Navigating Time and Slavery with Octavia Butler

by Shalynn Vaughn

Kindred is Octavia Butler’s fourth published novel after Patternmaster, Mind of my Mind, and Survivor, which are all part of her Patternist series and details the history of the Patternmasters who are tyrannical telepaths and the Clayarks who are “mutated post humans” which spans thousands of years. Butler is the first fiction writer to be awarded a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, and one of few African American women who wrote science fiction.

Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred (1979) is an influential novel that combines the horror, hopelessness, and heroism of slave narratives with the fantasy of science fiction into a beautifully woven tale. The story follows Dana, a young black woman, on a journey as she suddenly finds herself being sent through time and transported across the United States into Pre-Civil War Maryland. The novel pendulums between the truths most often felt in slave narratives such as physical and sexual assault, and the unexplainable events that could only exist in realms very much unlike reality.

Octavia Butler was born in 1947 and was raised by her grandmother and mother, who’d bring her books and magazines to read from the homes she cleaned. She was raised in Pasadena, California, where segregation wasn’t as prevalent as it was in the south. This allowed her to experience many different cultures growing up.

Many of Butler’s writings include people of color and queer people as main and secondary characters, and question aspects of society such as hierarchies and the idea of who deserves to be a hero. Her writings often involve dynamic character relationships between disenfranchised people, people with agency, and even extraterrestrial societies. Butler writes using elements of Afro-Futurism and slave narrative genres, and Kindred (1979) is no different. Afro-Futurism uses historical fiction, science fiction, and Afrocentricity to address past and present day issues that black people face and in Kindred she pieces together what’s known about slave narratives and historical actions and speculates on what might have happened and plays with what couldn’t have happened. Butler was deliberate in her inclusion of underrepresented minorities in science fiction who embody herself and others. Butler states,

“When I began writing science fiction, when I began reading, heck, I wasn't in any of this stuff I read. The only black people you found were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted that they couldn't manage anything, anyway. I wrote myself in, since I'm me and I'm here and I'm writing” (Fox).

The cover of Kindred (1979) incorporates a montage where a young black woman in a white gown who appears to be troubled is staring down lovingly at a row of small homes and a mass of black people outside. The cover is reminiscent of slave narratives and films regarding slavery, particularly the iconic 1991 Julie Dash film Daughters of the Dust, making it very clear that the topic of slavery and southern plantation life will be discussed in the novel. A dark skinned black woman with a white dress speaks to the general aesthetic of classic, old timey and generic slave life and culture. Whether the woman portrayed is Dana, an ancestor, or some other woman is unclear, but she seems to be watching over the plantation. It relies on anticipated judgments about what slave narratives should look like on the outside, but doesn’t show the modernism of Dana’s story.

Kindred follows Dana, a young black woman living in California with her boyfriend, who is mysteriously plunged into antebellum Maryland where she encounters a young boy drowning. After saving his life, she is met with assault from the boy’s mother and later his white father points a rifle in her face. Fearing for her life, Dana is transported through time and space back to her newly purchased home with her white boyfriend, Kevin.

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After Dana is inexplicably thrown into the antebellum period, it becomes apparent that her task is to save a young boy, Rufus, from death until she can ensure the birth and wellbeing of her ancestors. Being shuffled through the past and present turns time into a nonlinear factor for Dana. Hours, in the antebellum period, are minutes in the present and a few days in Dana’s life are years in Rufus’. For instance, after one of her trips into the past where Kevin accompanies her, Dana is transported home and Kevin is left in the faraway world of the antebellum era and spends so much time apart from Dana that it seems as if they’ll never rekindle their relationship even though she had only spent a few days away from him in the present.

As an educated and modern African American woman she must mirror the behaviors of the enslaved people she meets and navigate the power dynamics between enslaved people and slaveholders while trying to maintain her dignity and moral compass and having virtually no power. The senseless young man that Dana is cosmically commissioned to protect, Rufus, is also her master when she is on the plantation. This creates an interesting relationship that forms dependency for both Dana and Rufus. He needs her to save him from himself and she needs him to survive. However, Rufus’ willful ignorance creates problems for Dana because he doesn’t see the humanity in black people even though she saves his life countless times and tries to educate him on modern ideas concerning race such as not using the N-word and how he doesn’t have the right to black women’s bodies whether they’re slaves or not. She often battles with wanting to scream and curse at Rufus and having to remain in character because if Rufus gets offended, he doesn’t hold back his spitefulness.

Small anecdotes in the novel produce a level of investment that will draw readers in and make you care about the characters and their lives. We are able to see how living during slavery affects Dana and her boyfriend Kevin. When Dana is on the plantation she meets characters and sees atrocities that are often left out of the dialogue surrounding slavery like how trauma touches children and their view of themselves. Younger children didn’t work in these fields, but they knew that the enslaved were inferior and it’s exhibited during their play time when Dana witnesses them picking roles for a game of Masters and Slaves. It’s apparent that it hurts Dana to see the kids hold slaveholders in such high regard during play time when in only a few more years they’ll experience the other side of slavery.

Kindred is an easy read and provokes a range of emotions. It is very similar to conventional slave narratives in terms of what the enslaved people experience, but this novel is written from a third person viewpoint and relies heavily on events at one specific plantation as opposed to discussing the overall climate on most plantations and using events to solidify the argument to end slavery. This novel almost lays to rest the notion of what 20th century people would do if they were enslaved by introducing Dana to plantation life and having her make decisions as to what she should do. Also, worth noting is that Dana gets transported home any time she fears for her life or is faced with death and this paints a vivid picture that says most of us wouldn’t survive. Butler makes the transitions between settings very abrupt and takes care to let no one return unscathed.