By Briana Whiteside
If you uttered three simple words “black woman protagonist” to Octavia Butler, she would have come up with characters such as Mary from Mind of My Mind, a young black woman telepath who defeats Doro—the body snatching spirit man who created her as “an experiment”—a task no one else has been able to accomplish. To try to “read his mind is to commit suicide,” so instead of reading his mind, Mary physically consumes Doro as he tries to snatch her. Mary has reason to ego trip.
What about Anyanwu from Wild Seed, the shapeshifting, deadly strong, hundred years living oracle who surpasses conventional views of black women? By creating Anyanwu, Butler plays with the idea of what it means to be under the gaze of a black woman. Her eyes “too white, the browns too deep and clear;” Anyanwu’s gaze is just as fear-provoking as her black female body.
Butler swiftly with the stroke of a pen writes life into the bodies of the women who are shaped but not limited by their time. Missing black female bodies and voices in science fiction are quickly sketched in and serve as templates for constructing extra-ordinary black women. With the twiddle of a finger and a leadless pencil, Butler makes an imprint on how assimilation can be used for domination and her black women characters show us how it’s executed.
She may not have all the mechanics worked out before she puts the black ink on the white paper, but Butler is sure of two things: black women character’s voices will be heard, and they will be survivors despite stereotypical woes, social constructs, and performative gender roles.
I am only touching the tip of the melting iceberg in Butler’s mind as she inserts mind blowing, super powerful, intellectual black women who defy all patriarchal rules into sci-fi.
Octavia Butler is a master of her craft—master of outlandish characters, master of twisted yet consistent plot, master of time, and master of the pattern. She is bad mama jama, and holds nothing back as her characters walk off the pages with a new attitude, an air of confidence and a learned way to outwit their oppressors.
Octavia Butler is an uncanny African American sci-fi writer.
A Notebook on Octavia Butler
Briana Whiteside is a graduate student in English at SIUE and a contributing writer for the Black Studies Program.