What happens to those initiated into a world of magic, made to embark upon a path or journey by way of psychedelics? More specifically, what happens when this process begins in absence of teachers and institutional containers — when shamans and rituals, in other words, are not part of the initiate’s lifeworld, the initiate stripped of these on account of having rejected the religion of his ancestors in his youth? The search for a new framework becomes part of the initiate’s quest, does it not? One doesn’t even know at first that the process has begun. Advice arrives, though, as one asks around. One learns from fellow heads. Elders pass along teachings by book, by song, by word of mouth. Writings appear on walls, counseling one to pray and meditate. Days fill with makeshift, self-invented rituals — practices adapted to local conditions in the course of one’s travels. We become weird ones — lonely experimentalists sitting Indian-style in the dark. Are our adaptations legitimate ones, or are they products, as René Guénon warns, “of a merely individual caprice” (Perspectives on Initiation, p. 4)? Guénon would call those about whom I speak “mystics” rather than “initiates.” “In the case of mysticism,” he writes, “one never knows just where one is headed” (8). For Guénon, “the mystical path differs from the initiatic path in all its essential characteristics, which difference is such as to render the two truly incompatible” (9). Given subsequent right-wing uses of Guénon’s philosophy by monsters like Steve Bannon, however, we must take care not to place too much stock in this distinction.
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.”
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.
Drafting a series of notes on Julius Lester’s telling of the “Stagolee” narrative, I ask myself: What can we say of the tale’s protagonist? Is Stagolee a hero, a superhero, a deity, an antihero, a villain? In what way is he a “rebel”? He’s not just a murderer. He’s a community hero. He cares for his victim’s wife and kids. Others love him and celebrate him at his funeral. He is what I think Ishmael Reed would call an “Osiris” figure, given his magical capacity for self-resurrection. Osiris both is and is not the same as Christ. He likes to party and dance and have a good time. He shares his love with others. Cecil Brown, however, recognizes in Stagolee Shango, the Yoruba god of thunder (Brown 3). He claims that there were field hollers and field blues that predate the 1895 shooting of William Lyons by Lee Shelton. The songs precede, foretell — prophetically conjure into being, we might say — the characters in the newspapers. The vibrational form of the song dreams the world into being. Religion is once again the site of battle. It is against one religion, a certain kind of Christianity, and in practice of another that Stagolee’s rebellion is staged. He rejects all higher authority, including that of the Lord of what Frederick Douglass called “the slaveholder’s religion.” Stagolee is a man who can say, as Douglass did, that he is his own master.
Students in my classes produced presentations on Beats, Hippies, and Millbrook. The third class was more comprehensive in its coverage — though none of the groups mentioned the new religions and religious organizations formed at Millbrook: the Neo-American Church, for instance, and the League for Spiritual Discovery. Practitioners of religion were targeted by government. These were utopian communities of love and peace: open, welcoming communities founded not through settlement but through sacramental use of psychoactive substances. They modeled for the civilization the Alternative, the solution to the economic and environmental crises. They also modeled, however imperfectly, an attempt at alliance with anti-racist, anti-colonial groups like the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement — a point neglected in the histories presented by my students. Is there more I could say to help them vote? Or is the action we must take vaster than that? Let us trust that the texts will lead the way, permitting us to say what needs saying.
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.”
Pantheism is a condition of democracy, is it not? Athens is a many-voiced cosmos. I imagine it would be a condition of any polis built atop slavery and conquest, no matter the imperial ambitions of passing and changing monotheocratic regimes throughout history. Even “secular” states, monotheocratic in their own right, possess those who believe in angels, demons, spirits, ghosts, ancestors. Western rationalism demands adherence to a realism that denies these realities. The West imagines itself to be superior — more “Enlightened.” It brandishes its weapons and says “Might Makes Right.” Police keep a bloody peace, the latter maintained through ritualistic violence. The poet Allen Ginsberg recognized this; America worships a bloodthirsty god — a god like Moloch, the deity denounced in the second section of Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Yet rebellion persists; people rise up, riot, live communally, wage culture war, reclaim land. To win, we must ease the Other’s fears so as to prevent further violence.
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.
How might we characterize Frederick Douglass’s views regarding religion? Douglass tries to forestall misunderstanding about his views in the appendix to his autobiography. He doesn’t want his readers to suppose him “an opponent of all religion” (107). “What I have said respecting and against religion,” he writes, “I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. […]. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (107). Why is religion the terrain of appeal here at book’s end? Religion has been a tool of indoctrination, a violently imposed ideology, a “crown of thorns”-style cognitive map and/or map of the cosmos imposed upon slaves. Douglass shows that the crown can be seized and repurposed. The slave arrives into Logos, reclaims “Scripture,” and sits in judgment upon the master. Douglass’s religious views also manifest in his several attestations about “divine providence,” and his claims regarding the latter’s influence over key events in the course of his narrative.
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.