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In This Era of Change, We Must Manifest Octavia Butler's Earthseed

Activist and author adrienne maree brown on harnessing Butler's wisdom for the 2020 election, and beyond.

Octavia Butler leadership
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  • Photo Credit: Photoshop and Wikimedia Commons

“When apparent stability disintegrates.

As it must—

God is Change—

People tend to give in

To fear and depression,

To need and greed.

When no influence is strong enough

To unify people

They divide.

They struggle,

One against one,

Group against group,

For survival, position, power.

They remember old hates and generate new ones,

They create chaos and nurture it.

They kill and kill and kill,

Until they are exhausted and destroyed,

Until they are conquered by outside forces,

Or until one of them becomes

A leader

Most will follow,

Or a tyrant

Most fear.”

- Octavia E Butler, Parable of the Talents

When was the last time you, we, felt unified? At a large scale?

In global multiracial Black-led protests and uprisings against state violence, seeing children on parental shoulders calling for a peaceful future with crayoned signs?

Or that moment when the world leapt up off the ground to celebrate Obama’s first instant as president?

Or in the immediate wake of 9/11, when everyone held each other close and looked for loved ones, before the othering of Muslims began?

Or perhaps as a child, pledging naive allegiance to a flag threaded with unfulfilled, uneven promise?

Science fiction offers us reflections on our present moment by giving us futures and alternatives that make the truth of now plain. 

In Octavia E Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, she offers us a critique of the society we have cocreated, allowed, survived. The quote above is from Earthseed, a belief system woven throughout the series. 

"It is imperative that we uplift leaders willing to name the manmade apocalyptic conditions we are in, willing to act on humane and earth aligned beliefs, willing to govern, willing to dream."

In Parable of the Sower, protagonist Lauren Olamina has to leave the gated community she has known as home and learn to live on the road in a dystopian California. In Parable of the Talents, Lauren begins experimenting with how to bring her vision and destiny to life. Throughout the story, a white man wins the presidency on the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, backed by racist Christian fundamentalists. 

RELATED: On Re-Reading Octavia Butler's Parable Series 

We are on the cusp of the future Butler imagined. Before this administration, all the way back to the founding of the nation, old hates and violence have held the center of American culture. Under the chaotic rule of 45, the west is on fire and the White House is agitating race war while putting the climate, economy, and healthcare in the trash. 

Whatever stability we have known as a nation is not randomly disintegrating, it is under attack. Social media works as a divisive and misleading tool, chipping away at the idea of a shared truth. 

Octavia Butler quote
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  • Photo Credit: Open Road Integrated Media

This is a time when power is held by those who ‘create chaos and nurture it...kill kill kill.’ We have a tyrant at the helm, terrifying in his tantrums, terrifying because so many other people in power see the evil in his thinking and actions but continue to support him because a) they align with white supremacy or b) they're uber rich or c) they think it's a Republican thing to do, even though 45 reps no platform, offers no plans. 

Who we turn to for leadership now matters. And I don't mean who we elect...in a two party system, the presidential election is a harm reduction move, and should not be confused with our political home or primary space of leadership. 

RELATED: Listen to Octavia's Parables, a Podcast Dedicated to Octavia Butler 

It is imperative that we uplift leaders willing to name the manmade apocalyptic conditions we are in, willing to act on humane and earth aligned beliefs, willing to govern, willing to dream.

Three aspects of the leadership in Octavia's work feel relevant in this moment. 

First, Lauren is fifteen years old when we meet her. She is a teenager, a middle child, a studious nerd over-achiever child. Children see what is happening and they want to be prepared, and they have leadership to offer that comes from their unique perspectives. Hone your capacity to listen to those younger than you.

Second, Lauren is a hyperempath, a Butler-created condition in which she experiences what others feel as if it's happening to her. If someone is stabbed, she bleeds (until her period starts), if she knocks someone out she loses consciousness. If she brings a lover to orgasm, she shivers. Find leaders who can feel.

Third, Lauren is a visionary. While she tangibly prepares to face current conditions, she also believes deeply that humans have a destiny far greater than reacting to small minded, territorial leaders. 

Notice the leaders with long views, who can speak to mitigating current harms but are cultivating visions for the future that are compelling, creative and collective. 

RELATED: New Webinar Series Celebrates Octavia E. Butler 

Dawn Octavia Butler
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  • Detail of photograph of Butler (center) with her aunts Irma (Guy) Harris (left) and Hazel Ruth (Guy) Walker (right), photographer unknown, undated.

    Photo Credit: Octavia E. Butler papers. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

"Don't offer thoughts and prayers to those suffering under these leaders as a way to sidestep responsibility."

Butler also gives us other Earthseed guidance in The Parables which feels relevant as a counter to this tyrannical time. 

“Kindness eases change.” Change is inevitable. Seek leaders who generate kindness in the communities they are supporting, and who increase kindness under the pressure of unexpected change. Withhold attention from leaders who thrive in cruelty, they only seek battle and punishment. 

“Belief initiates and guides action, or it does nothing.” Don't let yourself get stuck in or struck dumb by fervent pontification. Find leaders who are more excited about moving ideas than accumulating power. Practice a leadership that invites others to act on their beliefs. Notice those who speak. Beware those who just demand your regurgitation of their ideas!

RELATED: Octavia Butler Is Finally On the New York Times Bestseller List 

“Earthseed cast on new ground must first perceive that it knows nothing.” We are on new ground. There are historical parallels, but adding all the parts together with the scale of our nation and the interconnectedness of the internet means that this is also new ground for us. 

Be wary of leaders who present themselves as having all the answers, who are scared to say they don't know what to do, who cannot be humble in the face of the vast unknown.

Finally, “pray working.” Don't offer thoughts and prayers to those suffering under these leaders as a way to sidestep responsibility...let your prayers be in your phone banking, door knocking, familial interventions, early registration, and ongoing organizing. 

We become what we practice.

Download the Parable series and adrienne maree brown's books today!

books like Parable of the Sower

Emergent Strategy

By adrienne maree brown

In the tradition of Octavia Butler, here is radical self-help, society-help, and planet-help to shape the futures we want.

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Pleasure Activism

By adrienne maree brown

How do we make social justice the most pleasurable human experience? How can we awaken within ourselves desires that make it impossible to settle for anything less than a fulfilling life? Editor adrienne maree brown finds the answer in something she calls "Pleasure Activism," a politics of healing and happiness that explodes the dour myth that changing the world is just another form of work

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