In Memoriam

Octavia Butler (1947-2006)

Octavia Butler, the award-winning science fiction author, died in late February after a fall and an apparent stroke outside her home in Seattle, Washington. She was 58 years old.

Butler was born in Pasadena, California, the daughter of a shoeshine man and household maid. She grew up on her grandmother’s chicken farm which had no electricity or running water. Unusually tall for a young girl, Butler had trouble fitting in and establishing friendships. As a result, she immersed herself in a world of books and writing. By age 10 she was writing original stories, ignoring her aunt’s advice that, “Honey, Negroes can’t be writers.”

At the age of 18 Butler was accepted into a screenwriting program headed by science fiction legend Harlan Ellison. She wrote short stories and worked as a telemarketer to pay her bills. In the 1970s, science fiction publishers did not see a market for their books in the African-American community. As a result, the cover artwork on Butler’s early science fiction novels showed white people or aliens from outer space rather than the black characters who were the main protagonists of her novels.

Then, in 1979, she published the novel Kindred, the story of a twentieth century African-American woman who traveled back in time to meet her great-great-grandfather who was a white slave owner. Butler became a sensation in the science fiction genre. She won a MacArthur Foundation genius award, which enabled her to write without having to worry about her finances. By 1995 she had published 10 novels and won the prestigious Nebula and Hugo awards, the most esteemed prizes in science fiction.

Butler suffered from congestive heart disease requiring extensive medication. Therefore, she was unable to keep up with a rigorous writing schedule. Her final novel, and first in seven years, was published this past November. Fledgling told the tale of a 50-year-old vampire who appeared to be a 10-year-old black girl.

Mabel M. Smythe-Haith (1918-2006)

Mabel M. Smythe-Haith, former college professor, assistant secretary of state for African affairs and U.S. ambassador to Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, died in February at her home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She was 87 years old and suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

A native of Montgomery, Alabama, Smythe-Haith attended Spelman College. She left school to marry and completed her bachelor’s degree at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She later received a master’s degree in economics from Northwestern and a Ph.D. in economics and law from the University of Wisconsin. Early in her career she taught at Lincoln University in Missouri, Tennessee State University, and Brooklyn College. In the 1950s she taught at Shiga University in Japan.

President Jimmy Carter named her an ambassador in 1977 and assistant secretary of state in 1980. She later served as scholar-in-residence for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and served on the board of the Phelps Stokes Fund, the Washington-based nonprofit association seeking to enhance educational opportunities for blacks and other minorities.

Copyright © 2006. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. All rights reserved.