Kindred is situated in two different, broad time periods of the twentieth and nineteenth centuries, and it also jumps around among different points in the nineteenth-century setting. Dana, the African American female protagonist, had initially only known her life in modern times, but she finds herself experiencing episodes more than one hundred years earlier. Each time she is transported back, she cannot predict the point of her arrival.
Dana remains an adult in her twenties when she enters the pre–Civil War environments. Alice is an enslaved African American woman who lives in that earlier era. Their relationship is crucial, because Alice will become Dana’s ancestor. While Dana genuinely struggles to empathize with the dilemmas of enslaved women and physically aids and nurtures Alice, her perspective is also problematically self-involved, because of her stake in Alice’s survival. Although Alice lives long enough to bear her child with Rufus, she can envision escape only through death.
Rufus ages throughout Dana’s visits and as an adult has problematic relationships with both Dana and her modern husband, Kevin, who is white. Rufus reluctantly accepts that Dana and Kevin come from the future but cannot comprehend the changes. Kevin, however, must come to terms with his privilege and liberty as a white man and even pretend to place himself in an equal status to Rufus as a fellow slaveholder.
The young Rufus is allowed to play with an enslaved African American boy, Nigel. Their playing together when Rufus broke his leg brought Nigel into contact with Dana. Her influence includes teaching Nigel to read, which was forbidden; this in turn helps him envision a different future for himself and his family. The boys grow apart as adults, reducing Nigel’s influence on Rufus and ultimately swaying him to cover up Dana’s fatal actions.