Judging by Appearances: Similarities in the Treatment of African Americans and the Clay’s Ark Community

Octavia Butler’s Clay’s Ark describes the plight of a father and his two daughters who are kidnapped by a community infected with a complicated extraterrestrial symbiont. A simple description of Butler’s book may suggest that its nothing more than a science-fiction story. Yet in reality, the novel confronts many pressing social issues present in American society. One of these issues that is significant both historically and in contemporary times is discrimination experienced by people who appear differently than those who possess hegemony in society. Harriet Washington’s book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present illustrates how African Americans have been persecuted based on the color of their skin and whites in power have justified that persecution by fabricating science. While fictitious science was historically sufficient in preserving white dominance, its fallacies are now widely known and thus are no longer considered valid by the vast majority of American society. Instead, the fabricated science of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been replaced in modern times by myths regarding the cultural inferiority of African Americans. There are striking similarities between these myths and the prejudice that the father and one of the daughters in Clay’s Ark, Blake and Rane respectively, exhibit toward members of the infected community. One primary difference between the community and African Americans is that the infection does contain some negative features, whereas African Americans have no undesirable afflictions that are not shared by the rest of humanity. Nonetheless, the bigotries displayed by whites in American society and Blake and Rane in Clay’s Ark are similarly unjustified and based solely on false preconceptions rather than any evidence of actual flaws.  

In Clay’s Ark, the alien organism induces negative symptoms in those who are afflicted, especially during initial contact, such as compulsive concupiscence, aggression, as well as general physical pain and suffering. Yet despite these negative effects, the disease also produces beneficial attributes for those who are infected. These include enhanced senses, increased strength, speed, and coordination, as well as reduced pain during childbirth. Thus, while the infected community is not grateful for their condition, they nevertheless have come to accept and live with it. They accomplish this by simultaneously suppressing the harmful inclinations of the organism and taking advantage of the strengths it endows, all while maintaining as much humanity as they can. The community also ensures that the infection is contained by remaining isolated and bringing in converts only when necessary. For instance, a community member Lupe explains, “Eli says we’re preserving humanity. I agree with him. We are. Our own humanity and everyone else’s because we let people alone. We isolate ourselves as much as we can, and the people outside stay alive and healthy-most of them.” Hence, the community who hosts the disease strives to cope with it to the best of their ability and utilize its strengths instead of dwelling on its weaknesses.

Although the community has come to terms with the disease, the kidnapped father, a physician named Blake, only perceives the illness as an unfavorable affliction. Those who possess the organism are additionally seen by Blake to be dangerous and in need of scientific study under quarantine. He refuses to acknowledge the clear benefits of the disease, as well as the admirable qualities of the community members. Instead Blake develops a prejudice towards them based almost entirely on their misleadingly sickly and weak appearances. For example, Butler states, “…he [Blake] only saw stick people-menacing, utterly terrifying in their difference and their intensity. In the moonlight, they seemed other than human.” Likewise, Rane despises one of the community’s children, Jacob, simply because he does not fully conform to her standards of a normal human child. For instance, in response to Jacob questioning Rane, “Why don’t you like me?” Rane replies, “Because you look different.” Thus, despite the many strengths that the symbiont provides, and the laudable character of the community members given the circumstances, Blake and Rane are intent on discriminating against them due to their physical differences.

There is a strong parallel between the bigotry directed by Blake and Rane towards the community and white prejudice against African Americans that has led to the conjuring of fallacious stereotypes. These myths are not only psychologically harmful to African Americans but have also served as the justification for Eugenics programs such as forced sterilization campaigns in black communities. For instance, Washington indicates, “This [forced sterilization] has been achieved under the auspices of a government fed by the myth of the lazy, hyperfertile welfare mother. Say ‘welfare mother’ and most people think of an unemployed black woman, yet most women on welfare are not black.” Another analogy between the discrimination faced by the infected community in Clay’s Ark and African Americans is that between Rane’s treatment of Jacob and the prevalence of the black “crack baby” myth propagated by American media. Children who are thought to have crack-addicted parents are stigmatized and stereotyped as being African American. For example, Washington quoted the Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer who described “crack babies” as a “race of (sub) human drones, [whose] future is closed to them from day one. Theirs will be a life of certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority…the dead babies may be the lucky ones.” This is despite cogent evidence that refutes the presumed inferiority of children with crack-using parents. For instance, Washington elucidates, “For more than seven years, Chicago’s National Association for Perinatal Addiction Research studied a group of three hundred children born exposed to crack. Researchers found that their IQ scores were the same as children who were not crack-exposed but who lived in similar environments.” Therefore, just as the infected community in Clay’s Ark was subject to persecution from Blake and Rane, African Americans in contemporary times are forced to confront myths that imply their subordination to whites.

In Clay’s Ark, Butler does not explicitly describe racial discrimination, yet as an African American it can be inferred that she is fully aware of historic and contemporary white prejudice toward blacks. Thus, instead of composing a story pertaining to the ill treatment of African Americans, she masterfully creates a narrative in which the protagonist is seemingly not racist due to his marriage to his deceased black wife. Yet this is deceiving, since although Blake may be racially tolerant, he is nevertheless judgmental of the infected community almost exclusively due to their appearances. Hence, while recognizing the historic injustice suffered by African Americans, in Clay’s Ark Butler acknowledges the persecution of other minorities and people based on how they look. Therefore, she argues that no person should endure discrimination due to their appearance, but rather should be valued for their humanity.

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