Octavia Butler’s Kindred is a time travel novel worth noting in light of work by contemporary Afrofuturists. The book’s protagonist, a 26-year-old African-American temp agent named Dana, finds herself suddenly and inexplicably transported from her home in present-day California (or the present day of 1979, the year the book was published) to a plantation in the Antebellum South. History kidnaps her, we might say. She doesn’t travel willingly. And when it occurs for her, travel is always to a painful and traumatic past. The book stages for readers an encounter with ancestors, leaving unventured the world of tomorrow. Kindred differs from conventional time travel narratives in other ways as well. Usually, time travel narratives feature white male protagonists who can travel to almost any period in history without sacrificing their privileged social status and position of dominance. These conventional white male protagonists can “pass” as ordinary figures from the period, while often using their knowledge of the future in order to gain power over others. For these characters, time travel is basically an exotic form of tourism, like a safari (as is explicitly the case in Ray Bradbury’s classic 1952 short story “A Sound of Thunder”). Meanwhile Dana’s appearance as a liberated black woman (in terms of clothing, skin color, manner of speech, etc) immediately places her in danger of rape and enslavement as soon as she arrives to the past.
Let us study Lauren’s Earthseed verses. They’re slim, featuring between one and five (occasionally seven) words per line. There are a lot of declarative statements. Also commands, imperatives like “Embrace diversity / Or be destroyed” (196). No questions. Frequent use of second-person — references to “You” the reader. “You with whom I speak.” Meaning all of us. Many of the verses insist on Earthseed’s central claim: “God is Change” (270). Lauren avoids all mention of herself. There is no “I” in these verses, but there is a collective “We” — members of Earthseed communicating with each other across time. Her journal entries narrate the creation of this community. We see a spontaneous, non-coerced collectivity arise in search of land where the group hopes to establish an armed commune, like David Koresh’s in Waco or John Africa’s MOVE community in Philadelphia. Unlike those other groups, though, Earthseed is matriarchal, multicultural, and democratic. Those of you who wish to learn more about MOVE, I recommend the 2013 documentary Let the Fire Burn, about the city of Philadelphia’s bombing of the group’s headquarters in 1985. Filmmaker Jason Osder incorporates an impressive array of found footage: TV news reports, live coverage of the bombing, press conferences, interviews, testimonies before an investigation commission, the works. The movie is heartbreaking, shocking: a story about “failure to resolve ‘conflicting lifestyles’ in a peaceful way,” as Commission Chairman William H. Brown III notes in an opening testimony at the start of the film. It fills one with anger and outrage and sorrow, so be warned. MOVE, after all, was a revolutionary organization. Members lived their lives in revolutionary opposition to the System. For this they were punished by the city’s ruling elites. But MOVE was also more than just a revolutionary organization; it was a religion. Its members lived their lives as part of a cosmic drama — spiritual warfare between the forces of good (or what MOVE members called “The Law of Mama”) and the forces of evil (i.e. “The System”). This is what grants the MOVE narrative its power. It teaches that this is what the Empire does: it prevents the formation of new religions and new religious movements. We see it meting out the same punishment in Butler’s sequel, Parable of the Talents, where a group of Christofascists invade Acorn, the first Earthseed community. Buildings are torched. Several people die; others are enslaved. And a similar story is told in Parable of the Sower — only the characters have switched parts. Reverend Olamina’s Baptist congregation is the religious community, and drug users and the poor are the ones who invade. Somewhere in this is a lesson about discernment. The name to say loudly now is “Breonna Taylor.”
Tasks arise, so I attend to them. One sees to the things one has to do. Grooming, cleaning, parenting. “So be it! See to it!” as Octavia E. Butler would say. The phrase was Butler’s mantra, one she wrote to herself in her journal years ago, before she was a published author. The words on that page of her journal are a spell. She decides what she wants and she proclaims it. Forget the excuses, she tells herself. “See to it!” Spells of this sort combine imperatives and future tense declarations of what will be. What were Butler’s thoughts on magic and the occult? What would she have called this if not magic? Psy-ops? An experiment in self-programming? Either way, it’s a power related to journaling. One becomes one’s own storyteller, writing dialogically day by day. Lauren’s journal functions this way. (Lauren is the main character in Butler’s Parable novels.) Lauren’s spells are the sections of the Parable novels written in verse. And here I am journaling about Butler‘s journals. Texts arrive bearing word about the process of initiation, like Butler’s 1988 novel Adulthood Rites, the second book in her Xenogenesis trilogy. (The three works in this trilogy — Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago — have also been gathered under the title Lilith’s Brood.) Initiation requires a teacher, though, does it not? Perhaps I can just learn from my friends.
Earthseed is a religion that worships “change,” figures “God” as a force or a process rather than a person. Change is a condition of being, in a sense — but not just a fixed fate. It can be “shaped.” Lauren Oya Olamina’s journal entries act as living testimony. Hers is a life of massive change, much of it painful. But Lauren plots and wishes and writes the story of her survival. She acquires followers through the sharing of her teachings while fleeing north following the destruction of her neighborhood. Is Earthseed political? Can we interpret it in light of political theology? As answer to these questions, consider the following. Butler’s novel was published in 1993. The following year, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, an act signed into law by President Bill Clinton. It’s also known as the Biden Crime Law. Current president-elect Joe Biden, serving at the time as Senator of Delaware, drafted the Senate version of the legislation. In a 1993 speech promoting the crime bill, Biden warned of “predators on our streets” who were “beyond the pale.” “We have no choice,” he said, “but to take them out of society.” Biden’s 1993 “predator” remarks are remarkably similar to comments made by then-first lady Hillary Clinton in 1996 warning of “superpredators” who had “no conscience, no empathy” and who needed to be “brought to heel.” Lauren, the inventor of Earthseed in Butler’s novel, uses this same language, imagining dangerous “predators” lurking near commercial water stations during her journey north (202). Lauren’s Earthseed religion encourages her to think this way. “Hyperempathy” makes one wary of “predators.” Lauren’s saving grace, though, is her distrust of police. That’s what distinguishes her from, say, Watchmen‘s Angela Abar.
The yard around the house changes, of course, with the change of seasons. Neighboring houses enter sight, though still from a great distance, as trees lose their leaves. ‘Tis the season to build beds, I tell myself, so that when spring arrives, we can plant the beginnings of our vegetable, herb, and flower gardens. Because of deer, we’ll also have to raise a fence. The yard around this fenced-in area will remain open: some parts wild woods of trees, other parts mown. The deer are thus welcome still to visit and graze. Students and I arrive, meanwhile, to the tragic, long-awaited “novum-event” at the mid-point or core of Octavia E. Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower. A drug-consuming cult of “crazies” or “pyros” attack the narrator-protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina’s walled neighborhood and separate her from her family, forcing her to flee north. Lauren travels on foot as part of a “pack” with two of her neighbors. The three characters — Lauren, Harry Balter, and Zahra Moss — must learn to trust one another to survive.
Students and I read Parable of the Sower together. Despite having read the novel several times now, I remain uncertain of my feelings regarding the starward longings of the book’s protagonist, Lauren Oya Olamina. Does outer space function for her as did the North Star for Frederick Douglass? Are indigenous people present in this vision? Perhaps those stories are not Lauren’s to tell. A student from Albuquerque recommended a book called The Green Glass Sea during our discussion of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony. Her grandfather moved the family to New Mexico, she said, for work related to the Manhattan Project. “They did some bad stuff there,” she noted. The “green glass sea” is the name given to the crater blasted into the desert by the first atomic device. The Ellen Klages book recommended by my student describes Los Alamos from the perspective of two female characters — children whose parents were scientists involved in the bomb’s creation. The book is in fact written for children. It’s an award-winning work of children’s literature. Given my student’s family connection to the story, I hope she pairs the book with Silko’s Ceremony for her final paper. Stepping away from my desk, I head downstairs and talk with Sarah. The two of us discover we own a freezer in the basement. We have a laugh about how “brat” is one of my go-to words when I’m angry. If so, it’s presumably a mannerism I “picked up” or “inherited” as a child. “Nasty Matt Calls Others ‘Brat'”: let us change that. Let there be no outbursts of anger. Recall instead childhood’s fonder moments. Enjoy. Relish the smell of homemade tomato sauce as it cooks on the stove.
Sarah reads Frankie the story of the Gingerbread Man as I mow the lawn. Earlier in the day Frankie and I watched an episode of the Comedy Central series Over the Garden Wall. The episode is called “Tome of the Unknown” and features a guitar-playing vegetable man named “Mr. Crops.”
The series title “Over the Garden Wall” reminds me of the next book I teach, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, as the book’s protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina flees her family’s gated community after the latter comes under attack from a group of “crazies” — people addicted to a drug called Pyro. Lauren quite literally escapes over the garden wall.
The title of Ishmael Reed and Al Young’s anthology Yardbird Lives! jumps out, meets me, sits with me on the page. It’s a utopian exclamation, analogous in sentiment to Octavia Butler’s “Earthseed,” the science-fictional revealed religion in her Parable novels. I think, too, of Hummingbird and Green Fly’s adventures “in time immemorial” in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony. Read beside “Earthseed,” the others seem like allegories of space travel. Reed runs his Afrofuturism in a way similar to Sun Ra. Time and space travel are returned from Western futurity to their home in Ancient Egypt. In Silko’s Laguna Pueblo cosmology, travel involves movement among “the world of the people” and “worlds below.” In Frederick Douglass, we encounter a similar narrative of flight, do we not? Leaving behind the Garden-that-is-in-fact-a-Slave-Plantation, Douglass travels to another world. With Gary Snyder, meanwhile, the focus is on saving this world, the continent and world of Turtle Island, or what Snyder in another of his books calls Earth House Hold.
In fugitive slave narratives of the nineteenth century, and continuing in neo-fugitive works like Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, freedom requires migration north on foot, master and his minions often in hot pursuit, as in the story of Harriet Tubman. It also involves extrication out from under the master’s religion, imposed over the course of the slave’s upbringing. Divinity has to be understood and believed in by the slave as something other than the wretched white tyrant who runs the farm. This understanding emerges surreptitiously, through what Fred Moten calls “fugitive study.”
A friend and I chat about Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Talents. It was a good conversation — so I think. A substantive, earnest thinking-through together. There is agreement that this could become a “reading group” of sorts. We’ve at least agreed to read another book together. But perhaps I should refocus my energies elsewhere. Grow vegetables. Tend the land. On my shelf sits Leaves of Grass. Beside it sit other books relevant to my work as a teacher: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead and Thoreau’s Walden and Resistance to Civil Government. Time to clean up and make good. At some point I also ought to read Ernst Bloch’s The Spirit of Utopia. Sarah urges me to rethink. The book I need to read at present, she reminds me, is Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.