By Tracy Chiles McGhee
(June 22, 1947 – February 24, 2006)
At a time when the world seems to be at a chaotic crossroad, the legacy of Visionary Author Octavia E. Butler emerges as a source of profound inspiration. Celebrated as the ‘Mother of Afrofuturism,’ a shy girl growing up in Pasadena, California forged a love affair with the written word and provided the blueprint for change.
It begins with a declaration and an unwavering belief, then it is realized with consistent action and soul-deep determination. Her passion and keen inner-eye redefined a genre historically dominated by white male authors. She would embrace science fiction through the lens of a Black woman seeing the urgent need for change in a world plagued by injustices.
Once asked in a radio interview why she became a science fiction writer, she responded nonchalantly, “I wasn’t being brave or even thoughtful. I wanted it and I assumed I could have it.”
Her greatest skill was following her imagination and taking action, She fueled those movements with her love of writing and storytelling.
“You can go anywhere with it,” explained Butler about her immersion in sci-fi. “It gave me the chance to comment on every aspect of humanity. There are no closed doors and there are no required formulas.” This expression punctuated her status as a true visionary dedicated to her craft and calling throughout her life and into the future after she passed on.
This freedom allowed Butler to explore issues that remain highly relevant today. Racial injustice. Women’s rights. Climate change. Genetic engineering. Religious fundamentalism. Fascism. She sought to challenge and interrogate social inequities by creating a lush path to social change.
Among her many accolades, Butler was the first science fiction writer to receive the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (aka “Genius Grant”). In 2020, a posthumous achievement landed her novel “Parable of the Sower” on the New York Times bestseller list. This milestone fulfilled Butler’s journal affirmation declaring “I shall be a best-selling writer…So be it! See to it!”
Legions of proteges and adherents have picked up the mighty sword of words and imagination, crystalizing Butler’s futuristic grasp on humanity.
Sheree Renee Thomas, award-winning writer, recipient of the 2023 Octavia E. Butler Award, discovered Butler’s work in college. “It was the first time I even realized that a Black woman had written science fiction,” notes Thomas.. “Octavia had written in a way that centered the woman character. This opened my mind to what was possible in this genre. I needed to see the community of people that I love represented.”
Interdisciplinary Artist and Cultural Worker, Nina Angela Mercer, refers to Butler as “the High Priestess, the Foremother of Afrofuturism.” Owning the influence of Octavia in her visual art, Mercer insists that Butler’s writing gives us another way to confront societal ills.
Sharise Moore, author of Dr. Marvellus Djinn’s Odd Scholars, recalled her experience of meeting Butler shortly before her passing. It was at a book signing for her last novel Fledgling. Butler’s advice to her was to keep reading and writing and to finish what she starts.
“Through Butler, I discovered a world where Black authors were writing sci-fi and fantasy that had previously been unknown to me,” offers Moore. She continues in Butler’s tradition of expanding the landscape where we show up with the pen. Moore is the editor of Conjuring Worlds: An Afrofuturistic Textbook for Middle and High School Students which aims to inspire a new generation of creators with the tenets of Afrofuturism.
The transformative power of Butler’s reach lives and thrives in her legacy, through the students of her works and all those who break barriers and expand the possibilities in literature and art.
Octavia E. Butler didn’t just write about the future; she envisioned new worlds with endless possibilities. Her pioneering work serves as a testament to the power of imagination and the critical role that we all can play in ushering in positive changes we desire as individuals and a collective.
Tracy Chiles McGhee is the author of the acclaimed novel Melting the Blues and Constituency Engagement advisor for Unerased | Black Women Speak