Kindred traces the emotional and physical dilemmas Dana Franklin faces as a twentieth century African American woman periodically transported back to the antebellum South. In portraying the experiences of a 1976 woman who must readjust to life during the slavery era, Butler dramatizes important themes: the continuing relevance of the past to the present; the horrors of slavery, which have lost their reality for many, including Dana and her white husband, Kevin; and the ways in which the development of racist attitudes and behavior are a product of societal conditioning.
Dana’s time-travel experiences begin, ironically, in 1976, the year of the American Bicentennial, a celebration of American freedom and independence. Dana’s fantastic experiences begin on an ordinary day: While Dana and Kevin are unpacking cartons in their new home in Los Angeles, she is overcome by nausea and dizziness. She then finds herself at a riverbank at which she hears the cries of a drowning white child. After reviving him by giving him artificial respiration, she is attacked by the boy’s mother, who thinks she has tried to kill him. As a man points a gun at Dana, she once again feels sick and faints. Dana immediately finds herself back at home in Los Angeles, yet she is covered with the mud of the riverbank. This episode contains elements that recur when Dana is transported to the past and then back to the present: She is sent back to the past when the life of Rufus Weylin, the son of a slave owner, is in danger, and she is transported back to the present when her own life is in danger.
As a result of her second trip to the past, Dana learns more about the significance of the past to her own life. She learns that Rufus is an ancestor of hers who must live long enough to father a child named Hagar with a slave named Alice. Without the birth of Hagar, who initiates Dana’s family line, Dana will not exist. Dana must, therefore, ensure the survival of Rufus, who has a tendency to find himself in life-threatening situations, in order to ensure her own existence. In addition, Dana takes an emotional interest in Rufus: From her second meeting with him, she wants to try to prevent him from accepting and practicing the racism that is a part both of his family and of the antebellum South. Thus, Dana feels that she needs to protect Rufus on both physical and psychological levels.
Dana is transported back to the past by any danger to Rufus’s life, ensuring his physical survival. Her ability to ensure his moral survival, however, is undermined by the dual time level of the past and the present. During Dana’s trips to the past, only a few minutes or hours go by in 1976; yet these short time spans can equal months in the alternative time of the antebellum South. The result is that when Dana returns to her life in the present for even a short time, years go by for Rufus. Consequently, Dana is gone from Rufus’s life for too long for her to have a lasting influence on his racist attitudes.
Another central element of the plot arises as Dana’s husband, Kevin, is transported back to the plantation with her after he holds her as she is called back to the past. The initial gap between Kevin’s and Dana’s perceptions of the antebellum South is central. At first, Kevin does not realize how badly slaves are treated. Also, he initially thinks that the nineteenth century would be a fascinating era during which to live. However, after Kevin and Dana become separated and he spends five years in the antebellum South, Kevin’s involvement in the lives of slaves makes the antebellum South appear as cruel and unjust to him as it does to Dana.
Meanwhile, Dana becomes more involved in the lives of the Weylin slaves and especially of Alice, to whom Rufus becomes more and more attracted as the years go by. Dana points out that Rufus’s attitudes toward Alice make it obvious that she has failed to prevent Rufus from becoming an abusive bigot. Rufus’s assertion to Dana that he will have no qualms about raping Alice if she does not willingly become involved with him brings home to Dana that Rufus has internalized the racist and sexist attitudes of his family and of white society. His decision to rape and impregnate Alice both affirms his power and, ironically, ensures the birth of Hagar, who will initiate Dana’s family line and ensure Dana’s existence.
The climax of the action of the book comes when Dana is called back to the past on July 4, 1976, the day of the American Bicentennial. Dana finds that Alice has killed herself as a result of Rufus’s threat to sell their children (a threat he makes to force Alice to stay with him). Moreover, Rufus makes clear his intention to rape Dana. Consequently, both Dana and Rufus are in danger, which reminds readers that danger to Rufus makes Dana stay in the past and that danger to Dana transports her back to the present. Thus, the result of Dana’s stabbing Rufus as he attacks her has an appropriate, though disfiguring, complication: She loses her left arm—it is literally lost in the past as Rufus clings to her—as she is transported for the final time to the present. The epilogue affirms that Dana and Kevin, reunited permanently in the present, can be free of Rufus. However, they will always retain the knowledge of the personal meaning of the past to their lives.