“To survive, Let the past teach you — past customs, struggles, leaders and thinkers. Let these help you, let them inspire you, warn you, give you strength. But beware; God is Change. Past is past. What was cannot come again. To survive, know the past. Let it touch you. Then let the past go.”Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents
The word “Should” does so much heavy lifting in our understanding of the world. It often is said that the arch of history bends towards justice. I don’t know if I ever believed that. In a conversation with Ezra Klein on his podcast, Ta-Nehisi Coates said, “no, the arch of history bends towards chaos.” When things go right, we expect them to continue, when things almost go wrong, we reassure ourselves that our infrastructure is solid, justifying the “almost”, and when things go wrong, well, we spend the entire time waiting for them to get back to “normal” in an endless game of “Are we there yet?”
Olamina fell in that trap in Parable of the Talents. Acorn flourished until it didn’t, the future looked closer than it ever had, until it didn’t. God is Change. Book Two of the Earthseed series continues to explore Olamina’s journals, but this time, it adds the perspectives of Olamina’s daughter Asha who hates her mother, having never known her and having been told lies about her all her life.
Parable of the Talents begins with a flourishing Acorn and an expanding business. Olamina finds her presumably dead brother Marc and frees him from slavery. Marc rejects Earthseed as heretic nonsense and leaves after trying and failing to change the minds of other members. In Washington, a new President is crowned, backed by a large group of zealots, the Church of Christian America. A supposedly fringe part of the group invades Acorn and essentially enslaves its inhabitants under the guise of educating them. They kidnap the children, including two-month-old Asha and place them in Christian American families. After some planning, Acorn is again freed and the invaders are killed.
Olamina searches for her daughter while she works but she never finds her, even after begging her brother Marc, now a prominent Christian American preacher, for help. Marc lies about not knowing where Asha is. He keeps tabs on her throughout her life, and when Asha leaves the home she was placed in, he takes her under his wing, and tells her that Olamina is dead. As Olamina continues to search for her daughter, she reconfigures her vision of Earthseed and starts to seduce people with her ideas again. At the end, we see Olamina’s vision for Earthseed fully realized, including taking its place among the stars. Unfortunately, even though they meet, Asha never forgives her mother.
Parable of the Talents was an amazing read! To me it revealed key insights about leadership, community, and power, upholding vs. approving, and ultimately and most importantly, hope and change.
Leadership: Seeking Power vs. Seeking Community
Marc was a striking character. When it was revealed that he was still alive, I was intrigued. “What would be the purpose?” I thought. Someone who had to live in the conditions he had, who Olamina had saved from true horrors, was just going to be eternally loyal to her, right? Right?
The relationship between Olamina and Marc, in terms of the approaches they took to leadership underlined key insights for me. Seeking Power for Power’s sake, as Marc did, leaves you susceptible to blindly bind yourself to the sources of power you’ve identified and to which you are seeking proximity.
“Prodigy is, in its essence, adaptability and persistent, positive obsession.”
Olamina, from the very start, sought to build community. It started with a vision she never even tried to own. A vision that obsessed her. She emphasized something that was as well-known as it was dangerous, going against Power by helping people empower themselves and building different structures is powerful. When you no longer seek power, when you seek Community, Power follows and sticks to you. You are either to use it or be crushed by it.
The real question is HOW?
“People who are intelligent, ambitious, and at the same time in the grip of odd obsessions can be dangerous. When they occur, they inevitably upset things.”
As soon as Marc was on his feet and he saw Olamina’s power, he wanted it for himself. He felt like he “should” have it, why not? But when he found out that power at Acorn was built collectively, not given, he was no longer interested. He identified another source of power, larger, backed by the State, offering “Change” as if they wield it instead of shape it. He was gone.
When it came time to question that power, to stand against it, to relinquish it for family, community, his own words, he couldn’t. Losing that power meant losing everything because that’s all he ever wanted and that’s all he’d ever have. Olamina, on the other hand, having lost everything, including her own flesh, still had what was most important, what she always had and always will have, Earthseed.
“Beware: all too often, we say what we hear others say. We think what we’re told that we think. We see what we’re permitted to see. Worse! We see what we’re told that we see. Repetition and pride are the keys to this. To hear and to see even an obvious lie again and again and again may be to say it, almost by reflex then to defend it because we’ve said it, and at last to embrace it because we’ve defended it, and because we cannot admit that we’ve embraced and defended an obvious lie. Thus without thought, without intent, we make mere echoes of ourselves and we say what we hear others say.”
Upholding vs. Approving
In this moment in the United States, with the current Black Lives Matter uprisings, many Americans are coming to a reckoning, illustrated in the above quote. More than ever are people realizing that power structures do not necessitate your approval in order for you to do the work of upholding them.
We’re also realizing that letting go can be just as hard as noticing in the first place. Whether we disagree morally with a system, doesn’t mean that we’re ready to do the work to dismantle it. The first reaction is denial and compartmentalization, which is what Marc did, and where he stayed his whole life, even after meeting Asha. “It’s a fringe group, it’s a tiny portion, it’s just a few bad apples.”
“People do blame you for the things they do to you.”
Sometimes, we get through the cognitive dissonance by using blame and hate, based on a willingness and determination to be ignorant. That’s what Marc did. He felt free to hate Olamina, he could justify separating her from her daughter because the teachings of Earthseed were nefarious. All she had to do was submit, comply, and join Christian America. Raise her hands, don’t talk back, don’t protest, don’t run, don’t play with toy guns, don’t be at home sleeping, don’t drive, don’t breathe.
“These men feast on our pain — and they call us parasites.”
When people use these excuses, denying the extent of the issue or hiding behind what is lawful or unlawful, they redeem themselves under the umbrella of “Approval.” I’m not Racist means “You don’t actually think I would approve of cops actually just killing black people willy-nilly, do you? That’s just not what’s happening here!” Which means, I’m still a good person, because I know I would never approve of this. And on you go, upholding the narrative of “not that bad” (refusing to believe Olamina had been collared), gaslighting people into thinking it’s about them and their choices (telling her to join the church), and ultimately plugging your ears with your fingers and screaming lalalalala…or whatever the adult New York Times Op-ed equivalent.
You can excuse and uphold just about anything when you choose not to see reality.
Hope and Change
Though the book is set in an apocalyptic America with a clear dystopian feel, I see it as a bittersweet ending, if not a happy one. Throughout the entire book, we watch Asha’s resentment of her mother, even after reading her journals. Having grown up in a world that taught her to hate her mother by hating her because of her mother, it was inevitable. Adding to that the perfidy of “Uncle Marc”, Olamina never stood a chance at getting her daughter back.
Yet, I’m completely satisfied with the story. I found Asha’s explanation that “She loved Earthseed more than me,” to be kind of perfect actually. It was so clear throughout the entire series that such a conclusion was unfair, but it was also evident that Earthseed was much more important for Olamina to accomplish, for her to be the mother of so many others and give rise so much, than to be only Asha’s mother. It’s heartbreaking for a child to realize this truth, it sounds dishonest for Olamina to contest it, and I sound horrible making this point. Still true though.
Parable of the Talents is a formidable story of hope. I feel like I met Olamina so long ago, and have been with her through it all, that I just wanted to see Earthseed happen. When you’re an idealist, you know too well how unlikely your vision is to anyone else but you, yet you fully understand that you cannot realize it without the help of others, who often won’t participate unless they can’t already “see” it too.
‘God is Change’ is a powerful concept because it’s the most solid root to a “Ready for Anything” mantra and lifestyle. If the point is Change, then everything is possible! This is not a Positive ™ cliche, it’s a pendulum, swinging, swinging, swinging. But you can shape it, as it shapes you.
Thinking that the arch of history bends towards justice can get us to be really disappointed when we take what, within this view, would mean a step back. If the arch of history bends towards justice, how do you explain Trump becoming president after Obama? How do you maintain hope when the world does not behave according to your model?
The arch of history bending towards chaos, towards change, gave me the most hope I’ve had in awhile. If everything can go to shit, then everything can also be changed in the different direction. Therefore we’re not silent spectators, watching the pendulum swing, we can attach ourselves to it, and we can combine our weight to bring it down on one side, and try to keep it there, at least most of the time.
But, how do we do that?
“Kindness eases Change. Love quiets fear. And a sweet and powerful Positive obsession blunts pain, diverts rage, and engages each of us in the greatest, the most intense of our chosen struggles.”
It’s All About Love. Radical love.
Sooo I don’t like the standard star rating🤷🏿♀️. I feel like every book was written for someone and I don’t want to uphold the capitalistic power of star ratings. So I will use my own emoji scale: 🤯(New Fave), 🤩(Freakin’ Loved It!), 😍(Loved It), 😌(Liked it), 🙃(Finished it, I guess…)
🤩🤩🤩🤩🤩: I Freaking Loved It!
If this is not yet evident, I reaaalllly loved Parable of the Talents. I definitely am sold on Octavia Butler and I think I’m getting a few people to join my #ButlerSummer, where I read and review all of Octavia Butler’s books. I don’t know how I’m just now getting to her work, but I choose to see it as right on time!
Next up for #ButlerSummer is Lilith’s Brood. Right now, I’m reading The Oracle Year, The Source of Self-Regard, and just started Sister Outsider. I am LOVING Audre Lorde. Once I’m done with one of these, I’ll get back on the Butler train. My next review will be about How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones, part of my #PrideMonth reads that I finished last week.
What have you been reading lately? Why did you pick it? Comment below or find me on social media!
99 Percent Anomaly Podcast
Liked this post? You really should check out this week’s episode on 99 Percent Anomaly Podcast about Black Lives Matter!
The United States is in trouble. Police Brutality is not a simple race issue, it’s an issue of governance. What we’re seeing is a fight against fascism and terrorism. We are all affected by the injustices that happen around us. There are no winners here. This week, we dig into the pain and the rage accumulated over the past few centuries and we talk about the Black Lives Matter uprisings happening in the United States and many other countries in solidarity. We also discuss our thoughts about the black squares movement, about the performative allyship people are displaying, the corporate responses to the moment and much more. Music by Sarel (@sarel_youniverse) and Jeff Pierre (@jeffpierremusic).