“Kindred” is a science fiction novel in which Octavia Butler, the author, showcases a non-traditional perspective of the antebellum South during the 1800s as well as the general culture of the west after the civil rights movement. Dana, Butler’s protagonist, experiences both the freedom of a middle-class suburbia out West contrasted with a much more deprived and captive lifestyle when she is taken back in time to a period characterized by slavery and inequality. Later, when Dana learns from her husband (Kevin), that she is sent back through time only when her late ancestor Rufus feels that’s his life is being threatened, she becomes conditioned to expect and accept the time traveling to the past which ultimately changes her whole persona as she begins to lose her true identity. The loss of her arm is both devastating and unavoidable for Dana. Published in the late 1900s, the ruthless nature of slavery in “Kindred” is indicative of an inevitable identity transformation for any survivors especially of the black woman intersection during this time period.
Though most slave narratives follow a third person perspective, Butler does so in first person. In doing so, readers aren’t able to distance themselves and make outside interpretations but rather are forced to experience the whole novel in the shoes of Dana. Butler however, does leave certain events up to the reader where they are required to develop their own schema for what caused the amputation of Dana’s limb etc. This intimate perspective enables readers to gain a lot of insight in regard to Dana’s intersections and challenges posed. Presented early on in the first chapter of the novel, Dana states, “on the day before, we had moved from our apartment in Los Angeles to a hose of our own a few miles away in Altadena. The moving was celebration enough for me” (Butler, 1979, pg. 5). From this statement, readers are able to clearly see Dana’s identity as a black woman coming from a working-class city culture, progressing towards a middle-class comfortable suburban life as a Black woman in society. Cultural codes are presented early on once the time traveling commences as Dana and her husband Kevin value books tremendously as prior to the civil rights movement Blacks were deprived of their ability to read or write which ultimately limits any opportunity for expanded social stratification by lower classes due to lack of education. After Dana’s second time-traveling experience, she plans with Kevin in the event her life is threatened on the next trip. Given the abnormality of the situation, the only resource the two have in order to gain insight on the times are books they have in their private in-home collection as well as books they are able to access through local public libraries (Butler, 1979). The books serve as a sort of survival guide that educates Dana on the culture and environment in which she is transported to. Dana’s African-American heritage serves as innate knowledge of required information needed to insure her survival and ultimate preservation of her heritage and existence.
Later in the novel Dana is able to transport Kevin beside her into the past. Butler when questioned about her choice to render Dana handicap states, “I couldn’t really let her come all the way back… and that, I think really symbolizes her not coming back whole. Antebellum slavery didn’t leave people quite whole” (Rowell, 1997, pg. 52). However, Butler does make it clear to readers that Kevin suffered in ways as well. Dana can also be found describing Kevin post time traveling for 5 years stating, “His face was lined and grim where it wasn’t hidden by the beard. He looked more than ten years older than when I had last seen him. There was a jagged scar across his forehead – the remnant of what must have been a bad wound. This place, this time, hadn’t been any kinder to him then it had been to me” (Butler, 1979, pg. 184). Intersections are clearly highlighted as Kevin is able to return to present with seemingly artificial scars whereas Dana loses a piece of herself that will ultimately remind her of the debilitating period for not only African-Americans, but black females as a whole. Butler attempts to bring light to the idea that all parties suffer from the horrors of such an awful time period. By having both characters return from the past shook up with altered identities and mannerisms suggest that although there was one perceived victim from the period in which slavery existed, suffering is circulated by all parties from the white abolitionists who had to make sacrifices as well as the white “masters” who have to live with the idea that they committed these sadistic acts that will be marked as one of the saddest periods in history.
After it is presented that Kevin is white, dialogue helps to give readers insight into the relationship they have, paired with the times. Kevin, as a white male is faced with the struggle of having to constantly justify or defend his “whiteness” when slavery is brought up. In one exchange with Dana, she described the encounter saying, “I turned to glare at him and he looked back calmly. It was a what-do-you-want-me-to-do-about-it kind of look” (Butler, 1979, pg. 100). This response represents the reaction of many whites who found themselves under scrutiny regardless of the circumstances or involvement they may have had in the time period of slavery. After Kevin is brought back in time, his perception shifts from that of not feeling accountable to a more remorseful and sympathizing view whenever the topic of slavery or inequality is brought up. Kevin is able to feel this remorse due to the fact when he is propelled back into time, his whole identity changes to an abolitionist who is so engulfed in the idea of a slavery free world that he is incapable of sympathizing and viewing the individual slaves that he encounters as whole people deserving of the same aid he is trying to offer to the black community as a collective.
When Dana is pictured inside of the hospital during the prologue, she is flabbergasted by the way in which sheriff deputies describe her injuries. The questions posed of “how did you hurt your arm” and “who hurt you” served as euphemisms for what ultimately described the absence of a whole limb (Butler, 1979, pg. 1). The deputies weren’t too welcoming to any of Dana’s justification partially due to the fact that Dana herself wasn’t able to fully process and understand the trauma she was experiencing herself. Due to Dana undergoing forms of oppression while time traveling, the root of the pain inflicted upon her that deputies are searching for is no longer present in current times. Dana’s situation is a microcosm for the divide that a hegemonic culture composed predominately of white middle and upper-class have with an oppressed black community full of slave successors (Carastathis, 2016).
Dana is able to live a life of freedom only after she is released from the uncontrollable time traveling at the hands of Rufus following his death. Kevin and Dana reflect stating, “they wouldn’t think we were so sane … we are, and now that the boy is dead, we have some chance of staying that way” (Butler, 1979, 264). The couple is able to go on living their lives always with a constant reminder of the past, but the idea that they will never have to go back into the past and relive first-hand the daily lives of their ancestors is the greatest relief offered to both readers and the protagonists throughout the novel. The dehumanizing nature of slavery in “Kindred” is not only a reflection of the 19th century, but of a misunderstood culture of oppressed people throughout history.