Ayo Janeen Jackson
Ayo Janeen Jackson is a recent graduate from School of the Art Institute of Chicago where she focused on interdisciplinary art. Jackson wrote this piece last year as a way to connect her interest in Black theory with Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower series.
If You Leave it, it will Grow
For These are all our children. We will all profit by, or pay for, Whatever they become. -James Baldwin
The symbol of the ‘seed’ is a powerful metaphor for hope and a way of overcoming the finality of death. The image of the seed is analogous to migration and the family tree. “If the tenuousness of those older genealogical tropes-the figure of the tree or the metaphor of the stream-appear inadequate to express the systemic repetition of rupture, dislocation, and displacement central to the slave trade and plantation slavery, the prologue offers something like a synthesis in yet another deeply problematic trope of ancestry and familial regeneration: the seed.”
Seeds physically and metaphorically speak to the ability to change by means of death, assimilation, or mutation. The writer, Octavia Butler hybrids science fiction with utopian/ dystopian thrillers and focuses on the idea of ‘change’ as a way to overcome, and as a way to view God. Butler’s work speaks of change as a way of survival. Seeds have the ability to grow beyond the limits of what they began as. Within her novels the protagonist and the worlds shift and mutate, taking on new lives beyond the realms of the safe limited environments that they began as. With her prose, Octavia bends space and time begging the audience to question what it means to be human. Her novels further demand of our human interest: If we are ‘change’ made manifest, why do we insist on defining and controlling that which ultimately will change? Is this not the antithesis of who we are, who we have the possibility to become?
Seeds have a unique capability to find places to grow. They are similar to enslaved Africans-bio cargo, unaware of their final destination, traveling from place to nation to site. Some may survive, and others will perish, yet those who do make it will adapt, and continuously not just grow but proliferate. The idea of seed gives rise to the flowers that possess the Caribbean islands, African seeds laid to rest. Seedlings of trees are often planted using the cremated ashes of the dead as a way to represent rebirth; from ashes to ashes and dust to dust...
Octavia talks of the idea that nothing ever dies, it changes. Literally, Earthseed a religious concept by the protagonist of Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olamina, is given agency at the moment her world burns down. Out of the ashes, what was planted, and had been watered with diligent and persistent thought, birthed itself and seeded its lessons to others at the same time, giving them comfort. Lauren builds a community of believers who in the end are still hesitant with the Earthseed religion, but trust her fully, in a new land that she has guided them to.
Of her most famous works was the two book Parable series, this paper would like to focus specifically on the Parable of the Sower as a way of survival by continually planting seeds during times of unrest-even when the world is burning down. The Parable of the Sower, which parallels many biblical stories, is a teaching tool for how to create a better future in the midst of trying times. It is beyond surviving, it is about creating a place to thrive in. By doing this the seed, if taken care of, “...won’t do us any good for a few years, but they’re a hell of an investment in the future.” (pg. 289 Parable Of The Sower)
Octavia Estelle Butler was born June 22, 1947 in Pasadena, California. She grew up a shy and awkward kid towering at six feet by the time she was a teenager. Butler acknowledges her dyslexia and being bullied as impetus to pull away and create a space to read voraciously, simultaneously using these utopian worlds as medicine for her pain. “She found a refuge in the limitless world of science fiction.” (June 1,2000 Interview with Charlie Rose) She established herself as a word renowned writer who writes sci-fi because as she puts it “there are no closed doors, no walls...you could play with absolutely anything.”
During an interview with Motion magazine, Butler revealed that her first novel, Kindred, was made as a way to reconcile the pain from watching her mother clean houses. "I think it was the look and the memory of the indignities she endured. I just remembered that and wanted to convey that people who underwent all this were not cowards, were not people who were just too pathetic to protect themselves but were heroes because they were using what they had to help their kids get a little further."
Octavia Butler hybrids the sci-fi genre with utopian/ dystopian futures with backdrops that written in the late 70’s, look uncannily like our country today. Butler then drops seeds of hope for future generations in these fragmented places. She weeds, plants, and reaps; she changes the future by either traveling back in time or using the wounds of slavery as a site of relation to advance and create from. Butler uses sites of pain from the past and dangers of the future with technological advancements and fills these open wounds with compassion and empathy-increased sensitivities that can allow us a better understanding of ourselves as humans.
Weeds that Strangle
“As African-Americans we all bear the burdens of our ancestry to some degree. And make no mistake: though some of us bear them more than others, all of us have been affected. Three hundred plus years of slavery and oppression certainly have had their impact. A portion of the impact has given rise to weaknesses that we have to understand, confront and deal with if we are to thrive. Another portion has provided us with great strengths upon which to build. In both regards we all are slavery’s children.” (pg 141 Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, Dr. Joy DeGruy)
Generational Trauma Dr. Joy DeGruy writes about generational trauma from slavery and how it has been and is passed down through stories that we subconsciously pick up innocently said at family gatherings. Stories shared from father to daughter, mother to son creates relationships of trust and ownership of a past that was never lived, but now has a place of belonging. The sinewy weeds of trauma are closely followed by trust or distrust paralleling the root of the pain.
Octavia Butler explores slavery’s past influence on our present state in The Parable of the Sower. She uses it as a way to speak of race relations between families in the neighborhood. With the backdrop of the fallen city just outside their gates, there is a particular emphasis on race relations inside the compound. The neighbors are identified by their race and separated their own space inside the neighborhood, but outside there is no mention of race; it is just live and let live. The neighbors were at once united by their working-class lifestyle, while looking out for one another in the dystopian future, yet (still in the not so distant future) divided by race.
Octavia uses the annihilation of Lauren Olamina’s world, leaving three people from the neighborhood alive to find each other in a space where race was not allowed an opinion in their unification. So many people had died, that the characters were forced to search for deeper meanings beyond skin color. Again, Butler touches upon the institution of slavery by comparing the Underground Railroad to the epic journey that Lauren makes as a black woman leading people North to a better place to live.
Planting Seeds of Hope
In African societies, the griot is a leader. They keep an oral history of the tribe. They spin stories like spider webs, captivating the readers, placing them square inside the newly created dimension. That is the role of Octavia; she uses mystical and fantastical elements to literally change the course of history with her imagery, seed by seed on the thirsty fertile ground of a nation ready for change.
A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. And others fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bore fruit and hundredfold.
-The Bible Authorized King James Version/ St. Luke 8:5-8
Octavia Butler takes her protagonists on harrowing journeys across the world and sometimes into outer space, alleviating those who may be stuck in identity politics that keep them limited, preventing them from seeing themselves in any other dynamic other than substandard, by giving them a choice. By reading the lines in Parable of the Sower, “Travis has an unusual deep-black complexion-skin so smooth that I can’t believe he has ever had a pimple. Looking at him makes me want to touch him and see how all that perfect skin feels.”, one believes that through relationality via skin color there is someone that looks like them and is not an object, but the subject. This allows them agency, the choice of imagination. What it could it look like if they became the protagonist or one of the central characters in the book Parable of the Sower? Seeds of faith planted in images of the central characters skin.
At the nucleus of her novels black women portray many of the central characters; the inspiration for this is because Octavia was raised primarily by black women (her mother, aunt and grandmother) after her father passed away at age seven. Butler is changing the narrative of blackness being akin to lowliness and emphasizing a strong black family unit, by planting images of the relationship between Lauren Olamina with her father. Lauren’s father is complicated, but ultimately someone from whom Lauren respects, and he desires to protect her and provide for his family.
Reaping What You Sow
In order to rise From its own ashes A phoenix First Must Burn. EARTHSEED: THE BOOKS OF THE LIVING.
Throughout Parable of the Sower there are many references to fresh ripe fruit and vegetation. An unfortunate twist of fate is the emergency bag that Lauren had packed (sowed) was the reason for her survival after leaving her fire torn neighborhood. She finally was outside...alone, yet prepared. Her father had taught many of the older kids in the area how to shoot a gun. She had taught herself how to survive on the outside by reading about edible vegetation, clean water sources, and cartography, but this knowledge was not shared with many. She was so adamant about an apocalyptic disaster that it created fear not encouragement with her peers, they called her crazy, yet she began to prepare that fate.
Her emergency pack was her greatest nightmare and greatest leap of faith. A new- found courage was summoned, new friendships and trust blossomed, and a new religion (Earthseed) was given proper ground to grow. It calls to mind the image of a Lotus flower that seeds and blossoms simultaneously. The weeds of racism were burned away, fear and Lauren’s hyper-empathy engendered sentiments of compassion were planted. The raging fires, even in their destruction, made the land fertile for the next generation-a slate cleaning.
The book finishes with a symbol of rebirth and regeneration; each of them planting seeds in remembrance of their loved ones who died. This is not for now, but for the future; this is perseverance.
“The baobab tree itself bears significant and varying cultural meaning. As the tree of life- seeding, spreading, rooting, returning-it organizes the transubstantiation of the genealogical imaginary from the symbol of blood into the family tree.”
By using the analogy of Earthseed as a way to grow past all that people recognize as their limitations (even earth), we can sprout and create future generations amongst the stars. This is not a form of escapism, this is reality, a form of futurism, based on ideas that were written down showered with belief, and sowed to perfection.
“When I was reading Parable of the Sower everything that I was reading about I could see happening, and that was the thing that made it so terrifying was because I looked around and could see it as true futurism. Most sci-fi and fantasy does not feel like futurism, it feels like escapism. In Butler’s books, she wrote simply the world exactly as it actually is.” (N.K. Jemisin)
Seeds are microcosms of the universe, packed tightly with dreamer’s dreams and possibilities for change inherent within. The seed imagery draws to mind ‘change’, which for Lauren Olamina was God. Seeds have the potentiality of roots, trunks and branches, ideas beyond reason far from the small size with a seed's meager beginnings. In this case seed can be looked at metaphorically in the work of Octavia Butler as a symbol for change. It is neither good nor bad, it simply is. The comparisons to life after the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade can also be looked at from this perspective. Life will continue, what seeds are being planted for future generations, seeds of hope or seeds of despair. Butler says about her love of writing is “You get to make your own worlds. You get to write yourself in.” In Octavia Butler’s work, she boldly reconstructs time by using fantasy as a construct to trans temporally heal the future by sowing seeds in the past.
*Seeds of faith creates one’s reality.