Octavia Butler’s afrofuturist novel Kindred centers around Dana, a twenty-six year old Black woman and aspiring author. The book takes place starting in the year of 1976, in which Dana is living with her white husband, Kevin Franklin in Southern California. However, by means of an ambiguous form of time travel, Dana finds herself in slave America, waking up on a Maryland plantation in the early 1800’s. Throughout the novel, Dana intermittently returns to the plantation, which she eventually discovers to be owned by her ancestors. While there she deals with the horror-filled realities of not only being a slave, but of being a literate woman in Antebellum America. Kevin is transported to the plantation as well and his experience of being a white man in the same time period is in stark contrast to that of Dana. Over the course of her time on the plantation Dana is forced into making extremely difficult decisions in which she must balance her own well being with those she cares for. This is the central conflict within Kindred and is exemplified through the themes of race, gender and revolution.
Race is a theme at the forefront of Kindred as Dana finds herself in Antebellum America, waking up on a Maryland plantation in the early 1800s. During the second trip through time that she takes, Dana finds Rufus in danger amidst a fire he had recently started. An example of this theme is described on page 21 when Dana states that: “His air of innocent questioning confused me. Either he really didn’t know what he was saying, or he had a career waiting in Hollywood. Whichever it was, he wasn’t going to go on saying it to me” in regards to Rufus repeatedly using the n-word in reference to her and other Black individuals on the plantation (Butler, 21). Furthermore, when Dana reflects on her familial ties to Rufus she states that: “That if I had let Rufus die, everyone would have been sold. More families would have been separated” (Butler, 240). This is significant due to the notion that Rufus is her ancestor and even though he does terrible things to his slaves and her, she had to keep him alive so that she could keep families together. Even though she ultimately kills him, she reflects upon the knowledge that “he’s a man of his time” (Butler, 240). A man of his time, an individual who is embedded in a culture that revolves around slavery and that cannot be taken away from it; slavery is ingrained in his mind and in his blood. He is a part of a culture that is very different from the one in her time where intersectionality is prized and interracial relationships are allowed. Rufus, like many white individuals in Antebellum times, has no concept of this and doesn’t believe things need to change. The theme of race is prominent and significant in Kindred for the sole reason that the novel gives a different perspective regarding what the day-to-day lives of slaves and slaveholders were actually like because Dana sees it for herself and forms relationships of her own that give her this insight.
The theme of gender is also central to the novel, crucial at every moment over the course of the plot’s development. Dana overcomes physical abuse such as whippings and beatings from Tom Weylin, the plantation owner and eventually his son Rufus who Dana has an existential connection to. Dana ends up being tasked as a teacher of Rufus due to her literacy and affection that the boy maintains for her early on. When Dana experiences Rufus coming into adulthood as time passes in between her intermittent visits, she watches first hand his growth into a man of his time, as was aforementioned, unable to keep him from becoming corrupted by his position of power because of his race, gender and class. Rufus follows his father’s footsteps, adopting his mindset of racism and misogyny as by-products of Tom’s toxic masculinity. This becomes apparent as Rufus gradually becomes more aggressive and controlling, aspects of his character that become blatantly clear in his interactions with Dana whom he grows closely attached to. Rufus uses his white maleness to assert control over Alice, capturing and raping her after trying to flee with Isaac, whom she loves. The dynamic between Dana, Alice and Rufus is a critical example of the theme of gender on display within the novel. Rufus works to maintain control over Alice and Dana as he views Alice lustfully, using her simply as a body to fulfill him sexually, and Dana as someone to take care of him and mend his loneliness. As Dana states, “He didn’t seem to want to sleep with me. But he wanted me around - someone to talk to, someone who would listen to him and care what he said, care about him” (Butler, 180). Both of these relationships are within power dynamics built upon race and gender in which Rufus treats Alice and Dana as lesser than human, thinking of them only in terms of his own desires. Dana constantly has to balance her own survival with her desire to help other slaves on the plantation that she has built relationships with. Dana expresses this tactic of Rufus’, one that she points to as being passed on from his father saying, “He had already found the way to control me - by threatening others. That was safer than threatening me directly, and it worked. It was a lesson he had no doubt learned from his father” (Butler, 169). One of these relationships is with Alice, a character who Dana cares and feels responsible for. Dana plays a motherly role in her relationship with Alice, yet the characters also mirror each other in their power-dynamic relationships with Rufus. Dana comes to a point in which she can no longer protect Alice from Rufus and makes the hard choice of convincing Alice to give in to Rufus and have sex with him. After doing so, Dana states “She went to him. She adjusted, became a quieter more subdued person. She didn’t kill, but she seemed to die a little” (Butler, 168). Alice becomes resentful towards Dana after this happens and is something that Dana expresses regret towards. It’s a tragic example that highlights the unavoidable realities of relationships within power dynamics as well as the theme of gender, which is the issue at the forefront of the narrative thread between Rufus, Alice and Dana alongside that of race.
The behavior of Rufus in regards to gender is a mirroring of his father Tom’s own misogynistic and racist character. Dana, being a literate Black woman within her time on the plantation, attracts danger as well. Tom Weylin, a white male and the owner of the plantation is not literate himself and doesn’t know what to make of Dana, who is otherworldly and baffling to him. Tom Weylin isn’t a character that seems to have the most consistent motives as the plot progresses, but it becomes evident early on that Dana’s literacy, way of speaking, demeanor, and overall intelligence level is something that Tom hates coming from a Black woman. Tom doesn’t treat Dana like the other slaves on the plantation but that’s not to say he treats her any better. To reiterate, Dana is beaten throughout the novel for teaching other slaves to read and for any action that she takes that works to undermine the intelligence and power of Tom, which is ultimately the sole aspect of his life that he cares about. Kevin expresses this notion to Dana, saying, “Weylin doesn’t like the way you talk. I don’t think he’s had much education himself, and he resents you” (Butler, 80). Despite this, Dana continues to teach other slaves to read and trusts her clever, good-natured instincts to end up sending punishment her way. We need not look any further than Tom’s relationship with his own wife to see an example of the issue of gender being at the center of the novel thematically. Tom Weylin uses familial ties within the plantation as a way to further fortify his level of control over the slaves. He uses the threat of selling family members, which he not only threatens, but enacts, such as in the case of Sam whom he sells. Moreover, Tom encourages marriage as a form of bondage, a way to increase the ties that the slaves have on the plantation. In addition to this, Tom has children of his own with the slaves on multiple accounts, either neglecting the children or treating them as property no different than the other slaves. Tom is cruel and cold in every sense, showing little care for any of his children including Rufus, enslaving his own offspring and doing everything in pursuit of maintaining power.
On the other hand, Kevin’s experiences on the plantation are different in nearly every way imaginable due to his being a white male. This contrast demonstrates obvious truths about race and gender. Despite being transported to the same location and time period, Kevin and Dana are thrust into lives completely foreign from that of their own time, but also from one another’s. Time and time again Kevin demonstrates a certain level of ignorance as he shows a complete lack of understanding in this. Kevin seems to think that he and Dana are equal in their experiences on the plantation, unable to understand whatsoever what she is dealing with internally. At one point Kevin even seems to try and find some level of enjoyment in the era as he grew comfortable in his role as a white male in this situation. Moreover, he is unable to understand her situation, both literally in their time on the Weylin plantation and culturally/historically as well. Although after being trapped in time for a period of five years, Kevin seems to redeem himself by telling Dana after she asks if he helped to free slaves during his time there, “Of course I was! I fed them, hid them during the day, and when night came, I pointed them toward a free black family who would feed and hide them the next day” (Butler, 193).
Dana comes to know how life of a slave is in reality, something she thought she had an understanding of but through living the actual life of a plantation slave, comes to revelations about what it means to exist in servitude. Dana has an unwavering determination and sense of spirit at the beginning of her time on the plantation. Yet as the grueling process continues, she comes to understand more fully the effects on one’s psyche than living as a slave cause. “That educated didn’t mean smart. He had a point. Nothing in my education or knowledge of the future has helped me to escape. Yet in a few years an illiterate runaway named Harriet Tubman would make nineteen trips into this country and lead three hundred fugitives to freedom” (Butler). This quote shows a moment of Dana’s interiority when she co mes to realizations about resistance and revolution. The idea of escape and resistance as Dana comes to realize that her survival is not guaranteed and she comes to a point of contemplating suicide as a way of escape, saying, “ There isn’t any safe way to almost kill yourself. I was afraid of the sleeping pills. I took them with me because I wanted to be able to die if…if I wanted to die” (Butler, 240). The theme of active revolution is presented in a realistic way as Dana deals with the life of slavery first hand.
Seeing the world of Antebellum America through their own eyes gives Dana and Kevin both an enhanced perspective in thinking about slavery and racism in their present time period. Moreover, Dana gains a renewed perspective in terms of her ancestry as she lives and interacts with her ancestors and directly affects the outcome events during her time on the Weylin’s plantation. She loses an arm in her last visit through time, a physical symbol of her time in Antebellum America of suffering and servitude. Dana and Kevin return to Maryland in the present day immediately after Dana’s arm heals and see the plantation in the present day with a different level of understanding and mindset in regards to slavery. I would argue that this is ultimately one of Butler’s most prominent messages to readers of the novel. While one may not be able to travel through time and experience slavery first hand as Dana does in the novel, an acknowledgment of slavery as something real and tangible is what seems to be what Butler is getting at in the book’s epilogue. As Kevin says to Dana in Kindred’s closing lines, “You probably needed to come for the same reason I did…To try to understand. To touch solid evidence that those people existed” (Butler, 264).
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