the rabidness of white supremacy, the mindless ease of gun violence and homophobia all became visible in inescapable ways. For people who make up the most marginalized in society, the world has constantly seemed to be tearing at the seams, some years more viciously than others. When these vicious moments arrive they come in incessant waves of compounded trauma, survival and death. Parable of the Talents was not only filled with one writer's imagination but the very real possibilities of life under a rule that is essentially anti-democracy.

One of the most telling moments in the book comes when she described the political sentiments of President Jarret. While delivering speeches Jarret would rev up his supporters by evoking a biblical righteousness of good versus bad, and tapping into a single-minded patriotism that found strength in dominance. “Leave your sinful past behind, and become one of us. Help us to make America great again.”

Butler wrote Jarret as a cruel and unfit leader, and she saw him in the fabric of American society. He was someone who could be produced by the very structures on which the country was built on; Black and Indigenous genocide, Manifest Destiny, Capitalism and Convenient Liberalism. “The 13th and 14th amendments — the ones abolishing slavery and guaranteeing citizenship rights — still exist, but they’ve been so weakened by custom, by Congress and the various state legislatures, and recent Supreme Court decisions that they don’t much matter,” wrote Lauren Olamina, one of Butler’s main characters, about the state of crime in America in the year 2032.

In the same anniversary year when a black woman used sci-fi to map American destruction and imagine afro-futurism, another black woman, Janelle Monae, released her emotion picture album Dirty Computer which also harnessed the limitless potential of science fiction and its relationship to black liberation. Monae used pointed lyricism, evocative storytelling and powerful visual aesthetics to not only uplift blackness but to recreate black experiences in the realm of science fiction. As Jane 57821, alongside Zen (Tessa Thompson) and Che (Jayson Aaron), Monae set the album in a universe where all that is unconventional is persecuted but ultimately thrives through collective opposition. Using music, Monae walked the path carved out by Butler, and Dirty Computer exists in the same pantheon erected by the inimitable writer. A pantheon where world salvation is inextricably linked to the freedom of the most marginalized, dark-skinned, feminine bodies in our communities.

Parable of the Talents remains one of Butler’s most compelling works, a book that’s both Oracle and cautionary tale. Twenty years later, it is has aged not as something that simply belongs in the circles of literary academia, but as a mirror image of an American society that is flawed, fractured and perpetually haunted by the mistakes it’s never learned from. Only a black woman could have written something so glaring and unforgiving. 

“Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.” - Octavia E. Butler, Parable of The Talents

Top stories
Top stories