The clarity of hindsight often lures us to become mired in blame and guilt. As we wake up and become aware that the world is the way it is because certain humans have shaped it in their interest, people who are oppressed are tempted to demonize and cast out those responsible for their oppression, while people who are oppressors are tempted to silence and suffocate those naming them as a source of harm. The complex reality is that all of us contain both oppressed and oppressor; all of us inflict harm on others in some way simply as a consequence of being born into an oppressive framework. Our social environment is constructed to facilitate oppression, and it sows division and conflict among the oppressed.

Instead of standing still as our pasts consume us, we must commit to a philosophy of going from here: as oppressed people, we acknowledge and honor past harm but do not allow it to cloud the future; as oppressors, we embrace being accountable but do not allow accountability to stagnate into guilt; together, we allow our experience to inform and guide us as we work towards a world without oppressive structures.

In¬†Walking Awake,¬†the main character, Sadie, is complicit in a system that raises human hosts for parasitic beings we later learn were created by humanity in the distant past.¬†¬†She is also a victim of that system, as the only reason she holds the position she does is because her bipolar diagnosis rendered her unfit for “service”—the Masters, as the parasitic beings are called, only want to occupy the best specimens humanity can produce. Her position entails raising children for the use of the Masters, and she becomes particularly fond of a child she names Enri, who is taken by a Master early on in the story. On the night Enri is taken, he comes to Sadie in her dreams. During their conversation, she discovers that all the humans that have ever been taken over by the Masters still exist and can communicate with each other in another plane. Their consciousness is just suppressed under the consciousness of the Masters.

When Enri first sees Sadie, he tells he that he felt anger towards her after he learned that she was complicit in a system that was raising him simply to be harvested. The children in this system are not aware of the true nature of their sacrifice until a moment before; they are raised to believe the Masters are benevolent aliens and being their vessel is the highest possible purpose a human can have, but they are never told what the Masters truly look like (scary crab things), and they are never told how violent the process is. The betrayal Enri must have felt upon learning that his caretaker, who lovingly called him Enri instead of Five-47, was actually an instrument of his demise, is a version of the betrayal we feel when a supposed “ally” or accomplice sides with white supremacy or patriarchy. Yet instead of discarding Sadie, instead of succumbing to his desire to demonize, he decides to view her through the lens of transformative justice: he tells her he realizes how the system worked to harm her as well by forcing her to turn over the children she had grown to love, and he offers her the opportunity to be accountable through dismantling the framework that facilitated her harming him. And Sadie, to her credit, does not attempt to argue with him about her complicity, she simply goes from here, accepts her role as both oppressed and oppressor, and allows Enri to educate her about the true history of the world: a world where the Masters are not aliens at all, but the genetically engineered creations of a class of humans interested in control and domination. This new knowledge compels Sadie to work with Enri and the others whose consciousness is subjugated by the Masters towards destroying the system.

Sadie does not turn away from the truth of the world, nor does she attempt to deny how she has benefited from the current system. Enri does not allow his anger towards Sadie and his knowledge of her complicity to cloud his vision of her as a complete human being worthy of an opportunity at redemption. Because they approach each other with open hearts and minds, they are able to work together to destroy the system that subjugates them both. Together, they free future generations of humanity, although it requires them to sacrifice themselves in the end. Like Sadie, we are called to sacrifice our delusions about the nature of our world in the hopes a clear view of reality will compel us to change it; we must sacrifice our placid acceptance of the status quo in favor of radical resistance against dehumanizing ideologies, and we must sacrifice our comfortable numbness in favor of revolutionary awareness. Oppressors can render psychic reparations for past harm via ongoing acceptance of complicity, and ongoing efforts to foment change: If we are oppressors, every day we act towards undoing the framework that perpetuates that oppression, and through these acts we embody our redemption.

As oppressed people, we hold our oppressors accountable in a space of love: we do not excuse harm, or ignore it, but we also do not allow it to prevent us from seeing the potential for transformation coiled up in each of us, cowering behind our socialization into white supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy. Like Enri, we have to move away from the comfort and surety of anger and blame and move into the discomfort and precarity of imagining and building new futures with the same people whose ancestors inflicted harm on us in the past, or who themselves have inflicted harm on us in the present. We forgive but never forget, because forgetting does not benefit us, but forgiveness can.

The future must be built on a foundation that allows each of us to fully realize our humanity; our revolution must contain a mechanism for providing reparations to those harmed and an opportunity for redemption to those who have done the harming. We will only find permanent relief from the trauma of being oppressed and the burden* of being an oppressor when we transform our world so that no one has to be either.

 


* “Absolute power for patriarchs is not freeing. The nature of fascism is such that it controls, limits, and restricts leaders as well as the people fascists oppress.” bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, 1981

"In Context" by Tasha Fierce
collage by me

When I interact with people in my day-to-day life, I try my best to consider them as whole human beings with a lifetime of distinctive experiences up to and including the moment before I began my interaction with them. I balance their mannerisms and reactions against the knowledge that they might be having a stressful day, or they might have had a stressful life. I’m not gonna lie and say I’ve perfected this practice—I have particular difficulty being graceful while driving—but I do practice.

I want the films I watch and the books I read to have this same consideration for their characters. I want characters that are whole beings, not flat caricatures and cutouts leveraged to further a plot. Homogenizing diverse experience is a tactic of oppressors, and I intensely dislike hearing echoes of the colonizer in the art I consume.

In District 9, the audience is locked¬†into the colonizer’s mindset with no option of seeing reality any other way. Although we are presented with a number of interviews from social scientists and other talking heads speculating as to the structure of the aliens’ society and the nature of their distress, we only get brief dialogue from the perspective of the alien Christopher Johnson that references their home. We never learn what the aliens call themselves, instead being forced to either refer to them as the depersonalizing “aliens” or the derogatory “prawns”.

The movie’s treatment of the Nigerians is similarly dismissive. There are, again, interviews with white sociologists and talking heads who attempt to explain why the Nigerians are eating alien body parts and such. We never really see the lives of the Nigerians in this world from their perspective, so their actions seem completely irrational since we can only judge them from our context and that of the fictional documentarians.¬† Nearly¬†everyone is treated as disposable by MNU, in particular the aliens, the Nigerians, and Wikus after his transformation. This speaks not just to capitalism’s prioritization of profit, but also to Whiteness’ perpetual concern with purity, its fundamental need to posit itself opposite an Other, and its need to punish those who transgress racial boundaries—although I’m unsure if that’s what the filmmaker was going for.

All I know is, once the initial novelty of an alien-invasion story that begins with us subjugating the aliens wore off, I just had this discomfiting feeling. I’m not a fan of the violence, both physical and psychic, and it just seems like the movie captures the worst of humanity. The cutout aliens were better people than most of the humans in the film, aside from the brother who got arrested for exposing MNU’s alien experimentation program. As Tananarive Due remarked, District 9 is less Afrofuturism than science fiction set in Africa; it is certainly lensed through the colonizer’s gaze.

After watching¬†District 9, I began to appreciate Steven Barnes’¬†Lion’s Blood even more. It depicts an alternate history where Africans colonized Turtle Island using enslaved European labor—which, I admit, also makes me uncomfortable. But Barnes constructs his characters to be so multifaceted that I don’t feel like I’m forced into one viewpoint. He gives us both perspectives, the enslaved and the slaveowner, and in each perspective right and¬†wrong are formulated slightly differently relative to the context the character is living in. I’m uncomfortable while reading because I hate to see my people doing wrong—I think colonialism and chattel slavery are wrong no matter who engages in them—and I’m uncomfortable because Barnes is forcing me to empathize with slaveholders: not just because they now look like me, but because they are portrayed as complete human beings. I’m not uncomfortable because I feel locked into a colonizing gaze.

Lion’s Blood¬†illustrates how we can avoid reproducing the past of our oppressor in our futures. Even as it revisits our traumatic past and recasts its players, it portrays that past in a way that cherishes an essential and shared humanity. It stays true to what I know of the spirit of Afrofuturism: honoring the past and allowing it to inform the present and future, divesting from colonial and white supremacist rationalistic frameworks of understanding, and constructing narratives of our experience as Black people in fantastic realms that maintain our integrity as whole beings. Our history; our bodies; our beings are flawed yet magical. To reject the harmful dichotomies of white supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy, we must extend grace and the freedom to be self-actualized to all our constructions—whether they’re futures or characters.

When I was eight years old, I was raped by an older classmate. When I was eighteen, I was raped by the brother of my friend’s boyfriend while we were on a double date. Sprinkled in between those traumas are numerous microtraumas*: racism, bullying, sexual harassment, my first suicide attempt at age 14, my first hospitalization, forced medication, an ensuing period of psychological instability, more hospitalization, more drugs, both legal and recreational.

Much of my life I can only remember through a diaphanous veil of neuroleptics. Of course I have wondered what I would be—who I would be—if I had never had these experiences, if I had a childhood and adolescence unblemished by agony. I have even been preoccupied with recovering that lost girl, convinced that once I had excavated her from underneath the pile-on of medication, she might re-emerge as me. In some ways, she has. I see remnants of her in my creativity, my passion for learning, my relentless belief that humanity can create a world without oppression, and my enduring soft spot for whales. But I know now that I do not want to create a self absent my struggles, absent my traumas. I have shaped myself into a marvel.

In¬†Like Daughter, the narrator’s friend Denise experienced a childhood filled with physical and sexual abuse. When cloning technology becomes widely available, she decides to create a clone of herself, intending to right the wrongs her parents inflicted on her. After she’s impregnated with the clone, she starts a search for a suitable father and ends up marrying a rich guy who has no idea what he’s getting himself into. By the time Neecy, her daughter, is six, the man she baited into being the dad has left them. Denise, unable to handle seeing herself broken again, calls up the narrator—who is also the child’s godmother—and asks her to take Neecy away. Instead of trying to soothe¬†herself as she was, instead of healing her wounds in the present, Denise exhausts her minimal energy on a time travel project that ends in heartbreak.

It seems reality, or time, or whatever, does not allow do-overs. We are meant to be the people we are, and we will be shaped into that, one way or another. I have come to realize this over the past few years, and I no longer waste energy trying to resurrect my ancestral self. I remain in conversation with my past; I draw on it to provide context for my present, but I do not wish for a retake. So many things had to go right for me to be here that might not recur the second time around. Everything can always be worse.

I see so many of us walking around like Denise, longing for a chance to right the bygone wrongs of our life, unable to move forward, unable to imagine anything different. Some people are so entrenched in their nostalgia that it extends beyond the personal, into the political. I have made the decision to accept what was, and now I struggle daily towards embracing the present as a gift to the past. I return in triumph, not regret. Look at what I made from this.

 

 

* not in any way saying these are less traumatic generally, just saying that in the context of my life, they were slightly less so.

The Girl with All the Gifts
Adorably deadly.
putting the cut in cute
[attention: there will be spoilers]

What is liberation if it requires the enslavement of others? How can we prioritize our freedom while holding space for empathy? 

Imagining new futures means we do not have to accept the compromises made in the past. We can discard the colonizer mindset and adopt one that does not require the sacrifice of one for the sake of another; that negotiates paths wide enough for all. Under existential threat, we will defend ourselves—with whatever means necessary. When we have the advantage, we can be magnanimous—in fact,¬†power demands¬†magnanimity. Absolutes, either/or dichotomies, the idea that one group must sacrifice itself for another: these are all tools of the master.

In¬†The Girl with All the Gifts, Sennia Nanua plays Melanie, an adorable Black girl who is infected with a symbiotic fungus. She’s incarcerated along with a bunch of other children—all white—who get up every day, get strapped into a chair, and get educated by a woman called Miss Justineau (also white). In the book, Miss Justineau is Black, and Melanie is white, and this makes more sense to me given the ending. But, I’ll get to that later.

Melanie is obviously bright, caring, and inquisitive. She cares about the well-being of all the adults around her, even though the soldiers whom she interacts with most frequently call her “it”, refer to all the children as “friggin’ abortions”, and berate Miss Justineau for showing empathy to what they consider fungus in human form. Other than Miss Justineau, whom Melanie adores, Dr. Caldwell, the head scientist, is the only other adult who is remotely warm towards her—and she is cold as ice. She is using all the children as test subjects for a potential vaccine, the production of which, we learn, requires Melanie’s brain and spinal cord.

We see Melanie get wheeled from the detention facility she lives in to a medical complex, and during this transition we glimpse humanity’s world as it is now: a sea of zombie-looking things trying to break down the fence that encloses Melanie’s world to this point—a military base on the outskirts of London. She has apparently been raised in the detention facility, because she seems to be heretofore unaware of the condition of the outside world. This is the apocalypse Dr. Caldwell is seeking to avert, and this scene impresses upon us the understanding that humanity is no longer dominant on this planet.

In the medical complex, Dr. Caldwell briefly tries to convince Melanie to sacrifice herself willingly by telling her she’ll be giving Miss Justineau a gift, but hedges her bets by drugging Melanie at the same time. While she has her strapped down, the base is overrun by “hungries”, the zombie-like things we saw chomping at the gates on Melanie’s trip to the complex. Dr. Caldwell’s assistant gets bitten and turns, giving Melanie an up-close glimpse of her people. Eventually she gets away, finds Miss Justineau and is picked up by a van containing Sergeant Parks, the man who took Melanie to the medical complex, along with some other military types. Also inside the van is Dr. Caldwell, who is still chomping at the bit to get to Melanie’s spinal cord.

They travel throughout the city trying to get to some mobile labs Dr. Caldwell knows about, so she can start making the vaccine. Throughout their journey, Melanie proves invaluable because she can negotiate the hungries without them coming for her. They’re guided by smell—as is Melanie—and sound. Dr. Caldwell invented some gel that blocks the smell, so the humans can move amongst them as long as they don’t make too much noise. Once someone gets loud, it’s over. But Melanie, being part fungus, isn’t food to them.

During this time we also find out more about the fungus and how it’s spread. It takes over the nervous system (its real-life analog is Cordyceps) and eventually directs the host to congregate with others so it can construct a tree-like structure and create seed pods. Melanie and the adults come across a giant forest Dr. Caldwell deems the potential “end of the world”, as if the seed pods ever burn or become saturated with water, they will open and the fungus will become airborne.

After they find the mobile labs, Melanie comes across some feral hybrid children and realizes that there is hope in this world even if humanity dies. However, those kids end up killing one of the humans she likes the most (and probably not coincidentally the only Black person left on the squad). She defends the rest of the adults against the feral children and kills their leader so they might escape.

Eventually, Dr. Caldwell, who is dying of sepsis, drugs everyone so she can kidnap Melanie and try to make the vaccine. She again attempts to convince Melanie that sacrificing herself for humanity is the altruistic and correct thing to do. Melanie at first agrees, then asks Dr. Caldwell if she’s changed her opinion of her sentience. Dr. Caldwell admits that she thinks Melanie is genuinely alive and self-aware, and at this point Melanie delivers one of the realest lines of the movie:¬†‚ÄúThen why should it be us who die for you?‚ÄĚ She tells Dr. Caldwell to stay in the mobile lab, and she runs outside.¬†

Melanie has decided the best course of action is to ignite the giant seed pod forest and usher in her vision of a new world. After torching it, she comes across Sergeant Parks, who left the mobile lab looking for Melanie. Melanie ends up shooting him, at his request, because he doesn’t want to become a hungry. Dr. Caldwell gets eaten by the feral children, so Miss Justineau is the only human left. The movie ends with her in the mobile lab, unable to leave because of the airborne fungus, teaching the formerly incarcerated hybrid children along with the feral hybrid children Melanie has rounded up, through the glass.

Melanie needed Miss Justineau. The world she wanted to build required her in it to educate the children, lest they all end up feral. Miss Justineau‚Äôs life was going to be miserable in this new world, but Melanie forged ahead without giving her a choice, effectively enslaving her since she cannot leave that mobile lab without succumbing to the fungus. This is why I don’t like the reversal of the races from book to movie: Melanie executes a profoundly unloving act of creation/destruction and I prefer to see my people do better.¬†I love the idea of a Black girl being the future, and I appreciate the power of lines like ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs not over, it‚Äôs just not yours anymore‚ÄĚ being spoken by a Black girl to a white man. But the movie’s hierarchies are not representative of reality.

At first Melanie seems to be the oppressed in the situation, because she is caged. But once the hungries invade the base, things change. And by the time she tells Dr. Caldwell ‚ÄúThen why should it be us who die for you?‚ÄĚ we‚Äôve seen a world turned over to the fungus, we‚Äôve seen the feral hybrid children, and we‚Äôve seen the seed pods that portend humanity‚Äôs eventual doom. Humanity is the oppressed in this world, the fungus is the oppressor.¬†I don‚Äôt think Melanie was in a position where releasing those spores was an act of self-defense. She could have killed Dr. Caldwell and that would have pretty much ended the threat to her. She could have run away and lived in the wild and just waited for humanity to either die off on their own or actually pose a threat to her. Time, probability, and all the forces of nature were on her side.¬†

[We are currently living through the result of some white folks deciding the best response to a minority threat is to burn it all down, while protecting the ‚Äúgood‚ÄĚ subalterns that serve their interests. I see these echoes of our reality in the movie.]

I believe we need to gain our freedom by any means necessary. But I question the ability of The Girl with All the Gifts to be a real metaphor for Black liberation without glossing over the power dynamics of the post-apocalyptic landscape Melanie exists in. There exist free hybrid children in Melanie‚Äôs world. Even if Dr. Caldwell found a vaccine, a vaccine can only save the uninfected. At best, humanity might continue on as a minority species—until some giant pod tree somewhere bursts open.¬† Melanie is certainly oppressed in her individual circumstance—like working-class white folks, for example—but overall, her people are running things out there.¬†The actress playing Melanie is Black; the character is not.¬†

Yet there are still lessons to be learned from¬†The Girl with All the Gifts, because the choice Melanie makes is a choice given to us all, and because Nanua’s casting now makes the character a cinematic representation of us. We are all challenged to reject the values we were inculcated with by society; to reject ways of living that require the subjugation of others.¬†Melanie’s action illustrates how transformative love is not just ensuring the safety of the ones you love but allowing them to make choices about their own safety. Keeping someone “safe” against their will while you build a better world off their labor looks a lot like incarceration and slavery. Our future does not have to follow the same model as our past. We do not have to accept the zero-sum mentality of white supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy.¬†No one has to die for anyone.

 

The white male founders of the United States lived in a world that was not at all one where all men were equal, or where all men had the same access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—and for the most part, they were perfectly happy with this reality. Their idealized vision of themselves as egalitarian, liberal, and enlightened is evident in the language of documents like the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The descendants of groups of people the founders never meant to be included in their definition of¬†men have¬†internalized their vision to such an extent that in a struggle to embody it, they again and again force the country further towards its ideal self. Liberalism and other Enlightenment ideologies were not meant to advocate for the equality of anyone other than rich white cisgender men, yet there are enough threads of inspiration and liberation within them that, to this day, oppressed people involved in all types of resistance struggles invoke the words of [a bunch of slaveholding, genocidal patriarchs] the founders to inspire their fellow citizens to do a little better. This is the impact of vision and ideology on the future. Vision provides the destination, and ideology is the road map. In the case of the U.S.’ founders, of course, the vision was more of a delusion, and the road map guided us into a laissez-faire hellscape. But delusion is important in creating a vision of the future. We must, in some sense, disregard the state of the world today and envision the best version of our selves and our societies.

Lauren Olamina,¬†Parable of the Sower‘s protagonist, is creating an ideology—a religion, actually, but religions are like ritualized ideologies (or ideologies in their final form). She sees humanity’s lack of foresight and stubborn refusal to let go of the past, and understands the urgent need for a vision of the future that can force productive action in the present. In Earthseed, the religion Lauren founds, God is Change and Heaven is the Destiny, which is for humanity to take root amongst the stars.¬†Earthseed: The Books of the Living¬†contain her ideology, the road map she constructs to guide humanity to the Destiny. Rather than base her ideology on where an individual stands in a cosmic order, Lauren bases her ideology on an understanding of the cosmic order itself—change is the only constant. Once this nature is understood, action flows from the understanding. “Unenlightened self-interest” becomes a betrayal not only of one’s self and community, but of the laws of nature. Diligent work towards a goal like¬†taking root amongst the stars becomes a form of worship. The ideology becomes internalized, the map memorized.

By setting Parable of the Sower at a point in time when the United States is on its last legs, and old ideologies are seeming inadequate to meet the challenges of the future, Octavia Butler asks us to consider what happens when we must throw out our maps and draw new ones. She also asks us to reconsider who can be a cartographer. Lauren is a teenaged black girl, in a suburb of Los Angeles, with no formal education or training. And yet she observes the world around her, and she has some knowledge of history. With these tools, she is able to divine an ideology that guides her and others through a chaotic moment in history, and ultimately to her vision of interstellar colonization.

Our world now is at a similar point as Lauren’s. The ideologies that propelled us to this moment—capitalism, individualism, materialism—are being rejected by future-minded folk desperate to see humanity do better. Like Lauren, we are called to chart a new path, and like Lauren, most of us have no idea what we’re doing. But Butler speaks to that place of quiet knowing in each of us, reassuring us that our observation and experience is valid. Despite our apparent insignificance, we can know the nature of reality, and we can harness it to shape the future. We can call into existence a better world: by creating art, literature and music that plants a vision of a just and equitable society in our collective minds, and by articulating principles that will help manifest in real life the worlds we fantasize about. We can create a new road map for our descendants to follow in striving for freedom.

[SPOILER ALERT for the Xenogenesis trilogy and Earthseed series]
Human societies are constantly struggling between the past and the future, rarely fully inhabiting the present. We see evidence of this conflict today more plainly than ever, as climate change threatens humanity’s long-term survival while U.S. politics is preoccupied with the fallout of loss of white male status. The slogans of populist politicians of today are the same as those of yesterday: Make _______ great again, implying we must turn around to recapture our glory. In my own lifetime, I have observed that in the face of diverse threats to humanity’s survival, instead of confronting our destiny with clear eyes and purpose and shaping it into its best form, many would rather cling desperately to an idealized vision of what we once were. There is, of course, comfort in the familiar, and the past is infinitely more familiar than the future will ever be—although as Parable of the Sower‘s Lauren Olamina would point out, with an understanding of the past, the future becomes more knowable. I would imagine that during her own life Octavia Butler noticed a similar pattern of nostalgic avoidance as I have; there is much in her work to indicate that she did. She certainly identified a clear need for us let the past go in order to enable the future.

Much of Butler’s work features a tension between past and future playing out in the present. The main character in Kindred is supernaturally tied to the past, being violently jolted to slave times against her will. In Mind of My Mind, the past is embodied in Doro, the heroine’s father, whom she must battle to pave the way for a new form of society. But in the Lilith’s Brood trilogy, as well as in the Earthseed series, the main character is fighting regressive forces within humanity who cannot accept that change has occurred, is occurring, and that things will never be the same again. Both Lilith (the heroine of Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago), and Lauren Olamina (the heroine of Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents), are reluctant pioneers who, despite their reservations about the struggles ahead and what they will be required to do in order to survive, have determined that humanity’s collective survival lies in the future, not the past. Lilith, one of only a handful of survivors of humanity’s last nuclear war, must convince her fellow humans to accept an interbreeding program with a physically revolting species in exchange for the chance to perpetuate some of humanity’s genetic legacy and live on a restored Earth for a time. Lauren Olamina must build a multiethnic, collectivist movement that believes humanity’s destiny lies among the stars—in the midst of of a hypernationalist and religious fundamentalist revival in a United States reduced to developing country status by climate change.

Lilith is herself resistant to the idea of interbreeding with the Oankali, the alien species who have rescued her from the dying remains of Earth. The Oankali are masters of genetic manipulation, and have sustained their civilization for much longer than humanity. They survive through trading their genetic material with other species, changing both participants in the process and birthing a new species. The situation with the Oankali is admittedly coercive, in the sense that Lilith is basically captive for quite a while and denied reading and writing material. Eventually more information is provided to Lilith, and it becomes less of a captive situation. She comes to accept that humanity had pretty much destroyed the planet, and that without the remediation of the Oankali, it would not have supported life anymore. Reluctantly, she agrees to act as the mother to a new species, and to try to persuade as many humans as she can to engage in the gene trade with the Oankali. Having overcome her own resistance to letting go of the past, she must now surmount that of forty other humans. This is, predictably, where the majority of the conflict lies.

Once released on the remediated Earth, many humans form resister colonies and refuse to participate in the interbreeding program. The Oankali have sterilized humans to ensure that they can only breed the Oankali way (in a threesome with a human male, a human female, and an ooloi—genderless Oankali that are especially adept at genetic manipulation and can excrete substances that promote euphoric highs). The Oankali are also much stronger than humans, so the resisters had no hope of overpowering them. And in Adulthood Rites, we find out the Oankali’s living ships will eventually consume all of the renewed Earth’s resources, leaving a lifeless, uninhabitable husk behind—in response to this discovery, Lilith’s first half Oankali/half human son convinced the Oankali to offer the resisters a settlement on Mars, along with restored fertility. Yet by Imago some of them were still refusing, particularly a group of interbred humans with a genetic tendency to grow tumors and develop other ailments, descended from a human woman who discovered she was fertile. These humans built up an ideology around the Oankali as devils and Lilith as a supernatural La Malinche-type figure, preferring to breed family members with each other and suffer than accept that the past they were trying to preserve was destroying their future.

Lauren Olamina is a teenager forming ideas about the world that are contradictory to those she’s being taught. She rejects her Baptist father’s religion, instead developing her own philosophy based on Change as deity. As her world is in upheaval, she identifies change as the primary constant in the universe. The adults around her seem, in some respects, to be waiting for good times to come again; seem like they don’t actually believe that this is now and that was then, and although we can understand, honor, and draw power from the past, then will never be now again. Lamenting and preparing for the return of the past occupies space that belongs to the future, and Olamina understands this intrinsically. Instead of allowing adults’ nostalgia to make her complacent, she prepares for the future spiritually and materially: She develops her Earthseed philosophy that identifies God as Change and humanity’s Destiny as colonizing other planets, and she packs an emergency “go bag” she can grab at a moment’s notice in case she needs to abandon her home.

The United States in Parable of the Sower is presented with a similar choice as we had in 2016, a choice between a presidential candidate who at least paid lip service to being forward-looking and one who was proudly regressive. Reality mirrors fiction; faced with fiscal collapse due to climate change, Butler’s U.S. decides to turn back towards the past and assents to a rollback of their civil rights. Slavery is revived in pockets of the country. Company towns return, embraced by many people seeking refuge from increasing violence who do not know, or do not believe, their exploitative history. Olamina identifies a knowledge of the past, a consideration of consequences, as vital to survival—one of her Earthseed verses suggests considering the consequences of one’s behavior as a method of getting along with God. She identifies considering the future as similarly crucial in this verse:

A victim of God may,
Through forethought and planning,
Become a shaper of God.
Or a victim of God may,
Through shortsightedness and fear,
Remain God’s victim,
God’s plaything,
God’s prey.

(Parable of the Sower 31)

For societies, understanding the consequences of behavior entails understanding history. Shortsightedness and fear are embodied in regressive politics that emphasize denial over futurist problem-solving, precluding the ability to plan successfully. Occupying one’s mind with the past crowds out room for forethought.

The past and the future each have their place in our present. Blind nostalgia is useless, but an appreciation of the past is essential; likewise, paralyzing apprehension is not helpful, but envisioning ideal futures and potential paths towards them is key to ensuring best outcomes. Butler had a keen understanding of the mental balancing act required to successfully navigate pasts and futures while in the present, and she imbued her characters with this knowledge. Their experiences point to one conclusion: If we are to build better futures, humanity must let go of the past—before it is too late.