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Earthseed Part 3
Afro-Futurism, Monica Coleman, and Making a Way Out of No Way
Starting with a little reminder for anyone who’s signed up in the last week or so that this Earthseed series is essentially one long serialized essay. The first two can be found under the Earthseed tab on the New Means homepage, although the following piece will (hopefully, mostly) make sense alone as well. Thanks for subscribing and reading, and I hope you enjoy!
In her expansive book, “Making a Way Out of No Way,” Monica Coleman discusses womanism, process theology, Earthseed, and so, so much more. I am, unfortunately, not able to copy and paste entire pages, but the remainder of this extended essay will be pulling quotes from her work, frequently. To begin with it’s important to note that Coleman is concerned with developing what she calls a “post-modern” theology. She writes about the need for a new way of approaching religion and spirituality that uses threads from existing traditions, for her primarily Christianity and Igbo religion, and emerges with a synthesis that’s new and distinctive and can help us in this strange and modern world we inhabit. As discussed last week, she anchors her theology in her experience and the experiences of other Black women, speaking of both the difficult and the joyous. She draws from a vast number of sources and is inspired by thinkers such as Emilie Townes, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Paule Marshall, and of course Octavia Butler. Moreover, there is a whole section of her book entitled “Black Women’s Science Fiction,” and within that is a long and thorough and fantastic examination of Octavia Butler’s Parable series, specifically Earthseed. For Coleman, the Parable books are a prime example of using Black women’s literature as source material for womanist theology. In fact she writes, “Parable can serve as prophetic literature that both warns the current world of the dangers that lie ahead and offers proposals for how we can ‘make a way out of no way.’”  The concept of “making a way out of no way,” is vast and difficult to summarize, but it’s an idea that keeps on giving and Coleman goes on to offer a deep and nuanced portrayal of this notion which forms the backbone of her book, delving into several threads of womanism, survival, futurity, and more.
In Coleman’s explanation of the idea of “making a way out of no way” she begins with the esteemed womanist theologian Delores Williams. She cites Williams’ work Sisters in the Wilderness and offers a quote about Williams’ female family members specifically, and their relationship with faith that ends with, “They expressed their belief that God was involved in their history, that God helped them make a way out of no way.”  The idea that God is involved in the history of the oppressed, and therefore the history of Black folks in particular, is fundamental to Black liberation theology as exemplified by James Cone. However, the womanist intervention shifts Cone’s paradigm, saying that God is on their side not necessarily as a liberating column of fire leading Black folks to the promised land, but primarily in helping them to survive. On this topic Coleman cites Karen Baker-Fletcher, who is in turn citing Katie Cannon and Delores Williams. Fletcher writes:
“[Survival as a creative quality] has been metaphorically referred to as the power of ‘making a way out of nothing” in the work of [womanist ethicist] Katie Cannon and ‘making a way out of no way’ in the work of Delores Williams…All three metaphors refer to what Williams calls an ethic of survival and quality of life among Black women. The activity of the God who enables them with vision for such survival traditionally has been described as God’s sustaining activity.” 
Here we begin to see that within womanist theology (Christian womanist theology specifically), God plays a crucial role in the ethic of survival. It is God who helped and continues to help sustain Black women in an environment of triple oppression where survival entails a miraculous need to make a way out of no way, to survive when it appears impossible.
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Survival as miracle has a lengthy history that intersects with Black women’s experiences, from Black women’s historical narratives to the present moment, but it’s not just past and present that contain these possibilities that seem impossible. Coleman writes that making a way out of no way is, “A weaving together of past, future, and possibilities offered by God; a weaving that leads to survival, quality of life, and liberating activity on the part of black women.” In the struggle to survive, Coleman is claiming, Black women are not only seeking to live but to find a higher quality of life, and some to find liberation. And liberation, or “liberating activity” as Coleman writes, can only be reached by people with a robust futurity. Hope is necessary for liberation, or as Coleman says when discussing Octavia Butler’s Parable books, a prophetic outlook is needed to help Black women, and others, make a way out of no way. An outlook and approach that weave together past, future, and the possibilities contained within the present, is necessary. In many ways, Earthseed is that approach. Coleman spends an entire section of her book discussing Butler’s work, and Earthseed in particular, but there is one additional thread that needs to be examined before we return to the rest of Coleman’s analysis, and Earthseed itself: Afro-Futurism.
In her article “Octavia E. Butler: Why the Author Is Called the Mother of Afrofuturism,” Kat Tenbarge writes, “Afrofuturism is a type of cultural aesthetic that explores the intersection of African culture with technology and futurism…it was largely born into existence through the work of Octavia E. Butler.” While this is not a universally agreed upon claim, because the genre is so varied and emerged organically rather than through committee, there are undoubtedly elements of Butler’s work that helped give rise to the Afro-futurist movement, and at the same time her work is also a reflection of this movement. Tenbarge writes about several of Butler’s themes, from gene manipulation to survival in dystopian science fiction landscapes, and even “embracing change to survive.”  But to get deeper into Afro-futurism, and to get a little more clarity in terms of what it’s all about, we need to be more precise. One of the writers Coleman cites when talking about Black women’s science fiction is Marleen Barr, who specifically uses the term “womanist speculative fiction.” Coleman goes on to explain this phrase, writing, “Womanist speculative fiction creates societies where ‘women co-exist with men, retain their female characteristics, and function as powerful individuals.’” In doing so, Coleman writes, womanist speculative fiction uplifts Alice Walker’s original definition of who a womanist is, specifically the commitment to the survival of an entire people. And while these womanist threads can be seen very clearly in Octavia Butler’s work, the transformative potential of Earthseed is also doing something else, several other things, but specifically something that requires us to be attuned to the aesthetics and themes of Afro-Futurism. The Parable books do all of what is described above, and they also do something more. They contain warnings, and recipes for survival, and at the same time they work to weave a better future, and even a better God.
For this reason, we need to turn to another work, in fact one edited by the aforementioned Marleen Barr, entitled Afro-Future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction Newest New-Wave Trajectory. Barr’s preface refers to Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler more than any other authors, explicitly referring to as them equals—equally giant figures not just among Black women authors, but among authors. Her preface also reads, “Mark Dery’s ‘Black to the Future; Afro-Futurism 1.0’ launched the discourse of Afro-Futurism.” And Dery’s “Afro-Futurism 1.0,” is a wide-ranging and brilliant essay, which is exactly what’s needed in order to discuss a genre which itself incorporates so many elements and, as noted earlier, can be called an entire cultural aesthetic and then some. As Dery puts it, “If there is an Afro-Futurism, it must be sought in unlikely places, constellated from far-flung points.”  It’s not easy to summarize these many points, or how they’re constellated, so Dery doesn’t try to do so. Instead his writing reads much like the works he references, as a modern short story far more than a piece in an academic journal. He references innumerable genres, mediums, and art forms, writing, “Afro-Futurism percolates, as well, through black-written, black-drawn comics…”  In the next paragraph he describes, Icon, a comic that he calls “an exemplar of Afro-futurism” that “sweeps antebellum memories, hip-hop culture, and cyber punk into its compass.”  By the next page he’s talking about “New York graffiti artist and b-boy theoretician Rammellzee” and his “semiotic guerrilla warfare” sprinkling in references from hacking to Henry Louis Gates. For Dery, and for its many creators, Afro-Futurism, is truly constellated from far-flung points.
As Dery wraps up his piece he tries to get at the heart of the cultural aesthetic that, by the end of the essay, looks like something much more, much larger and more profound than one might attribute to other aesthetic genres. He writes that, “African-American culture is Afro-Futurist at its heart, literalizing Gibson’s cyberpunk axiom, ‘The street finds its own use for things.’”  If you read this in the context of Monica Coleman’s work, you can’t miss the echoes of “making a way out of no way” in his words. The streets take, both out of necessity and innovation, that which may have been deemed useless, or which may have been deemed mundane, and make it into something useful, innovative, beautiful. The streets make a way out of no way, and this triumph, when it occurs, doesn’t necessarily look like a perfect world, like a utopia. At times it looks like surviving, but Butler—and so many Afro-futurist writers—work to examine thriving as well, to explore worlds and lives that are more than getting by, that become beautiful, and often unconventionally so. In fact, the quality of being unconventional, even unusual by the measuring stick of dominant fiction, and science-fiction in particular, might considered be a core aspect of Afro-futurist futures, because the worlds being imagined are by necessity radically different from not only the present, but from the imaginings of the future we are most often exposed to, futures where Black folks may be just as oppressed as they are in the now, if they even appear at all in these renderings.
Octavia Butler’s work is of course filled with a wide range of Black protagonists and characters and communities. In some works, like the Parable books, this fact isn’t much discussed but rather simply stated. This element of her work, the Blackness of her characters simultaneous with the absence of explicit discussion about race, is something critics have mentioned as an insufficiently radical approach to white supremacy, but more on that in a week or two. For now suffice it to say there is a utopian desire in her work, but one that’s grounded in the dystopian element of our society. In Ellen Peel’s essay “God is Change,” from the Afro-Future Females anthology, she discusses some of the ideas around utopianism that are present in Butler’s work. She writes, “Utopian thinking seeks to inspire us to desire, but not necessarily for a predetermined solution” and that Butler specifically, “preserves utopian yearning while [she] rejects easy answers.”  In all of her work, Butler repeatedly asks difficult questions about what her characters need to do to survive, and by extension what we need to do in order to survive, and hopefully one day thrive. Questions of bodily autonomy, interactions with technology, sacrifice, reproduction and more all take prominent places in her work. In the Parable books pyromaniacal drug use, virtual reality, technology that enslaves, company towns, and space travel all take on important roles. Unlike some more conventional Utopian works, Butler places us within a clearly dystopian society, but plants the seeds of a utopia and utopian thinking. This Afro-Futurist move, far from being more unrealistic than other science fiction is actually far more real, more pragmatic. Rather than just presenting us with a utopia or dystopia, Butler presents utopian yearnings, aspirations, and seeking in the midst of a collapsing society that can feel not too distant from our own.
Peel discusses the pragmatism of Earthseed in several ways, but primarily through the efforts and thoughts and writing of Butler’s protagonist Lauren Olamina, and Earthseed. She says, “Always improvising, the protagonist is eager to learn as to teach: ‘I’m just feeling my way, using whatever I can do, whatever I can learn to take one more step forward.”  This echoes Dery’s thoughts about how the street will find a use for things, the street will somehow make a way out of no way. In the struggle to survive in an uncertain future replete with shock collars and Christo-fascists and climate disaster, people will use whatever they can, Octavia Butler’s characters find a way. This pragmatic approach to a difficult present, and future, is a path with invaluable lessons for all of us looking into our own murky and volatile future. Peel continues, in talking about the Acorn community of Earthseed, “They’re weekly Gatherings, for instance, ‘are discussions. They’re problem solving sessions, they’re times of planning, healing, learning, creating, times of focusing, and reshaping’ the members.” This communal way of being, this future where a group of people struggling to survive work together to build community, try to stay grounded in the needs of the moment, the need to heal, learn, deliberate and mediate is one example of what it looks like to reach for the future while being grounded in the present, and the past. And this is what Octavia Butler has produced in her Parable series, in her Earthseed theology. For me, these are lessons we should be learning from right here and now if we are to develop the spiritual and ideological seeds that can plant a better humanity and a better world.
Later in this series I’ll be providing some examples of people and communities who are already putting the lessons of Earthseed into practice, but I before we get there I encourage you to think a little about that quote above regarding the Acorn community in the parable books. Are you in a community that gathers to learn, heal, create, and plan? If so, that’s a beautiful thing and I hope you’re able to welcome others into it and help more of these communities spring up, or help our existing communities engage in these practices. If not, how can you join or create or build this sort of community, or bring these practices into your existing communities? More to come on all this but I hope these concluding questions are helpful, and as always would love to hear what you think of all this. - Josh
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Again, thank you to Dr. Andrea White, Dr. Cornel West, and of course Dr. Monica Coleman for the help and inspiration provided in the process of writing this and in the massive contribution of thought and writing from Dr. Coleman in particular.
 Coleman, 126.
 Ibid, 33.
 Ibid, 33.
 Ibid, 33.
 Tenbarge, Kat. “Octavia E. Butler: Why the Author Is Called the Mother of Afrofuturism.” Inverse. Accessed February 23, 2022. https://www.inverse.com/article/46330-octavia-e-butler-why-she-s-referred-to-as-the-mother-of-afrofuturism.
 Coleman, 128.
 Barr, Marleen S., ed. Afro-Future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction’s Newest New-Wave Trajectory. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008. Dery, pg, 9.
 Ibid, 11.
 Ibid, 11.
 Ibid, 13.
 Peel, Afro-Future Females, 58.
 Ibid, 59.
 Ibid, 59.