This is a great question. I must admit, when I first heard about this book, I did think it sounded rather strange to have a science fiction book about time travel discussing slavery in America! However, let us consider what Butler achieves through such a topic. We, by following Dana,...
This is a great question. I must admit, when I first heard about this book, I did think it sounded rather strange to have a science fiction book about time travel discussing slavery in America! However, let us consider what Butler achieves through such a topic. We, by following Dana, are forced into a new realisation of the brutality of slavery and in particular the way in which ethics often had to be compromised to ensure survival. In Dana we see a woman who tries to live her life from the moral standpoint of a twentieth-century black feminist. This is something that, as she continues to be drawn into the past and to stay there for ever greater amounts of time, she is unable to continue. It is important to draw a parallel between the experiences of Dana and those of Harriet Jacobs, who was forced to compromise on the sexual standards that were imposed on a woman of her time to survive. Jacobs famously stated that:
I feel that the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others.
This is something that Dana herself is forced to concede. Note what she says to Kevin when she talks to him about her experience of living in the past and how it is altering her perceptions:
You might be able to go through this whole experience as an observer... I can understand that because most of the time, I'm still an observer. It's protection. It's 1976 shielding and cushioning 1819 for me. But now and then... I can't maintain the distance. I'm drawn all the way into 1819, and I don't know what to do.
This is the reason, therefore, why Butler choses to use time travel in this excellent novel, because it transports Dana and us as readers into the full reality of slave trading America. We are not allowed to be armchair observers and, like Dana, have to participate in the different morals and values of this radically different time and place. The collision of our modern day values and those of Dana with those of 1819 forces us to gain an appreciation and understanding of this different world and time that a historical novel would cushion us from gaining.