This month, the Museum debuted Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures, an innovative exhibition that focuses on Afrofuturism—a cultural movement that explores the intersection of African American culture with science fiction and fantasy.
It is impossible to fully engage with Afrofuturism without honoring Octavia Estelle Butler (1947–2006), the esteemed writer who used her unique experiences as a Black woman in America to challenge and redefine the genre of science fiction—and in doing so paved the way for writers and artists who continue to push the boundaries of possibility today.
Octavia Butler was born in Pasadena, California, on June 22, 1947, and raised in a working-class neighborhood by her widowed mother and maternal grandmother. As a young Black girl in the 1950s and 60s, Butler experienced intense discrimination and bullying. She also was incredibly shy and usually kept her own company. Although she was dyslexic, Butler quickly learned that she could find solace in books—especially science fiction, which allowed her to dream beyond the limits of her life. By age 10, Butler began writing her own stories and dreams. “I needed my fantasies to shield me from the world,” she later recalled.
When Butler was 13, a teacher encouraged her to submit one of her stories to a science fiction magazine for publication. That submission, the first of many, inspired her to become a professional writer. In pursuit of this dream, Butler attended Pasadena City College, where she took courses in creative writing and participated in a local writer’s workshop. After completing her studies, a fellow writer encouraged her to attend the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop in Pennsylvania. This was the farthest Butler had ever been from home, and although the transition was challenging, the workshop gave her the time and space she needed to further develop her unique voice and style within science fiction.
Butler soon realized that science fiction, which was dominated by white male authors, lacked representation of her lived experiences as a Black woman in America—so she wrote herself into the genre. During an interview, she unapologetically declared, “You got to make your own worlds. You got to write yourself in. Whether you were a part of the greater society or not, you got to write yourself in.”
You got to make your own worlds. You got to write yourself in. Whether you were a part of the greater society or not, you got to write yourself in. Octavia Butler
In building worlds based on the one she knew, Butler began exploring themes of power, identity, and inequality in her writing, and featured Black protagonists who face both racial and gender-based discrimination during their journeys. She did this while also depicting egalitarian futures unimpeded by racism.
As her passion for writing and determination to reach larger audiences grew, Butler also began incorporating elements of African mythology and folklore into her work, as well as futuristic technology and scientific advancements. Butler’s unique perspective, coupled with her ability to blend her experiences with futuristic and dystopian elements, became the defining characteristics of her writing.
Through her work, Butler helped expand the genre of science fiction and create the earliest literary examples of Afrofuturism. Butler’s Afrofuturist lens was both a form of artistic expression and social activism. She created alternate worlds where Black people are the heroes and heroines—where their experiences are front and center. In doing so, she invited us to imagine a better future and then work towards creating it.
In her lifetime, Butler became the first published Black female science fiction writer. She wrote more than a dozen books throughout her career, including Survivor (1978) and the now classic Kindred (1979). Parable of the Sower, which was published in 1993 and explores a world grappling with climate disaster, economic collapse, and violent social chaos, has regained popularity in recent years for its relevance to today’s challenges of global warming and the pandemics of COVID-19, racial inequity, and social injustice.
Butler’s work received significant critical acclaim. She earned multiple literary awards, including two Nebula Awards and two Hugo Awards—both of which recognize exceptional science fiction and fantasy work. In 1995, Butler was the first science fiction author awarded a prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, cementing her contributions to the literary world.
Today, Butler is considered the “mother of Afrofuturism,” and her vision remains relevant and critical in conversations about racial equity and social justice. Her work continues to inspire new generations of creators to explore the intersections of race, identity, and science fiction. In a 1999 journal entry, Butler reflected on her literary journey, saying, “I never bought into my invisibility or non-existence as a Black person. As a female and as an African American, I wrote myself into the world. I wrote myself into the present, the future, and the past.”
In doing so, Butler built an enduring legacy of resilience, creativity, and unity. Her work continues to inspire millions of people all over the world to dream without limitations and imagine a future that is more just, more equitable, and more inclusive for us all.