February Author Spotlight: Octavia Butler
Updated: Jun 1
Learn more about the author and Afrofuturism in Parable of the Sower.
ID: A black and white photo of a Black woman with a short haircut looking into the camera, smiling slightly. She sits in a chair in front of a bookcase.
Octavia Butler has left us with a legacy– she is a pioneering science fiction author, one of the first Black women to reach acclaim in the genre. Her works are widely considered to be some of the first examples of Afrofuturist literature. Butler helped to define the genre and mode of thinking, using literature to concretely convey Afrofuturist ideals through her science fiction stories. For this month’s Author Spotlight, we’re going to be providing you with a primer on Afrofuturism– in the paragraphs below, we’ve provided all the beginner’s info on the term, its origins, its applications, and its relationship to Butler! Afrofuturism, its meaning, and its reach are widely expansive, so be sure to check out the links at the end of the article for more information!
Afrofuturism was first academically defined in 1994 by Mark Dery as “speculative fiction that treats African American themes and addresses African American concerns in the context of the twentieth century technoculture–and, more generally, African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.” This definition hits all the aesthetic hallmarks of Afrofuturism– an emphasis on technological, futuristic, and scientific imagery is classic of Afrofuturist art and literature. However, the movement’s origins hold ancient roots which extend beyond aestheticism according to author and professor Kinitra D. Brooks. She states that “Afrofuturism is a new name for ancient ideals from the Akan, Congolese, and Dogon peoples of Africa that have been remixed and revised by African Americans since the 19th century.” More recent definitions of the word, such as author Ytasha Womack’s in her book, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, encompass Afrofuturism’s capitalization on imagination along with its aesthetic hallmarks (check out her interview with Bitch Media here!!) Her contemporary definition of Afrofuturism describes it as a “a way of looking at the future and alternate realities through a Black cultural lens… It is an artistic aesthetic, but also a kind of method of self-liberation or self-healing.”
ID: The cover of Ytasha Womack's book, Afrofuturism. The cover features a futuristic portrait of a Black woman with her third eye exposed.
So, like most aesthetic movements, there is much much more than meets the eye when it comes to Afrofuturism. Its influence extends over multiple artistic disciplines– music, dance, and the visual arts all boast examples of Afrofuturism. Its expansion into literature, however, was heralded by the “godmother of Afrofuturism,” none other than our sci-fi queen Octavia Butler. Butler grew up in Pasadena, CA, in the 1950’s and 60’s. She found companionship in literature and words, and aspired to be a writer from a young age. Butler never “recall[ed] ever have wanting desperately to be a Black woman fiction writer. [She] wanted to be a writer.” Watching 1954 B-flick Devil Girl from Mars was the catalyst for her entrance into science-fiction, a genre whose creators were dominantly white males. Butler knew she could write better stories than the one she watched in Devil Girl From Mars, and so began her writing journey. Butler wrote short stories, which were published here and there, and attended science-fiction writing workshops before publishing her first novel, Patternmaster, in 1976. After the Patternmaster series, Butler wrote Kindred, one of her most popular novels, in 1979, and our BOTM, Parable of the Sower, came in 1993.
Butler's is one of the first names brought up in conjunction with Afrofuturism– its ideals and aesthetics are both consistently present in the catalog of her work. According to Julian Chambliss, a leading scholar of Afrofuturism, the mode of thinking is a mediation of “speculation and liberation.” Alternative pathways and societal structures can be imagined outside of the oppressive systems of reality in Afrofuturist thinking, and fictional stories provide a means through which these pathways can be explored. Some of the core proponents of Afrofuturism’s ideology embrace the nonlinearity of time and the reclamation of history as a means for self-healing– a concern for both the past and future are imperative to Afrofuturist thinking. Understanding past losses and traumas in the present provides the means for building a better future through a Black cultural lens, offering decolonized imagination as a form of resistance against present oppressions.
ID: A handwritten note from Octavia Butler's personal archives. The note reads, "Tell stories filled with facts, Make People Touch and Taste and KNOW. Make People FEEL! FEEL! FEEL!"
In Parable of the Sower, we can see how speculative fiction offers a critique of the present-day through its engagement with futurity. The novel is rife with explorations of contemporary social issues– ones we’re still grappling with in 2023. Its now near-future, then far-away setting of 2025 resembles the Afrofuturist engagement with time and reclamation of history. Climate change, enslavement, poverty, crime, exploitation, and inequality are all ruminated on throughout Parable of the Sower. Butler’s storytelling through her protagonist, Lauren, a Black fifteen year old girl, offers Butler’s lived perspective and experience as a Black woman as it intertwines with her speculative imaginings of a sustainable future. Butler was one of the first to pioneer this genre in literature– her legacy is undeniable, and her work provided a crucial space for Black narratives in the mainstream.
ID: The book cover for Parable of the Sower. A color blocked image of a Black woman wearing a red dress and head wrap is shown next to the title.
As we mentioned earlier, Afrofuturism’s influence extends far beyond literature. Be on the lookout for this month’s media map to explore examples of Afrofuturist music, film, art, and more! We’ve established here that Afrofuturism is far more than its aesthetic outputs– to quote Dr. Brooks, “Afrofuturism is so much more than Black folks in the future; it is a theory of time which is not linear but conflated. The past, present, and future coexist as one and time begins to take on a cyclical nature.” Through Butler’s pioneering Afrofuturist thinking and application, we can glean how imagination functions as resistance. Be sure to look for the pillars of Afrofuturism as you make your way through Parable of the Sower!
Ytasha Womack Ted Talk
Julian Chambliss Interview