At the time of her death in 2006, Octavia E. Butler was considered the most successful African American woman science-fiction writer. She won two Nebula and two Hugo awards, science fiction’s highest honors. Her work is highly respected in mainstream literary circles, and she is the only science-fiction writer ever to have been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.
Butler wrote twelve novels, creating complex imaginative worlds peopled by hybrid characters who challenge the boundaries of race, gender, sexuality, and history. Her most important works include the Patternist series (1976-1984), which treats mental enslavement of regular humans by telepaths, and the Xenogenesis series (1987-1989), which features a postapocolyptic Earth in which humans must merge with aliens for survival. Her acclaimed short story collection, Bloodchild (1995), explores themes of power and control in various configurations.
As an African American woman raised by a single mother in an ethnically diverse, struggling neighborhood, Butler was fundamentally concerned with questions of identity, especially of gender, race, and class. Her writing repeatedly returns to themes of power and enslavement, often placing humans in symbiotic relationships with other beings. Kindred is her only novel to explicitly treat the institution of chattel slavery in the antebellum South.
Butler has explained that she first got the idea for Kindred when she heard a young African American saying that sometimes he wanted to kill the old African Americans who were complacent about unequal race relations but that doing so would entail killing his own parents and ancestors. Kindred is very much about facing family histories by understanding the decisions black people have made throughout the history of the United States, which is fundamentally based on the institution of slavery.
Kindred is difficult to categorize by genre, since it includes elements of both the slavery narrative and science fiction. The theme of time travel, common in science fiction, is used as a mechanism to place twentieth century characters in the situation of slavery, although the science of Dana’s travel is never explained. Less graphic in its depictions of brutality than most slave narratives, Kindred nevertheless has enormous emotional power since Dana experiences the institution of slavery from the perspective of a twentieth century person with whom a reader can identify. The novel has been read as a neoslave narrative and has been compared to Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1966) in working within this small subgenre. It can also be usefully placed within the much broader category of literature of memory. Butler herself categorized the novel as simply a “grim fantasy.”
Like most Butler novels, Kindred explores power dynamics in complex ways. The two interracial couples at the novel’s emotional core are doubles in that they include a white man and an African American woman. Dana and Alice look very similar, which is unsurprising in that Alice is Dana’s direct ancestor. Although Rufus and Kevin do not look particularly alike, they are linked in that on one of her returns to Los Angeles, Dana mistakes Kevin for Rufus and attacks him.
Rufus and Alice’s relationship is one of slavery and oppression in which Rufus seems to hold all the power. He is able to take away Alice’s freedom, and he rapes her repeatedly, impregnating her with several children. Through ongoing physical and emotional abuse, Rufus thinks he has succeeded in making Alice his own, yet Alice never entirely submits to him, and her suicide can be read as her final upsetting of their power balance.
Kevin and Dana’s relationship is a loving marriage into which they both enter freely, yet, even in 1976, they often face prejudice against their interracial union. Their time travel shows them that their relationship dynamic is also susceptible to uneven power relations, since it is surprisingly easy for them to play the parts of slave owner and slave. Indeed, small details from descriptions of the Franklins’ 1976 relationship are cast in a new light by the way they interact in the past; for example, Kevin’s present-day suggestions that Dana type his manuscripts (she hates to type) or get rid of some of her books (she loves her books) can be seen as a white man subtly disempowering an African American woman.
The main theme of the novel is the insidious nature of slavery throughout American history. When in Maryland, Dana admires Alice’s steely resolve in keeping a part of herself untouched by Rufus, since Dana feels the brutality of slavery wearing down her twentieth century feminist resolve with alarming speed. She also realizes that slave owners are just as easily made as slaves. Dana had imagined that Rufus, caught between his bad-tempered, abusive white father and the highly literate black woman who appears regularly to save his life might question the ethics of owning slaves. Instead, Rufus continues in his father’s footsteps and even makes the fatal mistake of attempting to rape Dana.
Dana’s loss of her arm when she kills Rufus and returns home represents the loss of her innocence in believing that race relations are different in the present. However, her experiences and those of her husband are given a hopeful tinge in the epilogue, as Kevin and Dana visit together the site of the Weylin plantation. Little trace remains of the people they knew in the past, but records show that the children of Rufus and Alice were not sold with the plantation, suggesting that they escaped continued enslavement. Hagar, another of Dana’s ancestors, lived to be freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.