Earthseed Part 2
Womanism, Survival, and Toni Morrison
For those who have subscribed over the last week or two, welcome. New Means is currently alternating between broad, somewhat topical pieces on Sundays, and an extended, serialized essay about Earthseed, the spiritual or religious path laid out by Octavia Butler in her Parable books. I think we all have a ton to learn from Earthseed, and even if you’re unfamiliar I believe this series will be of value to you. The first piece is linked here, and the second is below. Enjoy, and look forward to hearing what you think!
In order to get to the full significance of Earthseed, we’re going to trace two prominent threads with which we can better understand this new form of theology, and with which we can hopefully move towards what noted womanist and theologian Monica Coleman calls a “post-modern” theology. The first thread is Womanism, which here will be understood at its broadest, using a definition from Layli Phillips as seen on the website of The Womanist Working Collective out of Philadelphia. She writes, “Womanism is a social change perspective rooted in Black women’s and other women of color’s everyday experiences and everyday methods of problem solving in everyday spaces, extended to the problem of ending all forms of oppression for all people, restoring the balance between people and the environment/ nature, and reconciling human life with the spiritual dimension.”  I’ll also refer to Alice Walker’s classic and even foundational definition, but Phillips’ definition first gives us four key elements, namely the rootedness in Black women’s experience, the emphasis on problem solving—including the ultimate problems of ending all forms of oppression—reconciliation between humanity and nature, and the spiritual dimension. These four components are not only crucial for understanding womanism, they’re also threads we can trace into Earthseed.
Womanism begins with Black women’s experience, and emerges as a response to the multiple vectors of oppression Black women have been subjected to, are subjected to. As Monica Coleman writes, “For Jacquelyn Grant, salvation must address the core problems of black women as they experience racism, sexism, and classism.”  Here we see not only the systemic manifestations of what Grant refers to as the “tri-dimensional reality” of the oppression Black women face, we also see the crucial words “as they experience.” Womanism differs from much of the Western academic tradition in its rooted-ness. The core of womanist thought is committed to growing out of the lived experience of Black women. This doesn’t mean a disregard for the realities of the multiple origins and aspects of systemic oppression, if anything it means the opposite. It means a weighty, serious commitment to beginning with the painful realities of lived oppression, and the deep warmth of lived joys, rather than a sanitized, cold, distant quantifying of Black women’s lives.
To better understand this rootedness in experience, and get a sense of the spirit of womanism, it is at once a necessity and an invaluable opportunity to turn back to the definition of womanism put forward by Alice Walker. It’s noteworthy that Walker first used the term womanist in her short story You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down (1981), where a Black woman is in the middle of a conflict with her husband.  Even here we see how the term womanist is embedded in the experiences of Black women, both in Walker’s experiences and in the experience of her character, trying to make sense of life in the midst of an inter-personal conflict. Two years later, Walker published what would become the foundational definition of womanism in her work In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. The way Walker presents her definition embodies the meaning she wishes to convey just as the content does, and the beautiful, wandering quote cannot be entirely contained here in all its loving sprawl. But, it begins, “1. From womanish. (Oppossite of ‘girlish,’ i.e. frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, ‘you acting womanish,’ i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior.”  Here Walker states that womanist refers to black feminists, or feminists of color, but her mode is also a part of the message. By quoting the proverbial “You acting womanish” Walker embeds her definition within the tradition of Black women’s experience, Black women talking to each other with love. Later, in the second section of the definition, she writes, “‘Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.’ Reply: ‘It wouldn’t be the first time.’  The use of Mama situates this reference once again within a conversation between a Black daughter and her mother, evoking so much in so few words.
Walker doesn’t just allude to survival in her definition, she talks about it explicitly as well. In the second segment of her definition she writes, “Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.”  Here again we see the expansiveness of her conception. The explicit commitment to survival is vital, and will be returned to again and again throughout this Earthseed series, but the pairing of survival and wholeness is also a crucial element of womanism, and begins to break the idea that survival must only be a desperate struggle where one has no ability or time to consider anything else. It begins to offer the idea that in the struggle to survive a person, or groups of people, can both fight with desperation and plant the seeds of something better, can pursue wholeness. In fact I will posit that in the long-term the struggle to survive is not only compatible with the pursuit of wholeness, but that when we pursue wholeness, flourishing, something more than the eternal struggle to get by, we increase our chances of survival, and of liberation as well. Relatedly, the intentionality Walker demonstrates with her inclusion of both men and women, except when separation is needed “periodically, for health” as she says, alludes to this same expansive approach that says the over-narrowing of our focus is less effective than working with others for something bigger—liberation.
Following Walker’s introduction of the term Womanism was adopted by numerous Black women thinkers, writers, academics and more. Given the ambitious, expansive goal of wholeness of entire people, all people, and the emphasis on love and liberation it’s no surprise that Black women theologians in particular seized upon the concept, ran with it, and expanded upon it in transformative ways. Jacquelyn Grant, a Methodist minister, is considered among the founders of womanist theology. In her book White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, she writes, “Black feminism grows out of Black women’s tri-dimensional reality of race/sex/class. It holds that full human liberation cannot be achieved simply by the elimination of any one form of oppression.”  We again see the grounding in Black women’s experience, and we again see a sequence beginning with this tri-reality and moving towards full human liberation. In this pairing we see even more clearly a central tenant of womanism, and Earthseed. Just as Phillips goes from, “women of color’s everyday experiences” to “the problem of ending all forms of oppression for all people” and just as Walker pairs survival and wholeness, Grant goes from a specific experience with the difficulties of race, sex, and class to the liberation of us all.
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It’s crucial, particularly in the context of Earthseed, to emphasize how many womanist thinkers are explicit that, for them, liberation means the liberation of all people. Walker talks about men as well as women, and uses the word “universalist” in her definition, going on to imply that womanists are interested in the flourishing of people of all races. Grant talks about “full human liberation,” and Phillips, too, makes both the womanist orientation and the goal of womanism, as she sees it, quite straightforward. She writes, “A womanist is triply concerned with herself, other Black women, and the entire Black race, female and male—but also all humanity, showing an ever-expanding and ultimately universal arc of political concern, empathy, and activism.”  The starting point here is the experience of Black women, which moves outward to Black men (all Black people), and then all of humanity. Phillips writes, “ever-expanding and ultimately universal” in such a way that it leaves no ambiguity about how womanists are concerned with the liberation of all people, no exceptions. This lens, which begins with the lives of those oppressed by society’s multiple hierarchies, poor Black women, and moves out towards freedom and flourishing for all, is both a pragmatic concept for advancing liberation, and a needed intervention amid theories and approaches that too often privilege the theoretical and the abstract over the lived and material.
As womanists argue, beginning with the experience of Black women and the liberation of Black women can create an approach to liberating all people, and move us towards an approach to fighting for liberation that is rooted and grounded. The lived and the theoretical are not mutually exclusive, and a robust theoretical structure is still a necessity, but theory that interconnects with lived experience will be more powerful and robust than any which pretends we live in a vacuum. What womanist scholars, theologians, and practitioners of all kinds have done is explicated theories based out of lived experiences, creating strong theoretical structures that are deeply grounded and rooted in their lives and the lives of other Black women.
One writer who developed a theoretical structure that combines lived experience with intellectual constructs in a womanist manner, and who sought the liberation of Black women and all people, is Toni Morrison. As a writer, rather than primarily a scholar of theory, Morrison is not always brought into conversations around womanism, but her emphasis on the history of Black folks, and Black women in particular, combined with her lived experience and alignment with Alice Walker’s foundational definition of womanism, puts her squarely in this conversation. In order to evaluate the work of Toni Morrison we must first distinguish between shallower discussions of America as post-racial, and a serious approach to the possibility of a post-racial future. The shallow vision is most often a glossing over, a sugar coating of the deadly juggernaut of white supremacy that does nothing to dismantle it, let alone imagine transcendence and transformation, and is therefore harmful in that it enables racism to keep moving violently forward. But, there is another more serious approach that grapples deeply with the construction of race and what is required to demolish and transcend the construct both ideologically and materially. That approach is exemplified when Morrison writes, “I prefer to think of a-world-in-which-race-does-not-matter as something other than a theme park, or a failed and always-failing dream, or as the father's house of many rooms. I am thinking of it as home.”  Her view of the society she seeks is defined most concisely as a place where she could be truly at home, and is not a utopian fantasy but a blueprint for conceptualizing the future we desire and for conceptualizing a path towards that future as well. At another point in her exquisite essay “Home” she expands on this conception, writing:
“In this new space one can imagine safety without walls, can iterate difference that is prized but unprivileged, and can conceive of a third, if you will pardon the expression, world ‘already made for me, both snug and wide open, with a doorway never needing to be closed.’ Home.” 
Morrison’s project is not easy, or simple. Her conception of home is a desire for a world in which not only she but all Black people, and ultimately all people, can be comfortable and free. A world both “snug and wide open,” and world where no one’s self-valuation rests on the degradation or oppression of another.
In another of her essays, “Goodbye to All That,” Morrison begins by talking about going on TV for an interview. In the days leading up to the interview she, “asked whether it was possible for our conversation to avoid any questions or topics about race.”  And the folks at the show said sure, said they would avoid the issue. But on the day of the interview, the interviewer reneged, asking to talk primarily about race, and ultimately Morrison says she wound up “sleepwalking” through the segment. Throughout the remainder of the essay she explains why she initially asked to avoid a discussion of race on the show, and why she was so disappointed when it didn’t happen. But it’s at the very end of the essay, in the final sentences, that we see the most concise explanation of her desires. She writes, “How novel it would be if, in this case, life imitated art. If I could have had that television interview reflecting my life’s real work. If, in fact, I was not a (raced) foreigner but a home girl, who already belonged to the human race.”  The dichotomy of this desire is that it’s so simple, yet the path to reaching it is painfully complex. Wanting to be at home in the world, wanting to not feel and be treated as an outsider, or other, is a political, historical, and deeply spiritual yearning. In some ways Butler, in Earthseed, is attempting a project of similar ambitions. Specifically, Butler is asking the question, what does it mean to build a new spiritual home? And she’s asking this question due to a set of shared assumption about the inadequacies of our existing structures.
Fully accepting that existing structures are not viable leads one to become a revolutionary thinker, rather than a reformer. Morrison’s project was not merely seeking to tweak existing structures of racial relation, not just seeking to reform them. As Nancy Jesser writes on Morrison’s work, “Any attempt to re-structure a rented space is going to be bound by limitations and troubled by layers and layers of lost cultures and lives.”  And she’s right. Morrison didn’t seek to re-structure an existing space, to rent out a room in a white supremacist house. She sought to create a new home, not bound by pre-existing limitations or confined by an unimaginative, oppressive history that would inevitably lead to an unimaginative, oppressive future. She sought to build something new, something, “Meant to evoke not only the safety and freedom outside the race house, but to suggest contemporary searches and yearnings for social space that is psychically and physically safe.”  Similarly, in Parable of the Sower, Lauren creates Earthseed out of a need for safety. Where Morrison dives into the reshaping, or even creation of a past that has historically been overlooked or unexamined, Butler uses the Parable books to explore and even create a future. Notably, Butler casts roots back into the past, linking Lauren to both the Christian and Igbo traditions through her parents, their faiths, and even her name, before launching into the future.
What we can see in Morrison’s work, both in the scope of her project and her approach to it, is something comparable to Earthseed in ambition and form. Morrison’s goal of building a new “Home” is a process of creation that combined several womanist elements. One, it’s deeply rooted in the Black experience, her experience as a Black woman, and the experiences of Black women across history. Two, it looks towards a better future, a future where women like Morrison can just be at home, not constantly othered. Three, from its roots to its reaching branches it is grounded in survival, while always moving towards safety and flourishing. For these reasons, and others, it’s no surprise that Butler wrote to Morrison in 1981. According to Phoenix Alexander in her article “Octavia E. Butler and Black Women's Archives at the End of the World” Butler wrote a letter to Morrison saying, “I am submitting CLAY’S ARK to you at Random [House, the publisher] because I want to escape the science fiction label…” Her desire for a wider audience, and her choice to reach out to Morrison specifically, has echoes of Morrison’s desire for a home. Butler repeatedly mentioned being limited to three audiences, Black folks, sci-fi readers, and feminists, and her desire to break out of that and speak to a wider audience was ultimately realized in Kindred, her Parable series, and other works.  As Alexander writes about Butler, “Her letter to Morrison reveals the efforts to build a ‘home place.’”  This language indicates how Octavia Butler’s determined searching mirrors Morrison’s own search for home: for herself, for Black women, and for humanity as a whole.
And, as we’ll see, Earthseed is perhaps an embodiment of these goals. It doesn’t work towards all of them perfectly, but in the ambition and imagination of how to dream from a place of rootedness, and to shape the future into a place that Black folks, and all of humanity, can call Home, to enable and create the radical imagination necessary for a radically different world, Octavia Butler built something that, in several ways, carries both Womanism and Morrison’s legacy forward into the future, always exploring territory that is uncharted while simultaneously reaching towards a new and imaginative world, replete with spiritual possibility and the possibility of home.
The work that went into this piece was primarily done at Union Theological Seminary. I want to thank Dr. Andrea White for talking through a lot of what you’ll see in this Earthseed series, and for introducing me to Dr. Monica Coleman’s work in particular. I also want to thank Dr. Cornel West for talking through some of writing with me, and for talking about Octavia Butler more generally.
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 Phillips, Layli. The Womanist Reader: The First Quarter Century of Womanist Thought. New York: Routledge, 2015. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203943670. Pg, xx.
 Coleman, Monica A. Making a Way out of No Way : A Womanist Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, c2008. Pg, 13
 Junior, Nyasha. An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation. First edition. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015. Pg, xii.
 Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. First edition. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. Pg, 15.
 Ibid, 15.
 Ibid, 15.
 Grant, Jacquelyn. White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response. American Academy of Religion Academy Series, no. 64. Atlanta, Ga: Scholars Press, 1989. Pg, 202. Via Coleman.
 Phillips, xxiii.
 Savory, Jerold J. “The Rending of the Veil in W. E. B. DU Bois’s ‘The Souls of Black Folk.’” CLA Journal 15, no. 3 (1972): 334–37.
 Eboni Marshall Turman chronicles DuBois’s development of “the veil” and “double consciousness,” putting him in conversation with womanist thought and theology, and examining where his approach may have fallen short in her work “Toward a womanist ethic of incarnation : Black bodies, the Black church, and the Council of Chalcedon”
 Morrison, Toni. The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations. “Home.” First edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019. Pg, 18.
 Ibid, 19.
 Morrison, Toni. The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations. “Goodbye to All That.” First edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019. Pg, 333.
 Jesser, Nancy. “Violence, Home, and Community in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” African American Review 33, no. 2 (1999): 325–45. https://doi.org/10.2307/2901282. Pg, 341.
 Morrison, “Home,” 19.
 Alexander, Phoenix. “Octavia E. Butler and Black Women’s Archives at the End of the World.” Science Fiction Studies 46, no. 2 (2019): 342–57. Pg, 342.
 Romeo, Jess. “How Octavia E. Butler Became a Legend.” JSTOR Daily, March 24, 2021. https://daily.jstor.org/how-octavia-e-butler-became-a-legend/.
 Alexander, 342
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