“This is the biggest piece of abolitionist trash I ever saw.”
“No it isn’t. That book wasn’t written until a century after slavery was abolished.”
“Then why the hell are they still complaining about it?”Kindred, Octavia Butler
I thought I was completely over slave narratives until I read Kindred. This very special novel from Octavia Butler tells the story of Dana, a twenty-six year-old black woman who suddenly disappears from 1976 into the Antebellum past to save the life of the son of a Maryland slave-owner, Rufus. The story follows the life-threatening incidents throughout Rufus’s life which drag Dana through time-travel to save him. On her first trip,to the early 1800s, Dana saves a five-year old in the river, the next one, an eight-year-old from a fire. Rufus is a different age every time he calls out to Dana, growing into the man everyone expects him to be. Even Dana is disappointed repeatedly, but not surprised, all until the very end.
Though in a different way from my introduction to Butler’s work, Parable of the Sower (which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago) Kindred is important in helping us think about our humanity and the systems we establish in our societies today, and at any point in history. It helps us think about the roles we are expected to play and how they vary across time and space, yet still remain the same in various ways. Finally, to me, Kindred is an intimate metaphor for race relations in the United States.
“Not That Bad”: Intentional Take on Slavery Society
Kindred is an improved take on slave narratives, not the usual violence snuff content with which Hollywood has oversaturated our psyche. In fact, all the violence in Kindred is a pivotal point in the narrative itself, or to portray character development. It’s not simply used as a background effect, which adds to my admiration for the kind of artist that Butler is. Responsible fiction is important to me. Not saying to shy away from the darkness, but to engage it intentionally.
The Weylin plantation is “not as bad” as one would expect, as mentioned in a conversation between Dana and her husband Kevin, a white man who eventually attaches himself to her for one of the trips back to slavery and gets left behind in 1819. Dana took offense with his statement, as she should have, which I thought was a very ingenious way to address what some could have considered a “flaw” in the novel. When one thinks of the potential of traveling back in time to slavery, one expects horrors that would draw a jarring line between the past and the present. Yet, life on the plantation, as described by Butler in Kindred, is a simple reduced fraction of our current life, especially in a corporate capitalist world.
“Not That Different”: Slavery System and Contemporary Capitalism
Kindred focuses on the interactions between the enslaved people at work, and I could relate so much. The training scenes between Dana and Sarah in the kitchen made me think of those relaxed moments between coworkers when you first start a job and they’re giving you the lay of the land. You can’t tell me that the scenes about Mrs. Weylin rubbing her hand over spotless furniture trying to find dust and telling people how to do the jobs they are doing and have been doing well all their lives didn’t remind you of “new management” at literally any job. I loved Kindred as a slave narrative piece because it focused on the system and the people that any system creates to uphold it, as well as resist it. Once you look at it through this lens, the writing becomes even more powerful.
You see the tensions between the system and the people within the relationship between Dana and Rufus. Being his descendent, Dana is unequivocally linked to a man who she should completely despise, but doesn’t. Rufus struggles with boundaries until the point where he doesn’t. Ultimately he is a white man, which is a role, like any other. In the system, he must play his position, it’s a question of life and death for him too, if only in his mind. You see this in his unstated fear and refusal to put down in paper that he wanted to free the enslaved people on his property. For him, to do so and tell Dana as she eventually requests would be a death wish, as the only thing standing between the enslaved people he exploited and their freedom would be his flimsy life that Dana constantly had to nurse.
You also see this tension in who one becomes under a system in the relationship between Dana and Kevin. Imagine being in an interracial relationship in 1976, which is still uncomfortably close to the Jim Crow era, and being thrown back together in 1819. Imagine leaving them there and coming back FIVE years later. Regardless of who you are internally, the role people expect you to play in the times in which you’re alive affects you deeply, whether you go along with it or you renounce it. “What would you do if?” is easy to answer when you’re not in the thick of it. And honestly, Kevin didn’t even have to become the monster he could have been as a white man in 1819. All he had to do, like he started to do, was recognize some validity in the system.
“Well, I mean, they have a point,” may not be as bad as carrying the tiki torch or ramming your car into a protesting crowd, but it’s still violence. This is why that conversation between Dana and Kevin was so powerful when he said that he expected to see more out of a plantation. He missed the fact that the very existence of the system was a crime so atrocious that the physical violence that usually accompanied it was the putrid icing on a shitcake that nobody needed to live through. The violence is not what made slavery bad. The extreme attention to it in our contemporary films tends to send that message. I was happy to see Butler take a different route.
Linked Fate: A Metaphor for Race Relations in the US
I also saw the relationship between Dana and Rufus as a metaphor for race relationships in the US. Political scientists discuss the concept of linked fate as the tendency of black people to prioritize benefits to the group instead of individual interests when making electoral decisions. Yet, I would like to argue that linked fate is not solely about unity based on race for black people, it’s actually about unity based on the entire country. White people may not want to recognize it but black people do understand that our collective fate as Americans rests on us figuring out to work with each other. Black people certainly have a greater capacity for catastrophic imagination than white people. This is why you can see that people of color were a lot more alarmed when Trump walked on the scene, because they understood on a much deeper level the forces that animate America.
Dana fully understood who Rufus was, even as she made excuses for him, as they were not really for him, but for herself, so she could go on doing her job, saving him. Her job was not only for his sake, it was for hers as he was her ancestor. Him dying would have blinked her out of existence. Is there a better image to depict linked fate? The excuses she made for him, the infantilizing strategies she used with him even as he became a grown-ass slave owner, reminded me of the 2020 elections cycle.
Somehow out of a pool of damn near 50 people, we ended up with Joe Biden as the Democratic candidate. Though pundits love to blame the black vote, and even though they are accurate in reporting strong support for Joe Biden, they are not interested enough to understand a key underlying rationale of black people. Any conversation with an older black person will tell you, they understand that white people be whiting. Meaning, “who is electable?” is an instance of cognitive chess play for black people, having to understand the most likely route of action for white people and having to accommodate that, to “save America from itself.”
Whether being Rufus’s savior was pure ego and conjecture on the part of Dana, she constantly adapted her thinking and decision-making to his erratic behavior.She saved him over and over, when at times, a simple look away for five minutes and he would have been gone. She understood that Rufus dying didn’t mean automatic freedom for the people she’d grown to care for, it often just meant a recalibration within the same system.
Fear: Two Tales of A System
You see the comparison to contemporary race and power relations as well in the fears of these two characters. Though Rufus is infinitely powerful in his little kingdom, he is still terrified of being killed by Dana, which he uses as a defense for his betrayals of her trust. The idea that “if black people get a chance, they won’t hesitate to kill you,” is pervasive through all the white characters, yet they owned the monopoly on violence in that time. Even killing them would have been suicide.
To him, telling Dana he planned to free the people he enslaved would be cause for her to kill him, a thought that hadn’t even crossed Dana’s mind. It mirrors the absurd fear that white people have even of black people today, constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, terrified at the prospect of being treated as they have historically treated others.
This is how an armed policeman with backup can feel threatened by a twelve-year old boy and a BB gun and feel justified in killing him within seconds. You see it in the ubiquitous depiction of black men as wild beasts when no one has ever brought up the statistical evidence of interracial rape committed by white men throughout history. You can even peep game it in the “Karen” phenomenon or the ironic cries of “reverse-racism”, this thirst for looking oppressed.
Yet, even in the end, when Dana certainly had reason to, she hesitates to kill him. As he prepares to rape her, she lies still and thinks to herself, “I realized how easy it would be for me to continue to be still and forgive him even this. So easy, in spite of all my talk. But it would be so hard to raise the knife, drive it into the flesh I had saved so many times. So hard to kill…:” When pushed to our last limit, what will our generation do? Be still and forgive?
Sooo I don’t like the standard star rating🤷🏿♀️. I feel like every book was written for someone and I don’t want to uphold the capitalistic power of star ratings. So I will use my own emoji scale: 🤯(New Fave), 🤩(Freakin’ Loved It!), 😍(Loved It), 😌(Liked it), 🙃(Finished it, I guess…)
🤩🤩🤩🤩🤩: I Freaking Loved It!
This was a great second round of my #ButlerSummer, all about the Kween Octavia Butler. I didn’t even expect this review to even be this long but I had so much to say about it! Such a great read! I really made me want to go back and finish Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer which is also a very innovative take on slavery and the Underground Railroad.
Next coming up on #ButlerSummer will be Parable of the Talents. Right now I’m taking a nonfiction break and laughing along with Samatha Irby in Wow, No Thank You, which I will be reviewing once I’m done. Follow my #Bookstagram and the blog on IG @anraje for more!
Thriftbooks Gift Card Giveaway!
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Have you read my Haitian Heritage Month post about Writing about Vodou in Academia?
Let me know what you thought!