Professor Adam Johns
Selfish Advancement at Whose Expense?
Frederick Douglas, an African American slave living in the 19th century, in describing his experience of slavery, writes,“ whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom.” Lilith, an American post-war survivor living on a foreign species’ ship, is spoken about as such, “She would go on being a prisoner, forced to stay wherever they chose to leave her. She would not be permitted even the illusion of freedom (Butler, 56).” How different were Douglas and Lilith’s experiences from each other? Both were kept captive for years, controlled and corrected into acting and carrying themselves a certain way. When Jdahya approaches Lilith after forcing her asleep for two hundred and fifty years, he claims that his people have all the answers to why humans destroyed themselves and how they can rebuild, but what are their motives? The Oankali preach equality for all, but they refuse to practice such an ideal. Lilith is used as a historical library of human qualities and is scolded like a mother would reprimand her child or a slave owner would discipline his captives, when she doesn’t abide.
“We’re not hierarchical, you see. We never were. But we are powerfully acquisitive. We acquire new life- seek it, investigate it, manipulate it, sort it, use it. We carry the drive to do this in a miniscule cell (Butler, 41),” stresses Jdahya. The Oankali people have a deep desire to constantly and consistently renew themselves, enabling them to evolve and survive as a species, choosing to change rather than to fall into, “extinction or stagnation (Butler, 40),” but at whose expense? The Oankali people say they are interested in a trade, a symbiotic swap that will be co-beneficial for humans as well as their own native species. “We trade the essence of ourselves. Our genetic material for yours (Butler, 40).” Jdahya spends countless hours in isolation reassuring Lilith that everything the Oankali take from humans is completely harmless and only beneficial to both sides, but such a phenomena is hard to understand and perceive as the truth after observing how the Oankali people so carefully and cautiously conduct themselves around humans while barking orders and making clear a feeling of mutual distrust.
With the complete destruction of human civilization as it existed after the war, the Oankali people decided this would be a perfect opportunity to revamp human society, altering their motives and conceptions allowing them to make a more efficient use of their abilities and magnificent Earth. The Oankali species blame humankind’s downfall on, “two incompatible characteristics.” Jdahya says, “You are intelligent… You are hierarchical. When human intelligence served [hierarchy] instead of guiding it, when human intelligence did not even acknowledge it as a problem, but took pride in it or did not notice it at all… (Butler, 39),” that’s when it became obvious that the two worked against each other rather than with each other. But part of the Oankali resumé is slightly hypocritical. It is clear that equality and a social plane do not exist across species lines, but the equality and equal standing doesn’t seem to exist within the Oankali species either. When Lilith is first introduced to other Oankali after being calmed by Jdahya, one of the first things she notices about the species dynamic is that, “…in spite of Jdahya’s claim that the Oankali were not hierarchical, the ooloi seemed to be the head of the house. Everyone deferred to it (Butler, 48).” Just like in human society, the all-healers, the doctors, seem to be treated as the superiors when compared to the rest of the species. While humans in a capitalistic society, such as America, create a social pyramid based on monetary wealth, the Oankali, being that they do not carry around dollar bills and buy their needs and wants, seem to measure wealth and therefore create their social pyramid based on level of intelligence.
Throughout “Dawn,” Lilith is watched at all times and scolded for any form of wandering she does without an Oankali beside her. When Lilith takes it upon herself to walk around the ship trying to become more familiar with her surroundings, she is told, “You must stay with me (Butler, 63),” by Nikanj in a condescending tone, insinuating an inferior status labeled to the human race. Whenever Lilith felt it necessary to ask a question she would automatically know if it was expectable based on the Oankali response or rather the lack there of. The Oankali do not seem to lie, but they often withhold the truth, dictating what the lesser human race can and cannot know about the Oankali greater motives and reasoning. It is clear through quick and uniform Oankali responses to human behavior and questions, that a formula for how to deal with man was carefully created and perfected for usage in any foreign interactions. When Lilith asks for a pen and paper to write what she has learned from the Oankali child, for ideal human learning, she is suddenly and aggressively denied those minute rights. “No, Nikanj asserts, I cannot give you such things. Not to write or to read… It is not allowed. The people have decided that it should not be allowed (Butler, 62).”
The Oanklai people pride themselves on hosting a social body where all people are equal, but they seem to be unable to grant that status to Lilith and the rest of the foreign species. Possibly the Oankali believe the human species is unable to thrive, develop and succeed in an environment where they are given freedom. Do they believe this treatment of humans is for their benefit, or are they strictly doing it to learn from the humans without letting them too far into the Oankali lifestyle and reasons for so many successful adaptations? While slavery was recognized as an evil through the Americas during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s most white American’s referred to it as a necessary evil. John Calhoun, an American politician and theorist of the early 1900’s said, “ The institution of slavery benefits both salves and slaveholders by providing a stable social and economic system. In all societies an upper class benefits from the labor of the lower (Calhoun).” In attempt to override the claims of unfair treatment toward African salves in America, Calhoun went on to say, “Never before has the Black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually (Calhoun, 24).” The mere existence of war as a concept, where humans kill and destroy life to somehow enhance other life, is a clear absurdity and nonsense idea that only a highly flawed species could ever believe is proper, sufficient and just. The Oankali have been watching and monitoring the human race for many years and after such a chaotic and nonsense time on Earth, there is not way they would be able to trust them as an equal.
Butler, Octavia E. Lilith's Brood. New York: Aspect/Warner, 2000. Print.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1960. Print.
Torr, James D. Slavery. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2004.