The first time I saw a photo of Octavia Butler, I didn’t know who she was. I was searching for stock images of black women to use for a power point presentation. The presentation would accompany a dramatic reading of the poem “Four Women” by Nina Simone. My group members had instructed me to find a few photos of black women to float in the background while they recited each verse.
That was five years ago and the memory still makes me feel uncomfortable, awakening demons I still haven’t slayed to wriggle underneath my skin.
There’s a lot to unpack there, but I think one of the main reasons it bothered me is that I considered myself a writer. This woman was a legend, and I didn’t know it because her image was grouped in with “older black women,” all just anonymous faces someone saw and categorized as such. I spent my days daydreaming about penning a fantasy epic that would make Lord of the Rings look like Twilight, but what would it all mean if people still only saw a nameless black woman whenever they looked at me?
It was a fate that I had considered often. Older black women aren’t the ones people expect to be the great writers in these genres; science-fiction and fantasy have long been associated with bearded white men. In fact, it’s not uncommon for black women writers to have to fight for their work to be released from the “African American Fiction” category, a nice little unimposing shelf waiting to be ignored. Our protagonists are not time travelers or vampires or people living in strange, magical worlds. They are not the heroes who save the universe – they are viewed as black women first and foremost, a specification that, for some, eclipses every other element in the story. Butler had to push to keep her books from being labeled generic black fiction by publishers and bookstore owners, and her fight taught me that you don’t have to let the world tell you what your story – the one you write and even the one you live – has to be.
Reading her work was revolutionary for me. It was the first time that whiteness wasn’t a given within the text. I was used to every main character being presumed white unless explicitly stated otherwise. Characters like me who showed up in the background – if they showed up at all – were the only ones whose race was mentioned at all, marking them as foreign to the world of the protagonist. Reading about black female characters whose identities weren’t filtered through the eyes of a white protagonist was the breath of fresh air I had stopped hoping for.
Many people take having a role model for granted; after all, it’s very easy to say that you don’t need something that you’ve never had to do without. I grew up consuming media that taught me (however indirectly) that I didn’t really exist, not in any of the stories I loved or as the writer of these epic fictional destinies, and because of this, Octavia Butler is the woman I wish they’d taught me about in school every February. Her legacy resonated with me the way no one else’s ever had. She showed me that sci-fi and fantasy didn’t belong to exclusionary white male nerds obsessed with so-called racial accuracy in imaginary places. She taught this awkward, fantasy-obsessed black girl that she could indeed carve out a place for herself somewhere in all of space and time, that the world – any world – really could belong to her, and for that alone, I will be forever grateful.