In Plain Sight: Octavia E. Butler and Black Futures

Octavia E. Butler’s birthday was on June 22, 1947. She is the mother of black futures and would have been 73 years old this year. Her worlds explored Black people and situations where race, sexuality, and hierarchy determined the fates of her characters. She never sugar-coated scenarios, often bringing the worst of human nature to light, but it’s a necessary exercise to inspire change. Butler won countless awards for her books, was the first sci-fi writer to win the McArthur Fellowship in 1995 and wrote herself into her narratives because there was a lack of Black female representation in science fiction. For someone who was a shy, bookish child, Butler overcame hiding in the shadows to take up space as a Black woman.

Let’s take a moment here. Black women have been oppressed, sexualized and raped, killed, and forgotten to this very day. It was (and still is) assumed that we don’t feel pain as much as white people. For me, as a young Black woman who had to learn about Black culture through skewed examples from school and pop culture despite my parents’ efforts, finding a Black female sci-fi writer blew my mind. I remember reading Mind of My Mind, my introduction to Butler, and the description of Mary, the book’s protagonist. I had to re-read Mary’s description a couple of times. This character was Black. Black!  She had “a kind of light coffee” colored skin. She was a telepath in training, something I had always fantasized about. I had to know more about this writer and the worlds she created.  I read Patternmaster and Bloodchild soon after, as well as many others from her catalog.

Before then, I had read Stephen King, Clive Barker, and a slew of pulp horror paperbacks. I hadn’t realized there was a Black female sci-fi writer. I wanted to write fiction for the longest time, sci-fi, and horror, but I always felt characters I wanted to write would have no place in the world at large. Butler’s work was earthshattering and something I held close to my heart for a long time. Speculative fiction became a thing for me, and I also discovered Nalo Hopkinson, who was heavily inspired by Butler. Hopkinson also did something that blew me away. Not only did she write about black people in science fiction, but she incorporated Caribbean folklore into her stories. This insertion of Black people – Black women – in the future shouldn’t be ground-breaking, but our past isn’t one thought of as progressive. After all, the shadow of slavery and oppression is a part of our history. I, like a lot of black youth, couldn’t think outside of the box built for me out of oppression and stereotypes. For those of us who never felt seen or heard or who thought we didn’t matter, seeing ourselves in science fiction is huge. I encourage you to read any one of her books. Her writing will always be essential and prophetic, challenging the way we approach and think about race, especially now in these times of uncertainty and civil unrest.

Extras:

There are TV series in production based on Butler’s books: Wild Seed to be directed by Wanuri Kahiu and Dawn to be directed by Victoria Mahoney. It’s no wonder Butler’s books haven’t been adapted or the screen sooner, but as we all know, if your main character is a Black woman, diversity won’t sell. Things are changing fast, however, so there’s hope.

Octavia’s official website and her list of published works.

bbc.com: Why Octavia E Butler’s novels are so relevant today

Octavia E. Butler’s essay on racism and a brief interview with her about the essay on NPR.

 

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