How do you view others? Are you conscious of how you judge the actions of someone you don’t know, especially someone who looks different from you? I think we would all like to think we view everyone the same, that we don’t discriminate, that we don’t judge others, that we are willing to accept differences. Before the semester began, I felt secure in my belief that others’ outward appearances couldn’t outweigh the significance of their actions. But, when I tried to sympathize with the Oankali in Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, I arrived at the realization that appearances did matter. They mattered a lot. They mattered so much that I was unable to acknowledge any potential acts of care on their part. I have learned to come to terms with myself and alter this perspective. Earlier in the semester, I centered my Goal-Setting Essay on using a growth mindset this semester to be open to change. In that essay, I wrote, “As the semester continues, I want to emphasize the importance of really getting to know people, beyond just what they look like.” I set this goal at the start of the semester, not knowing where the final destination would lead me. Now having reached the end, the destination I didn’t know I was working towards revealed itself within the text. This semester was one of growth and change. The lens I use to understand others changed through reading Lilith’s Brood, as I realized the importance of focusing on others’ actions and intentions, instead of focusing on outward appearances.
One way I learned to change the way I viewed others was analyzing the ways characters were brought together throughout the trilogy. Gabe and Akin were brought together, despite their best efforts not to be. In Dawn, the group of humans didn’t take the time to understand each other or the Oankali. This resulted in many of them dying, or leaving the Oankali to become resistors on Earth. Many of these resistors were not at peace and turned to kidnapping as a source of hope for the future. Gabe is an example of a character who learned how to bind with others eventually, even though he resisted for the longest time. Gabe was extremely distrusting of the Oankali and Lilith for the entirety of Dawn. In Adulthood Rites, he continues to be wary of the Oankali. He doesn’t trust Akin. When first meeting Akin as an infant, Gabe says, “What I want to know, is just how unHuman he is” (Butler 350). Instead of trying to find common ground, Gabe focuses on how Akin is different, just as he always has done with others. Gabe is forced to spend a lot of time with Akin. He is forced to understand that Akin does not have bad intentions. He is forced to learn that they have a lot more in common that he would like to think. By the end of their time together, the two are so close that Gabe chooses to perform Shakespeare for him. Gabe has learned how to bind together with an Oankali. He even saves Akin’s life. When Gilbert Senn pulls a gun on Akin, Gabe stops him by saying, “If he dies, we all die” (513). Gabe’s words stopped the killing of Akin. Gabe learned to lower his guard, and actually get to know Akin for who he was, instead of focusing on their differences. The arc of this relationship taught me that others deserve the benefit of the doubt. If you resist attempts to understand others based on rumors or stereotypes, without making an honest effort to get to know them, you are harming yourself and others by refusing an opportunity for connection and understanding.
Butler shows us again and again how characters need to be brought together in order to survive, especially those who have different beliefs. Gabe became binded to Akin due to circumstances out of his control- he would not have chosen to. It’s worth considering other circumstances of how people are brought together. In this post-apocalyptic world, there are many different groups of people that feel differently about what the future should look like (sounds familiar-right?). The only way forward, towards finding peace within all groups and finding a solution, is for people to be willing to understand how the other groups are living, make an attempt to understand and reconcile.
Tino showed me that people can be brought together when one is brave enough to follow their inner voice. Tino leaves behind everything he knows in an effort to get to know those he has been taught to hate. Even though he risks being outcast from his family, Tino feels he needs to understand how the Oankali are living. He feels like he’s missing something. Instead of going about his life, dissatisfied, Tino actively chooses to get to know the Oankali, even though he’s fearful. Tino was nervous to meet Lilith and Akin in the forest for the very first time. He doubts whether Lilith is human and has hesitations toward baby Akin, saying, “I just don’t know what to make of you” (Butler 270). Tino is nervous, but he doesn’t shut them out completely; he’s willing to give them a chance and follows them to their village. Tino is welcomed by the Oankali and is asked to tell his story. The Oankali are desperate to learn more about him and Humans, in general. Akin is slightly nervous about Tino, wondering, “Will he try to steal someone?” (Butler 275) but Dichaan reassures Akin. This initial interaction is key to consider because despite the hesitation on both Akin’s and the Oankali’s side, both parties have a mutual interest in getting to know the other. They both know the possible risks of being together, but they are willing to put differences aside, and put their desire to get to know each other first. This is incredibly important to understand- the circumstances will likely never provide a situation to get to know someone without any risks or potential for failure. That’s just not plausible, especially if the other person is part of a group you were raised to distrust. But this is when getting to know one another is even more important.
Throughout Adulthood Rites and extending into Imago, Tino finds a home with the Oankali. This transition isn’t easy, by any means, and there’s some hiccups along the way. Tino has a hard time getting comfortable with Nikanj and trusting it to touch his body, “Tino drew back a little in revulsion. God, the Oankali were ugly creatures. How had Human beings come to tolerate them, so easily” (Butler 292). Tino changes his mind, little by little, by trusting Lilith and allowing Nikanj to touch him. Eventually, Tino finds his place in the village tribe. At the very end of Imago, when the Oankali arrive in a shuttle to help, Jodahs recalls, “The first person I spotted in the small crowd was Tino” (Butler 737). I thought this moment was immensely significant. Tino has learned and been brought together with the Oankali fully, to the point where he is willing to risk his life to help Jodahs. Tino finds his new family among the beings he was originally repulsed by, because he was willing to open his mind and let down his guard. Tino is an example of how even though there may be hesitation to break down your walls and make an effort to get to know someone, it will be worth it. Moving forwards in my life, I will be sure to keep Tino’s arc in mind when I am faced with the opportunity to get to know someone I have heard bad things about. Tino’s journey of learning to understand the Oankali and live happily with them impacted the way I view others, especially those I have preconceived notions about. If Tino can learn to follow his intuition, even if it means going against everything he had ever been taught, then why can’t I?
Part of the process of changing the lens I use to view others involved coming to terms with the overlap between harm and care. At the beginning of the semester, when we reviewed the etymologies of these two words, I found it hard to believe that the roots were nearly identical when I thought they were polar opposites. It was hard for me to realize that despite our best intentions, there is a potential for actions to cause harm in the end due to circumstances out of our control. Conversely, actions viewed as harmful immediately, sometimes may end up transforming into acts of care. I learned that the relationship between harm and care is never as clear-cut as we would like it to be- for better or for worse.
One example of harm and care blurring is when Nikanj impregnates Lilith without her consent. When I first read this at the end of Dawn, I was outraged. I was still hoping for Lilith to return to Earth and start a new life with other humans, away from the Oankali. I was furious that Nikanj would take it upon itself to make a decision that was not its to make. I do still believe that this was partly harmful because Lilith did not explicitly agree to being pregnant, as Lilith immediately says in response, “I’m not ready! I’ll never be ready!” (Butler 246). But I can also see how Nikanj was trying to act with care, as it tells Lilith, “You’re ready now to have Joseph’s child… I mixed a girl to be a companion for you. You’ve been very lonely” (Butler 246). Nikanj was trying to help Lilith in her loneliness and it wanted to give her a reminder of Joseph. Even though it took time, Lilith finds peace and contentment with having construct children, despite once saying she would never be ready. Nikanj gave her a push that she was later grateful for, as she tells Jesusa in Imago, “[Nikanj]made me pregnant. I didn’t think I would ever forgive it for that…I’ve accepted it…There’s closeness here that I didn’t have with the family I was born into or with my husband and son” (Butler 671). This example demonstrates how an act once seen as causing harm, Nikanj acting without Lilith’s consent, changed over time to be seen as an act of care, as Lilith was given family and connection.
Another integral theme to consider when attempting to understand the relationship between harm and care is the influence of disinformation. This concept is more important than ever to understand in our world today. It is extremely fitting that Lilith’s Brood contained these urgent themes of harm/care and the role of disinformation in 2020, the year of COVID and political turbulence. I was able to better understand how harmful disinformation is in our world, by being able to understand how disinformation caused such negative effects in Butler’s world.
We saw disinformation thrive past the point of no return towards the end of Dawn. The humans were unable to trust anyone and bind together, resulting in extreme harm for all. The other humans did not believe that they were not on Earth, or even that Lilith was human. Despite Lilith’s best efforts to convey she was on the human’s side, that she was put in a position she didn’t want to be in, Joseph told her, “Some people aren’t laughing…That new man…didn’t think you were human at all” (Butler 147). Lilith tried to tell the truth, but those who did not like her position of power spread rumors about her to cause problems. This tactic worked without fail. By the end of the book, the group of humans had broken into factions, each as scared of the other as they were of the Oankali.
The humans were unable to bind together because disinformation was swirling; any potential acts of care would have fallen flat due to the lack of trust. There was so much disinformation about where the Humans were being kept, that it drove the characters to commit the most extreme act of harm. Kurt killed Joseph because the emotional climate caused him to act in unimaginable ways, as Nikanj explained, “I don’t believe he meant to kill anyone. He was angry and afraid and in pain” (Butler 224). Kurt’s confusion does not excuse his murder, but, it does shed light on why he may have done it. When you are in an environment where you have no idea what’s true and what’s not, when you don’t even have a single person you can trust, everyone becomes an enemy. This is why Kurt felt compelled to kill Joseph. This is why polarization and “fake news” has threatened our democracy and our nation this past year. Disinformation prevents any motivation for care and opens the door for harm wide open. In every action, in every person, there are elements of harm and care. There is no instance of one and not the other. Once one comes to terms with this, it becomes possible to have an open-minded perspective and understand one another.
As I learned how to focus on others’ actions and intentions, instead of their outward appearances, I realized my thoughts, my perspective, who I was as a person was changing along with it. Looking back, I know that I was not open to change or to be changed when the semester began. I didn’t take the time to see anything from the Oankali’s perspective. Even though I knew the Oankali saved humankind from going extinct, I still clung to thinking it was the Oankali’s fault. Why? Because it was easier. Easier than admitting humans were at fault. If I admitted this, I would have had to admit I was part of the problem.
I didn’t understand what it meant for the Oankali to “trade.” I thought they were choosing to force the humans to stop reproducing naturally, even though this quote (that we discussed in class many times) makes the necessity of this trade very obvious: “We are as committed to the trade as your body is to breathing” (42). Even though we discussed that the Oankali don’t actively choose to trade with other species, just as humans don’t choose to breathe, I didn’t like them. They made me uncomfortable. I was focusing on their outward appearance, instead of trying to understand them on a deeper level. This happened slowly, but I began to understand and like the Oankali by the conclusion, without me even being actively aware of it.
I know that I reached a greater awareness and ability to understand, I know that I changed, because by the end of the novel, I was rooting for the Oankali. I was rooting for Aaor to be restored to his healthiest form and find mates. I was rooting for Jodahs to mate successfully with Jesusa and Tomás. I was rooting for the resistor colony to sympathize with the Oankali and join them, instead of turning away from them. If I read Imago with the perspective I had when I read Dawn for the first time, I can say with certainty I would not have been rooting for the Oankali. Reflecting on this transformation of thought, I realized I shifted my perspective because I focused on the Oankali’s actions and intentions, instead of their outward appearances.
The supporting materials used to augment our reading of Lilith’s Brood forced me to come face-to-face with my willingness to change. I was asked to engage deeply with materials that would challenge what I had been spoon-fed my entire life. Growing up in a small-town suburb with a predominantly White population, I never had to think about racial issues very much. In fact, I don’t ever remember having a conversation about racism in school. Reading From Here to Equality forced me to come to terms with concepts that I have had the privilege to be unaware of for my entire life: that white privilege is extremely prevalent, that racism continues to affect society in extremely harmful and pervasive ways, and- the hardest thing to come to terms with- I am part of the problem. Darity and Mullen break down the issues of racism and discrimination that are unavoidable for Black Americans, in a way that I had never encountered before. Normally, history books prefer to gloss over racism, to create the facade that discrimination ended when slavery was abolished. From Here to Equality had such a profound impact on me because it clearly illustrated how the evils of the past have still not been corrected; that Black Americans continue to face obstacles in society because those in power have not stepped up to make the system equitable for everyone. As the authors plainly explain, “The story of America could have been one of inclusive democracy. But it was not. At key junctures, when America could have separated slavery from blackness…it hardened those distinctions and intensified the institution” (Darity and Mullen 92). It might be easier for White people to believe that racism is not real and that societal conditions are the same for everyone, but this is just a blatant lie.
But even after coming to terms with the reality of racism, there was a part of me that was reluctant to see myself as part of the problem. I have always thought of myself as someone who treats everyone with kindness. But, as noted in Jerry Kang’s “Immaculate Perception” TedTalk, Timothy Wilson remarks, “We are strangers to ourselves” (8:15). I did not actually know myself or where I stood with these issues. I had thought that because I was not a racist person, there was no way I could be seen as accountable for the racial issues in society. I didn’t think I held any biases towards people of other races, and I was comfortable with that train of thought. If I believed that, then I wouldn’t have to reexamine everything I have learned. But, after watching Kang explain that we hold biases we are not even consciously aware of, his statement,“We are the problem” (13:10) resonated strongly with me. It continues to resonate with me. I had to be willing to acknowledge that my brain works in ways I am not conscious of. That my brain might jump to assumptions that I don’t decide to make. I had to really look at myself, realize that I don’t know myself, that I am part of the problem, and come to terms with this. This wasn’t easy. This Aha! moment didn’t simply happen in an instant, it spanned the entire semester. As each piece fell into place, this realization became, slowly but surely, more clear. I have learned to be okay with not knowing exactly who I am. I have learned that I have to be ever-vigilant of myself and my actions, ready to correct my implicit biases. I used to think I wasn’t biased toward others. Then, after reflecting back on my reading of Dawn, I knew that I was fully capable of disliking others simply based on their appearance. Reflecting on my growth this semester of learning to love the Oankali, I know it is possible to change the way I think about others. But, it takes time. It takes effort: honest, real, raw, authentic effort. I have to be willing to let my walls down and truly see others for who they are, not who I think they are at a first glance.
Moving forwards, I want to carry this understanding with me. Am I willing to really notice others? I want to really, truly get to know people without needing to put them in a box based on their appearances. I am part of the problem, but I have the power to be part of the solution. Butler’s world has taught me that it is possible to love those who were once our enemy, that true understanding can be reached if we are willing to admit our own faults and biases. I feel I have grown immensely this semester in how I view others. But, simply acknowledging this growth is not enough. I am embarking on a journey of independent life, free from the walls of this semester, but I need to carry this journey with me, into every aspect of who I am. I have learned. It is now time to run.
Butler, Octavia E. Lilith’s Brood: Dawn — Adulthood Rites — Imago. Aspect/Warner Books, 2000.
Darity, William A., and A. Kirsten Mullen. From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century. The University of North Carolina Press, 2020.
Kang, Jerry. “Immaculate Perception.” YouTube, 28 Jan. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VGbwNI6Ssk.