“Belief Initiates and guides action—Or it does nothing.”
–Octavia E. Butler, 1947-2006
Earthseed: The Book of the Living (Parable of the Sower)
“History happens one person at a time.”–Patricia Stephens Due, 1939-2012
Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights
In the late Octavia E. Butler’s near-future novel Parable of the Sower, a teenage girl, Lauren Olamina, is the only person in her thinly protected community who sees how fragile their way of life is, how susceptible to destruction—and no one will listen until it’s too late.
In a way, my late mother, civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due, who braved jail and teargas in the 1960s, was like Lauren Olamina: warning of dire consequences if communities and organizations didn’t work to stop the threats of Jim Crow, segregation and voting restrictions. My mother and father, “Freedom Lawyer” John Due, were willing to die for a better future for their children. My mother forever warned of efforts to “turn back the clock.”
Well, the clock has turned. Now another Really Bad Time has come. It’s the time Butler warned us about, when even the fascistic presidential candidate in her novel Parable of the Talents (the second Parable novel) used the phrase “Make America Great Again.”
Dystopia has been a reality for many families for generations, but many in the U.S. finally see our peril more clearly after the Nov. 8 election and today’s inauguration of Donald Tr*mp to the presidency. (I write his name as a profanity based on his hate-filled campaign and platforms, lack of fitness for the position, and other reasons worthy of a separate essay.) But many of us have seen it for as long as we can remember because we have been living beneath the storm clouds, and we tried so hard to tell you.
Black Lives Matter tried to tell you. The NAACP tried to tell you. Prisoner advocacy groups tried to tell you. Planned Parenthood tried to tell you. The ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center tried to tell you: institutional racism and hate thrive in this country, masquerading as laws and policies meant to restrict human freedom. Scratch beneath the surface of the ideology of the extreme right, and we’re facing the same battles my parents, and their parents, fought.
And of course they deny they’re doing it. And tell us “Wait and see.”But those of us who are paying attention have seen enough.
My way of surviving this storm, at least emotionally, is to combine the lessons from my parents’ freedom movements of the past and the warnings from Octavia E. Butler’s fictitious future to help me stay steady on the path.
We must resist. To do that, we must believe we can create change.
First, breathe. Meditate. Journal. Dance. Hydrate. Get enough rest. If you’re an artist, CREATE. As I tweeted earlier this week, ask yourself what Octavia E. Butler would have written to confront this crisis…and create your version of that.
Ask yourself what novel Octavia E. Butler would have written to confront these times.
— This Is Happening (@TananariveDue) January 19, 2017
For information, turn off the circus of television cable news and subscribe to newspapers. Favor investigative reporters over talking heads. For escape, find comedy, horror, thrillers—whatever helps you decompress. I write horror, I think, because my mother loved horror movies as her means of escape from her anger and fear. You need an escape too.
Jennifer Marie Brissett, author of the speculative fiction novel Elysium: Or, The World After, says, “I think this is a time to let the sadness in—to just feel this and not fight the despair. Soak your feet, wash your hair, take a nap, and eat the cheese cake. Be okay with feeling lousy. Then put all of your hurt and sorrow into making something beautiful.”
Each day will bring alarming headlines, and self-care is imperative. If you’re not OK, you won’t be able to help others.
Move away from numbness & denial
I felt numb in the weeks after the election. I was trying to protect my emotions, so I avoided processing my pain. Numbness is a form of denial.
I was in mild denial before the election (I didn’t think Tr*mp could win), and many of us still are. The human capacity for denial is so strong that I suspect it may be rooted, ironically, in a survival instinct. Perhaps we lock away our fear of death so effectively that we have a talent for not seeing what’s in front of us.
So every plan and action must take denial into account. No matter who was “right,” we were all wrong—because we could not prevent the election of Trump.
We have to fix what went wrong. We have to be awake to fight.
Stop looking for heroes and heroines
This last election should have taught us the vast limitations of our elected officials—they can’t do it alone. Heroic moments have emerged from congresspeople like John Lewis and Maxine Waters, and yet more will emerge in the next few months and years. But we cannot rely upon them.
Meaningful resistance is up to us, the People.
In Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olamina is a mere teenager, but she cannot rely on the adults for her safety, including her own father (who is in denial)—she relies upon herself. Likewise, my parents and many of the activists from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s were very young, like the young South African youth who helped bring down apartheid. Liberation movements are led by youth, not by the established Powers That Be.
WE are the heroes and heroines who will make the difference. Today not only marked a tragic inauguration—but large protests in Washington, D.C. and sister marches scheduled around the nation tomorrow. A portion of today’s otherwise peaceful protests in Washington grew violent, according to the Washington Post, and protesters were sprayed with pepper spray, with 100 arrests. (Although I want to learn more; Tr*mp’s team has a history of staging resistance.) My mother’s civil rights generation believed—and I agree—that protest is most effective when it’s nonviolent.
But just because you are nonviolent does not mean police will treat you nonviolently. Even reporters have been manhandled and arrested in Ferguson and Standing Rock, so always attend a protest with one or more friends. The American Civil Liberties Union also has a free app you can download to send video from your phone directly to the ACLU if you see a questionable police encounter.
Exercise common sense at a protest the way you should on social media.
But we must march—and actions beyond marches.
We are the heroes and heroines of this story.
Choose your spot and defend it
So much is happening so quickly that it’s difficult to decide where to begin, which leads to hopelessness and paralysis. I’m trying to find the places that need me most. Where will children be most harmed? Who is under the greatest threat of injury or death? How can I take daily actions even if they are small? I’m also working to have an impact on issues like juvenile justice and mass incarceration, as I did pre-election.
Social media is a start, especially for people new to activism. I have scores of new Twitter followers (I can tell they’re new because they don’t have profile photos yet, still using “Egg” avatars) who were probably drawn to Twitter because Tr*mp uses it. Social media is a great way to spread information (actual news), rally allies, find family and tribe, seek humor or comfort, and sharpen your messaging.
But it’s only a beginning.
Since the election, I have signed several petitions–including a WhiteHouse.gov petition to force Tr*mp to disclose his tax returns–and set up recurring donations to the NAACP and ACLU, and other donations will follow. Even $10 a month can help. I have left messages for Rep. Paul Ryan about the ACA and emailed others in Congress to fight for the ACA and to urge non-confirmation for Jeff Sessions and Tom Price. I have donated small amounts to book drives for prisoners and supported other causes related to the criminal justice system and mass incarceration. I plan to attend a women’s march in Pasadena Saturday, joining other marchers around the nation.
Most of my actions take less than five minutes a day. We can’t say we don’t have time to take part in active resistance.
And action is an antidote to fear. For some people, “daily action” means volunteering in schools, attending local meetings, perhaps even running for office. When I was in my 20s and early 30s, I spent seven years as a volunteer with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, spending a couple of hours every weekend with my Little Sister, whose mother had died.
Not only is daily action helpful in moving forward a political platform or minimizing damage from social spending cuts, but it limits the sense of helplessness that can leave us feeling paralyzed in the face of so much work to do.
Allies squabble — now get over it and build coalitions
“Kindness eases Change.”–Octavia E. Butler, Earthseed: The Book of the Living
Yes, it’s frustrating when people who might otherwise be allies fall short of expectations or don’t share our exact perceptions. During the civil rights movement, allies accused my mother of being a “publicity hound” when she used newspaper interviews as a tool for spreading a civil rights message. She navigated in-fighting between the major organizations of the time. She felt marginalized as a woman in the Movement. She had any number of reasons she could have walked away, but she didn’t.
Why? Because her need to fight for justice and equality outweighed the squabbles. Squabbles in political and movements often are centered on pacing: you’re moving too fast, you’re not moving fast enough. Either “my way” will work or no way will work. People tend to think in binaries rather than seeking common ground. It’s childish and ineffective.
Octavia E. Butler’s Lauren Olamina is forever defending her ideas from skeptics even as they rely upon her leadership. The leaders in Butler’s novels often do not feel safe even among the people they are trying to help. Sadly, this is also true in life, another reality of human nature.
Not everyone you disagree with in the Tr*mp opposition is a phony, con or spy—or “hopeless.” Allies will have to implement plans in concert, so debate and correction are necessary for growth—but growth begins with SELF reflection, not in critiquing others.
Potential allies should approach each other with kindness.
“Unfortunately, this kind of constant familiar critique just makes us smaller when we need to be massive,” says Adrienne Maree Brown, author of the forthcoming Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (AK Press 2017) and co-editor of Octavia’s Brood (AK Press 2015). Brown has facilitated for several activist groups and organizations.
“We in movement spaces need to notice the role cynicism, desperation and hopelessness plays in our conflict[s],” Brown says. “I see a lot of people fighting with each other because we are scared of the future and trying to protect our hearts.”
Instead of squabbling, teach.
Science fiction author and television writer Steven Barnes (who happens to be my husband) says the squabbling on the left is natural because of the nature of progressive politics.
“The left seems chaotic because the right reaches toward the past, and there’s only one past,” Barnes said. “But there are infinite possibilities for the future.” But even if our exact visions differ, building coalitions will be essential in the years ahead.
The narrative matters
Storytelling is persuasion.
The role of storytelling is even more important in a political world influenced by “fake news,” or propaganda, from both foreign and domestic sources. Repetition of lies creates a kind of truth in the listener, and potential allies can fall prey to lies just as many voters did. How can we drive the narrative of the story toward truth and social justice? What are the most effective ways to frame events to lend them importance and comprehension?
We’re weaving the counter-narrative with every Facebook update and tweet, especially when we use personal experiences or revelations. “I used to think, but…and here’s why….” may be an effective way to reach doubters who will not feel judged for their beliefs, whether it’s a position on Black Lives Matter or the viability of a third party. Sometimes simple debunking with evidence is the best approach.
Storytellers don’t attack their listeners: they create a world view that “overwhelms a way of thinking,” as Walter Mosley has said of the revolutionary power of black science fiction.
Artists like Barnes, Butler, Mosley and other Afrofuturists create counter-narratives through their art, often using allegory (i.e. Steven Barnes’s alternate history novel on slavery, Lion’s Blood) to better illustrate the challenges we face, or to provide escapism for self-care. The excitement over Marvel’s Luke Cage series and upcoming Black Panther film illustrate the power of fantasy and superheroes to electrify us—feeding our need for self-actualization, self-reliance and shifted power dynamics on screen.
We need to tell the story.
The establishment will fear and obstruct you
If you’ve been following activist communities, you know that groups like Black Lives Matter have already been labeled as “thugs” or “terrorists,” and this isn’t new. But with advances in technology, protesters are now subjected to face recognition software and databases even when no crime has been committed. Beyond that, online harassment from trolls already bullies many people into silence.
One of Tr*mp’s first tweets as president-elect was to denounce protesters. We can all expect more of this—whether we protest in the streets or with our words, or both.
Watch Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th on Netflix for a comprehensive overview of how presidential administrations have used “law and order” rhetoric to squash resistance and create a new kind of slavery in our system of mass incarceration. This is not theoretical. My parents both have thick FBI files simply for agitating for civil rights and voting rights at a time when critics labeled agitation as “communism.”
Power fights back.
One way to extend the reach of your tweets is to use hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter or #resist or #Notmypresident, but hashtags also invite trolls to argue with you. I do not engage trolls—I block them immediately. If you have a wide enough reach, you will be even more highly scrutinized or even threatened or attacked for seemingly innocuous posts. In this new reality, it’s not inconceivable to get a hate tweet from the president himself.
Hugo Award-winning author of The Fifth Season N.K. Jemisin is an outspoken presence on Twitter, where she has been targeted and received death threats for her critiques of racism and sexism in fandom. But she still isn’t afraid to raise her voice.
“Mostly it’s just that I don’t want to live in the kind of world where people like that dictate what I say—so I keep talking,” Jemisin says. “I get louder when they fuck with me, because for me, anger pushes back fear.”
She advises opinionated people on the Internet to visit http://www.crashoverridenetwork.com, a website that specializes in fighting online abuse, whether it’s lists of resources or offering help managing a current crisis. (Like, say, your social media account has been flooded with trolls, etc.)
Adds Jemisin: “But at the end of the day, the only way to shut Them up is to make it really, really clear that they cannot silence you. That takes away their power.”
We need to be smarter. Sometimes we need to create private chat rooms to talk rather than subjecting our emails or telephone calls to compromise.
We want our activism to be noticed, but getting noticed has its drawbacks.
Don’t be in denial about that. Be ready.
Resistance has always taken courage.
And courage is born of hope.
My father, John Due, is a civil rights attorney who came of age during the tumultuous 1960s. In the 1960s, he represented Dr. King in St. Augustine, Florida, and helped pioneer techniques to move civil rights cases from state to federal courts for a more favorable outcome. He often tells the story of fearing for his life while driving on dark Mississippi roads during voter registration campaigns, and the white sheriff who could have turned him over to the Klan, but instead let him go. He is a lifelong community organizer.
Dad has seen nearly a century of change, and, like Octavia Butler often said, he agrees that based on science alone, humankind’s future looks grim. Likewise, the nation’s future looked grim in 1959, when my mother decided to join the Civil Rights Movement in Florida. Or in 1960, when my father moved from Indiana to go to law school at Florida A&M University to be closer to help the Movement as an attorney.
“Based upon the evidence, we are doomed,” Dad says. “A five-year-old can kill the whole human race, almost, if he has access to a button. I cannot categorize change in scientific terminology because based upon science, there is no hope, there is no future. But because we have a human capacity to feel and to believe otherwise, and to believe in hope, that’s what keeps us alive.”
Butler’s Parable of the Sower is set within a landscape of poverty, corporate slavery, racism, drought, violence and despair. And yet… within this dystopian framework, Butler gives us hope nestled in her protagonist Lauren Olamina’s new religion, called Earthseed – with passages that resonate deeply beyond the borders of the story.
All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
God Is Change.
And Butler helps us, through visualization and imagination, cross that membrane from fiction to reality—in a proactive rather than fearful way.
So begin with history—learn about successful protest movements of the past. Our schools teach shockingly little history, so what you don’t know will surprise you. All of us, no matter how “woke,” have remaining illusions. But we must begin the real-life worldbuilding our times demand.
We have so much to do, and the work is generations old.
We all need to learn, grow and create new approaches to replace our failed ones that helped usher Tr*mp win the White House. Like Octavia E. Butler and the resisters before us, we must agitate and create like our future depends on it.
Tananarive Due is an author and screenwriter who teaches Afrofuturism at UCLA. She has won an American Book Award, British Fantasy Award and NAACP Image Award. Follow her on Twitter @TananariveDue.