Octavia Butler presents a depiction of slavery from the mindset of a person in the present. In doing so, she allows us to really reflect on what it means to be black and white.
Dana is a black woman married to a white man. In modern times in the late seventies, this is not terribly unusual. Dana feels a lack of connection with her past. She knows she had ancestors who were slaves, or she assumes so. Her own parents are dead, and she is not close to the relatives who raised her. Dana lives a life of familial isolation. Her only family is her white husband.
When one of Dana’s ancestors, Rufus, draws her back to the past, everyone is confused at first. Dana does not even realize what really happened until the time her tries to burn the curtains and she saves him from his own helpless rage.
Rufus is terribly confused when Dana gets mad at him for calling her a “nigger.” She tells him to call her a black woman. She realizes that he was not being offensive on purpose. To him, that is what black people are called.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Why are you mad?
“Your mother always call black people niggers, Rufe?”
“Sure, except when she has company. Why not?”
His air of innocent questioning confused me. Either he really did not know what he was saying, or he had a career waiting at Hollywood. (“The Fire,” p. 25)
It is only then that she realizes he lives in the South during the time of slavery. To him, she is a slave.
Yet Dana is not a slave. In the past, she has to live like one. She recognizes the hopeless condition of the people. When Kevin says he expected it to be worse, she comments that the act of having a slave is bad enough without the brutality. There is plenty of brutality though. When Tom finds Dana with a book, he whips her even though she is not his slave.
Dana has to pretend to be her husband Kevin’s slave. It is very unusual for a woman to be educated at her level, especially a black woman. The white slave-owners are suspicious of her. They are actually her ancestors. They have no idea, of course. The idea of race is more muddled than we realize. For one thing, there are many mixed-race children on the plantation. Clearly Tom gets around with his slaves. Yet his wife considers Dana sleeping with Kevin to be immoral. He is supposed to be her master.
There have been many excellent books written about slavery, but Kindred is unique because it allows the perspective of our present time to mesh seemlessly with the past. Through the characters of now and then, we develop a much more complex picture of the human condition.