Last week I had the pleasure of reading My Soul To Take by author (and my professor) Tananarive Due. My Soul To Take is the last book in The African Immortals Series, and initially I had my reservations about reading the last book in a series that was as revered as this one was; however, upon completion I came to the realization that I was able to seamlessly read the novel sans feeling lost or feeling like I was missing something. One of the reasons I think I was able to read the novel with ease is because it had a stand-alone theme that was very familiar to me–the coming of age story, also known a bildungsroman. I’ll be honest: until about three months ago I had never heard that word before, and if asked what it was I would have guessed that it was some western European torture device, thankfully it is not! For those of you, like myself three short months ago, who don’t know, a bildungsroman is just the long fancy word meaning a coming of age tale or story. What I like about the bildungsroman is that no matter how old a person is, they can always relate to the story being told in one way or another. However, in the case of My Soul To Take the persons coming of age just so happen to be adults and born immortals…Yes, you read that correctly, Tananarive Due was able to tell the story of two immortal beings “coming of age”. How did she make this happen, she tapped into the fear of most people–turning into their parents. In the novel one of the two immortal born beings is a male named Michel, and Michel seems like one nasty guy with unrivaled psychokinetic powers, who intends to cleanse the world of humankind. But believe it or not, Michel in all of his awesome (and terrifying) power, is still subject to the Oedipus complex, where he longs for the mother he never had and seeks to become his own man in spite of his father. Although, we are introduced to Michel as one of the most powerful beings on Earth, the fact that he is struggling to define himself apart from his father is humanizing and makes him relatable. Learning that even an immortal being goes through change and the uncertainty of “growing up”, makes me continue to value the work of speculative fiction writers like Due and Butler, who are able to tell stories of the fantastical and frightening that are entertaining while being relevant an relatable to real life. After reading My Soul To Take and encountering an adult immortal’s coming of age struggle, I find comfort in knowing that you’re never too old to have a bildungsroman.
The title of this blog is a quoted from the main character of one of my favorite relatively recent films–The Departed(2006 Dir. Martin Scorsese, Writer William Monahan). What does Marty Scorsese’s Irish Catholic crime drama have to do with Octavia Butler and Afrofuturism you may be asking? Short answer: more than you think!
About a week ago I watched the 1996 documentary The Last Angel of History (1996 Dir. John Akomfrah), and beyond being entertained I was downright awed by the story of “The Data Thief”. For those of you who have yet to see the film, the Data Thief is a character who navigates his way through history collecting knowledge (I won’t give away too much, you’ll have to see the film for yourself, but here’s a clip of the first few minutes to whet your interest http://youtu.be/uE3uqVRGQHY). What I found most compelling about the story of the Data Thief is that once he began to gain knowledge, he became an exile and a nomad whom had no place to live on his home planet, nor on Earth. The Data Thief risked his comfort and stability in the pursuit of knowledge. That is darn-right commendable! And it made me inventory what I have given up and am willing to give up for the pursuit of knowledge; relationships, “friend”ships, sleep, favor, money? But the most precious comfort I will admit to have given up is time. I think all to often in today’s world, we have gotten used to getting everything we want easily, without real sacrifice and getting it when we want it; however, this manner of behaving is problematic, because when it comes down to getting information and knowledge we have gotten used to just being “satisfied” and not necessarily “full”. By that I mean, that today people are willing to accept what they are given and not ask for more, because to get more may mean sacrificing comforts or looking ungrateful. But why not want more? Why not be full? (Don’t get me wrong, satisfied is the way to go when if comes to your watching you waistline, but when if comes to your intellectual fulfillment why not want all that you can consume) And an even more important question I have is, who benefits from your complacency, your lack of diligence and your contentment with the information that they are willing to give you?
The quotation from my title comes from a speech in The Departed where Frank Costello critiques the complacency of Black people in America, claiming that power is something that marginalized people cannot sit and wait to be handed. In this I see the Data Thief (TEN years before Costello) making the same assertion, that in the pursuit of knowledge and information there is no room for complacency, and that if it means being uncomfortable, or it makes you a “thief” then so be it! History, information and knowledge are too important to people who have been denied access to them for us to just accept what is given. If we want to be to be full then we have to stop sitting idly by waiting to be satisfied, like with the Data Thief, if it means relinquishing (some) comforts then we must simply do it–“…no one gives it to you. You have to take it.”
I remember when I first came across the tenet “All that you touch you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change.”–I was temporarily paralyzed by its puzzling and almost cryptic nature. I tried counting the ‘feet’ in order to peg it as a certain type of poem, and I tried reading it as a riddle, but the more I thought about it the more transparent it became and the clearer it was to me. This is definitely one of my favorite Earthseed tenets, because it mirrors the cyclical nature of life, which is the cornerstone for many African derived religions and also my personal worldview. If I had a tenet it would go a little something like this:” I am a catalyst for. An instrument intent on. And a proponent of change.’ For me this three-fold interaction with change is very much the same as Earthseed. But in my worldview change has less of a religious connotation, because to me Truth is equal to the never-ending quest for knowledge. In this tenet I see my myself like the stone cast into a pool, sending countless concentric circles, rippling through the once unmoved waters. Here is my personal translation of the tenet:
“All that you touch you change.”-As a catalyst for change, it is my duty to be the stone in a stagnant pool of thought–causing ripples of change.
“All that you change, changes you.”-As an instrument intent on change, there will be times that, like the tossed pebble, I will be displaced from my ‘comforts’ in order to enact change. And like the stone as it meets the pool, I understand that I will also meet change.
“The only lasting truth is change.”-As a proponent of change, I will never deny that change is the only one inevitable and unavoidable truth of the universe. Like the stone meeting resistance on the moment of impact into the pool, I am not immune to resisting change. And as the stone must penetrate the stagnant water, I must be steadfast in my belief in the “lasting truth” that is change.
At the end of the day if God is The Truth, and The only Truth is change, then by all of the powers of deductive reasoning= God is change.
“OMG I was just thinking that!” “I was just about to say that!” “GET OUT OF MY HEAD!”…How many times have you found yourself in a conversation with a close friend, colleague, or sibling and found yourself saying something like this in jest? The idea that two people can have so synchronous a thought that one actually says what the other is thinking is a phenomenon that is neither new nor unique. But while most of us can attest to saying at least one of these commonly used phrases, what if the person finishing your sentence wasn’t simply in a moment of synchronous thought, but was actually in your mind? What if the person finishing your sentence knew of their power but decided to hide the truth from you? From everyone? Virginia Hamilton addressed this very scenario in the novel Justice and Her Brothers. As I was reading the novel I couldn’t help but wonder about (and feel sympathy for) the character Levi, who was the most effected by the mind-reading abilities of his siblings and friend. The sympathy I felt for Levi as I read the novel not only comes from the artful way in which Hamilton presented Levi’s situation, but also from my own feelings of intellectual intrusion.
Intellectual intrusion, it feels exactly how it sounds: to have your private thoughts invaded by an unwelcome visitor, an unwanted being, an uninvited adversary. Thinking about Dawn and Justice, I can’t help but wonder if both Octavia Butler and Virginia Hamilton drew inspiration from the military intelligence scares in the US during the cold war. Considering how frightened people may have been by the idea of the ‘evil’ communist forces listening in and encroaching upon their private lives, I can’t help but think about the degrees of willingness that we today give up our intellectual privacy and freedom. I know this seems far-fetched (as is the idea that pre-teens can read and control minds) but follow me here:
Today we willingly give our intellectual property to anything/anyone; Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Vine, Blogs (oh my!). However, we never fully think about how quickly an action as simple as taking a picture of a breath-taking sunset and sharing it with our “friends” and “followers” becomes the means by which we all but summon an intellectual intrusion—an assault of our privacy and private thoughts. I wonder how the heroines in black speculative fiction would regard our willfully giving up of our intellectual property, what advice would Lilith or Justice give to us from the future? At the end of it all I’m left wondering: can humankind really become “slaves” if our freedom was never actually taken?