"Why are you reading all them books? White man ain't gonna let you do anything in them books."
I heard these words from an older cousin who expressed his opinion that I wasn't normal.
I read constantly, anything I could get my hands on: comics, spy stories, boys' adventures. I even "borrowed" from my mother's bookshelf in the dead of night. And I read lots of science-fiction and fantasy. But at some point I noticed that none of the fantastic events in the stories I loved ever seemed to happen to black people. Nothing cool ever seemed to happen to us.
But, almost shamefully, I would imagine that some of the characters were black; anything just to go along on a grand adventure from which I felt excluded: At that time, the only books by African Americans I'd read were about "the struggle" -- heavy, important books that illuminated for a young black mind how dire life must be.
But I wanted to explore haunted houses, visit distant worlds. I wanted to battle evil like millions of other American boys. Soon I was forced to accept the sad reality: Black characters belonged in stories about racism and oppression. My cousin was right. I was suitably depressed.
Then one day I was strolling through my local library and stumbled across the 'Xenogenesis' trilogy, by an author named Octavia Butler. 'Dawn,' 'Adulthood Rites' and 'Imago' were later compiled into a single volume titled 'Lilith's Brood,' but at that time, which was the late '80s, I eagerly awaited each installment, craving the adventures of Butler's protagonist, Lilith Iyapo.
Lilith encounters a supremely adaptable alien race, The Oankali. They possess the ability to change their bodies to suit the planets they visit, through interbreeding with the local dominant life forms.
These books were so fascinating that my previous misconceptions were swept away. Butler's imagination was as vast as the realms her black female protagonists explored. In other novels, like 'Fledgling' and 'Kindred,' she wrote, without apology, about black women confronted by unimaginable challenges, armed with a tough-minded intelligence -- sometimes augmented by superhuman abilities, like immortality.
As I rode along on Butler's terrifying adventures, I suddenly understood that the limitations I'd accepted about myself had become self-fulfilling. Butler's vision showed me how to embrace the vastness within everyone, even myself. Notions of race, religion and gender limitations lost their power over me.
Butler opened doors I'd been taught to believe permanently locked: My inner Civil Rights Movement found a brilliant voice in the imaginings of a lonely, bookish girl from Pasadena. Her stories opened up galaxies of imagination. She taught me that the loftiest reaches of the human story are colorless... free. I've been writing the kinds of stories I want to write since then; peopling my stories with characters who do and don't look like me: empowered, inspired -- the way millions of readers have been inspired to dream. Without limit.
We all have Octavia Butler to thank for that.
Michael Boatman is an actor and author currently seen on The Good Wife and Gossip Girl.He is the author of two novels, The Revenant Road and The Red Wake, numerous short stories and the story collection God Laughs When You Die. You can read his blog on Red Room
Black Voices celebrates Women's History Month with a list of the 40 most influential African American female authors. See who they are below.