A Symposium on Exposure, Entanglement, and Endurance

Toxic: A Symposium on Exposure, Entanglement and Endurance at Yale March 3-4, 2016.

Fabled Endurance: Black Women and/in Speculative Fictions

Phoenix Alexander, Yale University

  HeLa cell

HeLa cell

Harriet Washington’s recent and exhaustive book, Medical Apartheid, chronicles the history of medical experimentation on African Americans from the antebellum period to the present. The work is particularly startling in its bringing to light the multiple and shifting scripts assigned to Black women in the service of racial science and political theory – scripts that center on the concept of endurance. From the gynaecological experiments of J. Marion Sims – who conducted painful and invasive procedures on un-anaesthetized enslaved women, believing them to be more inured to pain than whites – to the ‘social science’ studies denigrating the figure of the Black matriarch in the infamous Moyhnihan report, to the extraction of cancerous cells from Henrietta Lacks, Black women’s bodies have been cast and recast as sites of potent, hardy, and exploitable scientific resources.

It is this latter case that resonates eerily in the science fiction of Octavia Butler: a towering figure in African American letters. Her imprisoned protagonist, Lilith, of Wild Seed (1980) – the first in Butler’s Seed to Harvest trilogy – wakes in an alien holding chamber with a mysterious scar on her stomach. She comes to learn that cancerous cells have been removed from her by her captors: self-titled ‘gene-traders,’ the Oankali. Paralleling yet another historical figure (Fannie Lou Hamer, whose unwitting hysterectomy in 1961 galvanized her to become a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement), Lilith’s cells are taken as a ‘gift’: a remarkably mutable – and durable – biological resource that allow the Oankali to somewhat parasitically draw from other life forms to improve and develop their own genetic line.

It is a hallmark of Butler’s writing to blur the lines between complicity and coercion through the various degrees of power and powerlessness with which her protagonists struggle. But it is significant that the genre of science fiction becomes the paradigm for writing new fables of endurance: ones that place Black women at the center of imagined resistance, and expose the speculative fantasy of racial and social sciences that, for decades, have oriented themselves around spurious, white supremacist logic. By fictionalizing an alien ‘immortal cell line’ – a description applied to HeLa cells, the cells taken unwittingly from Henrietta Lacks in 1951 – Butler renders the violences involved in such a process even more visible. The myth of ‘immortality’ is exposed to involve a removal of agency and identity; the truncation of Henrietta’s name, HeLa, to name the cells perpetuates in turn a erasure of the woman at the same time as it insists upon the endurance of her essence, here disembodied to the most abstract level: that of genetic material. Black feminist writers and intellectuals have written, and continue to write, new fables of resistance; in a world in which ‘we were never meant to survive’, endurance is reclaimed through the challenge to reimagine and rebuild – and through the remembrance that, in the words of June Jordan, ‘some of us did not die.’