- Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Slavery?The Problem and Promise of Mothering in Octavia E. Butler’s “Bloodchild”
On planets ravaged by war and in civilizations plagued by oppression, Octavia E. Butler’s mothers invest themselves in caring for their communities. Whether biological mothers, such as Lilith from the Lilith’s Brood trilogy (1987-1989), or adoptive and community othermothers,1 such as Dana of Kindred (1979) and Lauren of the Parable series (1993, 1998), Butler’s mothers work to improve the circumstances of their people by destroying hierarchical power structures and developing more egalitarian societies. As Dorothy Allison famously asserts, the heroines of Butler’s science fiction are “independent, stubborn, difficult, and insistent on trying to control their own lives” (471), but they eschew the peace of solitude and accept the power of maternity, forging connections that allow them to effect social and political change.
Readers will discover powerful mothers throughout Butler’s body of work, yet only in “Bloodchild” (1984) does Butler extend both the emotional potency of motherhood and the physical possibility of pregnancy beyond women, giving the men of her story—including her adolescent male protagonist, Gan—the ability to continue what Naomi Ruth Lowinsky calls the “motherline,” the tradition of maternal care that unites parent and child and, in Butler’s story, human and alien (Lowinsky 12-13).2 Butler writes in her afterword to “Bloodchild” that she “wanted to see whether [she] 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” (30). By claiming that she composed a “love story” (30), Butler seeks to quell questions and criticism concerning the presence of reproductive “domination” (Butler, “Interview” by McCaffery 56) and “enslavement” (Helford 266) in “Bloodchild.” However, critics such as Jane Donawerth continue to describe “Bloodchild” as a tale of “exploitation” (40), while Amanda Thibodeau and Marty Fink offer more ambivalent responses to the tenor of human-alien relationships in Butler’s story and maintain that the author depicts a “parasitic” partnership (Thibodeau 270) resulting in the “violent physical invasion” and “alien appropriation of human bodies” (Fink 417, 418).3 [End Page 7]
This essay brings together the two narratives surrounding “Bloodchild”—Butler’s assertion that she composed a “love story” and her critics’ contention that she created a “story of slavery” (Butler, Afterword 30)—by proposing that the history of reproductive slavery within the text gives Butler’s male protagonist access to the power of maternal love, or what Hortense J. Spillers calls the “heritage of the mother” (“Mama’s” 80), the tradition of nonphallic maternal authority that developed out of black women’s experiences during slavery. I draw on Spillers’s theory of African American maternal inheritance, a corrective to Jacques Lacan’s universalized family dynamic, to demonstrate how Butler’s marginalized subjects destroy hierarchies within their families and communities through acts of motherly love. Positioning Butler’s male protagonist as an inheritor of this specifically maternal authority gives prominence to Butler’s doctrine of motherly love that, unlike Spillers’s theory, positions the father as an equal progenitor of maternal power and advances the larger scholarly project of placing psychoanalytic philosophies of psychosexual development in dialogue with critical race and postcolonial theories.
While Butler repeatedly rejects readings that situate “Bloodchild” as a “story of slavery,” she contextualizes gender and sex roles in “Bloodchild” in terms of hierarchical power structures that correspond with those in existence during slavery and colonial periods (Butler, Afterword 30; Butler, “Interview” by McCaffery 56-57; Butler, “We” 332; Butler, “Interview” by Kenan 498).4 The action of “Bloodchild” begins generations after a colony of racially ambiguous humans who fled enslavement and violence on their home planet have taken refuge on an “extrasolar world” populated by the “Tlic,” an insect-like alien species (Butler, Afterword 31). In exchange for their compliance with Tlic laws, Terrans (humans) are permitted to establish homes and manage businesses on a Preserve governed and guarded by Tlic officials. As “rent” for these safe accommodations, however, the Tlic compel Terrans to make an additional concession: each Terran family must allow a female Tlic to...