The novel Kindred by Octavia Butler was published in June 1979. It is a science-fiction slave narrative that uniquely uses time travel to connect present-day America with pre-Civil War America.The African-American protagonist, Dana, and her white husband, Kevin, are both transported back in time to a slave plantation. This time traveling doesn’t initially give any explanation other than Dana becoming dizzy and fainting. The book is initially set in 1976, but the two characters are transported over 160 years back to before the Civil War. There, Dana meets her ancestors and is forced to come to reality with the horrors and brutality of the slave plantation and the control that the masters have over the slaves. She must accept the chains of slavery even though she is used to living as a free person in the present. Dana and Kevin flash in time between their present and their past and have to face the differences and similarities between the two times. Both of them must also embrace the differences in their positions in antebellum America due to their contrasting skin colors and assume the different roles that their skin colors give them in society. Kindred tackles many of the issues on how the past institution of slavery has affected present-day America through these comparisons between the past and the present.
Historical and Cultural Context
This novel was published in 1979 about a decade after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and around fifteen years after momentous governmental laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. During this decade of extreme pushes for civil rights, many historians were reexamining slave history in order to figure out how exactly this idea of slavery fit into the history of the United States. Some scholars put Kindred in the middle of that debate. This decade also brought a lot of attention to the idea of a collective memory of history and Kindred also comments on that debate by giving her protagonist direct experience of what happened during that era. The decade also brought along many groups and movements such as the Black Power Movement. Butler also makes her own comments on these groups by showing the brutality that slaves were faced with and their resistance against this brutality. Specifically, in some interviews, Butler says that Kindred was written as a response to her hearing a young man from this Black Power Movement saying that he was disappointed in his ancestors being subordinate to his owners rather than fighting back as the Black Power Movement has tried to do. Thus Butler wrote Kindred to tackle this question by sending a modern person back in time to show how harsh the conditions were and how difficult it was to fight back without simply being killed.
Furthermore, Kindred definitely takes draws from all of the slavery literature that comes before it. The first-person description of slavery and all of its horrors draws from the history of autobiographical slave narratives and other abolitionist slave stories. The story follows the same pattern as the slave narratives. From Dana’s loss of purity to attempts to run away, the novel mirrors these slave narratives and gives the story a sense of reality. Some critics call these stories a “neo-slave narrative” where the old autobiographies have evolved to describe the horrors of slavery, but also the continuing discrimination against African Americans. The science fiction aspects of Kindred were also familiar to Butler due to her past science-fiction series called the Patternist series. This book, along with all of Butler’s works, focus on some sort of power dynamic between two different types of people, whether that be between two different species or two different races. This type of dynamic was very familiar to Butler as she grew up in poverty with her parents working as servants. Butler’s life itself matches Dana’s life in many ways as well. Both of them wanted to become writers at a young age but were very restricted due to their race.
Themes and Styles
One of the rhetorical strategies Butler uses is the first-person narration by Dana. This allows readers to fully witness the harshness and brutality of the slave era along with Dana and relate to her emotions better. Although Butler herself said that she “was going to have to do a somewhat cleaned-up version of slavery”, the story still reads as an authentic view of the slave experience. Kindred says a lot about the past as the main characters have to experience it for themselves. It is extremely realistic in its depiction of slaves and slave communities, almost akin to a true slave narrative.
The book comments on many different interrelated themes about slavery and history. One of the most prominent themes is the strong female protagonist in Dana and her resistance to stereotypes, such as the sexualization of African-American women. This strong female protagonist in Dana is compared to another slave woman, Alice, who is taken advantage sexually by the master of the slave plantation. As Butler explains in an interview, she had initially intended for the protagonist of her story to be a male, but she felt that a male character that was transported back would be killed before he had “time to learn the rules” because black males were “perceived as dangerous”. She states that by having a female main character “she might be beaten, she might be abused, but she probably wouldn’t be killed” and that the “sexism, in a sense, worked in her favor”. In the story, Dana resists white male domination in both the past and the present through her writing.
Butler also comments on the repression of these horrible memories and America’s attempt to forget the slave era in many ways and symbolizes this by having Dana lose one of her arms towards the end of the novel. Butler herself says that “antebellum slavery didn’t leave people quite whole” and that Dana’s loss is a metaphor for the damage that slavery has done to modern African-Americans. Butler continues to criticize American history by setting her story two centuries after the Declaration of Independence to suggest that the freedom of slaves was equivalent to the Americans freeing themselves from the British. Butler also comments on the present day as Dana can compare her enslavement in the old south to problems such as police violence or domestic abuse. For example, Dana compares her position of poverty and working out of a labor agency as a “slave market” due to its similarity to historical slave auctions.
The literature surrounding Kindred and its implications are vast. Many critics talk about what Kindred says about history such as David LaCroix’s article “To Touch Solid Evidence: The Implicity of Past and Present in Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred”. Here, LaCroix talks about how the present is deeply connected to the past even though people cannot control what happened in history before they were born. Some articles, such as Marc Steinberg’s article “Inverting History in Octavia Butler’s Postmodern Slave Narrative” talk about how Butler uses the unique genre and non-linear time structure of her work to bring new ideas and perspectives about slave narratives. He describes how “Butler assumes a non-Western conceptualization of history- one in which history is cyclical, not linear- in order to demonstrate ways in which certain forms of race and gender oppression continue late into the twentieth century and beyond” which supports the argument in LaCroix’s article.
Other literary critics focus on the theme of feminism. Angelyn Mitchell talks about the rewriting of female slave narratives as Butler “engages and revises the dominant themes of the nineteenth-century female emancipatory narrative—specifically, female sexuality, motherhood, individualism.” Similarly, Linh Hua talks about “Black Feminist Sentimentality” in Kindred. This idea of black feminist sentimentality is a central part of Kindred and Linh Hua describes it as “refusing … the continual violation and management of black female subjects.” Both of these writers emphasize how Kindred shows specifically the crimes against women and how those crimes have affected black women in the present. The number of perspectives on Kindred is large, but critics agree that the novel is an excellent piece of work with much to say about important issues.
The meaning of the different symbols in the book is also heavily debated. The analysis of Dana losing her arm above is just one of the many sides that critics take on that particular symbol. In his article above, LaCroix takes it as a symbol of everyone’s “responsibility to the past.” Linh Hua talks about the arm as due to “the impact of pressures … that comprise black feminist action” due to her focus on the novel’s feminist themes. Critics also debate the meaning of the time traveling that Dana does. Mitchell takes it to be metaphoric of the Middle Passage that took African Americans to the US and most critics also take this stance. Critics look at Kindred’s different symbols through the lenses of their own interpretations of the novel.
Overall, Kindred gives a very unique take on slave literature. Butler, with her plethora of references and themes, tells an interesting story with different perspectives on many of the problems of her day and our day. The book is an excellent example of more contemporary slave literature and clearly describes the afterlife of slavery through the connecting of two different periods of time.
Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. Garden City, Doubleday & Company, 1979.
Hua, Linh U. “Reproducing Time, Reproducing History: Love and Black Feminist Sentimentality in Octavia Butler’s ‘Kindred.'” African American Review, vol. 44, no. 3, 2011, pp. 391-407. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23316193.
LaCroix, David. “To Touch Solid Evidence: The Implicity of Past and Present in Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Kindred.'” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, vol. 40, no. 1, 2007, pp. 109-119. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20464214.
Mitchell, Angelyn. “Not Enough of the Past: Feminist Revisions of Slavery in Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Kindred.’” MELUS, vol. 26, no. 3, 2001, pp. 51–75. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3185557.
Rowell, Charles H., and Octavia E. Butler. “An Interview with Octavia E. Butler.” Callaloo, vol. 20, no. 1, 1997, pp. 47–66. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3299291.
Steinberg, Marc. “Inverting History in Octavia Butler’s Postmodern Slave Narrative.” African American Review, vol. 38, no. 3, 2004, pp. 467–476. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1512447.
Ashraf H. A. Rushdy. “Families of Orphans: Relation and Disrelation in Octavia Butler’s Kindred.” College English, vol. 55, no. 2, 1993, pp. 135-157. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/378500.
Butler, Octavia, and Joshunda Sanders. “Interview with Octavia Butler.” Inmotion Magazine, NPC Productions, www.inmotionmagazine.com/ac04/obutler.html. Interview.
Kenan, Randall. “An Interview With Octavia E. Butler.” Callaloo, vol. 14, no. 2, 1991, pp. 495-504. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2931654.
Parham, Marisa. “Saying ‘Yes’: Textual Traumas in Octavia Butler’s ‘Kindred.'” Callaloo, vol. 32, no. 4, 2009, pp. 1315-1331. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27743151.
Robertson, Benjamin. “‘Some Matching Strangeness’: Biology, Politics, and the Embrace of History in Octavia Butler’s ‘Kindred.'” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 37, no. 3, 2010, pp. 362-381. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25746439.
- Octavia Butler
- Strong Female Protagonist
- Science Fiction
- Slave Literature
- Black Feminist
- Time Travel
- Historical Revision