Have you ever wondered what it would be like to travel back in time during the years of slavery? Would you chance a visit to the antebellum South if it meant you could not only meet your ancestors but possibly make a difference in their lives (and ensure your existence)? Did Kanye’s “slavery was a choice” comments grind your gears? If so, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred is a book that you wont want to miss!
This book hooked and captivated me from the very beginning! Published in 1979, Kindred is a #1 best seller and timeless classic that reads as if it were just written. Butler uses vivid imagery to painstakingly depict the harsh realities of slavery – all through the eyes of an unsuspecting outsider.
Dana is a twenty six year old African-American woman from Los Angeles who, after moving into a new home with her white husband, is abruptly transported to 1815 Virginia where she ends up rescuing a young white boy from drowning. Butler describes this event as Dana being “called” by the boy, named Rufus Weylin, to save him from impeding danger, but whether this time travel occurs by nature or by will is at first uncertain. Dana spends a frightening amount of time being randomly called to Rufus – whom she quickly learns is one of her ancestors – during his most troubling moments and trying to navigate how to be his saving grace while also maintaining her dignity as a black woman.
How does one reconcile being the descendant of both slaves and slaveholders? Butler explores many themes that wrestle with questions such as this. I’ve touched on some of these themes below.
Legacies of Slavery
We experience a facet of the stories of slaves living on the plantation through the eyes of Dana, who is herself experiencing them on a periphery as she navigates being in a foreign place. Although Butler describes the daily interactions of the slaves and slave masters vividly, it’s clear that we will not fully understand the intricacies of what has occurred in their lives. It’s a sort of voyeurism. Although Dana faces real dangers there is always a lingering semblance of hope that she will return to her home – her time – something that the slaves do not share with her. This is evident in their interactions with her.
However, Kindred begins with Dana sharing that she lost her left arm during her last journey home. Butler’s decision to open the story with this grim detail serves as a reminder that slavery is not a relic of the past. It’s not something that could be easily forgotten or that which someone could escape from unscathed. Not only is Dana physically affected by the loss of her limb but the trauma she experienced will forever be in her memory in spite of her freedom. This speaks to the inherited generational trauma that African Americans – and other descendants of slaves in the African diaspora – experience and that deeply affect almost every facet of our lives, from our interactions with each other and authority figures to the state of our DNA!
One of the things that stood out to me the most about the race relations in this story – aside from the obvious relations between the slave masters and the slaves – is the dynamic between Dana and Kevin, her white husband. When Kevin comes to learn about Dana’s travels and makes certain comments about what she has experienced and about slave conditions in general, it’s very clear that he will never fully understand the realities of slavery despite being somewhat aware and also married to a black woman.
Although Dana sometimes calls Kevin out for his comments or looks at him in disbelief, I personally feel that she could have done more to point out his ignorance. This is one of my only critiques of Kindred, which is that Butler could have spoken more to the parallels of Dana’s relationship with a white husband given her current predicament with a white master. How is Dana’s relationship with her white husband impacted by her direct experience of the slave condition and brutalization from white slave masters? What are the implications of being married to a white husband given her traumatic experience of slavery?
Butler frames race relations for us in the character development of Rufus. We meet him as a young child who, although at an innocent age, is still very much aware of his elevated status and the power dynamics that exist simply because of the color of his skin. We see him grow into a young man who then wields that power for his own benefit, regardless of how desperately Dana tries to influence him. “He’s all grown up now, and part of the system. He could feel for us a little when his father was running things – when he wasn’t entirely free himself. But now, he’s in charge.” (p.223)
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. One who wields the power to enslave people, to regard them as subhuman, and treat them as property – vehicles by which they can attain more power and wealth – is innately corrupt. Everyone involved in slavery – aside from the victims of course – was corrupt, everyone was complicit. We see this in Tom Weylin who harnesses fear and torture to control his slaves. We see this in his wife, Margaret, who influences how many of the slaves – especially the women who she perceives as a threat – are treated. In the doctors, townspeople, overseers, and patrollers who weave in and out of the story. And we especially see this in Rufus, who with age molds his power after his father and wields it to force his way, take advantage, and unsurprisingly hurt those who cross his path.
These racial power dynamics continue to be in effect in our current times, as we find that many people in positions of influence and power operate with bias and racism. It’s not just the racist cops (“patrollers”) who cause harm to our communities but also doctors, judges, politicians, educators, and any other person who explicitly or implicitly upholds racist values. All are complicit.
TW: rape, sexual violence
“A slave was a slave. Anything could be done to her.” (p.260) Throughout the novel, Dana becomes witness to the dangers that black women – both free and enslaved – face just because they are women and therefore seen as property. Dana comes across free women who are forced into slavery just because, women who are forced to bear the children of their masters, and who are torn from their children and husbands simply because their master sexually desires them. Dana witnesses how these women are treated as disposable. Dana herself is forced to evade the repercussions of being a woman who has no control over her body during this time.
She also sees how her proximity to white male desire labels her as “the master’s woman” and a “whore.” How it affects her relations among the slaves. In one interaction where she is subtly accused of this, she says “Some folks let [the overseer] drive them into the fields every day and work them like mules…they’re not the only one who have to do things they don’t like to stay alive and whole.” (p. 238) Although one could perceive this as a “slavery was a choice” statement, Dana makes it clear that every slave on the plantation acts in the manner that they believe would ensure their survival, whether it is through submission, rebellion, or escape.
One thing about time travel stories that always intrigues me is the cyclical nature of time travel in itself and the repercussions that it holds. Dana travels back in time to save one of her ancestors from repeated dangers. How much weight does her time travel hold on her fate? If she hadn’t chosen to save him, would she have still existed? Would her ancestral lineage still be realized? At what point does this time loop begin and when does it end?
In any event, Kindred is a magnificent piece of work that imagines a thought that many of us who are black have considered while learning our history in the Americas – what would I have done if I were there?
Have you read Kindred? If so, how did you feel about it? If not, would you check it out? Share your thoughts with me below!