Octavia Butler’s Kindred has to at least be in the running for greatest novel ever written about US slavery. Butler writes through a minefield of difficult subject matter and pulls off a riveting narrative with style and grace. The novel’s core is suggested in the title. It’s the idea that American slavery created a system that inextricably linked whites and blacks in the US; an intimate blood relationship existing beneath a terrible legacy of societal injustice. Butler documents unflinchingly the brutalities and evils of the slave system. And, without apologizing in the slightest for these evils, she shows the perpetrators as flesh and blood human beings.
Because time travel is inherently supernatural, Kindred is a work of supernatural fiction. It’s one of those books that demolishes the idea that a work of “serious” fiction must eschew supernatural elements, or vice versa. In fact Kindred is a blending of the speculative, fantastic, and realist traditions of American lit. Butler was one of the early authors who realized that writers need not choose between arbitrary categories of what fiction has to be. And it is only now that the literary community is beginning to catch up with her.
It was a deft touch for Butler to situate her antebellum plantation in Maryland. It’s a border state whose strong ties to the institution of slavery tends to be forgotten. To set the action in Maryland rather than say, Georgia, reinforces the truth that slavery was ultimately a national problem for the US rather than merely a regional one. Slavery was instrumental to the development of the US. It shouldn’t have been, but it was. In the plantation master Tom Weylin you see clearly how it was Europe’s rejects who made up the bulk of white America in the 18th and 19th centuries. (“When Europe sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, their criminals, their rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”)
Weylin is an uneducated, hardscrabble man who has used slavery to move into what constituted the upper middle class at the time. From Thomas Jefferson’s condemnations of slavery we have inherited the idea that American slavery was a tragic accident inflicted upon the US by King George and British elites. In fact, side by side with the cotton gin, the reason for slavery’s explosion in the US from 1800 to 1850 was the opportunity it offered to poor white farmers to raise their social and financial standing. Perhaps the most extreme but true historical example of this was Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Steve Jobs of American slavery. Born into a poor white family in Tennessee, the slave trade became Forrest’s entrepreneurial path out of poverty. By the time of the Civil War he was one of the richest men in the country.
Butler’s time traveling protagonist Dana offers a particular challenge to Tom Weylin. It’s an uncomfortable paradox for a white man in his time and place to encounter a black woman better educated and more knowledgeable than himself. The entire concept of race-based slavery was the idea that blacks were naturally inferior to whites. Men like Tom Weylin saw their status as naturally won and earned; blessed by nature and nature’s God. Tom Weylin feels highly threatened by Dana’s very presence and demeanor. He clearly doesn’t like her and would hardly tolerate her around if not for his realization that she is saving his son’s life, and his general fear at the supernatural circumstances of her time travel. He shows little hesitation in brutalizing her, and Butler’s description of Dana’s whipping is a visceral reminder to modern audiences of what slavery involved. Yet through it all we are forced to remember that Dana is Weylin’s great great great great granddaughter.
But, of course, it’s the relationship between Rufus and Dana that anchors the book. Rufus is an extraordinary creation; an uncomfortable heap of contradictions and desires. When he is a child, Dana essentially supplants his mother in his estimation. His constant need for her grows both more poignant and more pathetic as he grows older. As Rufus adopts more and more of the attitudes and characteristics of his father, Butler shows how thoroughly the institution of slavery corrupted the morality of the white men born into it. Butler does something radical in her portrayal of the relationship between Rufus and the enslaved Alice. It’s clear that Rufus harbors a deep, romantic longing for Alice. It’s a longing that Alice most clearly doesn’t feel for him. This destroys him internally, and he has an evil institution behind him to inflict his will on her, though Butler shows how pathetic and unsatisfied he remains.
Dana’s journey is deeply moving on a number of levels. There are clear feminist elements in the text, as well as wrestling with black American female identity. As a white male, what both interested and haunted me is Butler’s illustration of the unbreakable ties between the races. It’s no neat and happy family. The ties were initiated under a system of brutality and subjugation. And yet the book shows how the intimacy between slave masters and their slaves ultimately sowed the seeds for white supremacy’s destruction. Because it was the norm rather than the exception for slave masters to force themselves sexually on female slaves, the bloodlines of white and black Americans are deeply mixed with one another. There are numerous African Americans who have traces of European ancestry. Because of the phenomenon of “passing” in the 19th century, there are numerous American whites with traces of African ancestry. These ties undermine any notion or belief of racial supremacy. It is difficult to imagine the absurdity of white fathers who believed themselves inherently superior and more deserving of rights than their own children. And yet that is the legacy that slavery gave us. Kindred is documentary testament to the awful things in the past, and echoes Baldwin in suggesting that we as Americans must face the truth of our history together or perish together. In Kindred we see that truth that plays itself out time and again over human history: a house divided against itself cannot stand.