With a heated political environment defined by talk of walls against immigrants and cries that “Black Lives Matter,” what if there was a way to travel through time to witness events that set today’s sentiments in motion?
More than 2,200 students at Pasadena City College will take this temporal trip this fall when they read Octavia Butler’s Kindred as part of the college’s “One College, One Book” program. Now in its sixth year, the shared book experience is part of PCC’s comprehensive Pathways program that is designed to ease students’ transition from high school to college.
Butler’s novel, published in 1979, traces the story of Dana, a young black woman who is transported between her regular life in California and her ancestors’ existence on a Maryland plantation before the Civil War. As her stays in the past get longer and longer, she finds herself increasingly integrated into life on the plantation, and she is forced to make difficult choices to survive slavery and preserve her own bloodline.
Shelagh Rose, a faculty member in PCC’s languages department who helps coordinate the Pathways program, says the novel touches on themes of political power and engagement that resonate in any era.
“It’s an emotionally taxing book but it also brings in bigger political questions,” Rose says. “Dana teaches the slave children and her ancestors how to read — a rebellious act with powerful consequences on a plantation, and one that uncovers important issues of literacy and power.”
Rose brought together a committee of faculty from multiple disciplines to choose the book. Although less than 10 percent of PCC’s student body is black and nearly half are Latino, Rose says the committee believes that the novel speaks to the student experience. “The book covers so much more than a black-and-white portrayal of slavery,” she says. “Dana truly has to shift her entire worldview to understand a time where slavery was an accepted part of life, and then balance the struggle for survival with the need for change within that framework. The book really demonstrates that we are all living within moments of our own context, and we are trapped in many ways by that.”
Rose also thinks this year’s selection will have special relevance to community college students. Before she was a Hugo- and Nebula-award winning science fiction writer and a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, Butler was born and raised in Pasadena and attended PCC. The discrimination she faced as a black community college student in Southern California during the 1960s is an undercurrent throughout her work.
Students will explore these themes through a series of class projects tied to the novel throughout the academic year, including an academic poster contest that in previous years has packed The Quad with teams of students sharing a wide range of research topics inspired by the book selection. Unlike other common reading courses, PCC’s program is designed to engage students thoroughly with the novel’s content through class assignments with defined learning outcomes. The outdoor poster session is the culmination of a series of modules on information literacy and research methods created in collaboration with the library staff, measuring students’ ability to conduct an intellectually rigorous analysis while also encouraging them to more fully comprehend the novel and its implications.
The selection of Kindred ties into a series of memorials to Butler and her work taking place in local venues this academic year, the 10th anniversary of her death at the age of 58. The arts organization Clockshop is in the midst of a yearlong tribute that includes an exhibition of commissioned artworks exploring Bulter's legacy at the Armory Center for the Arts that will open in the fall. Next spring, the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens will present an exhibit of materials from Butler's archives. PCC’s program will culminate in a public event as well, in a format that is yet to be determined.
With all the attention throughout the community on Pasadena’s most famous sci-fi author, Rose felt the exposure of Kindred to 2,200 PCC students was almost predestined. “The stars really aligned for this book,” she says.
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