Octavia Butlers novel Kindred is categorized as science fiction because of the existence of time travel. However, the novel does not center on the schematics of this type of journey. Instead, the novel deals with the relationships forged between a Los Angeles woman from the 20th century, and slaves from the 19th century. Therefore, the mechanism of time travel allows the author a sort of freedom when writing this “slavery narrative” apart from her counterparts. Butler is able to judge the slavery from the point of view of a truly “free” black woman, as opposed to an enslaved one describing memories.
On a more superficial level, the fact that the novel has been deemed as “science fiction” opens it up to a greater audience. It is safe to say that the majority of people cannot relate to the troubles and scars of the antebellum south, in fact the only living persons who can purely relate are the descendents of slaves. And, even then, it is only on a secondary level, brought on by stories handed through the generations. The novel is seen through the eyes of a woman of the “modern” period of history, and centers itself on her counteraction. This gives the “fish out of water” quality of life. To this, the majority of us can sympathize. Most have been in a situation where things around are unfamiliar, thus forcing an adjustment in behavior. The adjustment that the main character Dana makes, though, is one that is very extreme. Clearly the time spent in the past made Dana much harder than she had been, she says, “If Id had my knife, I would surely
have killed someone. As it was, I managed to leave scratches and bruises on Rufus, his father, and Edwards who was called over to help.” (Butler, 176)
As far as how it works in the actual story of the novel, firstly, and most importantly, it puts a strong, independent, black, 20th century black woman in the antebellum south. This provides a strong contrast in living conditions, as well as psychological patterns with those of the 19th century Dana sees and conveys the world of slavery around her with the background of the 20th century, “our world.” This allows the reader to find a real connection with the protagonist, Dana. Dana describes in its gory detail the whippings she took:
He beat me until I swung back and forth by my wrists, half-crazy with pain, unable to find my footing, unable to stand the pressure of hanging, unable to get away from the steady slashing blows(176)
Each blow is felt ten fold, as a product of different times, relatively peaceful times, Dana, along with the reader, is not accustom to this amount of first hand violence.
Secondly, the discrepancy between times moves the drama in the plot along, in particular, Danas relationship with Rufus. Once Dana learns that her purpose is to protect the life of Rufus, in order to continue her own family line, she takes on the maternal role. She teaches him the lessons of discipline and respect for others that have been considered the parents role:
Hush, Rufe. I put my hand on his shoulder to quiet him. Apparently Id hit the nerve Id aimed at. I didnt say you were trash. I said howd you like to be called trash. I see you dont like it. I dont like being called nigger either. (61)
This also illustrates how Dana believes she can have a lasting effect on Rufus, to steer him away from the ways of his father. However, she only has a limited period of time to shed her 20th century mentality on him. And, Rufus change is not gradual relative to Dana, because every time she returns, she finds Rufus years older, and acting that much more like his father.
This poses one of the general themes that go along with time travel in science fiction. Every protagonist has visions of grandeur of making the future a “better” place. So they go back in time and try to influence the past in order to rearrange the future. But, in each case each character fails.
But, the fact that Dana goes backward in time lets her to prepare for the worst. It is evident throughout the book that Dana is quite well educated, and has read a good amount of material written by former slaves. Since she is well versed on the “old southern ways” she can develop a higher understanding of her surroundings. She knows exactly what actions will cause a violent reaction, “But if that patrollers friends had caught me, they would have killed me. And if they hadnt caught me, they would probably have gone after Alices mother.” (51) She also realizes what she must sacrifice in order to survive:
Oh, they wont kill me. Not unless Im silly enough to resist the other things theyd rather do like raping me, throwing me into jail as a runaway, and then selling me to the highest bidder when they see that my owner isnt coming to claim me. (48)
This “street smart” gives Dana a slight advantage. One begins to question whether Dana is growing accustom to the practices of the time.
As the story progresses, it becomes harder for Dana to be “scared to death” in order to return her home. For instance after she was caught reading to Nigel, Tom Weylin whipped her for the first time. Her dizziness set in relatively quickly, and she was sent home. But, later on when Dana is caught trying to escape to find Kevin, she is whipped again perhaps more brutally. However, she almost accepts the beating, “This was only punishment, and I knew itI wasnt going to die.” (176)
In addition, the sudden juxtaposition of both times allows for the illustration of the timelessness of bigotry. Dana and Kevins present time, 1976, is a decade after the heated battles of the Civil Rights Movement, yet interracial marriages are still looked down upon. For instance, Kevins sisters reaction upon learning of the engagement between Kevin and Dana. She says she doesnt wish to meet Dana nor have her in the house. She even goes as far to say that her own brother, Kevin, is no longer welcome in her house. (110) However, the racism is not limited just to Kevins family, it also applies to Danas. Her uncle says that he wishes Dana to marry “someone like him someone who looks like him. A black man.” (111)
This contrast allows for the comparison with Danas “present.” In her time, Dana refers to the temp agency she works for as a “slave market.” (52) In a way a temp agency is the 20th centurys own version of slavery. The workers are at the beck and call of the agency, and the agency sells their services to each company, reminiscent of a slave-selling bloc. However, each slave moves from plantation to plantation with no control over where and when, does not get paid, and suffers indignities and pain unfathomable to the modern person. Dana, in hindsight realizes this and recants her categorizing the temp agency as a “slave market.” (52)
This in turn sheds light onto the conclusion that the “scars of slavery” have not disappeared, shown symbolically through Dana. At the conclusion of the novel, Danas arm is stuck in the past, held by Rufus. Rufus becomes the representation of “the long arm of slavery.” That which reaches out although slavery has long been abolished. As Danas scars do not heal
when she returns to 1976, the scars of slavery are still present. The consequences of slavery are still prevalent in our society today, what with the continuing battle for civil rights and for affirmative action. It seems that much like Dana, we cannot escape the results of slavery without making a huge sacrifice.
Ultimately, time travel lets Octavia Butler convey her own views on slavery, and the brutality of it. However, her main point is that although we have advanced through the last century, bigotry is still a major problem in our society. And, in order for any major progress to be had, each side will suffer losses, as Rufus life was taken along with Danas arm.
Butler, Octavia. Kinderd. Boston: Beacon Press Books, 1988.