Intersectionality

Probably you’ve heard of intersectionality. But maybe you haven’t. I hadn’t until the past few years. It’s a metaphor coined by law professor and anti-racist activist Kimberlé Crenshaw that helps describe compounded disadvantages. You could find far worse ways to spend 7 minutes than to listen to her explain the metaphor and its origin here. Go watch it if you haven’t run across the term before. I’ll wait. (I started trying to briefly explain it, but Crenshaw is so eloquent on it that my ham-fisted attempt to render it in my own words seemed folly.)

Photo by Joey Lu from Pexels

We see lots of compounded disadvantage in The Parable of the Sower. There’s sexism, classism, racism, and other bigotry on display. People who can’t read are further disadvantaged. Lauren is especially interesting, as she is a Black woman (there’s a familiar intersection there), but she’s also a sharer. This compounds her disadvantage by making it very difficult for her to even defend herself effectively, since if she does so, she’ll knock herself down with empathetic pain when she knocks down any assailant. It’s a particularly nasty disadvantage that reminded me of Dana’s double bind in Kindred; if Dana didn’t rescue Rufus, she would be undoing herself, recall.

We see some other little glimpses of intersectionality when Lauren and Zahra and Harry leave their neighborhood. Lauren disguises herself as a man to rid herself of the disadvantage of clearly being a woman. They joke about Harry getting a tan so that he can rid himself of the disadvantage of being a member of a mixed-race party.

There are of course actual paved intersections in the book. On page 197 in my edition (early in chapter 17), Lauren and company move from the 118 to the 23 freeway. There’s a big fire nearby, and there’s also the danger of a water station as they transition, approximately through this intersection. These dangers are in play all along their route, but it struck me that Butler brought these two elemental opposite dangers together as these freeways converged.

Just a few pages later (same section, page 203 in my edition), the party comes to the beach and has moved from the 23 to the 101, which runs all the way through California heading north and which they’ll follow as far as they can. It’s at approximately this intersection that they team up with the small family — a Black man, a Latina, and their child who have their own disadvantages. And it’s at about the time these groups come together in spite of their shared caution that things really start clicking with Lauren’s Earthseed ideas. She gets, she thinks, her first convert in Travis Charles Douglas, the father in their group of new companions. It was at the one intersection that Lauren helped the family and after banding together at about the time of the second freeway intersection that sharing their struggle made the whole group stronger.

My impression is that Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality was mostly limited to legal circles in its first few years, which would have coincided with Butler’s work on Parable of the Sower. So I don’t mean to suggest that Butler is picking up what Crenshaw was putting down and dramatizing it. Intersections have been symbols going way back before Crenshaw and Butler ever put pen to paper. Still, it’s a neat convergence, especially in a chapter whose epigraph reads, in part, “Embrace diversity / Or be destroyed.”

There’s a lot more going on in this section than this tenuous connection to critical race theory. We’re learning more about Lauren’s belief system. The stuff about entropy was pretty neat to run across. Lauren acknowledges that it’s weird to personify a belief system as a deity and explains why she chose to do so (it’s pragmatic, basically). I had been wondering, so I’m glad she answered. We see a budding romance and some attendant tension, and we see Harry betray Lauren’s pronouns (is this a sort of thoughtless microaggression, I wonder?), and I sure wonder how that’s going to come back later. And we learn more about Lauren’s vision for Earthseed, which is, somehow, “to take root among the stars,” which connects back to the Mars mission she thinks about early in the book. So we’re seeing, perhaps, a turn away from apocalypse fiction and toward science fiction, which is beginning to whet my appetite for Parable of the Talents.

4 thoughts on “Intersectionality

  1. Paul Debraski April 1, 2021 / 12:43 pm

    I hadn’t really thought that the pronoun mistake might be significant down the line. I’m curious now to see if it is.

    I enjoyed the explanation of intersectionality as well. It seems to also explain why Black women tend to be left out when Black men speak out and Women speak out

  2. Jeff Anderson April 4, 2021 / 8:15 pm

    I have a feeling intersectionality is a major element in how to make sense of any of Butler’s work. Her protagonists are often Black women, and their experiences and interpretations are informed by her own. She foregrounds her characters’ Blackness, and femaleness, and other kind of minority status so much in those experiences and interpretations, too. There’s a bit from the last third of the book, after Lauren meets Bankole, where she mentions how they both ended up with Yoruba last names rather than Swahili, and it’s just so matter-of-factly Black, setting the experiences of Black folks as a default rather than something with an interpretive wall card next to it.

    Actually, the pronoun business might be related to that. I’ve seen a few things here and there about how Butler wasn’t very conventionally “feminine,” and had some trouble with that and with the expectations of her; some speculation that she might have been not fully comfortable in a gender-binary female identity (although I don’t know that we have anything definitive from her on the subject). With that in mind, it’s interesting to see how often Dana in Kindred dressed as a man and was mistaken for a man, and how here Lauren is trying to pass as male. There are pretexts for all of that in the novels, of course, but it gives both of them some very interesting opportunities for insights (in the sense of both getting to see and having an understanding) into gender relations and how they intersect with other axes, including presumptions of what’s “normal.”

    • Daryl L. L. Houston April 7, 2021 / 10:00 pm

      Great catch about the problems of the gender binary in Butler’s work. I had noticed that women had felt compelled to pass as men in both books but hadn’t connected it to Butler’s own presentation.

  3. Paul Debraski April 9, 2021 / 5:25 pm

    Yes, I did think about them both passing as men. On a very basic level it does speak to how much easier it is for men.

    I try not to read too much of an author into a story. But these stories feel so personal , I wonder how much of this was invented and how much was experienced. What’s her relationship to religion.

    As far as gender dynamics, the few photos of her do show her with short hair. And, interestingly, when I started to type her name into Google, the first question that came up was “Is [sic] Octavia butler married.” (Which i do not know the answer to).

    It’s been many many many years since I took a Lit class. When I was in college my main prof was big into reader-response, which if I remember tends to ignore the author and focuses just on the text. I feel like it s a pretty good neutral idea when reading a book, but sometimes the author feels very present in a book. And, again without knowing much about butler, I feel her very strongly in this book.

    I’d be somewhat delighted if I was wrong about that and it was all just stuff she made up.

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