BHM Hero: Octavia Butler

During the month of February, BRTW members are selecting personal Black heroes to highlight everyday. These heroes may have spoken the magic words that first made them see their Black beauty, the people who inspired them to become artists, or even the person who taught them how to make proper mixed greens.

Octavia Butler was one of the most highly regarded science fiction authors of the past century. Amongst many other awards and honors, Butler won the Hugo Award and McArthur Genius Grant. Her work deftly created and recreated worlds while criticizing aspects of the world we all inhabit. I first read her work in high school, already well acquainted with Stephen King, Peter Straub, Anne Rice, Richard Matheson, J.R.R. Tolkein, Orson Card, etc. Her subtle subversion of religious and political expectations with characters as comfortable and intimate as my own family welcomed me into a world that equally invited me to imagine as consciously consider my navigation in society.

My books will be read by millions of people. So be it! See to it!” – Octavia Butler

I’ll always fondly remember Butler as the first author who would create a world wherein people who look like me could fully exist and be central to the story. This was particularly important for me as a developing nerd in a time when nerd culture was still unpopular. Butler created worlds wherein Black nerds have a space.

As a Black nerd, I always felt like I was attempting to invade white spaces. My peers consistently reminded me of the things we did not do and the places we could not go. D&D was a world created at a table most often surrounded by young, white boys. The scifi and fantasy books I intellectually inhaled praised the heroism of white men and the sexuality of white women while many Black characters were more caricature than human. In every other book, there was a magical Black negro, a super maternal mammy, an overly sensitive militant Sapphire, or the tragedy porn of Black history represented in the stock destitute Black person caught in the wheel of blameless misfortune. Butler gave effortless dimension to characters of color, and I didn’t have to thrust my brownness onto them. She raised a bar within speculative fiction that few of her peers had even considered.

octavia butler notes to herself

Perhaps most impressive of all was her unwavering faith not only in her talent but the inevitable impact she would make. It’s no secret that navigating domains unintended for your demographic can be difficult. Butler was a Black woman in a white man’s field, but she didn’t question her talent, intellect, or future. In perhaps one of my favorite web discoveries of the past year, a sample of her notebook reveals that Butler accurately predicts her future success. As much as I would love to learn from the brilliance of her writing, I equally respect the confidence she placed in her contribution to her art.

Heather Harvey
Co-Founder/ Ensemble Member