There is a chapter in Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, titled, “The Container We Have Built for You.” It is an elaboration on the ways society has expectations on who occupies certain spaces in our culture. Octavia Butler, an African American woman, author, MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, is one of those people who lived and worked inside a container that historically had not been meant for her to occupy. Butler wrote science fiction and her work explores the areas of racism, sexism, and earth’s deterioration in that context. In fact, her characters, Lilith, Lauren, and Dana, are the main protagonists of some of her stories – all black women.
Octavia Butler was born and raised in Pasadena, CA. Her father died when she was a baby, so she was raised by her grandmother and mother (also named Octavia, which is where the nickname, Junie, comes from). As a ten-year-old, Butler began writing as a way to escape boredom and at twelve acquired an interest in science fiction. It was at this age she saw a “bad science fiction movie” and decided she could do better. This is when she started writing in this genre.
Butler’s mother worked as a maid and she would often accompany her mother to various jobs. It was during these times she was told that black girls could not become writers. But she persevered and became one of the field’s most important authors. Her breakthrough novel, published in 1979, is Kindred. The protagonist in the novel, Dana, travels back in time to save the life of her ancestor, a white slave owner. Butler won a Hugo Award for her novel, Parable of the Sower. Its storyline reads like it could have been written recently. In 1995 she became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship, nicknamed the Genius Grant. She left us too soon at the age of 58, with her last novel, Fledgling, surely being the first of a series.
Butler’s perseverance and decision to create and write in the container of science fiction, being female and black, despite the obstacles, is more than admirable. That combination caused people to put me inside a container that on some occasions is not mine to occupy: “Yes, I am in the right place if this is the workshop for ministers. Why are you asking?” or, “No, I am not the singer for today’s service” (from someone who did not know me and made an assumption because I am black and was dressed a certain way), or “No, I am not a current student’ I am an alum,” (which is the question they asked everyone before me) “and on the organizing committee for these events” (a seminary alumni gathering). If I had to choose a song that epitomized Butler’s life and influence, and one that resonates with me, it would be the freedom song, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Roun.”
Rev. Carolyn Matthews
Pastor for Christian Education
Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church
Former Executive Assistant to the BST President