When I scrolled through the course catalog trying to find a 300-level literature class to take, Black Apocalyptic Fiction immediately caught my eye. Maybe it was the fiction part of the course title that made me stop short in my search and click on the class. Or maybe it was the science-fiction and dystopian implications, I associate with the apocalypse. Or it could even just be the word Black. As a student of color, I find myself looking for representation and diversity within the classes I take. I prefer to read more relatable material––either in the sense of the authors or the characters. Material that I can truly immerse myself into because there is representation of my culture or cultures I have grown up around. So regardless of what initially caught my attention about Black Apocalyptic Fiction, I found myself immediately signing up for the class. The anticipation to get into the classroom, fueled by discussions, was palpable. I vaguely remember having a conversation with a friend about this class and one of the first things they asked was, “what is Black apocalyptic fiction?” I was taken aback by that question since I never contemplated what it might mean or entail. I just knew it was a class I had to take. Even after looking at the syllabus and acquiring all of the books, I still had a very small idea of what to expect that first day. And after attending the first period, I found that the answer to my friend’s question––that quickly became my own question––wouldn’t be answered in the first period or the second; it wouldn’t even be answered in the weeks to come because to understand the connection between apocalypse and this course, I must first understand the term apocalypse.
Apocalypse: The start and the continuation of…
I can’t possibly tell you where apocalypse comes from; when it was first used; what its origin is, but I can tell you its associations. In Biblical terms, the apocalypse is the destruction of the world. It is the end. But I am not a very Biblical person, so this wasn’t my first encounter with apocalypse/apocalypticism. I have always been rooted in media––television shows, movies, and books. When I think of apocalypse within the media, I naturally turn to zombies or a dystopian world. I think about how zombies are bringing about the end of the world for humans, but at the same time, I think about how a dystopian society is built through the near-apocalyptic circumstances of the world before. But with all of these terms and examples of an apocalypse, I still couldn’t fathom its meaning within the course. Would the books be about the end of a world? Would they point to a character/characters needing to escape from the destruction of everything? I don’t think I got a true grasp on the concept of apocalypse until after reading (and discussing) Andrew Santana Kaplan’s “Notes Toward (Inhabiting) the Black Messianic in Afro-Pessimism’s Apocalyptic Thought.” In this article, Kaplan defines the apocalypse as a revelation of why “the World needs to end [since] it is cast in error.” In other words, with the destruction of the world comes an understanding of how fallacious the world has become. How important it is that this world ends to make room for what one may consider a better world––or an improved way of living. But as we––the class––continued to discuss Kaplan’s ideas of apocalypse, it became clear that even that definition could be tweaked some more––especially when applying it to the course material.
I have come to realize that apocalypse––for the most part in this class––has a fluid definition; an ever-changing definition. One that is more abstract than concrete and can always be improved upon––can always be added to. Apocalypse might be an uncovering of something, but it isn’t just the end of the world because that implies that there is only one world––but who can say, especially when looking at the context of fictional reads, that there is only one world; that everything the characters know is all there is to know. So for all intents and purposes, an apocalypse has become the end of a world. Whether that is on a large scale or a more personal level, whether that be the actual destruction of life, or whether that be just the end of a way of living, I cannot say. That is what I am figuring out now, how the many definitions––the many differences––of apocalypse apply to the course materials we have read and the materials we have yet to even start.
Wild Seed’s Apocalypse?
When I first started Olivia Butler’s Wild Seed, I imagined that the characters would be on the verge of the end. That the world would be in chaos and dismay. That there would be shut down stores, people scavenging for survival, and panic thick in the air. But after reading the first few pages, I could tell that that wasn’t the case. I guess it was just easier to float toward this view of an apocalypse since it was the common depiction of apocalypses in media. Even after finishing Wild Seed, I spent a lot of time, trying to connect it to both Kaplan’s ideology of apocalypse and the multi–definition of apocalypse discussed in the class, and that is when I realized why an apocalypse can be the end of something even if it isn’t the end of the world. There are many small moments that take place in Wild Seed that can either be the build-up to the destruction of something or the actual destruction of something––but I find myself still trying to decipher between the two.
Wild Seed presents me with many different examples of an apocalypse. Doro’s apocalypse––the end of his world––comes rather early in his life, but the reader isn’t made aware of that until towards the end of book two. While going through his transition, Doro accidentally killed his mother and father, along with most of his village. “He killed and killed and killed” until the Egyptians had “attacked the village,” but by that time, Doro had watched his uncontrollable power kill most of the people he had once loved––and even the ones he didn’t love but still considered his kinship. He had watched his world around him erupt in disorder and eventually he had watched it burn. While it wasn’t the end of everything known, it was the end of everything he had once known. It was the end of the way he had lived and the end of his family––his parents that shielded him from the whispers of the village. It was the destruction of his innocence––fueling his need to create settlements for people like him to not only come into their powers but to feel comfortable around their brethren––something he never felt. For Doro, this was an apocalypse because it concluded the life he once lived and began the next life.
Unlike Doro, Anyanwu’s apocalypse spanned the entire book. I would say that when Doro coerces (threatens) Anywanyu into moving away from her home, her family, and the life she has known, it marks the beginning of the end for her. She is quickly taken away from the life she had built and lived in for more than three hundred years and plunged into a completely different environment. She watched as her beliefs and ideologies were twisted to fit the vision Doro had created. All of the “abominations” she had once considered beneath her she found herself bending to; she married Isaac even though she had called Doro her husband, she eventually took the form of both a white man and a white woman, and she even wore the body of a man and conceived children as such. All of these things she told Doro she would never do, she found herself doing the more she lived and the longer she was on the run from him. This is her apocalypse––the end of the way she once lived; the end of the way she once believed. Keeping in true fashion with Kaplan’s revelation during an apocalypse, Anyanwu is spurred into this ending and changes because she knows that she won’t survive in the world with Doro if she doesn’t adapt. She knows that even if she runs for the rest of her immortal life, she’d never truly be able to survive because Doro wouldn’t allow it. So in order to stay alive, she does the only thing she can, she allows the version of her from that village in Africa to die so that she can flourish in this new world.
I believe that Doro goes through another apocalypse at the end of Wild Seed because, for someone who has lived for several lifetimes, one apocalypse wouldn’t be enough. One destruction of your world, while possible, has to be improbable in some way since you’ve seen so many things die around you. In book three, Doro finds his humanity slowly returning in the love and respect that he develops for Anyanwu, so when she tells him that she plans on dying by suicide, he is left distraught. And for Doro, this is the second apocalypse. He had never cared for someone so much that he changes himself, but somehow he does for Anyanwu. As his world shatters around him, he realizes that if he wants to be a part of Anyanwu’s life, he has to change. He realizes that his breeding and killing would only lead to more loneliness––rather than the family he was striving for. He is then faced with either continuing the life he is leading or changing his mindset and his actions. Doro decides to proceed with the idea of destroying the person he once was, and becoming the person that Anyanwu expects him to be––he no longer kills his people, and while he “could ask her cooperation…he could no longer coerce her into giving it.” Doro changed again after the ruination of the world he had dreamt of.
Wild Seed, from my interpretation, is wrought with examples of apocalypticism in different ways. While it doesn’t demonstrate apocalypse in the traditional sense, it does demonstrate the uncovering that Kaplan talks about in his article and it showcases the end of something––the end of worlds for people, even as the world continues to exist. From this, I have learned that the end isn’t interchangeable with death, though it can be synonymous in the terms of an apocalypse. With that being said, I look forward to figuring out how an apocalypse plays a role in the other books. We have started reading American Desert by Percival Everett and in that book, I have already started to notice the implications of apocalypticism, but not in the same manner as it was presented in Wild Seed. Because if there is one thing this class has taught me so far, it is that my definition and interpretation of the term apocalypse are evolving every day. It is changing in every context and with each book we read in the class. So while I can’t answer the initial question of what apocalypse has to do with this class at this very moment, I am able to understand the different indications and presentations within books. I am also beginning to understand how to interpret and connect Kaplan’s ideas with the ideas presented in the materials being read.