Remembering Octavia Butler, the Mother of Afrofuturism

Essence’s Tananarive Due recalls her 90-minute visit with the legendary Octavia Butler in 2000.

Butler who passed away in 2006 was a visionary writer whose books have never been more popular. Her best known work is the 1979 novel Kindred, about a contemporary Black woman who gets caught in a time loop that keeps returning her to the slavery era. “Butler called Kindred “a long, depressing write” when we talked because of her immersion in the research on slavery. But she said it is her most taught and most popular book.”

“In Dawn (1997), she saw humankind’s trajectory toward self-destruction and created an alien species that tries to save us. In her novels Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998), she predicted our national decline down to a presidential slogan: “Make America Great Again.” And in her final novel, Fledgling (2005), she reimagined horror by creating a mutated vampire whose melanin allows her to walk in the light—and makes her a target to older pale-skinned vampires who want to destroy her.”

As Due notes, “With her six-foot height and a deep, distinctive voice that made listeners lean in to hear her every carefully chosen word, Octavia was a giant in life—and her power and impact have continued to grow since her death in 2006. A television series based on her novels about telepaths is in development at Amazon Prime Video, and her papers are housed within the palatial walls of the Huntington Library Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. Her collection is not far from where she grew up in Pasadena, but it’s a universe away from the humble beginnings that framed her childhood.”

“Afrofuturism is the audacity to imagine a thriving future for Black people, or any future.”

Butler, who would have turned 72 on June 22, is often called the Mother of Afrofuturism—or Black speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy and horror). “Long before my novels about African immortals that began with My Soul to Keep, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther or the sci-fi horror of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Butler was writing Black women into imaginary worlds with aliens, giving us powers of telepathy and sending us back to the slavery era to try to fix a horribly broken past. Afrofuturism—which spans literature, music, art and film—is Black artists’ proclamation of “I am, I was and I WILL BE,” straddling genres and styles to create Black art that imagines a world not quite our own. Afrofuturism is space travel, superheroes, sorcerers and seers. Afrofuturism is the audacity to imagine a thriving future for Black people, or any future.”

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