Freedom Dreams in the Afterlife of Colonial Slavery

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Laylah Ali, Untitled, from the series Commonplace Drawings inspired by the archives of Octavia E. Butler, 2016. Ink, colored pencil and pencil on paper. Courtesy the Artist.


Seeds of a Postcolonial “New World” in Octavia E. Butler’s “Bloodchild”


I, too, live in the time of slavery, by which I mean I am living in the future created by it.

— Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route

The history of black people has been a history of movement—real and imagined. Repatriation to Liberia and Sierra Leone. Flight to Canada. Escape to Haiti . . . Space is the Place. The Mothership Connection.

— Robin D.G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination



A demagogue captures the national imagination at a time of economic and environmental crisis, captivating his supporters with the slogan “make America great again.” Calling for violence against his detractors, the US presidential candidate inspires mobs to set fire to non-Christian others, whom they label “witches.” The year is 2032—as imagined by the late science-fiction writer Octavia E. Butler in her 1998 novel Parable of the Talents—and the candidate one Andrew Steele Jarret, a Christian fundamentalist senator from Texas.


Butler’s apparent anticipation of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign became fodder for headlines about sci-fi prophesy during the 2016 US elections. In truth, her vision of Jarret was likely rooted in the rise of the US religious right and its veneration of Ronald Reagan, who himself promised to “make America great again” in his 1980 campaign. What the viral-ready articles obscure is the fact that the immediate parallels between Butler’s characters and American political personae matter less than the profound resonances between her speculative fiction and more universal, long-lasting social realities. Not quite clairvoyant, her writing is nonetheless visionary, reflecting, in a more enduring way, on what it has meant, what it means, what it will mean to be in relation with others in a world constructed by Euro-American settler colonialism and slavery.


In the many worlds set forth in her speculative fiction, which has vividly imagined the possibilities of telepathic communication and hyper-empathy, interspecies breeding and symbiosis, traumatic returns to the past of chattel slavery and dystopian visions of a future marked by social collapse, Butler has explored how racism, sexism, and other systems of hierarchy are constructed, transfigured, and challenged at those moments when humans confront alien beings and environments. Whether they are situated in historically recognizable contexts or placed at a distance through sci-fi premises and the sustained mediation of allegory, Butler’s narratives reflect and refract challenges and tensions inherent in our own societies, while drawing from history and evolutionary biology to present the urgent necessity of living with others differently. Crucially, in so doing, her fiction often features women of color as protagonists who instigate processes of social transformation in their roles as intellectual and spiritual leaders.


Born in 1947, Butler nurtured an early childhood interest in fantasy and science fiction at her local public library, in Pasadena, California, where she was raised by her mother and grandmother (her father died when she was seven) in a working-class, Baptist household. Her mother, who worked as a housemaid, fulfilled Butler’s wish for a typewriter with which to write stories, at the age of ten—but hoped she would become a secretary. When Butler left her childhood home for Los Angeles, she attended college classes at night and worked by day; among her jobs were dishwasher and potato chip inspector. In her early twenties she attended a summer program, the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, where she briefly studied with Samuel R. Delaney; he encouraged her to stop emulating sci-fi conventions and incorporate more of her own experiences, as a black working-class woman, into her fiction.


Butler published her first short story, “Crossover,” in 1971, followed by a first novel, Patternmaster, in 1976, and two more in her “Patternist” series, Mind of My Mind (1977) and Wild Seed (1978). But her breakthrough came with Kindred (1979), a historical fantasy about a black woman recurrently transported back in time to a slave plantation in Maryland, where she discovers her ancestors and must adapt to the brutal conditions to ensure her own future existence. The success of this remarkable novel, which remains her best known, permitted her to write full-time. Butler published twelve novels during her life (she died in 2006), winning wide critical acclaim, including science fiction’s most vaunted awards, the Hugo and the Nebula, as well as a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. In the last few years, moreover, she has attained a new ubiquity, thanks especially to young American artists, writers, and activists of color who have been inspired by her stories at a time of political urgency and potential marked by resurgent white supremacy as well as the rising Movement for Black Lives.[1]


The trouble with speculative fiction is that too often we see in its polyvalent potential either a dystopia that directly reflects the ongoing condition with which we are familiar, or a utopia that indicts our present from another time, another world, which seems in every way the inverse of our own. Both modes of reading fetishize the present. By contrast, what I aim to find out in looking closely at Butler’s singular, discomfiting short story “Bloodchild” is not what she said about the world in 2017, but how she understood the longue durée of colonial, patriarchal power.



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Guests on another planet, having escaped slavery on Earth, the human protagonists of Butler’s 1984 story “Bloodchild” owe an incalculable debt to their alien hosts, an intelligent, insect-like species of extra-human proportions known as the Tlic. For their survival in a new world, Terrans pay with their flesh and blood: human bodies, mostly male, become vessels for Tlic larvae in an interspecies conjuncture the terms of which have been determined by a Tlic polity. Under this biopolitical arrangement, Terrans are kept captive on a Preserve, wear nametags that identify them as well as the (female) Tlic individual to whom they belong, and reproduce the Tlic species through a process of implantation and hatching that can result in extraordinarily violent lacerations of the human body. Simultaneously, Tlic and Terrans enjoy pleasurable experiences together; Terrans drink from the sterile eggs of the Tlic, which have a comfortably intoxicating effect, while Tlic enjoy the body warmth of Terrans. And, perhaps remarkably, Terrans express feelings of affection for and kinship with their Tlic owners.


Butler uses a coming-of-age narrative to illuminate the social structure on this unnamed planet, writing from the perspective of a human boy named Gan, who belongs to an influential Tlic politician, T’Gatoi. Gan, his mother Lien, and his siblings—except his brother Qui, on whom more shortly—regard T’Gatoi as a member of their family. “Bloodchild” unfolds over the course of a single evening, during which T’Gatoi will implant an egg in Gan, as Lien has known she will since his birth. But the long-anticipated moment of conception is derailed when T’Gatoi hears the cries of an N’Tlic—a human who is ready to bear the Tlic larvae inside him but has been separated from the Tlic who implanted them. T’Gatoi must tend to this man, named Bram Lomas, in his owner’s place, and Gan offers to help. However, after witnessing several Tlic grubs squirm inside the bloody viscera of Lomas, whom T’Gatoi tears open so that he and the larvae may survive, Gan is no longer willing, or able, to undergo similar violation. He is forced to reassess his relationship to T’Gatoi, who has cared for him like a second mother. He confronts her with a rifle, nearly shooting her and himself both, but ultimately consents to bear her children—to receive her eggs—as they reach a new understanding of each other that night.


“Bloodchild” is alternately disturbing and tender, unsettling and yet almost heartwarming, a story that is neither about the domination of one species over another nor their peaceful symbiosis. Perhaps it is a story about both these things, at once. Some literary critics and scholars have read the Tlic ownership and control of Terran bodies in “Bloodchild” as an allegory for slavery, which transports historical experiences from the plantations of the “new world” to the Preserves of another new, extraterrestrial world. Others, meanwhile, have interpreted the relation between the two species as consenting, and—given that human males bear the worm-children of giant female insects—illustrative of a queer mode of kinship and reproduction outside of patriarchal relations.


Butler herself denied, repeatedly and with startling finality, that her narrative allegorizes slavery, writing in an afterword to the story, “It amazes me that some people have seen ‘Bloodchild’ as a story of slavery. It isn’t.”[2] Instead, Butler categorized her narrative as “a love story between two very different beings” and referred to it as “my pregnant man story,” writing, “I wanted to see whether I could write a dramatic story of a man becoming pregnant as an act of love—choosing pregnancy in spite of as well as because of surrounding difficulties.”[3] I do not wish to take the author’s exegesis of her own work as the final word, especially as I aim to discuss her story in relation to—rather than as an allegory for—slavery and settler colonialism. Nevertheless, I am sympathetic to the force of her claim, first because the political system described in her story is worlds apart from the historical project of systematic dispossession, exploitation, racialization, torture, rape, and murder that most Americans call, in a word, “slavery”; and secondly because the desire to read “Bloodchild” as a story about slavery risks reducing Butler’s imaginative fiction, against her own intentions and evidence from the text, to the contingencies of her racial identity.


Butler explains how she “tried to write a story about paying the rent.”[4] Neither imperial settlers nor their multicultural, liberal pioneer descendants, Butler’s characters are tenants, who do not seize land and establish private property relations to accumulate wealth, or careen through galaxies like interstellar UN peacekeeping officials, but rather pay what their alien landlords ask, just to get by. Put another way, the Terrans of “Bloodchild” are refugees, radically vulnerable to the demands of their hosts—but determined to maintain the dignity to challenge them. In a 1996 interview with the Science Fiction Studies journal, Butler elaborated:


What I was trying to do in “Bloodchild” was something different with the invasion story. So often you read novels about humans colonizing other planets and you see the story taking one of two courses. Either the aliens resist and we have to conquer them violently, or they submit and become good servants. . . . I don't like either of those alternatives, and I wanted to create a new one.[5]


In this light, “Bloodchild” appears as a narrative alternative to reproducing the colonial encounter, one that imagines more just outcomes of human migration to a new frontier with unfamiliar beings. Neither duplicating nor fully reversing the histories summed up in the year 1492, Butler envisions an encounter in which refugees are compelled to accept the disquieting prospect of symbiosis with their hosts, who are indigenous to the land but utterly alien to them, and make difficult sacrifices in exchange for their safety.



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Unlike the Portuguese, Spanish, British, or Dutch colonists of early modernity, the Terrans of “Bloodchild” did not seek a new world for its natural resources, for political advantage, or out of a sense of manifest destiny. They came to the planet of the Tlic, much like human refugees seeking asylum throughout history, to escape the prospect of death or enslavement. T’Gatoi can justifiably, if opportunistically, present the Tlic-Terran relation as one of mutual benefit, by reminding Gan: “Because your people arrived, we are relearning what it means to be a healthy, thriving people. And your ancestors, fleeing from their homeworld, from their own kind who would have killed or enslaved them—they survived because of us. We saw them as people and gave them the Preserve when they still tried to kill us as worms.”[6]


In Butler’s scenario, there is a struggle to be recognized as human on both sides of the settler/indigenous divide, a binary which becomes unmoored from its familiar connotations because the indigenous Tlic—who are alien to the Terrans of “Bloodchild,” and to us, Terran readers—maintain political control of their land. The Tlic adapt their social structures, from reproduction to government, to accommodate and make use of the Terrans without the latter colonizing any part of their planet. But the agreement has not come about amicably. Certain Terrans, we learn, murdered Tlic, setting off mass killings of Terrans. The desperation and violence led to a set of reforms: no longer would Terran families be broken up, but henceforth, Terrans would be forbidden from carrying weapons, driving vehicles, or moving unaccompanied beyond the borders of their Preserve.


Is the Tlic-Terran relation, then, a new form of slavery? One which does not correspond, at every level, to American plantation slavery, but is nonetheless redolent of that history? In his landmark study Slavery and Social Death, the historian Orlando Patterson characterizes slavery by its removal of the enslaved subject from any social order and “from any attachment to groups or localities other than those chosen for him by the master.”[7] In the ontological terms of the Jamaican theorist Sylvia Wynter, to be enslaved is to be excluded from the category of the human. Similarly, for Hortense Spillers, enslavement entails a reduction of human subjects to the objective condition of flesh, “a willful and violent…severing of the captive body from its motive will, its active desire.”[8] With the Middle Passage, black bodies were stripped of agency and ideally, if not in fact, reduced to raw physical matter—muscle and flesh ready to be corralled, exploited, and experimented on.


Well before the grotesque surgical operation on Bram Lomas, Butler alludes to the ways that Tlic have historically experimented on the bodies of Terrans. Prior to the more compassionate turn in their politics, for example, Tlic capitalized on the aphrodisiac powers of their sterile eggs, feeding them to Terrans to multiply the species’ numbers: “Back when the Tlic saw us as not much more than convenient, big, warm-blooded animals, they would pen several of us together, male and female, and feed us only eggs. That way they could be sure of getting another generation of us no matter how we tried to hold out.”[9] Together with the previous Tlic policy of breaking up families, the breeding of Terran hosts reveals a deep resonance between the system that chronologically precedes the plot of “Bloodchild” and the American system of chattel slavery, insofar as “the entire captive community becomes a living laboratory”[10] in both.


The struggle to be a social being, to be recognized as human, as more than flesh, historically experienced by enslaved Africans, is precisely what animates “Bloodchild.” The Tlic are clearly dominant in establishing the biopolitical order that manages the Terran population, but Terran resistance has also helped change previous conditions of natal alienation and social death, insofar as the Tlic have been compelled to make political reforms that preserve Terran family relations. This same Terran violence has also led the Tlic to object to being seen as less than humans—as worms rather than people—meaning that the two species are joined in a mutual desire to be seen as “human” by the other.


In the personal narrative at the center of “Bloodchild,” T’Gatoi is both fully integrated into Gan’s family and presented on her own terms as an important political figure advocating for policies that humanize the Terrans. One crucial means by which Terran family is protected is the choice of Terran men, rather than women, to bear Tlic children. However, there is one character in the story who sees in every Tlic adaptation to Terran needs and customs only the instrumental calculations of a dominant class that must ensure there will always be another generation of “host animals”—Qui, Gan’s older brother. Qui feels unalloyed spite for T’Gatoi and her species, having witnessed a horrific N’Tlic hatching when he was young, as he tells Gan:


I saw them eat a man.” He paused. “It was when I was little. . . . I saw a man and a Tlic and the man was N’Tlic. The ground was hilly. I was able to hide from them and watch. The Tlic wouldn’t open the man because she had nothing to feed the grubs. The man couldn’t go any further and there were no houses around. He was in so much pain, he told her to kill him. He begged her to kill him. Finally, she did. She cut his throat. One swipe of one claw. I saw the grubs eat their way out, then burrow in again, still eating.”[11]


Traumatized by this violence, Qui will not accept any affinity with the Tlic. At one point he chides Gan for so much as making a facial expression similar to T’Gatoi’s: “You’re not her. You’re just her property.”[12] Qui appears to escape his anger only when drunk on Tlic egg. Having tried to run away from the Preserve at a young age—“Stupid. Running inside the Preserve. Running in a cage”[13]—he takes every opportunity to imbibe that he can. As Elyce Rae Helford, drawing from Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, points out, this is reminiscent of the placating and stultifying effect plantation owners sought in getting enslaved people drunk when they weren’t being worked.[14]



– – –


Yet, for all the echoes of American slavery to be found in Terran–Tlic relations (especially those that precede the reformed era in which “Bloodchild” takes place), Butler’s depiction of Tlic domination will never fully align with accounts of modern slavery. The presence of pleasure and consent in Gan and T’Gatoi’s relationship, together with the absence—N’Tlic hatching aside—of forced labor and physical torture, militate against such an equation. But a more fundamental issue regarding the difference between the governance of Terrans and the enslavement of African Americans still needs to be addressed: the slippery question of race in Butler’s narrative.


Large card of notes written by Octavia E. Butler for her novel Parable of the Talents, ca. 1996. Octavia E. Butler papers. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Estate of Octavia E. Butler.


Butler’s best-known novels and stories are narrated from the perspectives of African American women—think of Kindred’s Dana or the young, hyper-empathetic Lauren Olamina of the “Parable” series. In “Bloodchild,” however, the ethnicity of her Terran protagonist is not identified, nor is he or his family racially marked in any visible way. Gan and his family, including his mother Lien, his sister Xuan Hoa, and his brother Qui, have names of apparent, if ambiguous, Chinese origin. The name of the story’s other Terran, Bram Lomas, points to Europe, though he is also the only character, Terran or Tlic, whose skin color is described, if vaguely, when the narrator refers to “his brown flesh” as it is disturbed by a Tlic larva moving inside him.[15] While it is difficult to establish that the Terrans conform to any particular race, except perhaps the broad assemblage of ethnic groups conventionally generalized as “Asian,” it is possible to conclude that this ambiguity, in itself, configures the story’s conception of race in a significant way.


In “Bloodchild,” race is not experienced at the level of skin, or through the associative links between color, biology, and identity that Frantz Fanon refers to as the “epidermal racial schema” forged by the colonial white gaze.[16] Influenced by Sylvia Wynter’s analysis of racial formations in early colonial modernity, the scholar Alexander Weheliye coins the concept of “racializing assemblages” to examine race “not as a biological or cultural classification but as a set of sociopolitical processes that discipline humanity into full humans, not-quite-humans, and nonhumans.”[17] Blackness, in Weheliye’s account, corresponds to subjection within a hierarchical power structure in a way that is neither dependent on a specific race history nor limited to the question of race.


A conception of race that is not rooted in ethnicity or in familiar forms of anti-black racism permits transportation to an unfamiliar planet and an unidentified epoch. Moreover, by enlisting characters who are not recognizable as the historic subjects who suffered from racial slavery, Butler frees herself to describe sexual control and racial hierarchy without her narrative becoming fixed in allegorical interpretation. This affords her the opportunity to describe formations of difference and power, as well as the paths toward their dissolution, that occur in the wake of slavery on Earth without mirroring the historical facts of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.


Nonetheless, the very idea of space exodus—the transmutation of the biblical story of Israelites fleeing Egypt into fantastic visions of former slaves and their descendants escaping Earth—inescapably evokes the experiences and cultural production of African Americans. In Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, Robin DG Kelley shows how the exclusion of African Americans from full citizenship throughout US history continually gave rise to dreams of emigration, whether to Africa or another planet. These aspirations included the Back-to-Africa movement, from the days of the American Colonization Society to Garveyism, but in the second half of the twentieth century, they were expressed in visions of space travel to an imagined land, shared by political figures like the Nation of Islam’s Elijah Muhammad and Afrofuturist musicians like Sun Ra and George Clinton. “Increasingly,” Kelley writes, “the ark has taken the form of the modern space ship, and the search for the New Land has become intergalactic.”[18] Absent any explicit reference to African American identity or experience, and without allegorizing slavery, “Bloodchild” is still inextricably inflected with Afrofuturist expressions of escape from slavery, from social death, from dehumanization and alienation.



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It is not necessary to see “Bloodchild” as a story about slavery to regard it, in the words of Saidiya Hartman quoted in my epigraph, as a story that takes place “in the future created by it.” In this sense, while Afrofuturism and speculative fiction are certainly apt terms to categorize Butler’s writing, it may be especially helpful to refer to Hartman’s notion of “critical fabulation.” Hartman uses this phrase to describe her own attempts to conjure and commit to history the experiences of enslaved black women that are absent from the archives, in her remarkable Lose Your Mother: A Journey Across the Atlantic Slave Route and elsewhere, as well as Butler’s Kindred. For Hartman, it is a question of producing “counter-history at the intersection of the fictive and the historical,” of using the radical imagination to access a history that has been suppressed.[19] Here, as distinct from Kindred, Butler mobilizes such a counter-history to envision a possible encounter between peoples that echoes historical processes of the colonization of the Americas and the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of Africans, while imagining a more just outcome that builds on the “freedom dreams” of African Americans.


The optimistic valence of Butler’s “critical fabulation” resides in her treatment of gender, reproduction, maternity, and consent. In the new world of “Bloodchild,” the Tlic transform Terran gender roles by demanding a form of male pregnancy to reproduce the Tlic species alongside the continued reproduction of the Terran species through female pregnancy. Make no mistake: this is a violent process. Qui’s remark to Gan that T’Gatoi only spares women from the implantation process so that another generation of “host animals” can be born recalls Spillers’ analysis of slavery as a system in which “‘kinship’ loses meaning, since it can be invaded at any given and arbitrary moment by the property relations.”[20] In Qui’s view, Terran family is always invaded and sundered by property relations, since any Terran child can be bought by a Tlic for the purposes of a potentially lethal hatching process. But there are more hopeful ways to read the phenomenon of male pregnancy in “Bloodchild,” which accord with Spillers’ identification of a radical potential for gender subversion in the afterlife of slavery, and become clearer with the story’s conclusion.


Slavery ungendered black subjects, according to Spillers, by violating the body and the family, by making every sexual relation, every family relation, every social relation subordinate to the property relation. But in the wake of slavery, she sees a feminist challenge to patriarchal family patterns in the heightened role of black mothers, which was famously labeled pathological by the sociologist Patrick Moynihan in his now notorious 1965 report on “The Negro Family.” In reclaiming subject positions that the paternalistic white liberalism of a Moynihan represents as lacking or unrecognizable, Spillers suggests, generations of black Americans who have survived the torture of the body and destruction of families can use the undecidability of their social formations to challenge normative gender roles. Sundered from the certainty of patrilinear heritage, “the black American male embodies the only American community of males which has had the specific occasion to learn who the female is within itself.”[21] Black mothering becomes an emancipatory practice, distinct from a biologically or culturally defined femininity, which can conceive new possibilities for families and communities severed from patriarchal heritage.


Do the pregnant Terran men of “Bloodchild” represent not captive bodies reduced to raw flesh but something more like the black men who, in Spillers’ words, say “‘yes’ to the ‘female’ within”? After witnessing a bloody Bram Lomas, Gan decides to actively accept a maternal role as he leaves his childhood behind. He challenges T’Gatoi as a partner rather than either resigning to a submissive position or resisting the breeding process altogether; he seeks a more egalitarian, rather than diminished, relationship. When T’Gatoi tells Gan that Lomas will live, Gan asks, “I wonder if he would do it again.” Aiming to appease Gan, T’Gatoi replies, “No one would ask him to do that again,” but Gan rebukes her reassurances: “No one ever asks us . . . You never asked me.”[22] Pointing a rifle at T’Gatoi, he demands a new honesty from her:


“Did you use the rifle to shoot the achti?”
“Yes.”
“And do you mean to use it to shoot me?”
I stared at her, outlined in the moonlight—coiled, graceful body. “What does Terran blood taste like to you?”
She said nothing.
“What are you?” I whispered. “What are we to you?”
She lay still, rested her head on her topmost coil. “You know me as no other does,” she said softly. “You must decide.”[23]


T’Gatoi places an impossible demand on Gan, and a familiar one insofar as the oppressed always know their oppressors intimately. But even if T’Gatoi does not straightforwardly answer Gan’s interrogations, even if she deflects the question of consent he raises, Gan transforms the power dynamic by posing these questions at gunpoint.


Because the use of guns by Terrans is prohibited, ever since the political assassinations of Tlic, Gan’s pointing one at T’Gatoi and at himself is more than an act of desperation or aggression. It is a transgression of the law that functions as a demand for equality.


I lowered the gun from my throat and she leaned forward to take it.
“No,” I told her.
“It’s the law,” she said.
“Leave it for the family. One of them might use it to save my life someday.”
She grasped the rifle barrel, but I wouldn’t let go. I was pulled into a standing position over her.
“Leave it here!” I repeated. “If we’re not your animals, if these are adult things, accept the risk. There is risk, Gatoi, in dealing with a partner.”[24]


Here the gun becomes an object that mediates the Tlic-Terran relationship, forcing the story’s crucial question about recognition as human to surface and find resolution. Gan accepts his role as a parent, of sorts, only on the condition that he will be accepted as a partner.


There is a scene, early on, in which Gan observes the powerful grace of T’Gatoi’s body as she leaps to attention: “when she moved that way, twisting, hurling herself into controlled falls, landing running, she seemed not only boneless, but aquatic—something swimming through the air as though it were water.”[25] Gan’s admiration for this alien body, which he recognizes as family, compels him—in the story’s final moments—to think of his mother’s instruction, “take care of her,” just before T’Gatoi promises him, “I’ll take care of you.”[26] What does the interpersonal relation of “taking care” feel like within a hierarchical social structure that compels the one who takes care by giving flesh and blood to submit to injury at the hands of the one for whom he cares? For Butler, any satisfactory response would involve a social process that brings the two closer together, from the poles of alienation or animality toward interspecies recognition, care, and interdependence—and that means Gan must continually challenge the structure of Tlic supremacy.


Gan’s final act of protest against his species’ condition aims to undo the trauma that momentarily makes him perceive T’Gatoi as alien. After the two make up, T’Gatoi tells Gan that she believes “Terrans should be protected from seeing.” Gan refuses the idea:


“Not protected,” I said. “Shown. Shown when we’re young kids, and shown more than once. Gatoi, no Terran ever sees a birth that goes right. All we see is N’Tlic—pain and terror and maybe death.”
She looked at me. “It is a private thing. It has always been a private thing.”
Her tone kept me from insisting—that and the knowledge that if she changed her mind, I might be the first public example. But I had planted the thought in her mind. Chances were it would grow, and eventually she would experiment.[27]


The experiment, this time, would not exploit the captive flesh of Terrans drunk on eggs, but stimulate human subjects to understand the biopolitical order into which they have been interpellated. Crucially, a Terran would be the force goading the Tlic regime to change. Furthermore, as Kristen Lillvis argues, Gan accomplishes this “by teaching T’Gatoi lessons about family and respect that are strikingly similar to those motherly instructions Lien gave to Gan.”[28] It is the internalization, in the “pregnant man,” of the motherly function that instills the desire for equality.


To make the breeding process less traumatizing, Gan plants a thought in T’Gatoi’s mind just after she has implanted an egg in his body. Perhaps this subversive intellectual seeding is something like the black feminist mothering that Spillers seeks to substitute for the subjugated women misnamed in the American grammar of white supremacy and patriarchy. Butler’s speculative post-slavery narrative relies on consent as an interpersonal process of forging community after captivity, love after property. Domination is slowly undone by material reforms won through resistance, but above all subverted through an interspecies recognition of interdependence, to which Tlic and Terran must respond with care, or else revert to the condition of master and slave, host and parasite, animal flesh and alien invader.


[1] See, especially, the “Radio Imagination” programs and artist projects commissioned by the Los Angeles nonprofit Clockshop in 2016, and the anthology, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2015), edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha.

[2] Octavia E. Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005), 30.

[3] Butler, Bloodchild, 30.

[5] Stephen W. Potts, “‘We Keep Playing the Same Record’: A Conversation with Octavia E. Butler,” Science Fiction Studies 23, no. 3 (November 1996): 332.

[6] Butler, 25.

[7] Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 7.

[8] Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” Diacritics 17, no. 2, Culture and Countermemory: The "American" Connection (Summer, 1987): 67, emphasis in original.

[9] Butler, 8.

[10] Spillers, 68.

[11] Butler, 20, emphasis in original.

[12] Ibid., 18.

[13] Ibid., 20.

[14] Elyce Rae Helford, “‘Would You Really Rather Die than Bear My Young?’: The Construction of Gender, Race, and Species in Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Bloodchild,’” African American Review 28, no. 2 (Summer 1994): 266.

[15] Ibid., 14.

[16] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, tr. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2008), 92.

[17] Alexander Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 4.

[18] Robin D. G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), 30.

[19] Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” small axe 26 (June 2008): 12.

[20] Spillers 74, emphasis in original.

[21] Ibid., emphasis in original.

[22] Butler, 23.

[23] Ibid., 24. An achti is a local animal, which T’Gatoi used to host the larvae she removed from Bram Lomas’s body, so that they would feed on the achti’s blood and not his.

[24] Ibid., 26. Emphasis added.

[25] Ibid., 9.

[26] Ibid., 29.

[27] Ibid., 29.

[28] Kristen Lillvis, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Slavery? The Problem and Promise of Mothering in Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Bloodchild,’” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S. 39, no. 4 (2014): 10.


Kareem Estefan is a writer, editor, and PhD student in Brown University’s Modern Culture and Media department, where he researches contemporary visual culture and speculative fiction, mostly from the Middle East. He is the co-editor of Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production (OR Books, 2017), a new anthology of essays on artists’ activism and cultural boycotts. Kareem’s writing on contemporary art and cultural activism has previously appeared in publications including Art in America, Art-Agenda, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, Frieze, Ibraaz, the Movement Research Performance Journal, and The New Inquiry. From 2012–2015 he was associate editor of Creative Time Reports, an online magazine of the New York–based public art nonprofit Creative Time. Kareem holds an MFA in Art Criticism and Writing from the School of Visual Arts and a BA in Comparative Literature from New York University.