Weekly Read: Kindred

It was completely coincidental – honestly – that I started reading/listening to Kindred when the latest national debate about the Confederate battle flag sprang up. Still, the timing was auspicious. In a world where 12 Years a Slave can bring the brutality and savagery of slavery into your living room it’s worth remembering that reading is the best way to really get inside someone else’s experience.

Dana is a modern (the book is set in 1976) African-American woman living with her husband in Los Angeles. They’re both writers, she having just sold her first short story (to The Atlantic – ah, how nostalgic!). Everything’s great until, one day, Dana is pulled back to a Maryland plantation in 1819, drawn there by the peril of a boy named Rufus Weylin. He’s drowning. Dana saves his life. Dana is then repeatedly drawn back to save Rufus at various times in his life.

But here’s the thing – Rufus’s father is a slave owner who has numerous people in bondage to work the plantation. Oh, and also? Rufus is Dana’s distant relation. Meaning, if he dies before he produces the offspring that is also Dana’s ancestor, she may die, too. As a result of all this, Dana eventually spends months on the plantation experience life as a slave.

Thus, Kindred is much less a time travel adventure than it is an attempt to give a modern reader a means by which he or she can experience a historical period. Aside from the generalized concern that if Rufus dies Dana might cease to exist (Back to the Future style) there’s little emphasis on the time travel itself. Butler was much more concerned with the day to day life of slaves, which Dana is able to both comment on and experience.

The experience, needless to say, is brutal. There are beatings. Families are destroyed as sons and daughters are sold away, usually to slave caravans heading for the deep south. There is a constant treatment of human beings not only as lower than their masters, but not really human at all. Rufus and his father routinely justify their conduct as merely dealing with property. It sounds as bad as it is.

What makes the litany of abuse even more profound is that Dana isn’t, really, a slave. After all, she’s not bought from someone else and nobody ever tries to exercise legal authority of her as such. Still, her position as an African-American – and a woman, to boot – leaves her with little agency over her own life when she is sucked back into the past. But it lets Butler play with the idea of how slaves (and others in similar positions) can find some agency in their own survival.

All of this works on many levels (as you can see here), but one that occurred to me is that Kindred works as a metaphor for the way we as a nation talk about our birth. Early on Dana explains the story of her family line, born from the taboo relationship between a white man and a black woman in the antebellum south. It’s presented in an idealized fashion, a story of true love defying the system and triumphing over long odds.

The truth, as Dana learns, is much messier. The man, Rufus, owned the woman, Alice. Not only that, Alice was actually born free but was brought into slavery by Rufus after she was caught running away with her husband. She is, for the rest of her life, property. Rufus rapes her, repeatedly, producing multiple children (including, eventually, Dana’s direct ancestor). He beats her. Her only way out is to kill herself. Love doesn’t even get on the field of battle, much less conquer all.

So, too, our view of the country’s founding. We like to think of the American Revolution as a bold strike against tyranny, a fight for freedom. While there’s some truth to that, it’s a freedom that’s limited to a fairly narrow group of people. Only about a third of American colonists supported Revolution, after all. Furthermore, after the lofty rhetoric of the Revolution itself, the Founders enshrined slavery in the Constitution, along with a certain bit of dysfunction that hampers us more than two centuries later. History is complex and messy, on a national level no less than the familial one. I doubt it’s a coincidence that Dana’s ordeal ends on July 4, 1976.

Since I was waffling on about genre here the other day, I should say a word about where Kindred fits in. I’m a bit surprise to see it repeatedly referenced as “science fiction.” Sure, time travel is a beloved sci-fi trope, but Butler doesn’t make any attempt to “science up” Dana’s travel. That’s not her focus, so why bother? Jo Walton at Toris right that this is “fantasy time travel, not science-fictional.”

Not that it really matters in the end. Butler is doing what the best sci-fi and fantasy writers do – using the tools of the genre to explore humanity itself. In this case, it’s to hold a mirror up to a shameful part of our past that continues to resonate decades after Kindred was first published.

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