Octavia in Vegas: Teaching Octavia Butler in a Las Vegas Classroom

By Briana Whiteside

 

Abstract

“Octavia in Vegas,” explores my experiences with teaching science fiction writer Octavia Butler in the English classroom. The article reveals the syllabus construction, student resistance and responses to Butler’s works, and how we interpreted her significance in popular culture. It also interrogates possible limitations of the course, such as how the material was taught and my teaching methods.

Keywords: Octavia Butler, science fiction, Afrofuturism, teaching


At its best, science fiction stimulates imagination and creativity.

It gets reader and writer off the beaten track, off the

narrow, narrow footpath of what ‘everyone’ is saying,

doing, thinking—whoever ‘everyone’ happens to be this

year. And what good is this to Black people?”

—Octavia Butler

 

In Spring 2019, at The University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), I taught an African American Literature course on science fiction writer Octavia Butler. The course, The Octavia Butler Mixtape: An African American Sci-fi Timeline, was an upper division class. With the resurgence of interest in Butler’s work, coupled with popular culture’s fascination with artificial intelligence, altered states of being, and communicating and knowing, I believed that a course on black science fiction would be timely. UNLV’s large minority demographic and geographical location, just blocks away from the Las Vegas Strip, which offers unique forms of reality just beyond the university walls, also encouraged hope that students would understand and appreciate the science fiction experiences happening in close proximity to the university.

This, of course, was not the case on the first day of class when I announced to students that we would use the first black, female, sci-fi writer as a lens to think about African American experiences on American soil and beyond. The confusion and disappointment was apparent on the faces of many students at the mention of science fiction, a genre with which many could not relate because in their minds science fiction meant Star Wars and/or Star Trek.[1] In fact, one African American student raised her hand and remarked, “I thought that this was an African American literature course.” Other students nodding in agreement signaled to me that we had much work to do to decolonize notions of the genre and examining how inserting black bodies into narratives that imagined new futures for humanity disrupted the stability of science fiction.

Admittedly, the distance that some students of color experience with reading science fiction has roots in the historical weaponization of the genre that continued marginal attacks on African Americans. For instance, Ytasha Womack asserts that “it was an age-old joke that blacks in sci-fi movies from the ’50s through the ’90s typically had a dour fate … black characters in films popped up as the silent, mystical type or maybe a scary witch doctor, but it was fairly clear that in the artistic renderings of the future by pop culture standards, people of color weren’t factors at all” (7), explaining why black people generally resist the genre. However, the official histories of African Americans gesture toward a science fiction nightmare, whether through branding, forced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment, Tasers, or other technologies of horror performed on black bodies. How, then, are we able to bridge discussions pertaining to history, literature, and popular culture in the classroom? A course on Octavia Butler might provide some answers.

In order to disarm students, I asked about the technology of the iPhone, a communication device that offers the FaceTime video calling function, and the Apple Watch, a smart watch that allows you to communicate with another person from your wrist. Less than fifteen years ago, FaceTime and the capability to talk on a watch were imaginings of the 1960s show The Jetsons. We also explored the digitization of news media and the current rise of robot assistants in stores like Walmart and at hotels on the Las Vegas Strip. In essence, what students have come to accept as normal were once science fiction visions. From there, we examined the Las Vegas Strip and the hyperreality that it provides visitors and residents. Why do so many people enjoy visiting Las Vegas? In short, it affords an experience like nowhere else: it is a place and a non-place simultaneously. While New York is known as the city that never sleeps, and Times Square provides a unique experience for tourists, Las Vegas does so even more. It offers a legal space to explore sexuality, consumption, and alterities of time, space, and culture. Individuals travelling from other areas of the United States either move forward or backwards in time once they arrive in Nevada. From the architecture to the to light shows, the Las Vegas Strip momentarily promises tourists the freedom of utopian living and a science fiction dream.

In addition, we examined the promises of the present-day Afrofuturism movement and the importance of imagining black people in the future. Students were familiar with artists such as OutKast and the ATLiens album; the image and Afrocentric philosophies of Erykah Badu; Lil Wayne’s song “Phone Home,” where he admits, “We are not the same, I am a Martian”; Michael Jackson’s moon walk; Nikki Minaj’s song “Spaceships” and the accompanying video; and Janelle Monaé’s Archandroid album and aesthetic. However, they struggled with connecting the technologies that they used daily to their proximity to the Strip and the music with which they were familiar. My course sought to bridge the gaps and also introduce them to science fiction by way of a culture in which they were already immersed.

 

The Course, Syllabus, and Structure

Octavia Butler’s literary corpus includes twelve novels and nine short stories. In a sixteen-week course, instructors have to be strategic about which texts to include and the rationale behind them. Since my goals were to introduce students to the first black female science fiction writer, bridge the gap between literature and popular culture, and examine black history and futures, I decided to teach texts that correspond to the timeline of the African American literary canon as represented in the Norton Anthology of African American literature: Oral Traditions; Slavery and Freedom; Reconstruction; Harlem Renaissance, Realism, Naturalism, and Modernism; Black Arts; and the Contemporary period. We read Butler’s texts in the following order: Wild Seed (1980), Kindred (1979), Mind of My Mind (1977), Fledgling (2005), Bloodchild and Other Stories (2005), Clay’s Ark (1984), Patternmaster (1976), Parable of the Sower (1993), Dawn (1987). This structure allowed me to thematically anchor Butler within a tradition of black literary thought, but also position her within more productive discussions about individual responsibility, future cultural responsibility, and social and political agency, which are all aims of Afrofuturism.

The Octavia Butler Mixtape course had twenty-nine students. Of the twenty-nine students, fifteen were of color, six were men, and twenty-three were women. There were fourteen non-English majors who were unfamiliar with the reading-intensive nature of the English classroom, providing many moments of tension. The class was held on Monday and Wednesday from 2:30-3:45pm, and we usually read the texts over three class periods. The time of the course, gender imbalance, and diversity of majors and students provided unique experiences and discussions in the classroom. My intersectional identity as a young black female assistant professor—and the only black woman in my department—may have also created tensions. One student mentioned that she had never taken a course at UNLV taught by a black woman in the English department. This article recounts my educational experiences with teaching a course on science fiction writer Octavia Butler in Las Vegas, less than four hours from her home of Pasadena, California.

Some of the course’s goals were to help students attain a broad understanding of African American literary history from slavery to beyond the twenty-first century and develop an understanding of African American literary traditions as a progressive art form and how those forms lead to the contemporizing of themes, motifs, and ideologies that help to shape Afrofuturism. I also sought to help students strengthen their analytical reading and critical thinking skills, especially as they relate to issues of ideology, identity, and difference. Students were responsible for completing daily reading quizzes, a midterm, a final paper, and co-leading classroom discussion with me. They were required to email me twenty-four hours prior to their presentation date three to four discussion questions on their text. One of the questions needed to adhere to the thematic breakdown to which the book corresponds.

 

Butler, Class Discussions, and Student Responses

Kindred (1979), a novel that explores slavery and the antebellum South, is a general entry to Butler’s writings; however, in an African American literary course that begins with the exploration of black life prior to the Middle Passage, I began with the neo-slave narrative, Wild Seed (1980). Wild Seed follows Anyanwu —a 350-year-old oracle— as she migrates from a small Neolithic community outside of an Ibo village, to the shores of Africa where Africans are sold, through the Middle Passage, to eighteenth century New England and United States—more specifically Wheatley, New York, where she ends up living on the Wheatley plantation. By the end of the novel, Anyanwu eventually arrives at Avoyelles Parish plantation in nineteenth-century Southern Louisiana, and then relocates to California. The narrative begins in 1680 and ends around 1858 before the Civil War and tracks an unlikely emotional/tense/strained affair between Anyanwu, a shape-shifter, and Doro, a vampire-like body-snatching spirit entity who is intent on establishing a superhuman race by selectively breeding those who have special abilities.

Wild Seed provides coverage of African American oral traditions, African spirituality, folklore, the Middle Passage, migration, and the experiences of the enslaved in the early Americas. Students were able to imagine life in Africa for a black woman prior to the commodification of her body and exploitation of her sexuality on American soil. The Middle Passage scenes in the text offer room to not only understand experiences during the voyage, but also contemplate the power of African spirituality and bodily agency through Anyanwu’s shape-shifting capability. Although students were initially uncomfortable with the “weird[ness]” of the protagonist changing into animal and other racialized persons, discussions surrounding black female bodies moved beyond degradation and into possibility. We discussed the value of Butler expanding the slave and migration narrative to include a black woman who can move metaphysically. On the last day of Wild Seed’s discussion, students admitted that they enjoyed how Butler “expands representation of black characters,” “decenters dominant historical accounts that are covered in history classes,” and “[her] exploration of power because we [students] are tired of reading about black weakness.” The majority of students also revealed that they finished the text ahead of schedule and were struggling during classroom discussions not to talk about the scenes that their peers did not yet have knowledge of.

Continuing with the themes of migration and enslavement, we read Butler’s most well known work, Kindred. The neo-slave narrative investigates and challenges notions of enslavement through the protagonist, Edana (Dana) Franklin, a twenty-six-year-old black woman who is consistently snatched from 1976 California back into 1800s Maryland to ensure the survival of her “several times great grandfather” (28) Rufus Weylin, a white slave holder. While her surface goal is to save Rufus’ life, her underlying task is to guarantee that Rufus rapes her several times great-grandmother, Alice Greenwood, a black woman, to enable her birth decades later. Dana can neither anticipate when Rufus will call her from the twentieth century nor be certain that she will survive her time in the past. Ultimately, the only thing that allows Dana to escape 1800s Maryland is the fear of losing her life. However, the longer that she spends in the past, the more she learns to adapt to its living conditions and the expectations of African Americans, which makes it more difficult to scare her back to the future/present.[2]

Kindred did many things for students. On the one hand, it allowed them to “feel slavery,” which was Butler’s goal; allowing readers to feel the emotions, smell the aromas, and internalize the fears of slavery.[3] In fact, one student struggled to articulate how “snatching black folks back to the past” was hard for him to experience because it forced him to come to terms with the “temporality” of his own body. On the other hand, it offered students space to contemplate the long-lasting, present-day effects of enslavement on the minds and bodies of the descendants of the enslaved through Dana’s teleportation back to modern society. Students examined how “historical trauma” revisits the lives of people today, and how Butler uses memory as a portal between the past and the present. In addition, they expressed extreme dislike for Tom Weylin and his son Rufus, which is understandable, but not without considering the demands of slavery on the Southern planter class. In all, students unapologetically grappled with America’s complex history and treatment of black bodies in a way that did not distance them from her history, but enticed them to bear witness and critically analyze America’s dark past.

For Reconstruction, we read Mind of My Mind (1977) and Fledgling (2005). In African American literature, in addition to examinations of the New South post-Civil War, the Reconstruction era focused on African American uplift through literacy and language. Some of the guiding questions for this unit were: How do ancestral ways of knowing dismantle notions of African American illiteracy and inferiority? How do alternative forms of literacy and knowledge-gathering help African Americans combat objectivity and assert agency?

As the sequel to Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind continues the legacy of the shape-shifter Anyanwu and spirit-man Doro. In Mind of My Mind, Doro’s vision for a superhuman race of being is fulfilled, but not by his own doing. In fact, his twenty-year-old “experimental model” (278) telepath daughter, Mary, creates a community of superhuman people and holds them in a mental pattern that she controls. As a “complete version of [Doro]” (448), Mary has the ability to communicate telepathically with hundreds of people and create a new form of literacy that privileges those who have this special ability. In the text, Butler dismantles the illiteracy stigma associated with African Americans and reveals the power behind the ways that black people create alternative forms of meaning and communication.

Mind of My Mind was a difficult text to teach because it was not as straightforward as Wild Seed and Kindred. In fact, Mind of My Mind is one of Butler’s most understudied texts because of the telepathy and the fact that the narrative stretches readers to draw connections that are not readily available. In other words, Butler spoon-feeds readers in several of her works, but with Mind of My Mind, readers have to come to the table on their own. I approached the idea of literacy and speculative literacy by building on the ways that African Americans produce knowledge outside of institutional ways of knowing. I started with sharing about the fluidity of what is understood as literacy and how it has long been a topic of debate in scholarly discourse.

On a large scale, literacy, historically situated, has been measured by one’s ability to read and write. In fact, in several of cognitive researchers’ historical studies, the researchers reason that people who conduct meaning within oral communities are illiterate.[4] I explained to students how the criteria by which African Americans have been/are measured—compared to Westernized societies—have constructed a flawed knowledge base within mainstream cultures. I am referring to the tradition of criticizing and misunderstanding black intellectual practices and knowledge production, and how the inappropriateness of measuring African American cultures by a set of “literate” standards that have been traditionally anti-black further complicates the lives of those who produce meaning in other forms. I wanted the class to understand why Butler chose to move away from the written text and book learning and toward African American literacy through attention to telepathy, gestures, artifacts, and memory. I also encouraged students to think of telepathy as a form of coded speech—a vernacular form gesturing toward orality—and the benefits of communicating in a privileged way that is similar to African American Vernacular English (AAVE).

While getting students enthusiastic about Mind of My Mind was a bit difficult because it did not immediately “involve action,” the literacy discussions were fruitful. We were able to discuss the limitations of institutional literacy and access for African Americans and interrogate how knowledge is produced and disseminated in ways that create intellectual biases toward minority groups. From there, we talked about how African Americans have often turned to communal literacies, such as those produced in social spaces, as illustrated in songs and stories, especially during Reconstruction, to prepare individuals for survival or how to act. African American speech practices, such as African American Language (AAL) and AAVE or “Ebonics,” have equipped black people with alternative forms of knowledge that assist in navigating within and outside of black communities, and we used this to examine Mary’s and the Patternists’ rise to power.[5]

With an understanding of social literacy and how Butler reimagines communication inside and out of black spaces, we examined how Mary’s mental strand establishes and enhances the effectiveness of the telepath community by bringing them together in a way that was not previously possible.[6] The pattern is a cerebral web that forms while transitioning from a powerless person to a superhuman being. The psychological link is explained as a mind-shifting phenomena that locks other powerful telepaths into her head when Mary becomes aware of their presence, which had not been previously possible for any other telepath. Through the pattern, telepathy functions as a substitute for the institutional practices of learning, such as book reading and even speech. For example, in the same way that history books and diaspora writers attempt to educate through writing and rewriting history, Mary uses the pattern to inform and liberate telepaths from their identity crisis. The benefit of the telepathic way of knowing is that it eliminates suspiciousness or skewed intentions of secondhand information. For instance, Mary explains that once the information is transferred, “it wouldn’t have been easy for [people] to disbelieve information force-fed directly into their minds” (389). We also thought about the possibility of returning to African American Verbal Traditions (AVT), a branch of AAL that, according to Williams-Farrier, “…exceed[s] the verbal to include non-verbal … communication” (220), and contemplated the healing that it might offer black people. At the end of Mind of My Mind, which no one rushed to finish, students explained that they were beginning to understand “the importance of education and literacy.” They shared about how they create meaning within their own communities, and the very real limitations of institutional literacy for their personal survival.

In the vein of alternative literacies, I used the vampire novel Fledgling to explore familial literacy. The narrative is a vampire parable about race, science, literacy, and identity. The protagonist Shori Matthews is the lost child of the ancient Ina species, a group of near-immortal beings who have a hunger for blood. As an experimental model, Shori has been genetically engineered to have dark skin in an attempt to find ways to limit vampirical vulnerability during the day. The immobility of the Ina species during daylight makes them susceptible to human attack and extermination. Shori is an anomaly, one that gives pause to some of the white vampire founding families that are against accepting her black body. For example, not only is the Silk Ina family afraid of a day-walking being, but they are also fearful of the racial implications of accepting Shori’s black body. As a result, they exterminate both sides of her family and leave her with a bad case of amnesia. Butler highlights and glorifies the importance of melanin in the skin, but more importantly, draws attention to the tensions of racism through attention to folkloric themes, such as creation stories, rumors, myths, and stereotypes, which all lend themselves to historical knowledge gathering practices for African Americans. Overall, Shori’s survival and difference signal a sense of hope in prolonging a species that is in danger of becoming extinct.

In Shori’s quest to (re)learn the history of her family, she is provided with various teaching tools. The legacy of Ina is racially white, whose written history reaches back “more than ten thousand years” (130), and they are one of a fading species intent on discovering a way to survive extinction. While the Ina written tradition covers 400 generations and is available within the community, when Shori wakes, she is positioned within an oral community where she gains knowledge of ancestral roots through stories and verbal history lessons due to the urgency of her investigation in identifying her family’s murderers. In forcing Shori to (re)learn the traditions of her male and female families, Butler uses the erasure of the written tradition of the white Ina to teach Shori in a realm that more closely aligns with her historical identity, which ultimately leads to the conviction of her family’s murderers.

Some students admitted that Butler’s Fledgling was “weird.” Although they appreciated television shows that explored vampirism, such as The Vampire Diaries, experiencing vampirism on the page gave them pause. There were also students who explained that they did not prefer the long descriptive passages illuminating Shori’s learning process and wanted Butler to get to the point, much like in Mind of My Mind. In essence, students were growing impatient with the slow process of learning and had a desire for Butler to tell them what they needed to know. This reveals their own internal frustrations with educational processes. And what did they need to know? What do African Americans who are still struggling to come to terms with the forced dislocation of black bodies following the Middle Passage need to know? The amnesia that Shori experiences prompted a lively discussion on what it means to unknow and not know in ways that destabilized our reader superiority as knowers of knowledge. We were also able to explore the ramifications of what it means for African Americans to be robbed of their identity, and how several black people still struggle to overcome those fractures in their identity.

Butler’s Bloodchild and Other Stories provided a nice transition to the Harlem Renaissance. The text includes nine short stories and two essays, which helped to explain the intellectual, social, and artistic aims of the New Negro Movement. Since this was a moment in African American culture where writers explored sexual freedoms and possibilities in their writings, it made sense to take a break from Butler’s longer works and introduce students to some of her shorter writings—especially since her novels are generally privileged over her short stories. In this section, we read “Speech Sounds,” Bloodchild,” “The Book of Martha,” and “The Evening the Morning and the Night,” but I highlight our discussions on “Speech Sounds” here.

Since we had just completed the literacy section, students were able to comment on Butler’s attention to literacy and the dangers of universal literacy in “Speech Sounds.” In the narrative, Butler completely deconstructs historical notions of literacy as an imperialist, patriarchal society defines it. The narrative explores the universal loss of verbal literacy and explores the ways that humans attempt to communicate past barriers. The story is set in California following a worldwide epidemic that, although initially blamed on the Soviets, has no known cause or cure. The epidemic, known as “the silence” (106), is an illness that is “highly specific … [where] language was always lost or severely impaired … often there was also paralysis, intellectual impairment, [and] death” (96). Some of the victims suddenly lose their capacity to write and read; others can still read but not speak and some have lost both privileges. Some can do both, but are unable remember what words mean, such as the African American protagonist Valerie Rye.

Students were prepared to talk about Butler’s decision to construct language barriers in “Speech Sounds.” They were willing to explore how we currently have language barriers between social, ethnic, and literate classes. One student mentioned “the fragility of institutional literacy” and how his own language barriers contribute to a personal sense of “social death.” For many students, “Speech Sounds” brought to the surface their personal communication limitations, especially when they attempt to communicate with teachers and peers of different ethnic backgrounds. Many revealed that they struggle to be understood and have anxieties around having their ideas misinterpreted. This was especially true with non-students of color who were reading black literature for the first time in my course.

Moreover, in an attempt to capture the racial unrest and emotion of black writers between the 1940s and 1970s, I assigned Clay’s Ark. Clay’s Ark’s premise engages familiar narratives of invasion and racial infection—Eli is a black man who introduces a foreign virus into the world.

Told in flashbacks, the narrative reveals the story of Asa Elias (Eli) Doyle, an African American boyhood minister, former geologist, astronaut, and only survivor of the fourteen-crew spaceship that returned to Earth from the “Second planet of Proxima Centauri” (490). Proxima Centauri is “A cool red star with its three planets hugging in close around it” (521). However, Eli is not alone; he carries an extraterrestrial virus known as Proxi Two that forces the host to infect others.[8] Set in the Arizona desert in 2021, survival of the fittest is an underlying theme in the story, as the infected must learn to respond to the promptings of the organism controlling their bodies, while attempting to avoid death due to their new abnormality. By historical societal standards, Eli is a monster both ethnically and aesthetically, due to body politics.

In Monsters of America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting (2013), W. Scott Poole suggests that, “American monsters are born out of American history … [these monsters] are living representations of our darkness. Simultaneously metaphors and progenitors of the American way of fear and violence. These are creatures of American history. Their many permutations in folklore … are impossible to explain without that complex history” (4). Butler builds on the historical fears of boundary-crossing bodies and examines how America responds to them. We used the term monster to give fear a face, and explored the ways that black bodies have been seen as worthy of destruction due to color and labeling. We used the terms monstrous and monstrosity to examine white people’s immoral acts upon black bodies, such as lynching, castrations, and Jim Crow laws, to name a few, and how they correspond to the text. Considering these historical occurrences through a speculative vein, we explored how African Americans have been physically and psychologically impacted, how white people have responded to black presences, and how black people have found ways to heal in spite of systems of oppression. Three guiding questions for this section were: How is history brought to bear on the backs of black or othered bodies? How does racism directly impact or control black bodies? Who are the monsters and what are monstrous acts?

Clay’s Ark is another one of Butler’s underexplored texts and I wanted to bring more awareness to the text. Like with Mind of My Mind, students were resistant and they were not shy to inform me that they “did not like this story.” Students expressed frustration with Butler’s decision to alternate between the past and the present in the text. Though it worked in Kindred, it failed Clay’s Ark. They were also uncomfortable with the hypersexuality in the text and questioned why Butler explored sexuality so heavily. The only black male student in the class suggested that the narrative was slightly pornographic. “Was Butler sexually frustrated?” he asked. In her notes at The Huntington Library, Butler does admit sexual frustration around the time she was writing Clay’s Ark, but I was not aware of her admittance until I visited the Butler archive months after the class ended. I also glossed over the sexual nature of the text in preparing for the course because I was more focused on the opportunities that the organism provided and Butler’s attention to how bodies survive and thrive in a culture that deems their presence deviant. However, I was shortsighted and did not consider how the organism forced the infected to be hypersexual through its prevention of monogamy and celibacy.

In Clay’s Ark, we also studied the curing nature of tolerance for othered bodies. One student posed to the class through her discussion question: “In Clay’s Ark, humans carrying the parasite are considered monstrous to the outsiders. Later, we learn that infected individuals seem to be immune from any other disease. What statement might Butler be making about racism? Does tolerance have any ‘curing’ properties?” The question allowed students to discuss white privilege, separatism, and even survival techniques of minority groups. Some white students revealed they benefit from white privilege, while others shared its negative impacts. In that particular moment, the class atmosphere grew tense, and in an attempt to neutralize the space, I redirected the discussion toward the privilege of health. Indeed, Butler is not only invested in examining racial tensions, but also bodily tensions, and how healthy, able-bodied individuals interpret and subconsciously perceive ailing and disabled bodies as monstrous. Shifting our focus to wellness and even how internalized racism affects wellness reopened space for students to participate in the discussion.

Patternmaster is the text that I assigned to teach students about the importance of intercommunal education, classism, and African American’s intracommunal responsibilities corresponding to the Black Arts era. In the narrative, Teray, a Patternist, eventually learns that he is the son of the Patternmaster. A Patternmaster controls the mental web of beings that Mary created in Mind of My Mind. However, while he is the son of Rayal, the current Patternmaster, he must fight for the position within the Patternist society against his older brother Coransee, who has mastered his mental capabilities. The familial tensions surrounding power in the text sets the stage for an in-depth understanding of the ways that black intra-communal movements and knowledge are essential, and also highlights how responsibility and healing capabilities coupled with mobility and political agency will guarantee liberation for the oppressed.

Students immediately noticed the political undertones in Patternmaster. Several of the student constructed discussion questions covered how the text highlights and connects to the disposability of black bodies in the work place, zone variances and redlining, education disparities, and black female agency. Since we were nearing the end of the semester, students were also able to make reference to several themes covered during the semester and draw links between Butler’s texts. In essence, they had the unique ability to witness Butler signifying on herself, so to speak, because they spent a semester examining her body of work. Unfortunately, however, students were unimpressed with Patternmaster, the last book of the Patternist series, but Butler’s first published novel. The Patternist series includes Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, and Patternmaster in order of narrative plot. One student remarked that, although Patternmaster was easier to read than some of the other texts, it “was predictable.” When I explained that it was Butler’s first published novel and that she worked her way backwards to create the series, it did not change his initial feelings about the text, but another student commented on Butler’s genius and unusual capability to create a series of books with interrelated characters and supporting figures that constitute close-knit communities, as well as distant, far-flung descendants.

With seven class periods remaining in the semester, we covered Parable of the Sower and Dawn. We explored Butler’s significance in Donald Trump’s America and the twenty-first century more broadly. Originally, I grappled with assigning Parable of the Sower because the Parable series are my least favorite books; to me, they are also the slowest-moving narratives. However, Butler’s examination of climate change—she hoped the series would be cautionary—is timely. Parable of the Sower is set in the midst of an economic crisis due to climate change, increasing wealth inequality, and political greed. The institutions set in place to protect citizens either are no longer fulfilling their duties or charge outrageous prices to protect them. Citizens who are economically fortunate live in protective walled communities that also function to hold them prisoner in many respects. The “street poor—squatters winos, junkies, homeless people in general—are dangerous… They cut off each other’s ears, arms, legs…. They carry untreated diseases and festering wounds. They have no money to spend on water to wash with so even the unwounded have sores. They don’t get enough to eat so they’re malnourished—or they eat bad food and poison themselves” (10-11). Crime rates are at an all-time high, and where the church once provided solace, it is largely non-existent. The bildungsroman centers on fifteen-year-old Lauren Oya Olamina, a black girl who possesses what Butler identifies as hyperempathy syndrome, or “sharing,” which is the ability to feel pain and other sensations that she witnesses others experiencing. Lauren’s condition is a result of her mother’s use of the “Paracetco” (144),[11] which “…screws around with people’s neurochemistry” (144) during pregnancy.[12] Due to Lauren’s perceived failure of Christianity’s positive impact on society, she develops Earthseed and its principles through journal entries and verse that run counter to her understanding of Baptist teachings that she learned under the leadership of her Baptist preacher father.[13]

Immediately, students mentioned the apocalyptic nature of Parable. For some, the text confronted their false sense of hope in humanity and the current imbalance of power in society. For others, the destruction of Lauren’s gated community destabilized how “safe” they felt in their own gated communities. Parable of the Sower also provided lively discussions on the importance and limitations of religion, the failures of doctrine, and fears of disability. I noticed that students appeared to be less happy while reading Parable. The dystopian nature of the text forced them to critically analyze the world in which they are currently living and the dangers of climate change. Some students willingly talked about their religious coping mechanisms and how before reading Parable, they had not had to think about how they contribute to the world’s destruction. During one discussion in particular, a student stated, “though we are creating our utopia of today, we are also creating tomorrow’s dystopia and that is the most frightening thing.” A few students agreed and others looked tired, so we ended the last day of Parable’s discussion a few minutes early.

For this anticipated purpose, Dawn was strategically positioned as the last book that we would cover due to its exploration of post-humanness. In Dawn, Butler moves beyond Earth into outer space in efforts to combat legacies of oppression associated with the knowledge production of black people. As the first book of the Xenogenesis/Lilith’s Brood trilogy, the narrative begins after humans wage a nuclear war that destroys the majority of humanity. Except for a few survivors, humans are well on their way to extinction, until the Oankali—a race of nomadic, gene trading alien species—pluck them from their destructive state on Earth. The main character, Lilith Iyapo, a black woman, wakes about 250 years later on an Oankali ship somewhere in space. Lilith’s task is to help the Oankali colonize Earth by forcing the remaining humans to mate with them and produce hybrid beings known as constructs.[14] As a result, Lilith is genetically altered by the Oankali to give her supernatural strength, enhanced memory, and longevity of life, and she becomes a mother figure throughout the trilogy, living as a new human-Oankali hybrid. Human by birth and Oankali by genetic engineering, she straddles the human/Oankali divide and thus assists in eliminating the human contradiction, which Butler explains as a dangerous duality of hierarchy and intelligence operating in the lives of people.[15] Dawn serves as a warning, a parable of sorts, foreshadowing a destructive society where language and literacy fail and the human contradiction prevails.

The guiding question for Dawn pertaining to the possibility of post-humanness, as societies only hope for sustainability. Since Parable explores how humans destroy Earth and how uninhabitable it has become, Dawn flings readers into the future to imagine the prospect of the human race partnering with aliens. Students were interested in Dawn in ways that they were not interested in Butler’s other texts. For instance, one student commented that Dawn “dealt with not only black issues but with human issues.” Another student explained that the narrative “provides a new understanding of science and how technologies can change our genetic coding.” Discussions on humanness, genetic coding, and science and technology revived students’ energies at the end of the semester. They agreed with Butler about the human contradiction, but also trembled at humans’ inability to “prolong the inevitable,” which one student observed is the end of the world and partnership with “super aliens who resemble Doro from Wild Seed and Mind of My Mind.”

 

Octavia Butler, Course Limitations, and Popular Culture

On the last day of class, I asked students about their experience with reading Octavia Butler for the entire semester. One student bravely admitted that she was “initially discouraged [when she discovered] that we were reading one author but [it proved to be] a rich experience reading [someone] other than Shakespeare.” Another student explained that “[Butler] was ahead of her time” and that readers “have to read all of her work to fully appreciate her contribution to literature.” One student highlighted comparisons between Butler’s works, comic books, and the Marvel universe, while another admitted that he “liked science fiction though [he] did not expect to.” One student mentioned that she felt that Butler “had too many characters … but appreciated reading about neighborhoods in California and Arizona” because she was familiar with them. These are a few examples of student responses from The Octavia Butler Mixtape course. Overall, the experience was positive, and students who were not literature majors even mentioned that they would be willing to take more English classes if instructors incorporated science fiction and popular culture into the syllabus.

Although student responses to the class and Butler’s work were overwhelmingly positive, there were limitations and room for improvement. For example, in retrospect, it was the best idea to move in and out of the Patternist books in favor of the African American literary canon. While the series was not compiled until 2007, the compilation of the books in a series today encourages a clear reading progression. One student even expressed dissatisfaction with the order in which we read the books. Another possible limitation was my enthusiasm for Butler and her works. I discovered Butler in 2012 and wrote my Master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation on her texts. My personal investment in her as an author and teacher could have silenced students from expressing their dislike for the texts that I preferred. Students were also at a disadvantage because they did not have access to the out-of-print novel Survivor (1978), which belongs to the Patternist series—over the years, Butler refused Survivor’s reprinting.

Another thing that may have limited students’ experience with Butler’s texts and classroom discussion was my decision to start, but not finish, the Parable and Xenogenesis series.

Many wish that they had a machine to travel back to a time before November 8, 2016. The shock and unrest of several Americans during Donald Trump’s campaign and after his election caused a sense of social anxiety within black communities. In essence, Trump’s presidency prompted multiple people to (re)turn to Butler’s Parable series for answers as to how America found herself with a president whom many deem racist. Butler’s pessimistic outlook on America and her study of social trends allowed her to imagine a world in the midst of global warming, extremely high crime rates, and a president whose tagline is “Make America Great Again.” While Gary Canavan asserts that Butler was channeling the Ronald Reagan era, questioning why Americans would elect and reelect him, the comparisons between the antagonist Andrew Steele and Donald Trump are noticeable. The chilling mirroring of the two in regard to religious intolerance, isolationism, and racial division causes readers to look to Butler not for escapism, but for knowledge and wisdom. Sadly, and rapidly, society has caught up to her Parable series, which is cast in the year 2032; she gave us a sixteen-year window to reach the current political climate. From the Parables, we learn that protests, education, and social justice are not enough, but that individuals must seek wisdom through partnering with a higher power, and this was not abundantly clear because we did not read Parable of the Talents (1998).

In all, we are in a current moment where there is an overwhelming interest in the black speculative body on screen or in print, and this includes Butler’s works. Because history and culture have once again caught up with one another and people seek leaders in times of trouble, educators would gain much by including Butler on their syllabus. In spite of the progressive strides toward equality and change in America, we realize that much work still needs to be done, and Butler helps us think through some of the steps of the process. I use her in the majority of my African American literature classes because she imagined worlds where black people were not the villains, but the saviors. Her black female protagonists serve as proof for those to come that black women can write science fiction and successfully so. And what good is that to black people and the literature classroom?

 

References

[1] When I asked students about their hesitancy to approaching the genre, they admitted that they did not like the movies Star Wars or Star Trek.

[2] I use the binary future/present to illustrate the uncertainty of time in the novel. While Butler writes that the past is 1800s and the future is 1976, as time lapses in the narrative, it is difficult to adhere to Butler’s concept of time. In essence, one could read Kindred devoid of Butler’s timestamp and imagine that Dana is propelled into a future psychological state when she is near death, and the future projection allows her space to fantasize about a new version of herself. Such a reading is not farfetched, if the psychological trauma of the enslaved is considered.

[3] In an interview with Nick DiChario, Octavia Butler explains that her goal in writing Kindred was to make people feel the book, because it was something that she had never seen a writer accomplish. She continues to say that, “That’s the point of taking a modern day black person and making her experience slavery, not as just a matter of one-on-one but going back and being part of the whole system” (206). For the complete interview, see DiChario (206-212).

 

[4] For the ways that literacy has been conceptualized as one’s ability to read and write, see Ong, Goody, and Olson.

[5] African American English, AAL, AAVE, and Ebonics are used interchangeably to describe the ways in which African Americans use speech practices that deviate from Standard English.

[6] I use the phrase social literacy to describe one’s ability to learn outside of classroom settings.

[8] The Proxi Two disease is spread through bodily contact, usually via scratching. It incubates for approximately three days within its new hosts before it completely takes over their bodies. The incubation period is so dangerous that newly infected beings generally die while being transformed into Clay Arks.

[10] Doro’s daughter Mary, who appears in the sequel to Wild Seed, is the founder of the Pattern that Butler explores in Patternmaster. In Mind of My Mind, Mary creates a mental web that allows her to hold thousands of powerful telepaths in her mind and control their movements. I write extensively about the pattern and the power it yields in the literacy chapter of my dissertation.

[11] Butler explains, “…Paracetco began as a legitimate drug intended to help victims of Alzheimer’s disease [but] Pyro was an accident. It was a homebrew—a basement drug invented by someone who was trying to assemble one of the other higher-priced street drugs. The inventor made a very small chemical mistake, and wound up with pyro” (Sower 144).

[12] Butler explains that Lauren’s hyperempathy is “…a kind of delusionary defect that causes her to believe that she feels the pain of other people. She feels pain that she sees other people enduring. It is a delusion. It is a dangerous delusion because it prevents her, or could prevent her, from protecting herself in a very violent world” (“Octavia Butler” 163). See Williams (144).

[13] The ways that Butler’s series is constructed through writings of verse, journal entries, and narrative voice mirror the structure of Jean Toomer’s Cane, which shifts between narrative prose, poetry, and passages of dialogue.

[14] Construct children are created from the genetic material of two human parents and the ooloi. A result of the historical mating practices of the Oankali and “a species of intelligent, schooling, fishlike creatures” (63), the genderless ooloi are humanity’s and the Oankali’s last hope of survival.

[15] Butler explains that the human contradiction is the belief that intelligence and hierarchical behavior can coexist in the lives of humans. In essence, the contradiction hinders humans from achieving the freedom that they seek. Constructs, therefore, are free of this contradiction.

 

Works Cited

Butler, Octavia E. Bloodchild and Other Stories. “Bloodchild,” “The Evening, the Morning, and t

he Night,” “Near of Kin,” “Speech Sounds,” “Crossover,” “Positive Obsession,” “Furor S

cribendi,” “Amnesty,” “The Book of Martha.” Open Road Media, 2012.

—. Fledgling. Grand Central Publishing Edition, 2005.

—. Kindred. Beacon Press, 1979.

—. Liliths Brood: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. Open Road Media, 2012.

—. Seed to Harvest: Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clays Ark, and Patternmaster. Grand

Central Publishing, 2007.

Canavan, Gerry. Octavia Butler. University of Illinois Press, 2016.

DiChario, Nick. “A Conversation with Octavia Butler.” Conversations with Octavia Butler, edited by Consuela Francis, University Press of Mississippi, 2010, 206-212.

Goody, Jack. The Power of the Written Tradition. Smithsonian Institute Press, 2000.

Olson, David R. “From Utterance to Text: The Literate Bias of Language in Speech and Writing,” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 47, no. 3, 1977, pp. 257-281.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. Methuen, 1982.

Poole, W. Scott. Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the

            Haunting. Baylor University Press, 2011.

Toomer, Jean. Cane. Liveright, 1923.

Williams, Juan. “Octavia Butler.” Conversations with Octavia Butler, edited by Consuela Francis, University of Mississippi Press, 2010.

Williams-Farrier, Bonnie K. “Signifying, Narrativizing, and Repetition: Radical Approaches to

Theorizing African American Language.” Meridians, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 218-242.

Womack, Ytasha. Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-fi and Fantasy Culture. Lawrence Hill Books, 2013.

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