Kindred: Terrifying and Awkward Families

Cover of KindredTitle: Kindred

Author: Octavia Butler

Publication Date: 1979

LC Call Number: PS3552.U827

Kindred is a book I would have liked to spend more time mulling over, thinking about it carefully and teasing out the implications and writing a really thoughtful and interesting post, maybe a couple posts. It’s a great book.  But  it has a short loan period and, basically, circumstances prevent.  Let’s see what I can do here.

It’s a science fiction novel (Butler calls it “dark fantasy” but all the critics talk about it in terms of science fiction, so….) about involuntary time travel.  As she is moving into a new house with her husband in 1976, Dana is transported to another place where she must save a boy from drowning. That done, she returns, but she keeps being pulled back. Eventually, she realizes that he lives in the early nineteenth century, in Maryland, and is an ancestor of hers. This is terrifying, because she is a black woman.  Her task in being pulled back is always to save Rufus, the aforementioned white boy, which means that she returns to him at various points in his life, and we see how he’s shaped by his culture.  Dana, too, is changed by her contact with an earlier time, and is aware of herself becoming used to it in a way that disturbs her.

It’s certainly possible to read this as a way of using time travel to comment on the genre of the slave narrative, or the role of  history in making people who they are, but to me it seemed immediately to be about the conceit of time travel itself.  It’s an idea that has often been used for various purposes in science fiction; sometimes it’s enforced visits and sometimes merely time tourism, but the time traveler usually enjoys a certain sense of immunity which one doesn’t notice until reading something like this. Butler doesn’t mention that Dana is black until the point at which it becomes relevant, which makes it even more clear that time travel, like other kinds of travel, is often publicly imagined as facilitated by privilege, like other kinds of travel, I suppose.  Dana and her husband Kevin, a white man, discuss this obliquely.  Brought back with her to the nineteenth century, he laments:

“There are so many really fascinating times we could have gone back to visit.”
I laughed, without humor. “I can’t think of any time I’d like to go back to. But of all of them, this must be one of the most dangerous—for me anyway.”

In general, Kevin is more interested in history than Dana is, but it’s obviously more than that. This is a very understated acknowledgment that there isn’t, particularly, a golden age for black women, or even a time in which she would feel safe. I’ve seldom seen stories about time travel address the issue of travelers who visit a time of (greater than current) oppression for them personally, and so suddenly you are thinking about science fiction and fantasy and their assumptions about who can do what and go where.  Most stories avoid thinking about this sort of thing entirely by making their protagonists conveniently privileged.  Butler does not dodge in this way.

This isn’t good for Dana, of course.  She is brought face to face with the realities of slavery, first as a bystander, later as a more interested party, and eventually as a slave with ambiguous status.  She comes in as a person of modern sensibilities. Early in the book, she sees a man being whipped and is sickened and terrified, realizing that this is very different from the depictions she’s seen in movies. She’s shocked that people call her—well, what you’d think they’d call her—and it takes her a long time to realize that people are upset and confused about the fact that she wears pants.  Her education and the way that she speaks set her apart, but are no protection, and often a liability.  She addresses Rufus in a straightforward, direct way, and often gets away with it, because he understands (sort of) who she is, but she is quickly taught other ways, both by the slaves and the white people—to keep her eyes down and to speak respectfully.  Fitting in to the social milieu is a problem for her, and a problem with potentially violent consequences, but the social invalidation of her personhood is also a problem. One stems from the other, and while she can’t easily perform the social status expected of her, she also cannot reject it, because none of the things that make her different—her knowledge of medicine, her literacy, her strange appearances and disappearances, her link to Rufus—can permanently override her race.  Ultimately, she is disturbed to find out how easily she falls into this unfree life, and a little disgusted with herself and her own compliance with the slaveholders in many things, small and large.

To the other slaves, she is a stranger.  The knowledge I have just mentioned, which fails to save her from being assigned subhuman status, nevertheless separates her from all the other slaves, many of whom regard her with suspicion and resentment. They see her as too white, too complicit.  In her mind, Dana objects to this, noticing that they are all complicit, that there are many ways in which they avoid resistance in order to make their own lives easier.  However, she cannot truly have this conversation with them.  She understands their resentment and their rage, realizing that although she, like them, finds herself in bondage, she is still privileged relative to them, because she was not born here, and because she knows that she can go back. The social dynamics among the slaves are complicated and are complexly realized. Nigel, Sarah, Carrie, and Alice are all deep characters who have, at different times, different allegiances and attitudes, and their own ways of dealing with pain. They don’t always get along, even if they are united in their anger against the Weylins.  We can understand why each of them behaves the way they do, and even without extensive exposure to the life of the field hands, we can see the differences between the house life and the field life as well, and the divisions thus created.

Still, the differences between them and Dana are possibly smaller than one might expect. As Dana feels dismay at how much she has changed due to being treated like a slave, she does not become less angry or less certain of her own right to freedom. The difference isn’t in how she feels about herself but in the degree to which she has come to fear punishment.  And this is something worth looking at explicitly: all the slaves feel that way.  The condition of slavery as depicted in this novel is certainly not one of resignation or acceptance of that condition, but rather simmering resentment held in check only by the need for self-preservation (and not always even that).  Alice asks Dana whether she would submit to being raped by Rufus, as Alice has been forced to do, and when Dana says that she does not believe that she would, Alice asks, “Even though he’s just like your husband?”  Alice, formerly a free black woman, has been captured, made a slave, and seen her own husband sold away, and her rage at being forced to accept Rufus instead does not stop at Rufus.  She understands that everything Rufus does to her is enabled by his whiteness and, under the circumstances, it is difficult to condemn her assessment, even though we know Kevin to be a kind person who, while trapped in the nineteenth century, does what he can to help the slaves.  After all, we’ve seen Rufus grow up and change from a boy who is friends with both Alice and Nigel to a man like his father, who does not feel much compunction about keeping slaves in check.

We also get a good look at slavery as a domestic circumstance.  In a way, it is the ultimate awkward social situation; this is especially clear with Dana because she is able to have some conversations on a level with Rufus, but he can suddenly turn around and reassert his power over all of them. He and the other Weylins will converse with the slaves one minute and treat them as furniture the next.  Over the course of the novel, it begins to seem that without the well-rehearsed social expectations of dehumanization, this situation simply could not exist.  And then again, there are also very clear parallels drawn between slavery and domestic abuse.  Rufus is a frightening person precisely because he doles out punishment, then begs forgiveness, then expects submission, and then comes back around to punishment again.  He flips between charming and terrifying in classic abuser fashion, and while I don’t think anyone would deny that slavery is in fact abusive, this specific abuser behavior really points that up.

So Dana moves back and forth between a past in which she is regarded as chattel and a present in which she is a writer working on a novel, but that doesn’t mean that Butler lets 1976 off the hook, either.  Instead, she’s careful to point out the conflict in South Africa (“Tom Weylin would feel right at home,” Dana reflects), not to mention the rejection of their marriage by Kevin’s sister and the reluctant acceptance of Dana’s parents.  It’s still a struggle.  Butler is obviously cognizant that the social situation of 1976 is far preferable, but explicitly refutes the notion that the mores of the nineteenth century have vanished.

Kindred is a difficult book to read, at times.  Knowing that doesn’t make it any easier, any more than the revelation at the beginning of the book about what will happen to Dana prevents the reader from horrified cringing when it does happen.  But it is brilliant.

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