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.

The Benefit of the Doubt

Seems like we’re sort of all in the same boat responding to this first chunk of reading in The Parable of the Sower: It’s only Act I, so we’ve got both too much and too little to work with. But I’m also about to give y’all whiplash, going from my rah-rah explorations with Kindred to holding my nose on the way into this book (but looking forward to it anyway, because Butler is a great read). And yet.

Here’s my question, underlain by my personal tastes, but it’s an honest question: What is the purpose of apocalypse fiction?

I’m specifically making a distinction between apocalypse fiction and postapocalyptic fiction, because I totally get the point—and the appeal (which is a different thing)—of the conjectures and experiments that postapocalyptic fiction allows. How might human societies be reorganized after a sea change in certain structures or resources or conditions? Good question, with so many knobs and parameters to fiddle with! It’s one of the versions of the question “What if?” that I mentioned at the beginning of this IZ go-round, which sf as a literary approach is made for answering.

I suspect that’s where we’re going with these Earthseed books, but it’s not where we are. Right now we’re in the slow-motion apocalypse itself. And sure, the details may differ from example to example, but this story always goes the same way, right? It’s an inevitable descent, at one speed or another, into a Hobbesian nightmare of warring clans under the law of the jungle.

So: Why? Given the formula, and the straight-up misery and panic that always accompany the apocalypse, I’m skeptical of an argument for aesthetic pleasure. (Although I’m open to hearing one!) Does it have an instrumental function, then? Is it a pessimistic prediction? An Old Testament–style prophecy? Or is there even truly such a thing as apocalypse fiction as distinct from just the incipit of a postapocalyptic story? Is it just an extended buildup to the postapocalyptic part, giving us time with the characters on their way to the real meat of the story?

The Devil is in the Details

For me, it feels early yet to say much of substance about Parable of the Sower. It’s dystopian. It seems prescient, as Paul has noted. I think it’s not so far from our current reality, perhaps, as Paul suggests, though certainly it’s not quite our reality. I thought for example about “the talk” that Black children are given and wondered if the story didn’t offer a way into trying to understand what it might feel like if all kids (all people) had to live with that pervasive fear. That is, maybe the world does feel this dangerous, or nearly this dangerous, to Black people who are doing things as audacious as driving while Black, walking while Black, etc. The book was published in 1993; Rodney King was beaten by police in 1991. The police in Parable of the Sower seem little more inclined to administer justice than the L.A. police of 1991, or the Minneapolis police of 2020.

But I feel a little uneasy about presuming to say much more than that about the topic. It just feels a little weird for a reason I’m having trouble sussing out for myself, much less writing about coherently for you.

So, as is my way, I’m going to zoom in on a weird little detail and make much out of nothing.

I came to this detail by way of thinking about the epigraphs, which I sort of hate. Lots of sci-fi and fantasy books have these sorts of epigraphs — things that give little slices of the world that don’t exist precisely within the story. They add texture and a sense of sort of deep time and weight to the books when done well. But here they seem to me like so much nonsense — perhaps like the “deep thoughts” of a child trying to articulate a tolerable worldview in bleak times. I’ve wondered if Lauren is indeed some sort of philosopher or sage or whether she’s just a kid making up nonsense and calling it poetry. She expresses some doubts about this herself, and her father characterizes her as arrogant. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve taken a liking to Lauren. But the epigraphs really aren’t working for me so far.

Noodling on this brought me around to thinking about form or genre in general, which is one of my tics. This is a parable. So what is a parable exactly? It’s a simple story told to teach a lesson. Butler’s parable happens to build on and be named after the parable Jesus told in Matthew 13, which I won’t here attempt to interpret (though perhaps there’s some self-reflection I could do based on the parable given my thorny reception of Lauren’s verses). No, I’ll leave the hermeneutics here to fitter minds and turn my attention to word origins.

Parable. It’s a weird little word, short in length for its three lovely syllables. Sometimes I can pretty confidently figure out the approximate origin of a word based on its roots, but this one I wasn’t sure about. The words “parabola” and “palaver” came to mind, and as it turns out, the three are related. In geometry, a parabola is a comparison of a line relative to a fixed point, resulting in the familiar curve (I wonder, suddenly, how many parables we might find in Gravity’s Rainbow?). In story-telling, I suppose we’re looking at the comparison between the essentially straight line of the surface story relative to the fixed point of the lesson it aims to purvey. Maybe that’s too fanciful.

Going back a little farther in the origin of the word, we get to the Greek parabállein — meaning “to cast before” — of which the bállein part means “to reach by throwing, let fly, strike, put, place.” Ok, neat enough. Thinking of both math and story-telling put me in mind too of the hyperbola and of hyperbole, which seemed similarly fashioned. And it turns out that the bol part of all of these words comes from that same Greek root bállein. Given that a sower is one who casts seeds, then, the parable of the sower is, in a way, a casting before one who casts, which is not significant but is oddly satisfying.

The final word connection I’ll make here is one that surprised me — these words are all tangentially related to the word “devil.” It makes more sense when you think of the Spanish “diablo” or of “diabolical.” See that “bol” root again? The word comes ultimately from the same bállein plus dia, meaning “across.” The devil is the one who tries to sort of throw some obstacle across your path. This sidebar has nothing at all to do with the book but was a fun thing to discover.

I will, at last, make one observation about the book itself, which is that the Biblical parable of the sower is much more about the reaper than the sower. Where the sower’s seeds fall has an impact on how the seeds will grow, but Jesus connects the growth of the seeds to the recipient of scripture, so that the sower has little to do with the story at all. Butler seems so far to be doing something rather different, as the story is very much about Lauren as the sower of Earthseed. Of course in the end, it may turn out to be about the recipients of Lauren’s (and Butler’s?) scripture after all. We don’t yet know what will come of Lauren’s world, but as Paul points out, we’re already seeing how some of Butler’s warnings about our recent past and near future seem to be coming at least partially true. Maybe Butler’s book is ultimately about the recipient too.

Bleakness

I found Kindred to be an enjoyable (not exactly the right word, I know) novel.  I thought the premise was really cool and I thought the content was impactful and was conveyed really well.  It was a powerful story that did not shy away from brutality.

But it in no way prepared me for Parable of the Sower.

I didn’t know anything about this book at all before starting.  At first I thought it was neat that it was set in 2024 (hey that’s so close!)  And that, coincidentally, myself and my daughters are almost the same ages as the main character and her father (will this be our future?).

But then, holy crap, Butler doesn’t hold back.

The brutality of Kindred was based on reality.  It was horrible and, in retrospect, hard to believe that people could do such things.  The brutality of Sower, however, is all based on the future projection.  The book was written in 1993. Basically, she posits that in 30 years, America has become a rotting hellscape.  And while we haven’t reached quite the levels that she imagines, there are some pretty eerie accuracies.  I have to assume, given the natural of the elected politicians, that some things are going to get very very spookily prescient.

The book opens in 2024 with a quote from Earthseed.  We don’t know what that is yet, but by the end of this week’s read we’ll learn that Earthseed is a sort of manifesto written by the main character, Lauren Oya Olamina–I didn’t realize her name was given after the first quote from Earthseed until looking back on it.  Each chapter has another quote from Earthseed and then the story unfolds as a series of diary entries.

There is a lot in these chapters about Lauren’s feelings about God and how she starts to develop her beliefs and theories that she wants to write up under the name Earthseed.  It’s still underdeveloped in these first two chapters, and I imagine someone else will talk about it more than I’m willing to at this point.

The first entry in her diary is Saturday July 20, 2024 which is Lauren’s fifteenth birthday and her father’s fifty-fifth.  It opens talking about Lauren’s dreams, and I found the story a little unfocused–I was afraid I wouldn’t enjoy the book.

But the next day’s entry brings things into focus and while I enjoyed the writing more, the content quickly becomes horrific. 

Lauren says that three years earlier, her father’s God ceased to be her own.  Yet on this day, she and some others in their neighborhood were going to be baptized.   She tells us that things are bad in their neighborhood–kids don’t go to school anymore, and in fact, parents are nervous about their kids going outside at all.

Sounds like overprotective parents have gone too far (this was written in the 90s, after all, the start of the helicopter parent).

Then she starts giving details–churches burned, there’s no water, thieves are everywhere and their neighborhood is surrounded by a wall that they really never go past.  They live 20 miles from to L.A. (in Robledo), and although her father says “the city is one big carcass covered in maggots” (9), Lauren tells us the maggots are in her town too.

The people involved in the baptism–the children and their parents, rode their bicycles (“gas was pretty much only used for torching things these days”) to the one church still standing. And that’s when the details get really gruesome.

There are people lying all over the roads.  “I saw at least three people who weren’t goin to wake up again, ever.  One of them was headless” (9). Then she sees a young woman, walking, naked, down the street. She was dazed or drunk or something: “maybe she had been raped so much that she was crazy.   I’d heard stories of that happening.  Or maybe she was just high on drugs.” (9). The boys were pretty amazed to see a naked woman, no matter her condition.

Why did no one help her?  “My stepmother says she and my father stopped to help an injured woman once, and the guys who injured her jumped out from behind the wall and almost killed them” (10).

This book is science fiction, but at first it just seemed like a purely dystopian novel.  Then we learn that Lauren has a particularly science-fictiony condition.  One that makes it especially difficult for her to live in this world.  She suffers from hyperempathy.  Whenever she witnesses pain, she experiences it herself.  Her father believes it is something she can get over, but that doesn’t seem to be true.  Butler really likes to explore this kind of aspect interpersonal connection and i look forward to what she’s going to do with it.

Her brother Keith would fight her and when she hit back, she would feel the same pain.  Then she’d get punished for hitting her brother and feel more pain.  She has this “organic delusional syndrome” because her mother took too many Paracetco, the Einstein powder, which killed her.

The syndrome is supposed to make her share pleasure and pain, but there’s not much pleasure to be seen.  The good news is that once she got her period, she stopped actively bleeding in response to others’ blood.

Moving forward a few days, Lauren tells us that one of the astronauts on the latest Mars mission has been killed.  This is an interesting sci-fi component that i assume will be explored more later.

Poor folks in Robledo think the space program is a waste of money since they have so little on Earth. But for Lauren (and others) it is a source of hope.  Hope of getting the hell out of this.

The politicians are introduced soon after.  Christopher Morpeth Donner is against the space program and promises to abolish it if he’s elected.  Lauren’s father plans to vote for this man (although on election night, he doesn’t bother voting at all).   When Donner is elected, his first plan is to put people back to work –he wants to suspend overly restrictive minimum wage, environmental and worker protection laws for those employers wiling to take on homeless employees and provide them with training and adequate room and board.” (27).

She wonders,

Will it be legal to poison, mutilate or infect people–as long as you provide them with food, water and a space to die? (27)

Many characters are introduced in the neighborhood, and it’s a little unclear who is important to hang on to.  Some are killed pretty quickly.  Others seem to cause nothing but trouble.  An old lady kills herself (she was formerly sanctimonious and God-fearing, and yet she chose to kill herself knowing she would not go to heaven).  Her children and grandchildren all died in a house fire a few days earlier.  Clearly she just couldn’t take it anymore,

2025 opens with a February entry.  A fire occurred in their neighborhood.  They wasted precious water putting it out.  It was set by a little girl, Amy.  The girl is the daughter of Tracy, a girl one year older than Lauren.  Tracy was 13 when she had Amy and was 12 when her 27 year-old uncle started raping her.

Problem: Uncle Derek was a big, blond, handsome guy, funny and bright and well-liked. Tracy was, is, dull and homely, sulky and dirty-looking. (33)

There’s another observation about men on page 37:

Some middle class men prove they’re men by having a  lot of wives in temporary or permanent relationships.  Some upper class men prove they’re men by having one wife and a lot of beautiful, disposable young servant girls.  Nasty.

Tracy didn’t have maternal instincts and Amy roamed wherever.  Lauren kind of took her in and decided to look after her and help teach her–her maternal instinct had kicked in.

Back to the woman who committed suicide–her house is inherited by relatives.  They immediately blame the neighborhood for stealing from the abandoned house.  The neighbors did take back things that belonged to them, but any actual thieving was done by actual thieves before she died.  The neighborhood doesn’t care for the accusations though:

“This is a small community.  We all know each other here.  We depend on each other.” (35)

But the new residents (“Payne and Parish, what perfect names they have”) say “we’re not very social.  We mind our own business.”  I wonder how long they will last.

Lauren explains that her father takes all of the children (and adults) for gun handling practice once they reach fifteen.  They usually go out to open fields–unless there are corpses (and there usually are).  Even though he is a man of God, he tells the community they should all have a gun: “The police may be able to avenge you, but they can’t protect you.” (39)

While they are shooting, feral dogs get close.  The people are understandably concerned about feral dogs, although one dog and a dozen people makes for pretty good odds.  But when one gets too close, her father shoots it.  As they walk past the body, it seems to resist death and it’s up to Lauren (who is a crack shot) to finish it off.  She shoots:

I felt the impact of the bullet as a hard solid blow, something beyond pain.  Then I felt the dog die. (45)

March brings a kind of miracle: rain.  It rains so infrequently and water is so scarce, that everyone gets buckets and pots to gather as much as possible.  Most of the kids simply run around in it.  When it ends, Lauren says “I wonder how many years it will be before we see rain again.” (60).

But even in a time of relative pleasure, bad things happen–little Amy was shot by a stray bullet.  The funeral would be tough, especially for Lauren.

At the funeral Lauren confided in her friend Joanne Garfield.  She trusted Joanne and told her about her ideas–about God, about the future, and how maybe those who died were the lucky ones.  She tells Joanne she would love to get out of here.  But Joanne says there’s no where to go

Not is you don’t have money.  Not if all you know how to do is take care of babies and cook. (53)

But where would you go even if you had somewhere to go?  There’s cholera in Mississippi and a measles in New Jersey  Measles!

Surely Butler wasn’t anticipating anti-vaxxers, but in the real world, there was in the U.S. an uptick in cases of measles from 1990-1992.  But I credit her with some prediction:

From January 1 to December 31, 2019, 1,282* individual cases of measles were confirmed in 31 states. This is the greatest number of cases reported in the U.S. since 1992. The majority of cases were among people who were not vaccinated against measles. Measles is more likely to spread and cause outbreaks in U.S. communities where groups of people are unvaccinated. 

The problem, according to Lauren is that the adults are waiting for the good old days to come back.  

I know there were climate change deniers back in the early 90s (like one who recently died and cleaned up the radio waves by doing so), but she is certainly on point with

Your father says he doesn’t believe people changed the climate in spite of what scientists say.  He says only God could change the world in such an important way.

The rain is a good example of the practical effects of the climate change though.

Lauren, an early prepper (well, early for 1993, not 2025), proposes making Emergency Packs, “Grab and Run” packs (shame she didn’t think of “go bags” as a phrase).

Then a few days later Lauren finds out that Joanne told Lauren’s father about what Lauren was saying.  What if she had said more than she did?  She can never trust Joanne again.  Her father has a serious talk with her.  He is is angry but mostly because he doesn’t want her to scare the others with her talk.  He’s also concerned that her bug-out bag would be a gift to a burglar–every thing he could want in one handy place.  So there’s no way he’s letting her put a gun in it.

But there’s more important things to worry about–like the thieves that broke into their garden. They have started a Neighborhood Watch program.  Certain families who don’t participate are, of course, under suspicion.

As the summer comes to an end, the biggest crisis comes from Lauren’s brother Keith.  Keith has always been a pain, acting older than he is.  He is also Lauren’s stepmother’s favorite child (he is one of her birth sons after all).  He gets away with a lot, but Lauren’s dad doesn’t give in.  Keith desperately wants to go for gun-handling training with the others but he is not old enough.  Their father knows Keith is not mature enough, as evidenced when Keith makes the pathetic argument that his sister is allowed to go and she’s a girl.  

Then one night he took the key to the gate that surrounds their community and snuck out of the walled in neighborhood.  He came back a few hours later, bloodied and beaten in only his underwear.  Worst of all is that the thieves now had a key.  The neighborhood watch had to keep surveillance until they could put up a new lock and get new keys made.  Their father is furious, as is most of the neighborhood.

But a few days later Keith was gone again.  This time he took a BB gun and was gone for a few days.  He came back with newer, nicer clothes than he went out with.  Their father beat him until he cried.

So he left again.  This time he snuck back in when their father was out.  He had a wad of cash which he gave to his mother.

As the section ends, he leaves again promising to be back and to bring presents (but not for his dad).

The next section is 2026.  This above scene happened in August 2025.  That means quite a lot will have happened for next week’s reading.

We are so on trend! (Kindred on FX)

https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=Octavia-E-Butler-Kindred-FX-Series-Adaptation-bookpulse

Buzz for Butler

The works of Octavia E. Butler, the renowned sci-fi author who passed away in 2006, have seen a resurgence in popularity over the past several months. Last week, her 1993 novel The Parable of the Sower hit the NYT Paperback Trade Fiction best-sellers list for the second time—the first being this past September. And this week there’s news that a pilot for an adaptation of her 1979 novel Kindred is set for FXVariety has details.

Plus, with the recent release of the Library of America edition of the first volume of her collected works, The New Yorker has a feature on Butler, “the sixth science-fiction writer to be featured in the landmark series, and the first Black science-fiction writer.”

Also, in a fitting tribute, the spot where NASA’s Perseverance rover recently landed on Mars has been named “Octavia E. Butler Landing.”

The End of All Our Exploring

The other posts here, and an exchange I’ve been having with another friend who’s also just read Kindred for the first time, have had me ruminating on a few things that I think I’ve figured out how to solidify together. There are two parts to this, really: the description of what I see happening in the text, and the interpretive metaphor. Let’s go with the metaphor first, since it’s more overarching and I’ve already broached the subject in a comment on Daryl’s recent post.

Butler is giving us a way to reconceive the psychic force of our shared history of slavery as not primarily a horror, but a wound. (Dana’s lost arm, Kevin’s PTSD…) That’s not to say there’s no horror—Paul reminds us of an especially hideous moment that branded itself on Kevin’s memory. But it’s important, I think, that we get that incident at some remove: Kevin’s telling Dana about a thing he saw years earlier (in his subjective time frame). The move here is to locate another category we can assign to the gravamen of slavery and its legacy, not deny any of it, and then to look at what that new framing means for the possibilities of our relationship to it.

Throughout the book, Butler shows us that the system of slavery is destructive to everyone. Obviously I’m not saying what we really need to think about in terms of slavery is how it hurt White people; what I’m saying is that Butler is very clearly showing us that it also hurt White people. This is one of the reasons for the move from horror to wound, because it’s hard to feel a moral demand to care about the effects on a monster of their monstrousness. You don’t sympathize with Dracula—but you can with Renfield, because he’s been damaged too. It’s empathy, not absolution.

We’ve talked some about Tom and his code of honor, and in this last week’s reading Rufus became an especially complex character. The reason it’s so uncomfortable to engage with them is that Butler gives us enough to see who they could have been if they hadn’t been warped by the world they live in. As my friend said to me, slaveowners were humans too, after all, with all the psychological and emotional needs that entails. They developed their own moral and ethical code to contain their lives in the system they lived in—and vastly benefited from—and justify the inversions of human feeling that it demanded. It’s no sure thing, but we get enough flashes of the man Rufus could have grown up to be, I think, to feel the loss of the comparison with who he ended up as. (Especially when the man he ends up as is a man who will drive the woman he believes he loves to kill herself because it’s so plausible that he would punish her—for resenting being serially raped—by selling their children.) It’s nothing like Alice’s losses, or Isaac’s, or Sarah’s, but it’s still a loss.

There’s a purpose here for Margaret Weylin too; remember that Dana illustrates Margaret’s neuroticism in terms of her micromanagement of the house. Her function is supposed to be running the household, but in the system of slavery, that’s accomplished by means of a community in her home that she’s not a part of—people she needs but won’t love, and can’t trust. No wonder competence in a Black woman is a threat to her. She’s forbidden to have any herself, or to complain about that.

And again, Butler’s careful to make sure we know she’s never just talking about the past. Given the time-travel conceit in this book, Faulkner’s aphorism is more apt than he even knew: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Remember Dana’s uncle, and how angry he was that she married a White man? “The last thing my uncle said to me was that he’d rather will [his apartment buildings] to his church than leave them to me and see them fall into white hands.” The book takes place only 20 years after Brown v. Board—that uncle grew up under Jim Crow, and may well even have gone to segregated schools. The wound was never healed. In the second paragraph of the first proper chapter of the book, Dana mentions that she and Kevin have just moved into “a house of [their] own a few miles away in Altadena.” That’s not just a line about how greater Los Angeles is made of gazillions of separate cities and neighborhoods: Altadena is where Owen Brown eventually settled after he survived his father John’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. (Check out his gravestone here: “Son of John Brown the Liberator.”) And bringing the past into the present, Altadena was also one of the first middle-class Black neighborhoods in the LA area, because it escaped the redlining that prevented Black people from buying land and owning homes in so many places. The wound was never healed. I come back to Dana and Kevin’s “chocolate and vanilla” coworker, too, because miscegenation only even exists as a concept in order to enforce racial categories—the core mandate in the system that we inherited from slavery.

Over and over again, we see that slavery brutalizes Black people specifically but injures everyone. Butler’s not the first person to observe this, of course, and I’m nowhere near the first person to take up medical imagery for the subject; Lincoln’s Peoria speech describes slavery’s euphemistic presence in the Constitution’s as “a wen or a cancer, which [an afflicted man] dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death.” It’s figured there as a potentially fatal wound to the entire country, which indeed it has very nearly been, more than once. But here’s the trick, I think—the whole point of this change in stance: a wound can be healed. There’s a connection here to my previous post, in that considering slavery only as a horror forecloses a lot of constructive responses to it. What can you do with an atrocity? Depends on which side you’re on, of course, You hope that the victims find the grace to forgive you for it. You recoil in shame from complicity in it, or privileges descended from it, and harden the walls of your ego-protective reaction. Or you resent the original sin against you and your people, and you swallow the embers every day from the match that can’t be unstruck. But wounds… Wounds we have a framework for, one that acknowledges both the possibility of healing and the necessity of being an active part of your own healing.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. And it doesn’t mean that some pristine state from before is recoverable. Scars are a part of healing too. But it means there is a kind of wholeness that can be striven toward. I don’t think Butler’s project in this book extends so far as to prescribe; expecting her to reminds me of the breathtaking audacity of the book’s setup, in which the universe kidnaps a Black woman more or less at the existential version of gunpoint and forces her to play guardian angel for a White boy. It’s Daryl’s Hurston quote again, “the mule of the world.” It’s on us White people to do the work of healing the body politic just as assiduously and conspicuously as we (as a group) take self-care measures like therapy and meditation and going to the gym. The only real obstacle is our collective will.

Worthy

This week took us to the end of the book.

Dana arrived home with Kevin this time.  He’s initially happy to be home, but is soon very restless. He was in the past for five years.  They have only been in their new house together a few days–noting is familiar here.  He is agitated and irritable.  He tells her about some of the horrible things he’s seen like a woman dying in childbirth.  It’s interesting that this horror comes from Kevin telling Dana about a woman’s whose master beat her until the baby fell out of her.

I feel like Kevin is overreacting to his return–his agitation seems way too great.  I realize that things are new in this house, but you’d think that even after five years, being home wouldn’t be such a bad thing.  And then he tells a story like the above and while I still don’t understand why it’s not just a relief to be out of there, i can see that he’s got PTSD.

But he was jumpy–the sound of jet overhead freaked him out.  Again, would five years without a jet overhead make you forget that they existed before hand?

Earlier Dana had been concerned that Kevin could be “won over” to the bad side. But he tells her that he had been helping slaves to escape.  he even imagined that they might both want to go back to help more slaves escape–to do good historically speaking.

This story is obviously not about Kevin, but it is interesting to think that if he felt his life wasn’t amounting to much here (despite or because of the marriage), that he might feel he was more useful in the past.

But before either one of them could settle down she felt herself pulled back once again.

She arrived in a storm to find a drunken Rufus passed out–face down in a puddle.  [Not saying that this doesn’t happen in real life, but I’ve never seen anyone drunk, face down in a puddle,  But it does happen quite a lot in fiction]

She helped get Rufus back home where his father was waiting.  His father was much older, he had a cane and had lost much of his edge. But he still had sass for her.  He asked what happened to her face–she had a scab.  She told him that’s where he kicked her.  He roared at her that it was six years since he’d seen her last. She told him that for her it was only a few hours.

Rufus was in a really bad way–he had malaria.  Of course no one knew anything about mosquitos back then, so she tries to teach them about microbes but they don’t believe her.  She was able to mend him (she had brought back aspirin an Excedrin which helped with the pain). I love the way Dana is exasperated with the “doctors” of the day.  I also wonder a the limited supply of things that Dana brought with her.  While she couldn’t get antibiotics OTC, I wonder if there’s any medicine beyond aspirin that se could have brought with her.

As Rufus was recovering, his father became deathly ill.  Rufus insisted that Dana help him.  She rushed to his side, but he was already dead when she got there. Nevertheless Rufus blamed her for not being able to save him.  It’s not entirely clear if he really did blame her or if he just needed to blame someone.  Although Rufus ha come to think of her as supernatural (which she was).

The next day Rufus took it out on her by putting her to work in the fields under the an incredibly nasty field manager.  He mocked her as useless (which she was, she would admit), and supposedly “so smart.”  Then he beat her hard.  And continued to do so no mater how hard she worked.  She didn’t know if she would make it through the day.

Rufus came and took her out of the field telling her that she was no good as a worker–embarrassing her but also saving face.  Then he told her that his mother was coming back to stay with them and he wanted Dana to sit with her.  Dana was shocked–assuming that the woman was dead.  But also never wanting to see that horrible woman again.  But Rufus assured her that his mother had been taking laudanum and had mellowed considerably.

She also learns that Rufus is continuing his father’s policy of selling slaves and breaking apart families.  But he also threw parties for the slaves and allowed them to marry–something other slaveholders didn’t do.  Rufus continues to be a(largely bad)  contradiction.

All this time, Rufus had been with Alice–and she still didn’t like him.  They had had some children but they’d all died or been sickly.  She had had a boy who survived but he was not very psychically strong.  Luckily for the boy, he looked a lot like Rufus and he was very smart.  Alice was pregnant again and Dana hoped it would be Hagar, Dana’s ancestor.  Surely the birth of Hagar would be the end of Dana’s duty.

Finally Alice gave birth to Hagar (Rufus hated the name) and finally one of the children looked like Dana.

All this time Rufus still fancied Dana.  It’s unclear what he wanted from her exactly, because sex didn’t seem to be it.  It was more just a matter of possessing her.  So when he saw that one of the slaves, Sam, was making eyes at her, Rufus had him sold.  When Dana learned about this, she slit her wrists.

Which sent her home.

She figured it was the best way to get home, because Kevin would know immediately what had happened and could take care of her (if she had OD’d on something they would have no idea what happened).  She was home for fifteen days this time.  Kevin was certain that she was back for good since Hagar had been born.  But Dana could not relax.

She would not leave the house and would certainly not drive (imagine if she disappeared while behind the wheel).  And she was right.  Because she was sent back once more.  This time it was not ling after the last visit.  Rufus seemed fine but he showed her in the barn where Alice had hung herself.

Why? because he sold her children (his own children).  Why?  Because she ran away and he wanted to punish her.

He explains to Dana that he did not sell them, he sent them to his family in Baltimore as punishment to Alice.  Alice was even starting to come around to Rufus a little.  But this was the last straw.

Dana says that he basically killed Alice.  He refuses to accept that.  She tells him that the least he can do is raise their children free.

He agrees to bring them back home if Dana will help him raise them.  She says he knows that she’s going to leave.  Man, Rufus is a master manipulator.

The children come home and he finds that he actually likes the little ones.  Dana asks him to make a will in which he frees all of his slaves on his death–something other slaveholders have done.  He says she’s crazy–he knows that she will kill him if she thinks the slaves would be freed.

He lay with her on a pallet, forcing her hand, pleading with her and threatening her. I wonder how much of this book was meant to bring attention to manipulative men–the scenario is extreme, but you can see the manipulation at work.

He gets close to her and asks her some hard questions

“You never hated me, did you?” he asked.
“Never for long, I don’t know why.  You worked hard to earn my hatred, Rufe.”

That is a staggering admission.  Butler has created Rufus to be a complex person.  Unlikable for so many obvious reasons, but seemingly willing to break the mold of what he has grown up with.  At the same time, is Butler showing how easy it is for abused women to find good in their abusers.  Of course, she also puts Dana’s own future on the line as motivation to care about Rufus.

He lay with his head on my shoulder, his left arm around me, his right hand still holding my hand, and slowly, I realized how easy it would be for me to continue to be still and forgive him even this. So easy, in spite of all my talk.  But it would be so hard to raise the knife, drive it into the flesh that I had saved so many times (256).

As the book opened, Dana told us that she had lost her arm.  I sort of get what Butler was doing–Rufus’ grasp was so strong, as if he would never let go, and in a sense he didn’t. It does come across as peculiarly science-fictiony to have that happen though.

In the epilogue she is back with Kevin and they fly to Maryland to see where they were–see what remains–see if there is any legacy of their being there.

This must have been a difficult book to end.

So much intensity had gone on, but Dana is now living with it yet so far removed from it.  Having them able to find some information but not a lot also rings true to the history of slaves.  There are no complete answers–not to what happened to her ancestors or even what happened to her.  Most slaves were not deemed worthy of being remembered. if it were not for Dana’s ancestor writing the family tree in the Bible, Dana would not have known what she was even fighting for.

I’m really looking forward to Parable of the Sower–having no idea what it’s about.

Odds and Ends

Kindred strikes me as sort of an easy read. Well, it’s a very tough read in that it describes graphically some horrendous stuff. But it is not difficult in the way that something like Ulysses is. You can just sort of cruise along and not stumble over much about the technique or the structure of the story. It’s not exactly a beach read, but it maybe could be if not for the awful subject matter. I think what I mean (though I feel weird saying it) is that it is not especially complex or difficult to follow.

The last read we did here, Bubblegum, comes to mind as I think about this issue of difficulty and complexity. Bubblegum also had horrifying stuff in it that was unpleasant to think about. Aside from that, it wasn’t a Ulysses-hard read. It went down pretty easily. I didn’t plod through it as I’ve plodded through some of the big difficult books. But it had complexity and heft (literally and figuratively) in a way that, for me, Kindred does not. Bubblegum required that I keep many characters and ideas and even modes of reading in my mind all at once, even while the act of reading it was pretty easy. But I had so much more to say about Bubblegum. It pulled so many more things together and sparked a lot of speculation and ideas as I read.

Kindred sort of doesn’t. I’m having difficulty trying to come up with any particularly interesting things to say about it that aren’t obvious. Perhaps this is a strength of the book: If the thread is pretty easy to find, any message the book is designed to convey is likely to come across more clearly than if the thread is tangled up amid a bunch of unspooled yarn. Still, the book feels a little thin to me, and I’ve found it hard to say much here at the end that seems very interesting.

Rather than torture you with my effort to do some big meaningful synthesis, I’ll leave you with some questions and notes I jotted down after finishing the book, while trying to figure out what I wanted to write about. Maybe y’all will have something more meaningful to say about one or two of these things in the comments. Or maybe you’ll have something to share that’s altogether different, in which case please speak up!

Abandonment and Acquisition

We see a lot of abandonment in the book. Rufus is terrified that Dana will abandon him. Kevin is accidentally abandoned for five years in the past. Kevin and Dana’s families sort of shut them out. Rufus’s mom leaves the family behind. Plantation owners force abandonment on enslaved people by tearing families apart. I don’t have a thesis here; it’s just something I noticed that seemed interesting in a book that is in large part about the acquisition and holding of people.

The Arm

I feel a little dim, but I felt like there must be some very heavy significance to Dana’s leaving her arm behind. The book starts out with this detail, and the removal of the arm as Rufus clutches it seems important as the climactic moment of Dana’s final return home. Yet to me, that scene felt sort of clumsy and vague. And the best explanations I can come up with for the significance of the arm thing are trite things about embodiment, or Dana literally and figuratively leaving a part of herself in the past (taken from her by a white man), or Dana’s returning to the present diminished or broken by her experiences in the past. What big significant thing am I missing?

External References

There are a few references to external sources. I didn’t write them all down, but there are slave narratives and history books. There’s a fake external reference to Kevin’s first successful novel. We don’t learn what Kevin’s novel is about, but the title is a Biblical reference to Moses and Aaron in Meribah (striking the rock to produce water — which by the way may be another example of abandonment in a way, as Moses here may have sort of left God behind). Then of course there’s the Bible itself. And then there’s a reference to Robinson Crusoe, a slaver lost to the world he knows (that’s about all I remember; it’s been ~30 years since I read this one). Were I more industrious, I might try to make some elaborate set of connections among these various sources.

Stereotypes

Is there something about stereotypes to poke at here? The overseers are stereotypically bad. Dana is painted (by Alice, at least) as sort of an Uncle Tom type character. Kevin at times seems a bit like the white savior type. Dana and Kevin’s families behave about as you’d expect when they learn that the two are in a relationship. Stereotypes (or perhaps archetypes) can be useful in literature that seeks to make a point. Reliance on them in lieu of more complex characterization can also make characters seem sort of flat. Is Butler relying on stereotypes here, and if so, does it suit her purpose or does it subtract from the complexity and beauty of the book?

Father and Son

Does Rufus become his father, as Dana had wondered about back on page 68? Which of the two of them is worse? I’m not sure what to make of Rufus’s insistence that Tom is fair and has a sort of honor (granting as much requires a little cognitive dissonance at any rate). Tom’s cruelty is at least in the service of profit and enterprise, whereas Rufus’s is oddly based in a sort of perverse personal greed. He hurts Alice and Dana because he wants to exert some personal claim over them. Maybe the whys and wherefores of the cruelty are beside the point. Maybe it doesn’t even make sense to compare and contrast the two men when the result is cruelty toward a whole group of people. Still, I found myself noodling on it a little.

Weird Things

I often focus on weird things when I read, like how authors use random (or purposeful?) marks on the page. Last week, I gave some thought to names. As I wrapped up the reading, I thought about chapter names. We have the river, the fire, the fall, the fight, the storm, and the rope. It’s an interesting variety of names. They’re all basic words. Fire, storm, and river are sort of elemental. Fall, fight, and storm might point metaphorically to some greater force or set of events or circumstances (i.e. a sort of fall from grace, or the greater fight/storm against racism). Fall may also do double-duty (or triple-duty) given that it can represent a season of dying. Rope is sort of the outlier here, in a couple of ways. For one, it’s the most concrete of the names. A rope is a thing you can hold in your hand. All the chapters but “The Rope” also refer to the things that put Rufus’s life in immediate danger and called Dana to him. But the rope — presumably the rope by which Alice hanged herself — is much less directly the cause of Rufus’s mortal peril. I might’ve expected that Dana would return to find Rufus himself hanging by his neck. Indirectly, I suppose the rope did bring about Rufus’s death, as it is Alice’s death that sends him over the edge, but the connection here seems much more tenuous. I wonder if there’s something to be made of this. I’ve got the germ of an idea about how enslavement and racism indirectly hurt white people too, as the rope (even as late as Butler’s lifetime used for lynchings of Black people) indirectly led to Rufus’s undoing, but it hasn’t quite crystallized for me as an argument yet and feels like a bit of a stretch.

What We Owe to Each Other

At the beginning of last year, I joined a book group run out of my local library. (Got a whole two meetings in before we had to switch to Zoom, heh.) It’s for classics, which in this case means at least fifty years old. The book we discussed in February was A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the first East African author to publish a novel in English. It takes place in the few days before and the day of Kenya’s official independence, and while I didn’t especially enjoy reading it, it gave me a lot to think about, and it feels like an especially valuable piece of postcolonial literature.

One of the themes my thoughts kept returning to from that book is the idea of justice, and how often pursuing it after the fact is a mug’s game. It feels weird to me even to type that sentence, which suggests that I might have gone for the most inflammatory summary of my thinking, so let’s take the long way to understanding it.

When we’re being socially constructed as citizens, we’re taught that justice is the function of the legal system. We have a whole coequal branch of government dedicated to it, after all. This is fundamentally the purpose of constitutional law, right? (I’m very aware that this is a White fairy tale; as I said, this is how we’re molded into the citizens that society wants us to be, which is White supremacists.) But interestingly, our legal system knows better—and has for something like three quarters of a millennium. The US legal system was originally based on that of Great Britain, particularly English common law (although of course, just like their squirrels and ours evolved differently once the continents separated, so too did our legal systems after independence), and until 1938 maintained a distinction inherited from that common law between law and equity. Simplistically, cases at law involved seeking money (“damages”) and cases in equity involved seeking…basically anything else. That old, old distinction arose in the first place from widespread recognition that the law wasn’t producing equitable outcomes; it was deeply formalist and procedural, and thus largely unconcerned with the justice of the underlying dispute, but also: money is only a substitute for, well, literally everything but other money. Compensating a person is rarely the same as making them whole. There are things you can do to a person, to a group of people, that can’t be taken back or repaired.

This is where Daryl’s double bind comes in: On levels from micro to macro, from interpersonal to global, there are affronts that can only be healed through the grace of the victim. In A Grain of Wheat, that’s refracted through colonial oppression (and war crimes) and the inevitable accompanying issues of collaboration/survival and post-independence retribution. In this section of Kindred, it’s focused pretty sharply through Dana and what she has to forgive Rufus in order to keep to her mission of saving his life (and thus her own) and maybe hopefully if she’s lucky changing his heart some too. It’s not bad enough to have to endure the aggression and insults and humiliations and enslavement; she also has to just eat it all and find a way to keep trying even though she knows there’s more coming. Even worse, he forces her to be complicit in his rape and abuse of Alice, which it hurts her to have to try to reconcile. Thus the double violation: first the injury, then the demand to bear all the burden of healing it.

But of course even with that focus on the interpersonal level, Butler makes sure our eyes are on the bigger picture too. The book takes place in 1976, after all—the Bicentennial. What kind of celebration must that have been for Black Americans, though? The country it was celebrating was the country Rufus summons Dana to: a country explicitly founded on racism and enslavement. Over those 200 years of independence, multiracial democracy on a national level had only existed for 11. (Even when Butler was writing, the Voting Rights Act hadn’t yet turned 15.) We see from Dana and Kevin’s families, and their odious “chocolate and vanilla porn” coworker, that injustice and group trauma live on beyond the time that the aggressor deigns to desist (and remember Frederick Douglass’s admonition: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will”—a third burden on the violated). And the costs they impose can’t be recouped.

That’s not to say that healing and change aren’t possible. It’s to say that I’ve come to see the idea of justice as forward-looking, because it can’t change the past. On a personal level, that means we have an inherent obligation to strive not to do these harms in the first place—although the danger there is that the force of that injunction comes from the idea that it’s unjust to impose the costs of my behavior on others, and for some people that asymmetry is called permission. Look at Rufus, and Dana’s understanding of his hideous plan to claim Alice. There’s nothing but Dana’s disapproval and opposition to keep him from it, and that only matters for as long as he lets her opinion hail him and chooses not to exercise his power over her. But in a larger sense, it goes along with Dana’s ruminations about Rufus that Daryl highlights. As he says, her goal is “to make things better for those who … follow her.” That’s where ideas of restorative justice (in the criminal system specifically) and transitional justice (in the context of regimes of human-rights abuse) come into play instead. I’ve already been going on more than long enough, so I’m not going to run through all that, but I do encourage y’all to look them up. The primary point is that rather than look to undo what can’t be undone or limit the repair to settling a dollar amount on the harm inflicted, these approaches understand justice as a transformation of the set of circumstances that produced the injustice. In a meaningful way, they’re about fixing the world rather than settling a score. To put it in terms I learned from Melissa McEwan at Shakesville: Justice for Trayvon Martin wouldn’t have meant George Zimmerman in prison and weregild paid to Trayvon’s family. It would have meant Michael Brown being alive. And so on and so on and so on and on and on and on.

And really that’s what I mean too, when I say that pursuing justice after the fact is a mug’s game. What we have to do is seek it in advance, so that things like what Dana and Alice and Isaac and Sarah and so very many others—and more importantly, real people—go through aren’t done to them in the first place. This is the onus Butler is showing us.

On Fairness

I’ve got a few things on my mind from this week’s reading.

One is the strife between enslaved women. Liza discloses Dana’s departure to win some sort of favor, but then Dana’s allies give her a beating in retribution. More interesting is the conflict between Alice and Dana once Alice recalls the truth of her enslavement. Alice lashes out at Dana but later catches herself (starting on page 167 in my edition):

“What’s the matter with you” she said wearily. “Why you let me run you down like that? You done everything you could for me, maybe even saved my life. I seen people get lockjaw and die from way less than I had wrong with me. Why you let me talk about you so bad?”

“Why do you do it?” …

“Because I get so mad… I get so mad I can taste it in my mouth. And you’re the only one I can take it out on — the only one I can hurt and not be hurt back.”

“Don’t keep doing it,” I said. “I have feelings just like you do.”

I have nothing profound to say about this strife, but it stood out to me. In a section titled “The Fight,” I wondered whether Butler meant to call attention to the physical fight that summoned Dana to the past or whether she might also mean to call attention to the infighting she portrays among the women (also perhaps to, you know, the fight for civil rights in Butler’s own lifetime).

The second thing on my mind this week was names. “Rufus” as a name for a red-haired person stood out to me as awfully obvious as a clue that names might have some specific meaning for Butler (as indeed they frequently do in fiction). Dana’s name too is interesting, since we learn at some point that it’s actually “Edana,” which isn’t a name I had encountered before. “Edana” is of Irish origin and means “fire” while “Dana” from the Hebrew means “arbiter” or “God is my judge” and from the Sanskrit means “generosity.” Dana is awfully generous, isn’t she? “Kevin” means “handsome” and “Carrie” interestingly means “free man” (though it’s a girl’s name). “Alice” means “noble or exalted” and “Nigel” can mean “champion” or “black.” I have no thesis about the names in the book but was just curious about how much significance the various names might have. I’d say the significance is mixed and that sometimes a name may just be a name without having to mean anything big.

The third main thing I turned my thoughts to this week was the notion of fairness. Etymologically, “fair” comes from a proto-Germanic word meaning “suitable, fitting, appropriate, nice.” That came into English with the sense of “beautiful, good-looking, attractive.” So when we say that someone is fair-skinned (as is Kevin, whose name happens, recall, to mean “handsome”), we’re saying they’re beautiful. The implications of this word association are problematic at best. But of course fairness also has to do with doing what’s fitting or equitable. And it’s a quality that Rufus insists his father has, in spite of his other failings. On page 134, Rufus tells Dana that Tom won’t whip her for following Rufus’s orders, since Tom is a fair man. Later, on page 181, when Dana has confronted Rufus about not sending her letters to Kevin, he reports that his father had written Kevin after all. The idea here is that Tom felt that Rufus should have kept his word and so kept it for him out of a sense of the importance of keeping your word. It’s not fairness precisely, but it’s a strange ethical hangup for a man who enslaves people, abused his child, and in general is just sort of a cantankerous cuss.

So what does it mean? Why is Butler drilling home the idea that Tom Weylin has a sort of decent moral or ethical center in spite of his flaws? Is he fair and honorable? Dana has this to say about him too (page 134):

His father wasn’t the monster he could have been with the power he held over his slaves. He wasn’t a monster at all. Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his soiety said were legal and proper. But I had seen no particular fairness in him. He did as he pleased. If you told him he wasn’t being fair, he would whip you for talking back.

Is he fair or not? Is Rufus simply a bad judge of character? Is Butler on board with the notion that people are a product of their time? How can she say at once that Weylin is not a monster and that he’d likely whip somebody for talking back? Is her purpose with this stuff to portray a complex character in Weylin? If so, does she succeed?