If you read science fiction but aren’t acquainted with the fantastic work of Octavia Butler, please take yourself to a library RIGHT NOW and check out a few of her books. Hell, even if you don’t normally read sci-fi, read Octavia Butler.
Kindred tells the story of a modern Black woman, Dana, who is pulled back in time to the South by one of her ancestors. There, Dana has to confront the reality of slavery. Dana serves as a sort of translator-avatar for the reader—neither she nor any of us have ever experienced slavery first hand. She quickly realizes that if she behaves as a Black woman from the 1970s normally behaves, she’ll get herself killed. Her only real safety net in this strange world is her ancestor, Rufus, the son of a slaveholder and the reason she keeps traveling through time.
Rufus calls Dana to the past—not consciously or purposefully—every time his life is in danger. Dana saves him over and over again, knowing that if she does not, she may never be born. On her second trip, she meets the Black woman Rufus impregnates with her direct ancestor, and knows instinctively that the union between Rufus and Alice can’t by its nature be consensual. As she watches Rufus grow into a cruel man who shows occasional flashes of kindness, Dana contemplates letting him die, but knows that if she does, she may never exist. Even when her worst fears are confirmed and Rufus rapes Alice, she saves his life the next time he’s in danger.
While Kindred is somewhat of a time-travel thriller, its real genius lies in Butler’s characterizations and excellent world building. No character is simply evil or simply good. Even Rufus, who begins life as a kind boy scared of his father and grows into someone just as cruel as the man he once feared, has sympathetic moments. Despite his flaws, Dana cares for him the way a mother might care for a troubled child. He is a product of his time, but Butler doesn’t use that as an excuse to let him off the hook from consequences (and boy, are there consequences).
The way Butler characterizes the slaves Dana meets on Rufus’s plantation is equally important, if not more so. She shows us heartbreaking moments, such as Black children playing “slave trader,” runaways being mauled by dogs, vicious beatings, and families being torn apart when spouses or children are sold. Because Dana has gotten to know these families and these individuals, we mourn with her when tragedy strikes. It’s not all depressing, though. Butler also shows us moments of tenderness and love, and the many many ways slaves resisted their circumstances and found dignity and purpose in their lives outside of their owners’ desires.
Dana goes into the past thinking she could never be a slave, only to learn that she will do what it takes to survive, even if that means swallowing her pride and sacrificing some of her dignity. As she gets to know the slaves, she sees how strong they are. She realizes that they, too, are a product of their time, though their time doesn’t define who they are as individuals. Through Dana’s eyes, the reader is able to see the complex social dynamics and entrenched patriarchal and racist values and structure involved in slavery. As Dana experiences what it’s like to be a slave, so too does the reader—and therein is Kindred’s real power.
It’s impossible to read Kindred and not recognize the echoes of slavery that we, in the year 2018, live with today: entrenched racism that’s built into the very structure of our society. The book begins with a scene of Dana in the hospital, having lost her arm after her last trip to the past. The lost arm is the physical embodiment of the mental and emotional losses Dana has suffered throughout her journey. And like Dana, the reader will come away from the book having lost any illusion of what they may or may not have done during slavery. The loss of that illusion, hopefully, will shed light on the work that still needs to be done in dismantling racism here in the present.