Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2754
Isaac Jackson: Alice Greenwood’s husband, a slave belonging to a neighbor of the Weylins.
Liza: a slave belonging to Tom Weylin, who betrays Dana.
Dana’s narrative flashes back to the moment that she and Kevin decided to get married. Dana is concerned that Kevin’s sister—his only surviving family—will not accept him marrying a black woman. Although Kevin initially believes that his sister will accept Dana, the sister ends up telling him that she won’t allow either of them in her house, much to Kevin’s surprise and hurt. Dana’s family—the aunt and uncle who raised her—also refuse to accept her marriage to a white man. Her uncle tells her that he would sooner leave his property to the church than to allow it to “fall into white hands.” Dana and Kevin go to Vegas by themselves and get married anyway.
The narrative returns to Dana’s present. She has returned home without Kevin. It is Friday, June 11, 1976; she had been in the antebellum South for two months, but she had only been gone from her present for one day. She is despondent and desperate over losing Kevin and realizes that he could already have been dead for over a century. She spends her time tending the wounds from her whipping and takes sleeping pills. At one point she tries to read Gone With the Wind but is disgusted by the version of “happy darkies in tender loving bondage.” Eight days pass before she is called back to Rufus. This time she has a canvas bag full of supplies and a knife tied at her ankle.
When she appears back in the antebellum South, she comes upon Rufus—now a young man—losing a fist fight with a young black man. A young black woman in a torn dress, who turns out to be Alice, looks on. The black man has knocked Rufus unconscious, but Dana stops him from killing Rufus because she realizes he might be the only one who knows where Kevin is. The black man is named Isaac; he is a slave and he is Alice’s husband. He is beating Rufus because Rufus had tried to rape her.
Alice recognizes Dana and tells her that Kevin left years ago. Through conversation with Alice and Isaac, while Rufus is still unconscious, Dana learns that Rufus has been trying to get Isaac sold so that he can have Alice to himself. Now, because Isaac has beaten a white man, he cannot stay for fear of his own safety, so he and Alice run away. Dana revives Rufus only after she believes the couple are a safe distance away. He is severely bruised, and he is also drunk. When Dana expresses her anger at Rufus for trying to rape Alice, whom he had considered his friend during his childhood, Rufus reveals that he is angry that Alice chose Isaac, a black slave, over him. He knows that Isaac and Alice will be caught and, as a punishment for helping a slave escape, Alice’s freedom will be taken away. Rufus plans to buy Alice for himself, to Dana’s utter disgust; he seems to feel his plan is vindicated because he begged her to stay with him. He says that if he lived during Dana’s time he would have tried to marry Alice.
Dana returns to the Weylin household to fetch someone to aid Rufus. Here she finds Nigel and Carrie, now grown, married, and expecting their first child. Nigel, Dana, and Tom Weylin drive a cart back to pick up Rufus; it seems that he has been prone to getting into drunken fights, and retrieving him has become a regular chore for the Weylin household.
Tom Weylin recognizes Dana. Because he has seen her disappear into thin air twice, he is very wary of her, but he still does not treat her with any dignity. He tells her that Kevin waited around for her to return and finally went North, and that he has been sending Rufus letters. Dana is allowed to stay and wait for him, but she must work for the household for her keep—a chore that will be made easier because Margaret Weylin is no longer at the house. Dana learns from Sarah that Margaret went crazy after bearing twins who died as infants, and she is now living with her sister in Baltimore. She also learns, to her surprise and sadness, that Luke had been sold by Tom Weylin. Presumably, Tom Weylin used Luke, who was known to take his own liberties, as an example to other slaves as a consequence for disobedience. Sarah has taken over running the household in Margaret’s absence, but she is resented by the other slaves whom she supervises. Dana realizes that Sarah “had done the safe thing—had accepted a life of slavery because she was afraid. She was the kind of woman who might have been called ‘mammy’ in some other household. She was the kind of woman who would be held in contempt during the militant nineteen sixties. The house-nigger, the handkerchief-head, the female Uncle Tom—the frightened powerless woman who had already lost all she could stand to lose, and who knew as little about the freedom of the North as she knew about the hereafter.”
Dana sets about to nursing Rufus back to health with the few first aid supplies she had managed to bring with her. Through their discussions, Dana sadly realizes that Rufus has grown not into the free-thinking man she’d hoped to be able to influence, but into a typical slaveholder like his father. She realizes that as a white man he is someone who has absolute power over her and that, although she has power over him, he is not someone she can ever trust. Nevertheless, she has to rely on him to try to contact Kevin. Rufus shows Dana the letters he has received from Kevin, the last being from Boston. Dana writes Kevin a letter, and Rufus tells her that he will mail it for her. She learns that it has been five years since her last visit and, therefore, five years that Kevin has been stranded in the past.
Four days after the fight, Isaac and Alice are caught, and Rufus, true to his word, buys Alice as a slave. Dana comes to more completely understand Sarah’s acceptance of her life when she sees Alice’s state after Rufus brings her home: she is almost dead from the whipping she received, and she has been bitten by dogs. Isaac has been sold, but not before being tortured. His ears were cut off before Alice’s eyes. Rufus orders Dana to nurse her back to health, which she strives to do with the limited medical resources she has. Rufus has Alice stay in his room in a trundle bed for her comfort while she is healing. Alice is delirious and does not remember what happened to her; it takes her three weeks to remember that she is supposed to be a free woman, not a slave, and to remember what happened to her husband Isaac. When her memory eventually returns, she becomes angry with Dana for not helping her to remember sooner. She sees Dana as being in league with Rufus and calls her a “doctor-nigger,” and “white-nigger.” While she had amnesia Alice accepted Rufus’ presence, vaguely recollecting him as a friend, but now that she remembers his role in her tragedy, she regards him with bitterness and hatred.
Nevertheless, Rufus still desperately wants Alice to accept him, and he tries to enlist Dana’s help in getting Alice to acquiesce to his advances. When Dana refuses to help him, he threatens to have Alice beaten if she won’t obey him and tells her she would not be a friend to Alice if she did not convince her of this. Dana realizes that she “couldn’t refuse to help the girl—help her avoid at least some pain.” But she also realizes that it means that Alice would hate her for it. She already was “erratic” with Dana, “sometimes needing [her] friendship” and “sometimes hating [her] and accusing her of turning against her own people.” Dana delivers Rufus’ message to Alice that she will be beaten if she does not go to him. Rather than argue with Alice, Dana lays out her choices: she can acquiesce and obey Rufus; she can refuse and be beaten, even killed; or she can run away. Alice sees the tragedy of her situation. Knowing that she is yet too weak and sick to run away, and still with the memory of dog bites and her husband’s torture fresh in her memory, she decides to go to Rufus: “I’m going to him. He knew I would sooner or later. But he don’t know how I wish I had the nerve to just kill him!”
In the meantime, Dana has not heard anything from Kevin, even though it’s been almost two months since she sent her letter. Although Rufus tries to convince her that Kevin’s response will probably arrive any day, he finally allows her to write another letter and tells her that he would mail it for her. However, one day Alice, who has grown reluctantly tolerant of both Rufus’ open affection for her and his sometime physical abuse of her, secretly shows Dana that she has found her letters to Kevin hidden in Rufus’ room. Dana realizes that Rufus is conspiring to keep her captive by not sending her letters, and she runs away that very night. However, she doesn’t get very far; a slave had tipped Rufus and Tom Weylin off to her escape. They follow her on horseback, apprehend her, and take her back to the property, where Tom Weylin rips off her clothing, strings her up by her arms in the barn, and whips her.
While convalescing in Nigel and Carrie’s cabin, Dana thinks about her situation. She is, by virtue of being a black woman in a white household, a slave to the Weylins, and she is unable to escape. She is fearful of trying to escape again, and she realizes firsthand how easily fear and helplessness work to make a person accept slavery.
One of the other slave-women, Liza, who had taken a great disliking to Dana, turns up bruised and battered soon after Dana’s recapture. Alice tells Dana that she is the one who turned her in, and the other slave women punished her for it with a severe beating. Dana is startled at having such a vicious enemy.
One day while Dana is recovering from her beating, Rufus brings her a letter from Kevin. It is addressed to Tom Weylin, and in it he indicates that he is returning as soon as possible to get Dana. Rufus says that his father had sent Kevin a letter as soon as he found out that Rufus had not kept his word about sending Dana’s letters. Rufus says that his father sent the letter because Rufus had given Dana his word. “Daddy’s the only man I know . . . who cares as much about giving his word to a black as to a white,” Rufus says. “It’s one of the few things about him I can respect.” Dana realizes that Rufus hid her letters out of a twisted sort of love for her; somehow, Rufus feels attached to Dana and does not want to let her go, and, as he has done with Alice, he is willing to go to perversely dishonest lengths to keep the people he feels entitled to.
The next day Kevin arrives on horseback. He looks tired and older, and at first Dana does not recognize him. As soon as Kevin realizes that Dana has been mistreated by the Weylins, they take off, but soon they are met on the road by Rufus, who, unwilling to let Dana leave, demands they return to the house. He points his rifle at them, and Dana feels herself growing suddenly dizzy. She grabs Kevin, and they disappear back to the present.
Even though Dana and Kevin live in the United States in the latter part of the 20th century, in a society where marriage between members of different races is no longer illegal, they still face issues of racism in their decision to marry each other. Kindred, uses the science fiction plot device of time travel in order to allow a modern person the firsthand experience of the slavery and racism of the past. This time travel creates a connection between the past and the present that is only possible in fiction. However, through the conflicts Kevin and Dana face in the present, Butler also shows that the historical practices of racial injustice are, in reality, kept alive not with the help of time travel, but in the racist attitudes of the present. Irony is also at play in the contrast between Kevin and Dana’s relationship, and Rufus’ desire to be with Alice. Rufus tells Dana that if he lived during her time, he would have married Alice. But Butler shows, through Kevin and Dana’s conflict with their families, that a 1970s mixed marriage would indeed be legal, but it still has a ways to go before being completely acceptable. In this chapter, Dana continues to learn firsthand about why a person would accept their enslavement. An especially enlightening moment for Dana is her first conversation with Sarah upon her return. When Dana tries to tell Sarah about the slaves who make it to freedom in the North, Sarah tells her she needs to see those who don’t make it, “starving, ‘bout naked, whipped, dragged, bit by dogs,” and that she doesn’t want to hear anymore about successfully escaped slaves. She tells Dana, “Don’t want to hear no more . . . . Things ain’t bad here. I can get along.” Slaves like Sarah are given the choice to accept their enslavement, or risk torture and death by trying to escape. Dana realizes that Sarah has made her choice, and for her, it is a choice informed not only by fear of physical harm, but by the suffering she has already faced in seeing her own children sold into slavery, seeing her only remaining daughter, Carrie, remain a slave, seeing her grandchildren born into slavery, and her fear for their safety as well. Dana notes that someone like Sarah, the accepting and cooperative slave, will later be ridiculed in writings and studies of slavery. Dana herself had held such people in contempt, but only the firsthand experience of slavery has made her understand how easily a slave can be made, and how impossible it is to escape. After Dana fails to escape and is captured and brutally beaten by Tom Weylin, she learns firsthand the consequences of making a choice opposite to Sarah’s. She realizes that “[n]othing in my education or knowledge of the future had 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. . . . Why was I so frightened . . . that sooner or later, I would have to run again? . . . See how easily slaves are made?”
Even though the white slaveholders are the antagonists of the novel, Butler is very careful not to portray the Weylins as one-dimensional villains, but rather as flesh-and-blood human beings who behave according to the mores of their society. Butler, through her white characters, shows not only how easily slaves are made, but also how easily slaveholders are made. Thus, Rufus Weylin can grow up to rape a woman, see her husband sold, and purchase her for himself—but at the same time, feel love for Alice and for Dana. And Tom Weylin can beat his slaves with horsewhips, separate their families, and rape the women, because the society he lives in not only gives him the power to behave this way, but expects it of him. The beatings he gives to his slaves, and to Dana, are motivated not so much from sadism as from a calculated need he sees to maintain order and not lose his investments – that is, his slaves. At the same time, though, he is portrayed as man of his word, not just to whites but to blacks as well.
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