octavia butler’s ‘the parable of the sower’ offers the black feminist vision ‘the handmaid’s tale’ was missing

January 4, 2018
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By Brittany Frederick* / RaceBaitR, AFROPUNK contributor

I’m not going to front, I binged the Hulu original The Handmaid’s Tale at the behest of my friend who promised me it was exactly like Trump’s America. While the series, and Margaret Atwood’s novel that served as its source material, created a horrifying world, many rightfully argued it simply was an imagining of a future in which white women had to face the same horrors as did Black women during slavery.

Of course, this is not unusual, since white science fiction authors often fail to complexly imagine futures in which race still matters, even when they can make up fake languages, alien species, and intergalactic wars.

This is why we need to read pieces by Black authors and trade in mainstream science fiction for Afro-futurism. Octavia Butler is famous for propelling forth the genre, and draws inspiration from science fiction, history, and religious texts to draw attention to the current challenges faced by Black people as well as imagine what might happen next. Her novel The Parable of the Sower stands up as a prolific and relevant work of literary art.

It begins in 2024, with the protagonist, Lauren Olamina, living in a California that is perpetually wrecked by fires, in a country in which politicians lie for votes, and the lucky people (like the Olamina family) still have homes, food, and water. They live in a neighborhood, surrounded by a wall, that they must defend from the poor and emaciated people who wait, hoping to steal from the community.

Amidst this turmoil, Lauren has a secret. While her mother was pregnant, she used a drug that changed Lauren’s neural networks and she developed “hyperempathy.” Lauren’s hyperempathy causes her to feel the pain of people within her sight. This is a particularly dangerous condition to have in a such a turbulent time when there’s no shortage of suffering.

Over the years, Lauren creates her own religious philosophy “Earthseed” in which she argues that the all-powerful force of the universe is change itself, not a father figure. Eventually, when the neighborhood is attacked and her childhood home is burnt down, she sets her sights on the north. Thinking she can find a job, security, and affordable she dresses as a man for protection and heads north, collecting a ragtag interracial team along the way who become her Earthseed community.

As a Black activist, I have felt something akin to Lauren’s hyperempathy syndrome. Black women are often given the Herculean task of carrying other people’s pain, and that weight that can be fatal.

Just last week, Eric Garner’s daughter Erica Garner passed away after suffering a heart attack at 27 years old. Erica sought justice for her dad, and fought to end police brutality. In her last interview, Erica spoke on how her work was weighing down her soul. Lauren’s strength is also her weakness in that she can so deeply feel other people’s pain.

The Parable, like all good Afro-futurism, imagines the ways racism will matter in the future. Growing up, Lauren has white friends, and lives in a multiracial community, but knows that Black girls should avoid dating white men and only chooses Black partners for herself. Outside of her community, Lauren understands that traveling with white people could draw negative and violent attention to her group.

Lauren says the all-powerful force of the universe is “Change,” which is not good or bad, it just is, and the only way forward is to continue to act in ways to shape the universe. We know that the structures that constrain and damage us, systems of racism, sexism, and anti-LGBTQ actions morph and change over time too.

Octavia Butler’s version of America is grappling with the real costs of climate change, that we know disadvantage people of color the most. In Butler’s California, there are fires set by hordes of people addicted to a drug that makes the sight of fire feel better than sex, accidental cooking fires set by the poor people who live in the woods, and targeted attacks with fire from the poor outside the walls are constant threats.

This year’s California’s St. Thomas fire was one of the largest in history and it is unclear how the state will prevent another one from happening. Oftentimes, water is the biggest problem Lauren and her family face, and it is hard to read the text without thinking of the water crisis in Flint Michigan, or the scene in Moonlight in which Chiron boils water to make himself a bathThe Parable of the Sower reminds us that climate change is going to threaten the safety of our communities.

What stood out to me the most, though, was a scene in which Lauren talks to her white friend Joanne about how they may need to run away one day. Lauren tries to convince Joanne to prepare herself to live outside the community, but Joanne shuts down. Joanne repetitively tells Lauren that she doesn’t believe things will ever get as bad as she imagines.

While Lauren talks about all the reading she has done to prepare, the plants that can be eaten or used as medicine, the spread of ghastly cold across the Northeast, and the possibility that their lives will never get better if they don’t actively do something, Joanne refuses to entertain the conversation and argues that Donner, the imminent president, will do something instead. When Joanne tells Lauren’s parents she plans to run away, Lauren realizes Joanne is no longer her best friend.

Joanne reminds me of the white women who welcomed the white supremacists home from their marches in Charlottesville, of Ms. Hovater in the infamous white Nazi New York Times profile, and of the many white women who voted for Trump in 2016 and Roy Moore in 2017.

This past year, many of us have had to say goodbye to the white women in our lives who we realized were never really our friends after all.

While the parallels are seemingly endless, I want to end with a hopeful note. The world Lauren lives in is bleak, but she remains committed to creating a better future for herself and her Earthseed community. Lauren falls in love with an older traveler, creates plans for the Earthseed village to grow crops and settle on new land, and incessantly argues that people must act to shape the world into something in which they want to live.

For these reasons, The Parable of the Sower offers us a Black feminist vision in which Black women lead us all to something better, and out of the mess we didn’t create, echoing the sentiments expressed through Jay-Z’s Family Feud under the direction and craftsmanship of Ava Duvernay in his latest music video.

Ultimately, The Parable of the Sower offers us a terrifying vision of what could happen to us sooner rather than later if we fail to resist, protect the environment, and redistribute wealth, while remaining a world that feels more possible than the religious and conservative order of The Handmaid’s Tale. The Handmaid’s Tale builds a world of devastating order in a regime that watches its citizens every move, but The Parable of the Sower’s authenticity comes from the sense of helplessness in chaos that has always marked Black people’s experience in the United States. In our dystopian future, the government will fail to notice our plight at all.

This post is in partnership with RaceBaitR.

*Brittany Frederick is a black feminist activist and scholar from Boston, MA. She’s interested in black arts, culture, and history. Follow her on twitter @Britt_LF