- The Domestic Politics of Disability in Octavia Butler's Kindred
Octavia Butler died in late February of 2006 following a fall outside of her home, the house a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant enabled her to purchase. This freak accident, a tragedy for anyone touched by her writing, serves as an appropriate reminder of many of Butler's most significant themes. Like any death, hers foregrounds our mortality and by doing so also foregrounds our relation to others—an ethical connection that is so central to her writing. Butler wrote of division and violence; of the dichotomy between the self and the objective world, home and otherness; and of what could be gained and lost by decreasing the distance between others.
In her 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, Butler writes of a young girl, locked behind neighborhood walls in an apocalyptic world, who is gifted, and cursed, with empathy; she can experience others' pain, real or feigned (11). Lauren Olamina's hyperempathy is a disability as it marks her out as other and interferes with her ability to easily navigate and succeed in a violently hierarchized world. Yet Lauren does succeed while retaining her empathic connection to the world. Lauren has a strong sense of her identity, yet fosters a connection to others at the same time. Here we have what appears to be a perfect ethical balance between assuring a certain level of personal singularity, without the violent hermeneutic assimilation of others. What more can we ask of any ethics?
I demonstrate how in Butler's Kindred disability amounts to a sort of [End Page 84] ideological denaturalization, and thereby an ethical opening beyond the domesticated walls of an able-bodied self. As I see Butler's text as a radical response to W.E.B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon, their work on the complex nature of African-American experience will help contextualize the crucial themes of home, health, and subjectivity that are my concern here. In "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," Du Bois contextualizes the "revelation" of his difference by referencing his "rollicking boyhood" during which he first noticed the veil separating him from others. Physically, this difference leads not to running, but to "plod[ing] darkly on in resignation" (8-9). Notice how the experience of black subjectivity is embodied in the following famous passage:
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (emphasis added)(8–9)
This "torn" or wounded condition forces African-Americans to juggle two mental registers at the same time. It is physically debilitating, slowing one down and risking, at every moment, a violent hemorrhage, both mental and physical. While Du Bois is concerned with ontological matters here, the body carries the weight of his argument. This contrary pull between America and Africa threatens both the body and mind, which, he says, have "been strangely wasted, dispersed, or forgotten" (9). Ontological confusion (or over extension) equals physical disability: "A people thus handicapped," he writes, "ought not to be asked to race with the world, but rather allowed to give all its time to its own social problems" (12, emphasis added).
Du Bois is intent on erasing the "vast veil" (7), and it is worth dwelling [End Page 85] on this veil for a moment in order to better grasp the modern subject he would have come into being. A veil separates, yes, but not entirely. It remains porous, torn, if you will, allowing for connection to others...