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.
As I reflect upon Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Talents, I think first of the cruelty of the parable itself. It’s a parable that presages evolutionism, is it not? The ones rewarded by its god are those who go forth and multiply. It appears in two synoptic gospels: Matthew 25: 14-30 and Luke 19: 11-27. In each of its versions, the parable features a relationship between a master and his servants. The servants are placed in charge of the master’s goods while he’s away. Upon his return he “assesses” their stewardship. Measures, quantifies, ranks some numerical output or product. And then punishes the one who had the least talent and saved it — the one who produced no surplus. The one who profiteth not. The master, meanwhile, is a slave-master, described by the servant as “an hard man”: one who reaps where he has not sown, gathers where he has not strawed. By parable’s end, the “unprofitable servant” has been cast into “outer darkness.” The master promises, “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” So how does Butler, whose ancestors were slaves, respond to this parable? She tells the story of a different god: the god of Earthseed, the god of change. Yet change is a hard master too, is it not? Look at how the god manifests in the lives of Butler’s characters! Comparing Butler’s reply to the parable with the one given by John Milton, I prefer Milton’s: “God doth not need / either man’s work or his own gifts; who best / Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.” Milton’s god is the more merciful of the two. Other famous authors have critiqued the parable as well. In his Threepenny Novel (1934), Bertolt Brecht presents it as a component of capitalist ideology. “And…all who relate such things, I condemn!” he writes. “And I’ll go further: whoever listens to it and dares to refrain from taking immediate steps against it, him I also condemn!” Perhaps Butler’s great genius, however, was to place this parable in dialogue with another: the Parable of the Sower. Sower precedes Talents in Matthew and Luke, as it does in Butler.
Lo Lobey, the hero of Samuel R. Delany’s novel The Einstein Intersection, does something radical. Through him, Delany gets readers to enter imaginatively into a cosmos where an Orpheus archetype overtakes and renders as a minor subplot the story of “Green-Eye,” the book’s Christ figure. For many other black authors, however, including nineteenth-century fugitive slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass as well as black feminist science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, Christianity occupies a position of importance as bearer of myth. But in every case, it’s a Christianity “heard” and interpreted — Christianity turned into dialogue. Call and response. The Bible is rewritten from the perspective of the slave rather than from the perspective of those loyal to a lord or master. Douglass identifies a “divine Providence” acting upon his life, guiding him toward freedom. Butler, writing a century later in the America of the post-‘Civil Rights’ era, speaks not of Providence but of “change” — strongly distinguishing this god from the one worshipped by Christian American Crusaders. Which side are you on, y’all? Which side are you on?
Octavia E. Butler’s inclusion of a neo-slave narrative at the heart of her book Parable of the Talents leads me to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. A butterfly greets me at my window as I read, then floats off on its way. In a children’s book, we might follow the butterfly. But when the baby naps, we must reckon with Douglass. Born into slavery, he becomes a fugitive at twenty. Seven years later, in 1845, he authors his narrative.
Octavia E. Butler’s novels are painful to read; their narrators testify to traumas difficult to endure. In the Parable books, we’re made to identify with a first-person narrator who suffers from “hyperempathy syndrome’; she and others undergo attack, displacement, migrancy, enslavement, rape, torture, freedom from bondage, all manner of tragedy. Through it all is a story of survival. Lauren is a character who worships Change, and experiences her god in the events of her life. Always while reading, one is made to remember these are traumas that are part of black history, traumas inflicted by white supremacy and antiblackness throughout US history and with it the history of the West. The country is still right now trying to dismantle the Confederacy, if by the latter we mean the portion of America that wants to remain a white Christian settler-colonialist slave-state. The Confederacy lives, in other words, in that part of the republic that refuses the thirteenth amendment.
Butler’s version of Afrofuturism is far more pessimistic than the versions crafted by immediate precursors like Sun Ra and Samuel R. Delany. Christianity appears prominently in her work as both early influence and adversary. Think, for instance, of her use of gospel parables as structuring principles. Her narratives are “true” to the parables — grant the parables a kind of truth — even as they formulate Earthseed, a new religious movement discovered by Butler’s heroine and put into practice as Baptism’s replacement and successor.
In the second book in the Parable series, Parable of the Talents, Earthseed’s status as a religion places it into conflict with neighboring creeds, especially hostile, intolerant ones like US President Andrew Steele Jarret’s Christian America. With Earthseed, Butler creates for us a black feminist reimagining of John Africa’s group MOVE and its 1985 conflict with the Philadelphia Police Department during the reign of Ronald Reagan. Butler projects that earlier conflict forward into a twenty-first century America presaged by the LA riots of 1992. If one teaches this book, one should encourage one’s students to sit with Earthseed. Read its verses. Try it on, test it out as a belief system. Which aspects of it appeal to you? Which, if any, trouble you, and why? My attitude toward Earthseed is a bit like Zahra’s when she tells Lauren, “I don’t care about no outer space. You can keep that part of it. But if you want to put together some kind of community where people look out for each other and don’t have to take being pushed around, I’m with you” (223). After reading Nick Estes, I also find myself pondering Lauren’s relationship to settler-colonialism. Is Earthseed settler-colonialist, both in its establishment of Acorn (a literal settlement intent on growth) and in its advocacy for the spread of a “survivalistic” earthly biology into outer space? Or is its pursuit of multiracial community in fact the only real alternative to settler-colonialism? Settler-colonialism has already, for the past 500 years, been the case here on Turtle Island, and will remain so, unless and until groups commit to decolonization and antiracism. With Earthseed, Butler imagines for us a movement that does this. Earthseed resists the white settler-colonialist project, given that the biology Earthseed wishes to propagate is ethnically and racially diverse. All are welcome. To join, one simply agrees to live by Earthseed’s creed: a belief system that demands only that we serve and protect each other and come to each other’s aid — no more and no less.
Earthseed isn’t the first religion invented within the context of science fiction. Scientology comes to mind as another, invented by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. I’m also reminded of Discordianism, a religion of sorts propagated in part by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy. Like Hubbard’s Scientology, Earthseed is nontheistic — at least in the sense that the latter’s god is simply “change,” a process said to lack consciousness, yet capable of being “shaped” toward humanity’s “destiny” among the stars. Earthseed refuses to console with any promise of an afterlife. (A bit like Stoicism, in that sense.) As a belief system, I find it overly grim.
Earthseed, the religion founded by Lauren Oya Olamina, the heroine who narrates Octavia E. Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower, resembles other faiths (including the Baptism of Butler’s upbringing) in its evangelical cast. Lauren spreads the word and seeks converts, her church being a kind of mutual aid society. Together, she and her followers form a traveling, changing community — a “team” or “tribe” of sorts, decisions made organically based on the group’s capacity to survive amid thieves, murderers, cannibals, junkies, wild dogs, and arsonists. Lauren’s view of the world is paranoid, but it’s a paranoia borne out by lived events of trauma. She “experiences” and “shares” the pain of others due to what she calls “hyperempathy syndrome.” She has an ability that makes her vulnerable, and thus cautious of who she can trust. We needn’t think of this as mere delusion. The reactions to bodily harm sometimes manifest physically, another’s pain sometimes drawing blood. However we view this aspect of Lauren’s experience, it leads her to seek followers. She wants others to believe her, offering in exchange a path toward survival.