Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1907
After she has returned from her first trip into the antebellum South, Dana says to her husband, "I don't have a name for the thing that happened to me, but I don't feel safe anymore." The "thing that has happened to her" is history—as it is understood both literally and metaphorically.
On one level, Kindred is about literal history—early nineteenth-century life as seen by the protagonist through time travel. Dana is transported into this world by a violent process that has clear parallels to the seizure and transportation of slaves from Africa. The destabilizing experience of the past will cause her to lose an arm because of a problem with the physical act of time travel.
On a deeper level, the history that has "happened to her" is a metaphor; a figurative representation of the cultural meaning and construction of gender and race in her society. In this reading, Dana's time travel is symbolic of memory—a literalized version of one woman's reminder of the inequitable basis of the culture and marriage in which she considers herself an equal. In its metaphoric interpretation, the loss of her limb therefore signifies something much stronger and darker. It acts as a powerful comment on the sacrifices that black Americans, especially black female Americans, have to make in order to coexist in a hostile world.
Dana and her husband Kevin live in an intellectual world that enables them to avoid discussing race and class. Their relationship is based on the careful exclusion of voices that threaten to disrupt this veneer, exemplified by their marriage ceremony. Confronted by hostile and betrayed families, Dana and Kevin marry alone in Las Vegas. A coworker has left them a present when they return—"a blender." In these few sentences we can see a perfect encapsulation of the themes of repressed memory that run throughout Butler's novel.
Their decision to marry without the presence of their families stands for the cultural amnesia that is forced upon mixed race couples. Their literal ties to history—the older generations—must be cut off from the experience. At the same time, this rejection inevitably takes on a symbolic quality, forced by interpretations like that of Dana's uncle, who sees the marriage as a rejection of personal, social and racial identity.
Both excluded as well as voluntarily removed from her own cultural history, Dana gets married in Las Vegas. The choice of cities is significant. Las Vegas is the most modern of modern American cities, a place with no memories. Having married in a place without history, in a ceremony that excludes their familial roots, and in a relationship that optimistically ignores cultural history, Kevin and Dana return home.
Dana narrates without comment that they were greeted by a blender from her best friend and a check from the Atlantic Monthly. These objects suggest the uneasy balance of hope and pessimism that remains unresolved at the close of the novel. Dana has her check—her long awaited professional reward and acceptance. At the same time she has a blender—a physical symbol of her expected duties as a wife, as well as a slur on her racially "blended" marriage. She and Kevin settle into their marriage with history purged from everything but the bookshelves.
The trips to Maryland represent a forceful awakening for both of them, but especially for Dana. As she is drawn further and further into a life of slavery, the parallels between the 1800s and the 1970s provide a subtle reevaluation of her relationship to Kevin, irrevocably revealing the cultural history attached to the hierarchic relationship between men and women, and blacks and whites.
In order to make this possible, Butler first enacts a series of skillful defamiliarizations. For Dana as well as the reader, the historical and cultural concept of slavery must be stripped of its modern associations before it can be investigated more closely.
In the process of telling Dana's story, Kindred "unpacks" the metaphorization of enslavement in twentieth-century culture. The narrative records the ways in which slavery is used to stand in for any number of exploitative situations, such as the temporary agency, of which Dana says, "we regulars called it the Slave Market."
The narrator's description of her entrance into the Weylin compound marks an authorial attempt to defamiliarize the history of slavery, confounding Dana's expectations of the reality of slave life by shaking it out of its filmic and televisual representations. Dana and Kevin have a shelf-full of books on the subject and a close historical knowledge. Most importantly, they have absorbed the iconography of slavery—the visual and narrative conventions that are used to convey the American slavery story, from Uncle Tom's Cabin, to Gone With The Wind, Mandingo, and Roots. It is this iconography which must be undermined in order for serious critique to occur.
Roland Barthes's analysis of the Hollywood version of ancient Rome suggests that directors rely on three things to instantly create the illusion of classical life—the Caesar haircut, togas, and a pair of sandals. As he points out, during the heyday of these films, American audiences were happy to believe that any actor looked authentically Roman so long as this visual shorthand was in place.
Dana experiences a powerful lesson on the inadequacy of such shorthand. Traveling to the Weylin house, she is continually shocked by the reality of life in the antebellum South. She had expected horrors, and to a certain extent prepared for them as soon as she realized what was happening. Instead, she is shocked by the lack of horror—by the mundane, relatively benign situation that she thinks she sees around her. None of her visual expectations were correct. As she says:
I looked around for a white overseer and was surprised not to see one. The Weylin house surprised me too when I saw it in daylight. It wasn't white. It had no columns, no porch to speak of. I was almost disappointed.
Before Dana can learn the true nature of brutality she must unlearn what she thinks she knows about it. She must learn instead that the first and worst impact of enslavement is in the mind, and that it is this enslavement which makes the rest possible.
This in turn enables a major part of the problematizing impact that the past has on Dana and Kevin's present. If slavery is more than just chains and whippings, if it is greater than legal rights and physical emancipation, then the possibility must exist that Dana and Kevin are not entirely free from the legacy of mental enslavement—Kevin as master, Dana as chattel. The most terrifying thing for both of them is not the alienating unfamiliarity of the antebellum South, but its comfortable familiarity. As they are transported back to Maryland they are both horrified to realize that they are relieved. It feels like going home.
The familiarity of Maryland only compounds the suggestion that Dana is still trapped in mental slavery, a suggestion signaled throughout Kindred by the parallels between the heroine and the female slaves. Her apparent compliance with the Weylins causes the field workers to compare her to Sarah—the "Mammy" of the novel—on a constant basis.
On a basic level, punishment and fear make her reconsider the distance that separates her from her 1800s counterparts. Perhaps most powerfully, the blood relationship that Dana has with Alice cements the metaphoric linkage between the two time periods, Alice becoming not so much Dana's forbear as she is her alternate self. Dana's trips to the past can thus be read as an interrogation of a symbolized version of her life. As Rufus Weylin says when he looks at the two women:
Behold the woman … You really are only one woman. Did you know that?
The parallels between life in the early nineteenth and late twentieth centuries are not confined to race. Gender distinctions figure as an even greater boundary—cutting across race lines and enabling comparisons between otherwise very disparate groups. Alice, it seems, is not so different from Margaret Weylin, who is herself trapped in a period and place when "women were considered as children."
Like the slave girl who betrays Dana's escape to Tom Weylin, Margaret is caught in a horrible trap forged of self-protection, love, dependency and powerlessness. Margaret viciously defends her roles of wife, mother, and mistress because they are the only careers available to her, just as the looming specter of being sent into the fields, or sold down the river, ensures that the house slaves are unwary and distrustful, their well-being dependent on the bad luck of others.
As Butler's novel makes clear, gender, race, and social class form an intertwined set of prescriptive circumstances that cannot be separated from each other, and the lessons that Dana learns are not confined to those of race. A series of encounters, leading on from Rufus' bewildered exclamation, "But you can't be married!" hammer the point home. Sarah tries to understand Dana and Kevin's relationship to one another, and assumes it was like hers with her "husband"—an owner and lover who beat her. Margaret meets her outside Kevin's room and accuses her of being a whore. When Tom Weylin sees her, he winks in acknowledgment. This all just is business as usual.
Refusing to use slavery as a metaphor for marriage—a rhetorical technique common in some white feminist writing of the seventies—Butler illustrates the very real function of marriage as a constitutive part of the working dynamics of oppression. As all of the slaves and owners know, marriage ensures that a slave will not run away by promoting bonds of affection and family that ties them to the land. Having established this, the structure of the novel allows a metacommentary on the legacy of that race-gender/marriage-control dynamic in Kevin and Dana's marriage.
Kevin's cover story for the Weylins is that Dana is his slave—a literate black woman that works as his secretary. Too close to the truth of their situation, his story is symptomatic of his insensitivity to the injustices of American culture. A few pages later this is compounded when he expresses a wish to "go west" and Dana has to remind him about the existence of Native Americans.
Though the possible implications of his historical blindness and his cover story are clear, their meaning becomes shocking when Dana returns to 1976. As at the beginning of every section, their past is intercut with the immediate past of the narrator, foreshadowing and being commented upon the history sections. This time, the flashback is to Kevin's proposal. Without interpretive comment, Dana describes a relationship of need and economic necessity as well as love. She was broke and unemployed, and in this context Kevin offered to marry her. Putting the job and the marriage in one package, he concluded his proposal with the words, "I'd let you type all my manuscripts."
Dana's history is the forced remembering of the discriminatory thinking that lies behind Kevin's innocuous marriage proposal. History is the silence in Kevin and Dana's marriage—the power issues that they cannot talk about. They may love each other, but, as her amputated arm shows, if they fail to respect the reality of the power issues that divide them they run the risk of destroying themselves.
Source: Tabitha McIntosh-Byrd, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000. Tabitha McIntosh-Byrd is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6263
The American slave narrative is a literary form whose historical boundaries are firmly marked. While first-person narratives about oppression and exclusion will persist as long as racism persists, slave narratives ceased to be written when the last American citizen who had lived under institutionalized slavery died. The only way in which a new slave-memoir could be written is if someone were able to travel into the past, become a slave, and return to tell the story. Because the laws of physics, such as we know them, preclude traveling backwards in time, such a book would have to be a hybrid of autobiographical narrative and scientific fantasy. That is exactly the sort of book Octavia Butler imagined when she wrote Kindred, first published in 1979. Like all good works of fiction, it lies like the truth.
Kindred begins and ends in mystery. On June 9, 1976, her twenty-sixth birthday, Edana, a black woman moving with her white husband Kevin Franklin to a new house in a Los Angeles suburb, is overcome by nausea while unpacking cartons. Abruptly she finds herself kneeling on a riverbank; hearing a child's screams, she runs into the river to save him, applies artificial respiration, and as the boy begins breathing again she looks up into a rifle barrel. Again she sickens and is once more in her new house, but now she is soaked and covered in mud. This is the first several such episodes of varying duration which make up the bulk of the novel. Sometimes Dana (the shortened form of her name she prefers) is transported alone, sometimes with Kevin; but the dizzy spells that immediately precede her movements occur without warning and she can induce her return to Los Angeles only at the hazard of her life. To her horror Dana discovers during a second and longer episode of disorientation that she is moving not simply through space but through time as well—to antebellum Maryland, to the plantation of a slaveowner who is her own distant (though not nearly distant enough) ancestor. These trips, like convulsive memories dislocating her in time, occupy only a few minutes or hours of her life in 1976, but her stay in the alternative time is stretched as she lives out an imposed remembrance of things past. Because of this dual time level a brief absence from Los Angeles may result in months spent on the Maryland plantation, observing and suffering the backbreaking field work, persistent verbal abuse, whippings, and other daily cruelties of enslavement. Eventually Dana realizes that Rufus Weylin, the child she first rescues from drowning, periodically "calls" her from the twentieth century whenever his life is in danger. As he grows older he becomes more repugnant and brutal, but she must try to keep him alive until he and a slave woman named Alice Greenwood conceive a child, to be named Hagar, who will initiate Dana's own family line. Only at Weylin's death does Dana return permanently to 1976.
But she returns mutilated. The narrative comes full circle to the book's strange and disturbing opening paragraph: "I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm." Although the novel illuminates the paradoxes of Dana's homecoming—the degree to which her comfortable house in 1976 and the Weylin plantation are both inescapably "home" to her—Butler is silent on the mechanics of time travel. We know that Dana's arm is amputated in the jaws of the past, that time is revealed to be damaging as well as healing, that historical understanding of human crimes is never easy and always achieved at the price of suffering, that Dana's murderous relative, like Hamlet's, is "more than kin and less than kind." The loss of her arm becomes in fact, as Ruth Salvaggio has suggested, "a kind of birthmark," the emblem of Dana's "disfigured heritage." The symbolic meanings Kindred yields are powerful and readily articulable. The literal truth is harder to state. In The Time Machine (1895) H. G. Wells had his traveler display the shiny vehicle on which he rode into the future to verify the strange truth of his journey; in Kindred the method of transport remains a fantastic given. An irresistible psychohistorical force, not a feat of engineering, motivates Butler's plot. How Dana travels in time and how she loses her arm are problems of physics irrelevant to Butler's aims. In that respect Kindred reads less like Wellsian science fiction than like that classic fable of alienation, Kafka's Metamorphosis, whose protagonist simply wakes up one morning as a giant beetle, a fantastic eruption into the normal world.
Perhaps Butler deliberately sacrificed the neat closure that a scientific—or even pseudo-scientific—explanation of telekinesis and chronoportation would have given her novel. Leaving the novel's ending rough-edged and raw like Dana's wound, Butler leaves the reader uneasy and disturbed by the intersection of story and history rather than comforted by a tale that "makes sense." Certainly, Butler did not need to show off a technological marvel of the sort Wells provided to mark his traveler's path through time; the only time machine in Kindred is present by implication: it is the vehicle that looms behind every American slave narrative, the grim death-ship of the Middle Passage from Africa to the slave markets of the New World. In her experience of being kidnapped in time and space, Dana recapitulates the dreadful, disorienting, involuntary voyage of her ancestors, just her employment in 1976 through a temporary job agency—"we regulars called it a slave market," Dana says with grouchy irony—operates as a benign ghostly version of institutional slavery's auction block.
In many ways Kindred departs from Octavia Butler's characteristic kind of fiction. Most of her work, from her first novel Patternmaster (1975) through Clay's Ark (1984), has been situated in the future, often a damaged future, and has focused on power relationships between "normal" human beings (Homo sapiens) and human mutants, gifted with extraordinary mental power, who might generically be named Homo superior. More recently, in her prize-winning story "Bloodchild" (1984) and her novel Dawn (1987), Butler has shifted her attention to the intricate web of power and affection in the relationships between human beings and alien species. In all her science fiction she has produced fables that speak directly or indirectly to issues of cultural difference, whether sexual, racial, political, economic, or psychological. Kindred shares with Butler's other works an ideological interest in exploring relationships between the empowered and the powerless, but except for Wild Seed (1970), Kindred is her only novel situated in the past. And even Wild Seed—set in seventeenth-century Africa, colonial New England, and antebellum Louisiana—is strongly mythical in flavor and is populated by some of the same long-lived, psychically advanced characters who appear in her futuristic novels. Kindred is technically a much sparer story; the psychic power that draws the central character back in time to the era of slavery remains in the novel's background, and the autobiographical voice of the modern descendant of, witness to, victim of American slavery is foregrounded. Moreover, apart from the single fantastic premise of instantaneous movement through time and space, Kindred is consistently realistic in presentation and depends on the author's reading of authentic slave narratives and her visits to the Talbot County, Maryland, sites of the novel. Butler herself, when interviewed by Black Scholar, denied that Kindred is science fiction since there is "absolutely no science in it."
The term "science fiction" is, however, notoriously resistant to definition and is popularly used to designate a wide range of imaginative literature inspired and patterned by the natural sciences (chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy, biology), by such social sciences as anthropology, sociology, and psychology, and by pseudo-sciences like parapsychology and scientology. The proportion of science-fictional texts based on scrupulously applied scientific principles rather than on faulty science, pseudo-science, or wishful science is probably quite small. If, for instance, all the narratives and films premised on "starships" and the fantastic notion of faster-than-light travel were denied the title of "science fiction," the canon would shrink dramatically. By the most conservative of definitions—those which emphasize the natural sciences, rigorously applied to fictional invention—Kindred is not science fiction. Butler's own preferred designation of Kindred as "a grim fantasy" is a more precise indicator of its literary form and its emotional tenor. The exact generic label we assign Kindred may be, however, the least important thing about it. Like Kafka's Metamorphosis or Anna Kavan's Ice, Butler's novel is an experiment that resists easy classification by blurring the usual boundaries of genre. Inevitably, readers will wonder what provoked the author to adapt the form of a fantastic travelogue to a restoration of the genre of slave-memoir.
When she enrolled in a summer workshop for novice science fiction writers in 1970 at the age of twenty-three, Octavia Estelle Butler took a decisive step toward satisfying an ambition she had cherished since she was twelve. An only child whose father died when she was a baby, Butler was aware very early of women struggling to survive. Her maternal grandmother had stories to tell about long hours of work in the canefields of Louisiana while raising seven children. Her mother, Octavia M. Butler, had been working since the age of ten and spent all her adult life earning a living as a housemaid. As the author told Veronica Mixon in an interview just before Kindred appeared, the experiences of the women in her family influenced her youthful reading and her earliest efforts at writing: "Their lives seemed so terrible to me at times—so devoid of joy or reward. I needed my fantasies to shield me from their world." The powerful imaginative impulse that produced Kindred had its origin in the escapist fantasies of a child who needed to find or invent alternative realities. By temperament and by virtue of the strict Baptist upbringing her mother enforced, Butler was reclusive; imaginary worlds solaced her for the pinched rewards of the actual world, and books took the place of friends.
Kindred, however, is not an escapist fantasy. If as a girl Butler needed to distance herself from the grimness of her mother's life, she nevertheless always had her eyes open. What she saw as a child she later confronted and reshaped as a novelist. When her mother couldn't find or afford a babysitter, young Octavia was often taken along to work, as she told the interviewer from Black Scholar. Even then she observed the long arm of slavery: the degree to which her mother operated in white society as an invisible woman and, worse, the degree to which she accepted and internalized her status. "I used to see her going in back doors, being talked about while she was standing right there and basically being treated like a non-person, something beneath notice.… And I could see her later as I grew up. I could see her absorbing more of what she was hearing from the whites than I think even she would have wanted to absorb." Some of these childhood memories infiltrated the fiction she produced in her maturity; certainly, they shaped her purpose in Kindred in imagining the privations of earlier generations of black Americans who were in danger of being forgotten by the black middle class as well as ignored by white Americans. Butler's effort to recover something of the experience of the nineteenth-century ancestors of those who, like herself, grew up in the heady days of the 1960s civil rights movement was a homage both to those women in her family who still struggled for an identity and to those more distant relations whose identities had been lost. "So many relatives that I had never known, would never know," the contemporary black woman from California muses sadly early on in Kindred as she thinks of the bare names inked in her family Bible.
Although Dana's experiences when she is hurled into the midst of slave society are full of terror and pain, they also illuminate her past and freshen her understanding of those generations forced to be nonpersons. One of the protagonist's—and Butler's—achievements in traveling to the past is to see individual slaves as people rather than as encrusted literary or sociological types. Perhaps most impressive is Sarah the cook, the stereotypical "mammy" of books and films, whose apparent acceptance of humiliation, Dana comes to understand, masks a deep anger over the master's sale of nearly all her children: "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." Here we see literary fantasy in the service of the recovery of historical and psychological realities. As fictional memoir, Kindred is Butler's contribution to the literature of memory every bit as much as it is an exercise in the fantastic imagination.
The artfulness of Kindred is the product of a single-minded and largely isolated literary apprenticeship. In her younger years Butler's relatives paid little attention to what she read, as long as it wasn't obscene. Her teachers were baffled by and unreceptive to the science fiction stories she occasionally submitted in English classes. Her schoolmates simply thought her tastes in reading and writing strange, and increasingly Butler kept her literary interests to herself. In her adolescence she immersed herself in the science-fictional worlds of Theodore Sturgeon, Leigh Brackett, and Ray Bradbury, and the absence of black women writers from the genre did not deter her own ambitions: "Frankly, it never occurred to me that I needed someone who looked like me to show me the way. I was ignorant and arrogant and persistent and the writing left me no choice at all."
In the 1940s and 1950s no black writers and almost no women were publishing science fiction. Not surprisingly, few black readers—and, we can assume, very few black girls—found much to interest them in the science fiction of the period, geared as it was toward white adolescent boys. Some of it was provocatively racist, including Robert Heinlein's The Sixth Column (1949), whose heroic protagonist in a future race war was unsubtly named Whitey. The highest tribute paid to a character of color in such novels was for the author to have him sacrifice his life for his white comrades, as an Asian soldier named Franklin Roosevelt Matsui does in The Sixth Column, as does the one black character in Leigh Brackett's story "The Vanishing Venusians" (1944). Other books tried resolutely to be "colorblind," imagining a future in which race no longer was a factor; such novels often embodied the white liberal fantasy of a single black character functioning amiably in a predominantly white society. Jan Rodricks, the last survivor on earth in Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End (1953), is a representative instance of the black character whose blackness supposedly doesn't matter; but the novel's one overt comment on race is a flippant allusion to a future reversal of South African apartheid in which whites are the victims of black discrimination—the stereotypical white conservative fantasy.
A diligent reader in the 1950s, searching for science fiction novels with something more than a patronizing image of black assimilation on white terms, could have turned up only a few texts in which black characters' blackness was acknowledged and allowed to shape the novel's thematic and ideological concerns. Perhaps the most interesting example is a chapter in a book that Butler read in her youth, Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles (1950). Titled "Way in the Middle of the Air," the chapter describes a mass emigration of black Southerners to Mars in the year 2003. The Southern economy and the cultural assumptions of white supremacy are devastated when the entire black populace unites to ensure that all members of the community can pay their debts and arrive at the rocket base in time for the great exodus. Barefoot white boys report in astonishment this unanticipated strategy for a black utopia: "Them that has helps them that hasn't! And that way they all get free!" In a speech that ironically skewers the myth of progress in the history of black America, one petulant white man complains:
I can't figure why they left now. With things lookin' up. I mean, every day they got more rights. What they want, anyway? Here's the poll tax gone, and more and more states passin' anti-lynchin' bills, and all kinds of equal rights. What more they want? They make almost as good money as a white man, but there they go.
"Way in the Middle of the Air" may be the single most incisive episode of black and white relations in science fiction by a white author. But its very rarity demonstrates how alien the territory of American science fiction in its so-called golden age after the second world war was for black readers and for aspiring writers like Octavia Butler.
Butler's formative years and her early career coincide with the years when American science fiction took down the "males only" sign over the entrance. Major expansions and redefinitions of the genre have been accomplished by such writers as Ursula K. LeGuin, Joanna Russ, Pamela Sargent, Alice Sheldon (writing under the pseudonym of James Tiptree, Jr.), Pamela Zoline, Marge Piercy, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Butler herself. The alien in many of the new fictions by women has been not a monstrous figure from a distant planet but the invisible alien within modern, familiar, human society: the woman as alien, sometimes more specifically, the black woman, or the Chicana, or the housewife, or the lesbian, or the woman in poverty, or the unmarried woman. Sheldon's famous story "The Women Men Don't See" (1974), about a mother and daughter who embark on a ship with extraterrestrials rather than remain unnoticed and unvalued on earth, is a touchstone for the reconception of the old science-fictional motifs of estrangement and alienation. In a writers' forum Butler has commented on the paradoxical poverty of imagination in science-fictional representations of the human image: "Science fiction has long treated people who might or might not exist—extraterrestrials. Unfortunately, however, many of the same science fiction writers who started us thinking about the possibility of extraterrestrial life did nothing to make us think about here-at-home human variation." As American women writers have abandoned the character types that predominated in science fiction for a richer plurality of human images, they have collectively written a new chapter in the genre's history.
But the dramatic numbers of women writers subverting and transforming the conventions, stereotypes, and thematic issues of science fiction have not been matched by an influx of black writers of similar proportions. Samuel R. Delaney, the first and most prolific black American writer to publish science fiction, beginning in 1962 with The Jewels of Aptor, has specialized in stylish and complexly structured fictions more closely tied to European literary theory than to black experiences. Another of the handful of black North Americans writing in the allied genres of science fiction and heroic fantasy is Charles Saunders, a Pennsylvanian transplanted to Canada. Saunders's most distinctive literary innovation has been his effort to write fantasies set in Africa and based on historical research into precolonial cultures and myths. His hero Imaro appears in several novels and is meant to replace the Tarzan-image of the white noble savage with an authentic African hero; he has also produced some engaging short stories centered on a woman warrior of Dahomey named Dossouye. Most recently Jewelle Gomez has begun publishing a loosely connected set of fantasies about an escaped slave from 1850 who becomes a vampire and extends her life over the next several centuries; the character functions, according to Gomez, as "a super heroic black woman who interprets our lives through a phenomenal perspective."
In an essay called "Why Blacks Don't Read Science Fiction," Saunders proposes that black writers of science fiction and fantasy remain few because the black readership has grown little since the 1950s. New readers of science fiction, he suggests, frequently come to the fiction by way of the nonprint media, and science fiction television and cinema remain overwhelmingly white and uninviting to young black audiences. Furthermore, black readers
who share the common demographic characteristics of white science fiction readers (i.e., young, educated, middle-class) tend to be more interested in political and sociological works along with the fiction of black writers like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. To them, science fiction and fantasy may well seem irrelevant to their main concerns.
Saunders concludes that, despite his own interests in African-based heroic fantasy, the prospects of black science fiction are dim. While welcoming the enlargement of the genre's racial horizons—and he singles out Butler's early fiction as the chief instance of a black presence in science fiction—he fears that a specifically black science fiction will share the fate of so-called blaxploitation movies of the 1970s and be justifiably shortlived.
Perhaps Saunders would have been more sanguine about the possibility of serious black science fiction if Kindred had been available when he wrote his essay. If any contemporary writer is likely to redraw science fiction's cultural boundaries and to attract new black readers—and perhaps writers—to this most distinctive of twentieth-century genres, it is Octavia Butler. More consistently than any other black author, she has deployed the genre's conventions to tell stories with a political and sociological edge to them, stories that speak to issues, feelings, and historical truths arising out of Afro-American experience. In centering her fiction on women who lack power, suffer abuse, and are committed to claiming power over their own lives and to exercising that power harshly when necessary, Butler has not merely used science fiction as a "feminist didactic," in Beverly Friend's term, but she has generated her fiction out of a black feminist aesthetic. Her novels pointedly expose various chauvinisms (sexual, racial, and cultural), are enriched by a historical consciousness that shapes the depiction of enslavement both in the real past and in imaginary pasts and futures, and enact struggles for personal freedom and cultural pluralism.
At the same time, Butler has been eager to avoid turning her fiction into polemic. Science fiction is a richly metaphorical literature. Just as Mary Shelley in Frankenstein invented a monstrous child born from a male scientist's imagination as a metaphor for the exclusion of women from acts of creation, and just as Welles's Time Machine used hairy subterranean Morlocks and effete above-ground Eloi as metaphors for the upstairs-downstairs class divisions of Victorian England, so Butler has specialized in metaphors that dramatize the tyranny of one species or race or gender over another. But her work does not read like fiction composed by agenda. White writers, she has pointed out, tend to include black characters in science fiction only to illustrate a problem or as signposts to advertise the author's distaste for racism; black people in most science fiction are represented as "other." All her fiction stands in quiet resistance to the notion that a black character in a science fiction novel is there for a reason. In a Butler novel the black protagonist is there, like the mountain, because she is there. Although she does not hesitate to harness the power of fiction as fable to create striking analogies to the oppressive realities of our own present world, Butler also peoples her imagined worlds with black characters as a matter of course. Events and lives are usually in crisis in her books, but she celebrates racial difference.
While Butler's frequent use of black women as protagonists has often been noticed, it is also important that there are always numbers of characters of color in her novels. There is enough of a critical mass of racial and sexual and cultural diversity in any Butler novel to make reading it different from the experience of reading the work of almost any other practicing science fiction writer. One of the exciting features of Kindred is that so much of the novel is attentive not to the exceptional situation of an isolated modern black woman in a white household under slavery but to her complex social and psychological relationships with the community of black slaves she joins. Despite the severe stresses under which they live, the slaves constitute a rich human society: Dana's proud and vulnerable ancestor Alice Greenwood; the mute housemaid Carrie; Sarah, the cook who nurses old grievances while kneading down the bread dough; young Nigel, whom Dana teaches to reach from a stolen primer; Sam James the field hand, who begs Dana to teach his brother and sister; Alice's husband Isaac, mutilated and sold to Mississippi after a failed escape attempt; even Liza the sewing woman, who betrays Dana to the master and is punished by the other slaves for her complicity with the white owners. Although the black community is persistently fractured by the sudden removal of its members through either the calculated strategy or the mere whim of their white controllers, that community always patches itself back together, drawing from its common suffering and common anger a common strength. It is the white characters in the novel who seem odd, isolated, pathetic, alien, problematic.
In some ways the most problematic white man in Kindred is not the Maryland slaveowner but the liberated, modern Californian married to Dana. Kevin Franklin is a good man. He loves Dana, loathes the chattel system that governs every feature of antebellum life in Maryland, and works on the underground railroad during the period when he is trapped in the past. Yet he is by gender and race implicated in the supremacist culture. Throughout the novel Butler ingeniously suggests parallels between Rufus Weylin and Kevin Franklin: their facial expressions, their language, even after a time their accents merge in Dana's mind so that at times she mistakes one for the other. One of the novel's subtlest touches is the chapter in which Dana is obliged to become Rufus Weylin's secretary and handle his correspondence and bills; in 1976 Kevin had, unsuccessfully but still revealingly, tried to get his wife to type his manuscripts and write his letters for him. When both Kevin and Dana are in nineteenth-century Maryland at the same time the only way they can spend a night together is for them to make a public pretense of being master and slave and seemingly to accept the ethos of black women as the sexual property of white men. But as Dana realizes, the more often one plays such a role, the nearer the pretending comes to reality: "I felt almost as though I really was doing something shameful, happily playing whore for my supposed owner. I went away feeling uncomfortable, vaguely ashamed." And, she fears, Kevin begins to fit into the white, male, Southern routines far too easily. Shuttling between the two white men in her life, she is aware not only of the blood link between herself and Rufus but of the double link of gender and race that unites Rufus and Kevin. The convergence of these two white men in Dana's life not only dramatizes the ease with which even a "progressive" white man falls into the cultural pattern of dominance, but suggests as well an uncanny synonymy of the words "husband" and "master."
The date of Dana's final return to Los Angeles is July 4, 1976, the bicentennial of the founding of the United States. Her fantastic journey becomes an occasion for meditating on American cultural history. What has been forgotten or trivialized or sentimentalized in the public celebrations of the past reemerges unvarnished in Dana's homecoming on the fourth of July. Dana comes back to southern California with a truer understanding of black history in America than the sanitized versions in the popular media had ever given her. Predictably, she scorns the image of the plantation derived from Gone with the Wind, but she also learns the inadequacy of even the best books as preparation for the first-hand experience of slavery. Dana's literacy, her education, and her historical knowledge sometimes lull her into a false sense of security. In one passage, she records her pleasure in the friendly atmosphere of the cookhouse where the slaves gather to eat and talk, usually free from white oversight. There she observes "a girl and boy, sitting on the floor eating with their fingers. I was glad to see them there because I'd read about kids their age being rounded up and fed from troughs like pigs. Not everywhere, apparently. At least, not here." Although she does not name her literary source, almost certainly Dana is recalling an episode from chapter 5 of Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative (a work Butler read carefully as part of her research for Kindred) where Douglass describes feeding time at Colonel Lloyd's plantation:
Our food was coarse corn meal boiled. This was called mush. It was put into a large wooden tray or tough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush; some with oyster-shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons.
Mistakenly, because the food and the treatment of children is better than Douglass's Narrative seemed to promise, Dana behaves as if the cookhouse is a sanctuary. That error in judgment leads to her first vicious flogging when she is detected in the act of teaching slave children to read. After her second shipping by Rufus Weylin's father following her attempted flight from the plantation, she reflects angrily as another slave woman tries to salve her wounds, "Nothing in my education or knowledge of the future had helped me to escape." Books had not taught her why so many slaves accepted their condition, nor had books defined the kind of bravery possible in the powerless and humiliating situation of being owned and in the face of the ruthless means by which owners protected their investments.
Films, Dana finds, are an even less reliable guide to the past. About the tendency of Hollywood production values to insulate viewers even from material filmed with purported historical or documentary intent, Dana is withering. She recalls witnessing the beating of a slave hunted out one night by white patrollers and how she crouched in the underbrush a few yards away from the man's young daughter. The slave's crime was being found in bed with his own free-born wife without written permission from his owner:
I could literally smell his sweat, hear every ragged breath, every cry, every cut of the whip. I could see his body jerking, convulsing, straining against the rope as his screaming went on and on. My stomach heaved, and I had to force myself to stay where I was and keep quiet. Why didn't they stop!
"Please, Master," the man begged. "For Godsake, Master, please.…"
I shut my eyes and tensed my muscles against an urge to vomit.
I had seen people beaten on television and in the movies. I had seen the too-red blood substitute streaked across their backs and heard their well-rehearsed screams. But I hadn't lain nearby and smelled their sweat or heard them pleading and praying, shamed before their families and themselves. I was probably less prepared for the reality than the child crying not far from me.
At such moments of first-person intensity, Kindred reveals its own literary kinship with the memoirs of ex-slaves published in the nineteenth century, for Butler's greatest achievement in the novel is her collapsing of the genres of the fantastic travelogue and the slave narrative. Her incorporation into Kindred both of narrative strategies of the classic memoirs of former slaves and of occasional deliberate verbal and situational echoes of those texts establishes a degree of authenticity and seriousness rarely attained by contemporary writers mining the conventions of the Wellsian time-travel story.
Reconstructing Womanhood, Hazel V. Carby's feminist revision of the traditions of American black women's writing, contrasts the image of the slave woman as victim in men's slave memoirs with a very different image that emerges in such autobiographies as Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Lucy Delany's From the Darkness Cometh Light, and Mary Prince's The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave. In such narratives, Carby argues, women define themselves as agents rather than as mere victims, and they record the brutality of their treatment by their owners in order to emphasize their resistance to victimization and their claim to freedom. Butler's fictive autobiographer Dana extends that ideology and aesthetic of the slave woman's memoir into the late twentieth century. Much of Kindred is a record of endurance, but there are also numerous acts of heroism and humanity, culminating in the act of manslaughter in self-defense which finally liberates Dana, at terrible cost, from her tyrannical ancestor.
As she discovers the terrible link to her own past which requires her to keep the oppressive slavemaster alive until her own family is inaugurated, Dana works out the ethic of compromise which Harriet Jacobs tolerated to safeguard her children and herself. Despite personal repugnance and culturally induced shame, Jacobs compromised the sexual standards imposed on nineteenth-century women in order to maintain a central core of integrity and freedom of will; she reluctantly practiced a situational ethics dictated by the extreme circumstances which constrained the ethical choices of black women under slavery. As several black feminist commentators on Jacobs's memoir have recently argued, the crucial sentence around which our understanding of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl must be fashioned is her retrospective revision of the ethical norms that govern a woman's choices and behaviors under systematic oppression: "Still, in looking back, calmy, on the events of my life, I feel that the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others." Butler's Dana must move painfully toward a similar ethical relativism as she discovers that the moral choices of a late twentieth-century black feminist cannot be exercised with impunity in the world of the slave state. At earlier stages of her experience in Maryland, she tells her white husband, she is able to cling precariously to the ethical imperatives of her own world, though even then her perspective and choices are bound to be fundamentally different from his:
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 nineteen seventy-six shielding and cushioning eighteen nineteen for me. But now and then … I can't maintain the distance. I'm drawn all the way into eighteen nineteen, and I don't know what to do.
The longer she remains in the nineteenth century, the thinner the protective cushioning becomes until Dana finds herself five years later (in Maryland time) divided against herself, torn between absolute standards and pragmatic choices. The Dana of 1976 California finds it unthinkable that she would assist in the sexual exploitation of another black woman by a white man, but the Dana of 1824 Maryland finds herself in a moral trap. Rufus Weylin asks her to persuade Alice Greenwood, her own great-great-grandmother, to go to bed with him without compulsion. Although she knows that her family tree is traceable to a child that Rufus will one day father on Alice, Dana initially finds Rufus's proposal that she act as pander repulsive, and she angrily rejects it. But when Rufus threatens Dana that he will beat Alice—perhaps even beat her to death—if she refuses his advances and if Dana does not try to change Alice's mind, she is caught in Harriet Jacobs's dilemma: "He had all the low cunning of his class. No, I couldn't refuse to help the girl—help her avoid at least some pain. But she wouldn't think much of me for helping her this way. I didn't think much of myself." The choice demanded by the situation will satisfy neither Dana's own internal standards nor the larger feminist principle of sisterhood; she suffers the same shame that Jacobs felt, but she also adopts the compromise.
In the end, what may be most powerful and valuable for readers of Kindred is the simple reminder that all that history is not so very long ago. In foreshortening the distance between now and then, Butler focuses our attention on the continuity between past and present; the fantasy of traveling backwards in time becomes a lesson in historical realities. We may also be reminded that historical progress is never a sure thing; in one of her brief respites in 1976 between bouts of enslavement in the nineteenth century, Dana reads the memoirs of Jewish survivors of the Nazi death camps: "Stories of beatings, starvation, filth, disease, torture, every possible degradation. As though the Germans had been trying to do in only a few years what the Americans had worked at for nearly two hundred." The systematic horrors of American slavery, we must remember, provide a model for later programmed oppression and genocide. Like Dana and Kevin, the reader of Kindred may discover a closer kinship with the characters and events of the antebellum South than we often care to admit. And just as Dana feels compelled in the novel's epilogue to travel to contemporary Maryland and "touch solid evidence that those people existed," readers of this fantastic invention may also find their understanding of history enriched and deepened. In Kindred Octavia Butler has designed her own underground railroad between past and present whose terminus is the reawakened imagination of the reader.
Source: Robert Crossley, Introduction to Kindred, Beacon Press, 1988, pp. ix-xxiii.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 972
[Dana, the] heroine of Kindred, is … at the mercy of an outside force. An unpublished writer, she is working at a mind-stultifying job with a temporary employment firm when she meets and marries co-worker and fellow author Kevin. They are just setting up housekeeping in a new residence when Dana is suddenly pulled back to the year 1815 to save a little boy, Rufus Weylin, from drowning. But this tale goes far beyond a mere recitation of twentieth-century woman facing nineteenth-century life, for while Kevin and Rufus are white, Dana is black. Even more important, Rufus, son of a tyrannical plantation owner and his hysterical, ill-natured wife, is also one of Dana's ancestors; and he has a link with her so powerful that it calls her back from the present to save him from intense moments of danger throughout his entire lifetime. Thus, a contemporary black woman comes to experience the life of a slave on a Maryland plantation, although she does return to the twentieth century sporadically and briefly throughout the novel at those moments of absolute terror when the belief in her own imminent death triggers an involuntary return.
All in all, she makes six trips into the past, called each time by Rufus's near encounter with death. Each return Dana makes to the present is triggered by the possibility of her own death. Once she returns during a hideous beating; another time she causes the return by desperately slitting her own wrists. Each visit to the plantation accounts for from a few minutes to several days in Dana's own time, but comprises months to years of the past. Thus, she follows Rufus from childhood to adulthood while she scarcely ages herself. Throughout, she feels a moral responsibility for Rufus: "Someday, he would be the slave-holder, responsible in his own right for what happened to the people who lived in those half-hidden cabins. The boy was literally growing up as I watched—growing up because I watched and because I helped to keep him safe." Dana goes on to question her role as the guardian for Rufus: "A black to watch over him in a society that considered blacks subhuman, a woman to watch over him in a society that considered women perennial children."
Dana's role in this society, as subhuman and perennial child, is reinforced in the third trip when Kevin, who has been embracing Dana, unwittingly transfers with her. In Rufus's world, they cannot admit to being man and wife and are forced to enact the role of master and slave. And Dana fears the corruptive potential of such a civilization, even on her husband, if he should be stranded there.…
How does Dana keep it from marking her? She doesn't. It marks her, although she manages to hang onto her sanity through continual reexamination of her situation.…
But living does not always look better. Dana's third trip ends with her being beaten so badly that she suddenly returns to the present without Kevin. When she next visits the plantation (on the fourth trip), eight days have elapsed for her, and five years have gone by for Kevin. He has left the plantation, gone north, and Dana must now send for him and await his return. At one point, when the waiting becomes unbearable and she discovers that Rufus has never mailed her letters to Kevin, she attempts to run away. She is caught. Nothing in her twentieth-century education or experience had prepared her to succeed.…
Perhaps the twentieth century does not help her because she does not utilize it effectively. Dana … [is] able to carry material into the past. In fact, she has a bag tied to her, ready to go the moment she is transported. And what is in the bag? All the things she needs and misses from civilization: toothbrush, soap, comb, brush, knife, aspirin, Excedrin, sleeping pills, antiseptic, pen, paper and pencil, and spare clothing. Prior to one of the trips she also packs a history of slavery and maps of Maryland, but this outrages Rufus, who demands that she burn them.
And so Dana works and survives as a slave, learning all the skills necessary to survive as a house worker, but not showing sufficient stamina to succeed as a field hand. Her twentieth-century ability to read antagonizes Rufus's father, who fears education for his slaves, and causes danger to herself and others when she teaches the slave children to read. Her knowledge of history is no help and only stands her in good stead by preventing her from killing Rufus until he has raped her black great-grandmother, assuring the inception of Dana's family tree.
Finally, when Dana does act, there are repercussions. She murders Rufus (who well deserves it), but justice does not then triumph. His death causes the end of life on that plantation, and the slaves are then sold off. Dana does not get away unscathed, either, losing an arm in her final wrench from past to present.
No one would intellectually argue against the proposition that life is better today for both men and women, but few realize what ... [this novel has] didactically presented: that contemporary woman is not educated to survive, that she is as helpless, perhaps even more helpless, than her predecessors. Just as Philip Wylie pointed out in The Disappearance, a world of men might be strife-ridden, but it would go on; a world of women would grind to a halt, sans transportation (no pilots, bus drivers, train engineers), sans full grocery shelves (no farmers or truckers), sans adequate health care (no ambulance drivers, paramedics, few doctors). Men understand how the world is run; women do not. Victims then, victims now.
Source: Beverly Friend, "Time Travel as a Feminist Didactic in Works by Phyllis Eisenstein, Marlys Millhiser, and Octavia Butler," in Extrapolation, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 50-5.
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