Reckoning with the Past in Octavia Butler’s Kindred

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side by side series of the cover of Octavia Butler's Kindred

Octavia E. Butler’s masterpiece of a novel Kindred, first published in 1979, tells the story of Dana, a black woman living in Los Angeles who finds herself swept back in time to a Maryland plantation before the Civil War. Often classified as science fiction because of Butler’s other work in the genre, Kindred incorporates a number of literary influences, from fantasy to historical fiction. Butler’s use of the time travel element in particular allows Butler to explore the lives of enslaved people with remarkable insight, creating a clear dialogue between the norms of the antebellum South and Dana’s life in the 1970s. Readers move with Dana through her own dawning realization that, in order to ensure her very existence, she must allow the plantation owner to rape her several-times-great–grandmother.

We never learn what mechanism pulls Dana through time and space, but as she travels, a clear pattern emerges: she is summoned to the past when Rufus Weylin, the son of the plantation owner—whose name she recognizes from an inscription in an old family Bible—is in danger, and she returns home when afraid for her own life. Unable to discern what power is connecting them, Dana soon comes to accept her travels through time, understanding that she has come here “Not only to insure the survival of one accident-prone boy, but to insure my family’s survival, my own birth.” Ultimately, however, the fantastic elements themselves are less important than the view they allow us of the past. Like much great speculative fiction, the fantastic in Kindred functions as both an opportunity for the unfolding of an unusual story while also serving as a kind of foundational metaphor, in this case for the ways that the history of slavery continues to assert itself in the present.

In Kindred, Butler makes clear that violence was not a bug in the system but rather a central feature of American slavery. During one of her early visits to the plantation, Dana must watch from the bushes as an enslaved man is whipped for the crime of visiting his wife on a nearby property without a pass. Butler writes: “I had seen people beaten on television in the movies. I had seen the too-red blood substitute streaked across their backs and heard their well-rehearsed             screams. But I hadn’t lain nearby and smelled their sweat or heard them pleading and praying, shamed before their families and themselves.” Dana’s knowledge of slavery has been influenced by depictions in popular culture, but here she discovers that these representations are weak substitutes for exposure to actual violence. Soon, Dana finds herself not just an observer but a receiver of that same violence. Enduring several beatings and whippings, she spends most of the novel adapting to her changed circumstances in order to survive.

As a woman out of time, Dana has a twentieth century, post-Civil Rights era consciousness that she brings with her to the past. In her early visits, she feels like an observer of events, an actor playing the role of “slave”: “While we waited to go home, we humored the people around us by pretending to be like them. But we were poor actors. We never really got into our roles. We never forgot that we were acting.” Yet the longer that Dana spends in the past, the more this feeling fades, until she herself realizes that she is no longer acting the role of slave but has actually started acting like an enslaved person herself. After being punished with a half day of brutal fieldwork, Dana understands that she would not survive long under such conditions, and finds herself more acquiescent than before. “How easily slaves are made,” she thinks to herself. By placing a woman from her own time into the antebellum South, Butler puts the reader, along with Dana, in this impossible position: how long would any of us be able to withstand such treatment and remain physically or psychologically whole?

Dana, however, has to do more than simply survive in the past—she must also insure her own bloodline. When we first meet Dana’s several-times-great–grandmother, Alice is a young free woman married to an enslaved man on a nearby plantation. The two of them attempt to escape together, but they are captured, her husband is executed, and Alice is nearly torn apart by dogs. Rufus, who has had feelings for Alice since they were children, pays a large sum to purchase her. Dana nurses her back to health, but is put in a difficult position when Rufus asks her to persuade Alice to come to his bed. Dana’s own motives may be mixed, but she is telling the truth when she convinces Alice that her resistance will only earn her more pain. Sexual violence against enslaved women is perhaps one of the most uncomfortable aspects of slavery for modern readers, and one that is often left to implication or subtext. Yet Butler takes it on explicitly as both plot point and theme, and we watch the relationship between Rufus and Alice play out over the course of years. As its title suggests, this grappling with uncomfortable family truths is at the heart of the novel, and gives it a kind of revelatory force about the nature of the African American experience—though it’s very possible that what for me, a white reader, seems like revelation would, to readers of color, feel more like recognition.

Dana endures six trips back in time, and each brings her closer to the Weylin family and deeper into their warped family dynamics. Her journey ends in the attic of the Weylin home, where Rufus, grieving over Alice’s suicide, finally attempts to rape Dana. Throughout the novel, Dana has been grappling with whether she can bring herself to end her travels in the only way she knows how—by killing Rufus. When he was a young boy, Dana felt genuine affection for him and even hoped that she might be able to positively influence him, to help him become a more benevolent slave owner. Yet the movement of the novel shows us there is no such thing. The power of owning other people and treating them like property has formed Rufus’s very personality, and even as an adult he remains infantilized, incapable of accepting responsibility for his own actions. Despite all the violence she has endured, Dana is not a killer. Yet when Rufus assaults her, she understands that this is a line that she cannot allow to be crossed. While her own family line has been assured with the birth of Hagar, Dana knows that Rufus’s death will mean disaster for the other enslaved people on the plantation, several of whom are her friends. Nevertheless, she uses the knife she has smuggled back with her from the future to protect herself from this final incursion against her bodily autonomy.

As important as Alice and the other enslaved people she meets are to Dana’s journey, it is ultimately her relationship to Rufus, to her white slave owner ancestor, that is at the center of the book. As specific as that relationship is here, like in much of Butler’s other science fiction, Kindred reads like a dark parable about the relationship between slave owner and the enslaved. Throughout the novel, Dana and Rufus remain dependent on one another. As much as Dana tries to use the leverage she has with Rufus, the parasitic nature of that relationship cannot be denied. Ultimately, the only way to ensure her freedom is for Dana to kill the man whose life she has previously saved. Far from offering us the possibility of a peaceful reconciliation with the past, Butler suggests that the only way for Dana to free herself from it is for her to assert her own worth over that of her slave-owning ancestor, even if he is her kindred.