The Importance of Speculation, or Octavia Butler as King figure
As many in the United States waited with baited breath to see who would prevail in the competition (can one call it that when the competitors are so widely divergent in terms of their economic prowess?) for ownership of the papers that constitute a significant portion of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I was forced to think about how and why we choose to value the work and wisdom of our race leaders. While there is certainly some value in preserving and honoring these documents as symbols of Dr. King’s struggle, the current battle for ownership seems to me to be far removed from the reproduction of Dr. King’s ideas. Rather what we see is a media spectacle that reduces Dr. King’s “legacy” to a commodity that various groups attempt to secure in order to up their own cultural capital. This isn’t surprising given the widespread acceptance of the notion that Black leadership is dead; something we can only locate in our ever more distant past.
I want to propose that it’s not really leadership that we lack, it is a particular perception that is lacking. Contemporary popular culture figures are clearly providing a great deal of leadership for our youth, in particular; determining how they speak, what they wear, and what they buy. In the political sphere, we see the strategies that Dr. King and other members of both the local and international civil rights movement enacted with regularity--Gallo Wine Boycott, Mt. Olive Pickle Boycott, Million More March, even Hurricane Katrina teach-ins--and those actions all have identifiable leadership. What is harder to identify is a vision of what lies beyond the actions. When we reduce the words that Dr. King wrote and spoke to mere artifacts whose greatest value is to museums, we lose track of the most important aspect of the work of any leader--the ability to envision the future, so that there is a reason to do the work necessary to change the present. It was Dr. King’s ability to speculate on what the world could be, to go to the mountaintop and look over, and see, so clearly and completely, an alternative arrangement of social relations that he could communicate it to others with enough conviction that it seemed immoral not to act to help construct that world.
If I am right and leadership is less about strategy and coordination than about a vision communicated, then it is not too late for us, because despite her recent death we have access to the speculative vision of another dreamer who could help us out of this present morass. I am, of course, referring to the late “speculative fiction” writer, Octavia Butler. Though I heard Ms. Butler make comments at the 2005 Gwendolyn Brooks Writer’s Conference that indicated she tended to think of herself primarily as a storyteller, her work really exemplifies the maximization of the possibilities offered by speculative fiction and other genre writing for artists of color. While this group has historically had little presence in genre writing, the forms offer great potential for appealing to large readerships, expanding the thematic concerns of the literature beyond just racial conflict, and radical possibilities of expression.
Butler has mined these possibilities to the fullest and her speculation have been so prescient that at least one critic has identified what he calls a prophetic voice in Butler’s fiction. This is undeniably true. For instance in the Parable series (which includes the titles The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents) she follows the crises of the late twentieth century to their logical conclusion and describes a world in the not too distant future in which slavery is once again legal and corporations are the primary slaveholders (lest this seem too far-fetched remember that one of the primary critiques of Bush’s “guest worker” plan is that it would constitute a kind of de facto slavery), cars are virtually obsolete because of the scarcity of oil, religious fanaticism has become the basis of political leadership, water is not only extremely scarce but completely privatized in most regions of the United States, and most citizens of the state of California are homeless.
So far, I’m sure this vision seems pretty dark and far from the inspirational vision of Dr. King and, I guess, it is. What Butler does, though, that makes me compare her vision to Dr. King’s is offer the reader a radically different way of envisioning the future even amidst these desperate conditions. In the context of literature the vision that she offers us of a young black woman with the sagacity and fortitude to theorize and construct a functional society within the chaotic conditions I have already described represents something quite remarkable in and of itself. Additionally, the political vision with which Butler endows the character, Lauren Olamina, is remarkably like Dr. King’s in that it envisions actions and values so far from our present reality that they seem almost impossible to imagine working. The multi-racial egalitarian society that she conceives of and leads is one that values difference and makes a tenet of embracing change and this makes for a fundamental reorganization of its society. Butler’s thoughtful outlining of the characters’ theory of change--humans cannot avoid it or escape it, but can prepare for it and, consequently, relate to it positively--as well as the critique of the fictional Earth Seed community she undertakes in the second book, Parable of the Talents, suggest the degree to which Butler herself was seriously engaged in a project of re-imagining our world.
Though her final book takes a very different turn in focusing on a vampire rather than human society, it, too, is connected to the larger project of re-imagining this world that we inhabit. In fact as its title, Fledgling, could indicate, this text really represents a more formed realization of her vision. While the dominant image of the Parables is the seed--as yet unrealized potential--the fledgling is more strongly associated with the realization of at least the first level of potential. In this text the racial, sexual, and economic priorities of this world are reordered so that the heroine, Shori’s, blackness is actually a benefit to her self and the community of vampires (her melanin allows her to function during the day when most vampires can’t), sexuality as it is represented in the novel exceeds categorizations of homo- or hetero- sexuality, and extended “family” networks and communal living arrangements are the primary form of social organization. Additionally, the vampire community is governed by an ethos of mutualism and respect for human life. Those who defy those values are the villains of the novel.
The main action of the novel, which revolves around Shori’s efforts to reeducate herself about how to function in vampire society after suffering a memory loss, provides a metaphor for contemporary social change. Implied in Shori’s process of recovery, which reveals to her the extent to which she is dependent on others as well as her responsibilities to those who depend on her, is the potential value for the rest of us of forgetting what we already know and learning to relate in different ways. In this way, Butler’s vision echoes and extends Dr. King’s. Her work offers us a vision that moves beyond the “racial tolerance” to which Dr. King’s ideas have so often been reduced to a direct call for the affirmation of particular strengths embedded within Black culture. Butler’s work emerges as a cipher for the post-civil rights era; signposting the destinations to which, it is hoped, our actions will lead us.
Beauty Bragg is assistant professor of English at Georgia College and State University. Her research focuses on Black women's literature and culture.