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Happy Birthday, Octavia Butler

Updated: Sep 19, 2022

Photo Cred: Dorothy Attakora-Gyan

This video and audio were recorded on June 22, 2022, which it turns out, is Octavia Butler’s birthday! And the day I successfully defended my Ph.D. I'm now Dr. Dorothy Nana Adwoa Boatemaa Attakora-Gyan. (You don’t have to put respect on the name. I hardly do so for others, so reciprocity isn’t an expectation here 🙃). Let’s get into the blog post. Trigger warning for incoherent lines of flight, streams of consciousness, and tangents about not-so-fictional sci-fi futures!


So, I think I just found a way to make more sense of shame, specifically, the energetic object of shame in connection to spirituality. So, in my defense today, I argued that for my future research project called Octavia Butler and the Future of Emotions, I look at trauma, power, shame, and fear. Today, I was trying to get them to understand that we have to shift how we look at shame. Because that’s what I did, and I’ve been finding that to be very something, I don’t know what the word is.

But before, when I was in shame, in how we traditionally understand shame, as an emotion, as a thing, a psychological state. Brené Brown’s work looks at shame as a deep sense of unworthiness. Dr. Melisa Harris-Perry talks about it as well too, this idea that shame is physically painful because of the meanings we associate it with. How we construct shame and the meanings we give to it matter. Again, Brené Brown’s work talks about shame meanings and the meanings we give to our shame switches shame from discourse: meaning, how we understand it, how we embody it, phenomenologically, epistemology, how we understand it, how we know, how we think about it-shame moves from that location into a physical thing that comes onto our bodies.

Sara Ahmed talks about it as an object. So, I think of it as a chemical substance. This then switches the meaning to shame to an energy. This is like physics. I personally don’t know physics, but we need physics to talk about shame in that way because physics is what is happening (I’d add, mathematics as well). If shame is an emotion in motion, motion is physics.

There is a science behind this. I was talking about this today with my aunt who is a trained nurse practitioner in medicine. We were talking about shame as something that needs to be equally distributed. We can easily understand that some people have more money, while other people have less money. And those with more money can do a lot more. We understand that. But this also applies to emotional and affective build-up.

Feminists have been talking about the glass ceiling, which I wrote about in a previous blog. The glass ceiling becomes an obstruction to upward mobility. In this way, shame becomes science. It's science. It’s entropy. It’s stagnation. It’s death. It’s decay. These are the words I used in my presentation today. Those are some of the different ways we can think about shame.

I like the second part better, which is the interdisciplinary conversation.

Because now you have a lot of things going on at once. So many different things are making sense in different ways. You have the physicists who can have a conversation about shame. The economists, those in business, those in finances, you need to be talking about shame. Tech is talking about shame. I’ve been reading Shame Machine by Cathy O’Neil, and she’s talking about how Facebook, Twitter, and social media platforms, specifically, she talks about Facebook mostly, about how the algorithms are coded with shame. We’re coding shame into the algorithms. LLana James talks about this too in a conversation with Cathy O’Neil.

Tech is using shame. You see it on social media right now. Everybody is shaming everybody; shaming people is the coolest thing right now. I know because people shame me all the time. It’s like we love it, we get pleasure out of it. Cathy O’Neil talks about the neurology behind this and connects it with signals in our brain that light up. Shaming people according to Cathy feels as good as sex or taking a line of cocaine.

This looks at another idea I looked at today which is the idea of whether or not it is productive for Black feminists to counter, I guess weaponize is what the argument was, that we’re weaponizing Black feminism to turn shame on white feminists to shame them. I said, “yeah, I don’t have no qualms about that.” I say that shaming isn’t productive and that we shouldn't be shaming each other. I can’t be like, “well Facebook is using shame in the algorithms, bad, while meanwhile, I’m like, yeah, shame them.” It’s a contradiction, which is what I’m trying to say-we’re all contrarians.

People can see how I’m contradictory, but you can’t see it in yourself?

Becoming rhizome-tree is essential the liberal. It’s the progressive. It’s the Christian. It’s all of us who think we’re so good. We think we’re such good human beings. We’re so moral. We’re just so caring. Meanwhile, no one wants to talk about the tree branch. You don’t want to talk about how you’re more like a tree trunk? You can’t see how linear you are? You create hierarchy, you think you’re better than somebody else, you think you’re above them. That’s not linear, so how can you be a rhizome?

How can you say that Black lives matter, that Black women’s lives matter, but you don’t show up for them? This came up in a webinar yesterday hosted by the Learning Network & Knowledge Hub called, Unravelling the Complexities of Domestic Violence and Criminalization in Black women’s Lives. The presenter, Dr. Patrina Duhaney, was saying that Black women are often seen as how we are stereotyped. Melisa Harris-Perry and others talk about this too. Basically, they say that how Black women are stereotyped as shameful or strong or angry-all of these stereotypes are connected with affect. I’m using emotions now, specifically, how we use emotions to stereotype certain communities, such as Black women like myself.

What are the stereotypes you guys say about me?

Angry, argumentative, strong. I’m not a transformer. This is how shame as a machine turns us into superheroes or subhumans. All based on your assumptions of me. Meaning that the stereotypes we have about people have material consequences. So how you see me, and your assumptions about me, might mean I’m not getting a job. Nobody’s going to hire me because they believe those stereotypes. Their reputations are ruined, I talked about this in my defence using Monica Lewinsky.

In shame, your reputation is going to be ruined. Your livelihood might be at risk. These are some of the things I think a lot of white feminists fear about shame. Which is why we can’t just do tit-for-tat. But the issue is that a lot of white feminists will jump in and shame me, now I’m supposed to turn around and consider your feelings? No, shame on you. Because you don’t feel any way about shaming people like me. Even though it means we’re not getting hired, people think we’re insane, cops kill us, and other people in the community as well, usually Black men.

That’s the interdisciplinary conversation around shame-it gets really messy. And how I came to make sense of it was to look at shame as an energy, as an object. I don’t know if it’s a physical object, like an invisible object. I don’t know if it's like air-where there’s H2o, where there are chemical compounds and you know that hydrogen and oxygen are there. But I see it now in that way.

So it becomes neutral.

If you look at shame as just an energy, it becomes neutral. Energy is just energy. It’s not positive or negative (although, yes, ions are positive or negative). What I’m trying to say is that we make that meaning. It’s not masculine or feminine, it just is. It just becomes. You can’t put a label on that, because as soon as we do, we colonize it in a sense. It changes the meaning. You give it meaning.

So, shame is now just an energy, which can be very productive. When I see it as an object, like Sara Ahmed says, I can completely change how I look at shame. It’s not in me or on me. Sara Ahmed says that it’s not a pathology. Instead, I sense it now.

I was at the Somatic Trauma Healing Conference over the past weekend and attended a session called Emotional Regulation in the Playroom presented by Dr. Lisa Dion. She spoke about how when there is “an incongruence in the environment” we know that something is off. The example she used was, you are walking into a room, and two minutes later, you know that those in the room were talking about you. She asked us, how do you know that somebody in the room was talking about you when you weren’t in the room? This is the future. That conversation that this white woman understands and is already having, that we’ve been talking about, but you guys didn’t see it. When you hear it from her as a white woman, it’s like, “oh, incongruence in the environment, huh?” Yeah, it’s called your intuition. That is the subtle change I sense and feel all the time as a highly sensitive person. That’s how I can read bullshit. That is my superpower.

So once you start to look at shame as that thing in the room, I look at shame as that thing that’s snitching on the room. It’s the energy in the room, and now when I come into the room, I can access that shame, I can go in and decode it, and say, “shame, you were in the room, tell me what they were talking about.” That’s also the ancestors, that’s also my grandmother. That might be God for you. That might be your intuition or your higher self. I don’t know and I don’t care how you name it. But framing shame in that way, as a thing that can now lead me into intuition, as an object I can now go into as something that is embodied-I can now look at shame as an energetic object I can now work with.

Watch me turn all of this shame into power. Watch us turn this shame into pride, and see what happens then. Wait until I know how to energetically turn that shame back onto you, and now you’re feeling your own shame.

Visit the link to the video or listen to the audio for more. I’m tired of transcribing now. I can’t capture the nuances and cadences of my speech.

Happy birthday Octavia Butler.

Working with Octavia Butler feels really good to me, especially on conversations around emotions and shame. Because how we’re going to engage with emotions in the future is very sci-fi, is very Trekkie. It is very woo-woo.

But for those of us already in the future who know what’s to come, it’s going to be some very difficult conversations. I’m thinking especially about the mental health industry. Because they are going to have to radically reframe a lot of things. What you think to be pathology and disorder is actually the future.

Think of shame as that entry point into the Akashic files. There’s so much rich data there. Shame has so much information. Not just about ourselves, but other people. It’s consciousness-raising. It makes you see yourself differently, which is hard. A lot of us don’t want to see ourselves as shameful. We would rather think we’re like the rhizome than the tree. But when you’re able to make peace with the fact that you are more rhizome-tree than rhizome alone, things shift. We need to be able to say, I am more aloe and rough around the edges and hurting people with my spikes. Or better yet, become more like okro/okra. Visit my previous blogs on becoming-okro.

Until next time, in solidarity.

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