[Brought to you by donations by the Indiana Humanities and CICF. Catered by the phenomenal We Run This.]

The theme of our Afrofuturism Fridays discussions is to ponder the questions “Where are we now?” “Where do we want to be?” and “How do we get there?” because we have to imagine the future we want to see.

Let’s start with a re-cap of Octavia Butler and her seminal work Parable of the Sower.

Who was Octavia E. Butler?

(AP Photo/ Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Joshua Trujillo)

Born in 1947 in Pasadena, California, her mother was a maid and her father a shoe shine man who died when she was seven. She was raised in a strict Baptist home by her mother and grandmother. Though introverted and socially awkward, and having severe dyslexia, she spent hours reading science fiction and fantasy in her public library.

When she was 10, she saw the B-movie “Devil Girl from Mars” which changed her life. She had two epiphanies: “Someone got paid to write that.” And “I could write better than that.” So she convinced her mom to buy her a typewriter.

A well-intentioned aunt told her that “Negroes can’t be writers.”

She graduated high school in 1965 and began to take night classes at a local community college. She entered and won a fiction writing contest with a draft that would become Kindred, her best-selling novel. While working a series of temp jobs, she was encouraged by science fiction great, Harlan Ellison, to keep writing.

In 1984, her short story “Speech Sounds” (about the unraveling of civilization when a disease renders everyone mute) won the Hugo for Best Short Story. The next year she won the Hugo and Locus Awards for her novella Bloodchild. Parable of the Sower came out in 1993 and Parable of the Talents in 1998, the latter won the Nebula Award for Best Science Fiction novel. In 1995 she became the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur “Genius” Award.

The Parable series was supposed to be at least a trilogy, but researching it proved too depressing for her so she gave herself a break by writing a science fiction vampire novel called Fledgling. It was her 14th and final book. She died of a stroke in 2006.

She inspired a generation of writers (myself included – I sent out my first story in 1993).

Parable of the Sower

[If you haven’t had a chance to read the book, here’s a Crash Course Literature by John Greene.]

Octavia Butler has said that she came to this of the future by imagining our current problems progressing unchecked to their logical ends. How prescient was Butler? Here’s a taste:

“Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought. To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool. To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen. To be led by a liar is to ask to be lied to. To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.”

That quote was about a presidential candidate running on the platform “Make America Great Again” … which she wrote in 1998. And that was in the sequel, Parable of the Talents. Her work combines imagination with social, political, and even religious practice. It creates blueprints to find new ways to understand ourselves and the world around us. And, with its Afrofuture promise, it paints a vivid portrait of what the world could look like. In our discussion we’ll be looking at themes in the book focusing on community strategies to survive a dystopian landscape as well as a discussion on what transformative justice may look like.

BOOK DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What were some of your favorite takeaways from the book?
  2. What do you think Octavia Butler was trying to say?
  3. What was unique about her portrayal of the future?
  4. Part of what Afrofuturism does is to make the unimagined tangible, to create something to long for. What do you long for after reading Parable of the Sower?
  5. There’s a theme of personal responsibility and the needs of the community that runs through the book. Why does Jo react so negatively to Lauren’s concerns about being better prepared as a community and as individuals to face crises?
  6. Lauren’s father has pointed out that the community as a whole has trouble thinking far ahead and into such sensitive areas. How are we preparing now for when the dystopian future arrives? What should we be doing?
  7. Religion is an important theme in the book. Earthseed is basically presented as a new religion. Is there anything about it that you think could be described as comforting? Or liberating? Is Earthseed a system of beliefs that appeal to you?

Books cited in the discussion:

  • A Black Theology of Liberation by James H. Cone
  • An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture by John McKnight, Peter Block, and Walter Brueggemann
  • Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown
  • Beyond Fear: A Toltec Guide to Freedom & Joy by Don Miguel Ruiz

Adrienne Brown (a co-editor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements) wrote that “Octavia understood that these are the conditions that emerge when we are trapped in the imagination of racists, fundamentalists, and smart people addicted to hierarchy—people who don’t think of the whole; people who don’t love people like me who are black, queer, feminine of center, fat, wear glasses, etc. Octavia understood that we have to claim the space to imagine ourselves beyond this world.

What are you doing to prepare for the future?

Let’s leave with this quote from Parable of the Sower: “All that you touch you Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God Is Change.”

Go forth and be the change.