A critical essay on Kindred
Octavia Butler writes science fiction. She has written such books as Patternmaster(1976), Dawn(1987), and Imago(1989) to name a few. There is no debate among critics as to the classification of these novels. Most readers would not disagree after hearing tales of the Oankali, ooloi, Patternists, and Clayarks. Butler's novel Kindred(1979) in also classified in the fantasy/sci-fi realm, but it is a very different sort of work. This change in pace leads to many questions about its content, style and popular acceptance.
Aside from being classified as a work of science fiction, Kindred has also been labeled a neo-slave narrative. Kindred is the story of a modern black woman Dana who is involuntarily sent back to the early 1800's on a mission of self-preservation. To insure that she will be born, she must save the life of her great-great-grandfather Rufus so that he can rape her great-great-grandmother Alice, which will eventually lead to her own existence. Rufus Weylin is the white son of a white slave and plantation owner in antebellum Maryland. Over Dana's six trips back in time she takes on the role of a free, highly educated black woman who is the companion of a white man Kevin. Kevin, her husband in the present, California in 1976, grabs on to Dana before her third trip back so that he can be with her. Before each trip back in time, Dana gets dizzy and is then taken back to Rufus, at times when his life is in danger. As she later discovers, she is able to return to 1976 only when her life is in grave danger.
The idea of an inter-racial marriage is broached very early in this book. In the present day, such a marriage is not as uncommon as it would have been in the early 1800's. When Kevin travels back in time with Dana, their outward relationship must change in order to be accepted in the times of slavery. Dana and Kevin both realize how important it is to act "properly" for the situation at hand. If Kevin were to show how he really felt about Dana, he might lose respect and power among the whites. They would see him as being ruled by a woman, and a black woman at that. It is accepted to take your black companion to bed with you, but it is not accepted to have feelings for her. The line Kevin and Dana were forced to walk along with their relationship was very thin. In order to draw the least amount of attention to themselves, they try to do as a white man and his free black companion would do in the antebellum south.
On the third trip back to Maryland, when Kevin accompanies her, she begins to take on the role she will have every time she returns. Dana volunteers in the kitchen and helps around the house to fit in as much as possible with the other blacks. By doing this, she is accepting the role of a partial slave since Kevin can not always be around to save her from punishment, and the elder Weylins and their overseer have a hard time accepting Dana as a free, educated black woman. Although she is not treated as roughly as some of the other slaves, she is not given any respect as a free woman; black equals slave in their minds.
Dana is returned to the present, while Kevin is left in the past. Dana has been teaching a slave boy Nigel how to read, since he showed interest. They take books from the library to use for the lessons. One day when Dana is going to give Nigel a spelling lesson, she is caught by Tom Weylin. Everyone knows that it is very risky to teach a slave to read, especially if you happen to get caught. He takes her outside to punish her. "Weylin dragged (Dana) a few feet, then pushed me hard. I fell, knocked myself breathless. I never saw where the whip came from, never even saw the first blow coming. But it came-like a hot iron across my back, burning into me through my light shirt, searing my skin(Butler 107)". The beating Dana receives is enough to take her back to the present, before Kevin can reach her to be taken back with her.
By the time she returns again, Kevin is long gone, as many years have passed in the past. Without his protection, the Weylins can do with her what they will. At this point in his life, as a man, Rufus is very possessive of his women. His childhood friend Alice, a free black girl, has long since turned against him. He has already raped her, while she was still with her husband, and is willing to do it again. He becomes very possessive of Dana, and only pretends to help her find Kevin up north. When Kevin finally comes back, the two try to leave, but Rufus will not allow this. He points his rifle at them as they are leaving the plantation and threatens to kill them. This threat, and a hit with a rifle is enough to send the two travelers home to 1976. But not permanently, as Dana must return to Rufus twice more, without Kevin's protection.
On her next two trips she is treated with little respect and Rufus becomes more violent towards her and his other slaves as became the head of the plantation after his father's death. During her various stays, Dana has done everything possible to comply with what Rufus says within reason. She does not want to put herself in harm's way. She is still treated with little respect, and made to do slave's work.
By the time the book ends, Dana has been verbally, physically and emotionally abused. She has put her life on the line several times to save a rapist. The whole idea behind her forced trips back in time is to make sure she will be born. To do this, she must help Rufus continue his own life; a chore she begins to doubt. It is highly questionable that he is the type of person who deserves to be saved so many times, and cause the damage to Dana that he does. To Dana, Rufus is her key to life, as she is to him, which Butler articulates in a believable way. Because they need each other to survive, they must get along and try to help each other out, or else both of their lives are in danger. I was especially fascinated by the depths and contours of their relationship; how they could hate, love and need each other all at the same time. Only an excellent writer could build such a captivating relationship on such horrific circumstances. Butler does that and more.
Butler does an excellent job of taking us into the middle of the action, like we have really been taken back in time. It is easy to say what "I" would have done if I had been a slave, Kindred puts this into perspective for us. It lets us know with today's knowledge, education, wit and skill, slavery was still hell. The way in which Butler tells the story of Kindred, she gives slavery a personality. I could picture Alice, Nigel, and Dana as individuals who happen to be caught in a torturous time era; Dana only temporarily, but it is long enough to do permanent physical damage as well as mental damage. It is due to these facts that this work has gained popular acceptance as a well told, and reputable neo-slave narrative.
Like her other novels, Kindred is characterized by a strong female protagonist. Lilith in Dawn, Amber in Patternist, and Dana in Kindred are all strikingly independent. Although they are all involved with male counterprts, their men are not the rulers of their lives. Butler puts Dana in unbearable surroundings and paints a bleak picture of life on the Weylin plantation. The way Butler creates Dana, she has an unyielding will and an almost unbreakable spirit. She is able to hold out until the end before she folds under the pressure.
Due to the prolific nature of Butler's female characters, many classify her as a feminist. She agess, but also finds herself a member of several other groups, which she targets as audiences for her books. These classifiers include being a Black, a former Baptist, and a pessimist. Some of her books reach out to more groups and readers than others due to content, and identification level of the readers to the characters in the book.
Unlike her other novels, Kindred deals with a topic that is more "real" to most readers. The ideas that Kindred expressed can be more readily identified with than those of futuristic patternists or Oankali. Because more people can identify with a neo-slave narrative, it has a higher social acceptance rate, and in this case, makes it a candidate for a traditional college literature course. Butler's Patternmaster and Xenogenesis series' are not taught as often as Kindred. There are a number of courses at universities across the nation that teach works of science ficiton, but not nearly as many as courses that teach more traditional works. Perhaps because the plots and characters are harder for the readers to personally identify with in her science fiction works. It is also clear that works of science fiction are not held in as high a regard as more traditional works like those of Shakespeare, Baldwin, Faulkner and Morrison.
Another aspect of Kindred which warrants discussion is the way in which Butler incorportated political correctness. Back in the antebellum south, being "PC" was not a concern. When Dana traveles back in time, she does not know that she had landed in a time long before political correctness. One of the first times she talks to Rufus, he says his mother called Dana, " 'just a strange nigger' (25)." Rufus can not understand why she is upset after he tells her this piece of information. Dana then explains, " 'I'm a black woman, Rufe. If you have to call me something other than my name, that't it' (25)." Aside from being a little confused, Rufus tries to honor this premature lesson in being "PC". Butler could have glossed over this matter, since such language was appropriate in the times of slavery. However, she decided to emphasize the difference in language in the 1800's versus the late 1900's. Quite a nice touch.
Taking plot and content into consideration, Kindred is more than just a neo-slave narrative, it contains the supernatural and incredible, shown in a realistic and believeable way. Butler's talent as an author and creator comes shining through in this text.
Butler, Octavia. Kindred. Boston: Beacon Press, 1979.