Content Warning: slavery, rape, whipping, physical beatings (punching, kicking, slapping), the n-word, drunkenness, amputation.
Whew, that’s as many content warnings as I could think of, but you should expect so many with a book about slavery and racism. Kindred, a science fiction novel by the amazing Octavia Butler (whom I’ve written about before), was originally published in 1979.
The synopsis is so concise (and how often does that happen?) that I will use the back of the book:
Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned across the years to save him. After this first summons, Dana is drawn back, again and again, to the plantation to protect Rufus and ensure that he will grow to manhood and father the daughter who will become Dana’s ancestor. Yet each time Dana’s sojourns become longer and more dangerous, until it is uncertain whether or not her life will end, long before it has even begun.
The “contemporary” timeline is set in 1973, which would have been contemporary when Butler wrote the novel. Also, I’m not sure why the synopsis fails to mention that Dana’s husband, Kevin, is white. It makes a big difference because on one terrifying occasion, he ends up going back to the past with Dana — and as you can imagine, a white man’s and black woman’s experiences are drastically different on a plantation in the South. Kevin pretends to own Dana, which is done for her protection, but this reader certainly wondered when he would grow to like the idea of owning a slave. This is a brilliant way in which Butler discusses racism. In fact, after the couple have spent several weeks in the past, Kevin says the plantation isn’t that bad because the owner doesn’t seem to pay attention, but the slaves do their work. The novel is narrated by Dana, and this passage begins with Kevin:
“One [whipping] is too many, yes, but still, this places isn’t what I would have imagined. No overseer. No more work than the people can manage . . .”
” . . . no decent housing,” I cut in. “Dirt floors to sleep on, food so inadequate they’d all be sick if they didn’t keep gardens in what’s supposed to be their leisure time and steal from the cookhouse . . . And no rights and the possibility of being mistreated or sold away from their families for any reason — or no reason. Kevin, you don’t have to beat people to treat them brutally.”
“Wait a minute,” he said. “I’m not minimizing the wrong that’s being done here. I just . . .”
“Yes, you are. You don’t mean to be, but you are.”
Similarly, slaves are convinced that they could have it worse if they were with another owner. They mention it throughout the novel, and at first Dana feels superior to them until she sees the nearly-dead body of a slave who tried to escape and was captured.
Then there was a passage so chilling, so close to reality today that my blood boiled. Kevin and Dana discussed the different experiences in present-day (1973) California. Kevin’s sister lives in La Canada and married a Nazi-sympathizing man. Kevin says, “Now she lives in a big house in La Canada and quotes cliched bigotry at me for wanting to marry you.” In this scene, Kevin, the white man, wants sympathy for the racism he faces for marrying a black woman. Dana responds:
“My mother’s car broke down in La Canada once,” I told him. “Three people called the police on her while she was waiting for my uncle to come and get her. Suspicious character. Five-three, she was. About a hundred pounds. Real Dangerous.”
It’s amazing the way Kindred feels fresh and relevant at almost 40 years old. And the science fiction is the vehicle that bridges the racism in the 1800s and 1973. In 2017, people ask if racism is over, and why African Americans can’t “get over” slavery. In 1979, Octavia Butler knew that historical link was strong and doesn’t let go.
One way to show history affects us constantly is by making Dana spend most of her time in the 19th century instead of 1973. When Dana first is called to the past by Rufus, she is there for about 15 minutes, but Kevin said she only disappeared for seconds. When she returns to her home, it’s almost the exact same time. When Dana is transported to the 1800s and stays there for months, she returns to 1973 to find she disappeared for a few hours.
While Rufus ages about 20 years in the novel, each time Dana is sent home, it’s pretty much the same day, so if she’s whipped on the plantation and then goes back to 1973, she only stays in 1973 for a few hours before she is summoned back to the past — with raw lashes on her back and someone claiming she’s due for another beating because she hasn’t had one in years. For Dana, it’s been hours. It all adds up to Dana experiencing a lifetime of slavery in about two weeks, total.
In total, Dana is called to the past six times. Butler breaks the chapters into each time Rufus summons her and ends with her transportation back to 1973. Which, by the way, only happens when she’s almost killed. Yes, the chapter begins with Rufus almost dying and ends with Dana almost dying.
The novel is so compelling because Dana seems smarter, more capable, thanks to her 1970s knowledge about medicine and germs and what the future holds for slaves. But there are power struggles that render her powerless, and the feeling ended up in this reader, too, leaving me feeling exposed. Will Dana be raped, killed, die without medicine, etc. It’s such a fine line Dana and Rufus tiptoe with each other after they talk to each other and try to figure out what’s going on, and I was always waiting to see when things would snap.