I read about the death of Octavia Butler online. A brief headline announcement linked me to a longer acknowledgment of her life and contributions as one of science fiction's maverick writers, this black woman among the techno-babbling boys and their speculative toys.
To label her a maverick, my term, assigns a degree of attention that would have sent Butler retreating from view, simply back to her writing desk and her prophetic humanistic visions.
I saw her once, before I moved here, at a promotional stop in Philadelphia. I don't recall which book, but I remember reading that she wasn't one for making such public appearances.
She was obviously a private person. She entered alone, spoke to the bookstore representative, stood off by herself waiting for someone to bring her a drink from the cafe and then sat at a small desk waiting to be introduced to the audience.
Although Butler saw each of us -- there was a fair-sized crowd, but she wasn't the kind of draw that would send a sea of bodies spilling into the aisles of History and Self-help, creating rapids through Fiction crashing onto the main floor -- she never initiated contact with us, not even a nod or a smile. It wasn't an all-business pose; she was just no nonsense, no fuss.
I like that memory, and I'll cherish having had the opportunity to be in her presence that one time. But when I think of her from now on, as I know I will, it's fittingly her work that will provide an intimate sense, even an illusory one, of the woman.
I suppose that's the ultimate compliment for a writer. It's the word that should matter most, when the collected words become The Word.
And one of Butler's most affecting sermons came from Kindred, an early work about a black woman in 1976, a month before the nation's bicentennial celebration, who is inexplicably transported to the past -- her past, in particular -- where she's forced to embrace the reality of slavery.
During subsequent journeys, she comes to realize that a slave owner, a white man who also happens to be one of her ancestors, a man she must repeatedly save until he has relations with the woman that will give birth to her line, is pulling her back.
This is the story of a woman who knows her history and yet is somehow doomed to make certain it repeats itself. It's an epic, a personal narrative, a slave narrative in some ways, a post-modern one told from the perspective of a woman not born into it but of it. And it's an American story.
That bears repeating. It's an American story.
A black woman goes back in time and experiences slavery. There's nothing new there; black folks are expected to know these stories because, I suppose, they're written on our skin. But in the course of these most unnatural events, a white man -- this woman's husband -- also finds himself slipping back into this suppressed history.
Kindred forces him to confront the reality of his own complicity in the atrocity of slavery. What does it mean to be a white man, or to have been a white man in 1976 married to a black woman, and what would their relationship have been like 150 years prior?
I think the question is far more relevant from his perspective than hers. She went back and had no choice, no other position in that society. She was a slave.
But that man, who was he? Who could he have been? What could he have done?
Butler's death brought me back to Kindred, but I was already on my way, to a certain extent, after a recent visit to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, my first trip since its opening. All of my good intentions never compelled me to make the journey on my own, but the possibility of work, well, that's motivation that transcends the good and whatever is the opposite of goodness in this case.
My trip downtown, among the hallowed halls, should have approximated the experience of Butler's protagonist in Kindred. 'Keep hope alive', that's what Jesse said -- but the problem is we're never encouraged to be more than tourists on a speeding bullet away from the lessons we haven't learned.
We should all know our history and have the opportunity to stand before it and question its participants. Every day, my young brother and I have that chance. We can look into the eyes of our grandmother's grandfather Solomon, the first freed man in our line.
I have spoken to family elders who remember not just Solomon's stories but the man himself, and I'll certainly pass those anecdotes down to my brother when he's old enough to understand the significance and relevance of their lives and struggles.
Octavia Butler knew we weren't ready for celebrations. She looked back and saw that we weren't any different and likely wouldn't be in the future.
It's unlikely that enough people, especially those most in need of its message, will ever read Kindred or any of her other novels and collected works, but the Freedom Center could do more to fill the void created by her death. Yet it would require more than just a nod to the sunnier aspects of her legacy.
Take us back. Make us walk the long, lonely miles barefoot. Place the whip of oppression in our hands. Let us, all of us, feel the scars and bear the shame.
It's in these moments that we're the same.