Lessons from Octavia Butler

By: Matthew Guterl, Professor of Africana Studies and American Studies

Providence, RI

I have been teaching a small undergraduate seminar on Black speculative fiction. It has been, for me, an extraordinary honor to work with this small group of dedicated young people towards a better understanding of this genre, and to do so, from the start of the semester, in light of the nation’s racial retrenchment under the current President, and now, just as tragically, in the midst of a global pandemic. I won’t speak for the students, but for me this class has been a gift – a weekly reminder of the power of imagination to draw up futures that center Black life, and to disrupt what seems possible or pre-determined.

As much as I have felt anything over these past few weeks, I have missed these people and our conversations.

In hindsight, everything we read and watched seems like a parable for the present, but one novel – Octavia Butler’s Kindred – stands out. The book, originally published in 1979, is the story of a Black woman named Dana who is inexplicably and repeatedly transported back to the antebellum South to save her ancestor, a white slaveowner named Rufus. Whenever Rufus’s life is threatened, Dana is yanked backwards in time without warning. She appears out of thin air, dressed in modern clothing, embodying modern Blackness, and causing quite a stir. She rather pointedly refuses to pretend that she is an enslaved person. She won’t stay in her “place” as determined by the slaveholding regime or accept that she “belongs” in antebellum South. Calmly and soberly, and against the grain of her surroundings, she insists on both her Blackness and her humanity. Over time, her reappearances keep Rufus alive and by extension ensure her very existence. By the novel’s conclusion, both Dana and Rufus are fundamentally changed by this recursive experience, leaving us to wonder about causality and inevitability.

Binding the past to her present, Butler’s text was meant to answer a simple question: what would you have done if you have been forced to confront slavery? She had heard many Black men and women of her generation insist that they would rise up and rebel, that they would die fighting against their enslavement. And she wanted to dramatize what she saw as the overwhelming totality of slavery, the impossibility of simple, straightforward resistance. Along with the importance – the deep and foundational importance – of knowing your history.

When we met as a class, we talked a lot about Dana, who is nonplussed by her time travelling. Practical and level-headed, she routinely confronts what would be horrific with thoughtful planning. In her California home in the present, she has the forethought to wisely assemble a bag of necessary supplies and ties them to her waist, so that they might travel back in time with her. When that bag gets lost, she quickly makes another. She brings maps and history books from the present into the past, destabilizing the certainties of slavery’s expansion. She brings knives and painkillers, soap and toothpaste and clothing. Like the author who created her, Dana is a woman of lists, a champion of organized thinking in the face of what should be overwhelming crises. This faith in relentless practicality saves her life. In the end, the knife she brings back in time – the kind of weapon denied to any enslaved person, the kind of weapon she knew she might need – is what she uses to kill Rufus in the novel’s final pages, when he loses sight of her humanity, moves beyond redemption, and comes to see her only as a slave.

Dana is prudent, canny, discerning, prepared, and willfully committed to her own survival. She is the hero we need right now, in an age of singular uncertainties. And my deepest hope is that the students who are enrolled in AFRI 1100X, and who are now zooming into our meet-ups from bedrooms, kitchen tables, and patios in almost every conceivable time zone, and who might feel displaced, buffeted, and even scared, can find in Dana’s steely determination to plan and organize her way out of trouble a practical model for their own everyday survival. Don’t hide, she might advise. Make a list. Organize your stuff. Keep it close. Be ready. What you are living through is not normal. Cool-minded preparation will save you.

Image credit: Michael Kraus/Shutterstock.com