Slavery in Kindred by Octavia Butler essay

In the novel Kindred, Octavia Butler, an American science fiction writer, uses time travel in order to discuss slavery in the United States. The novel represents the relationships between a woman from the 20th century and slaves from the 19th century. The author’s mechanism of using time travel in the novel allows much more freedom in writing this slavery narrative (Ellington & Freimiller 27). Octavia Butler explores and judges slavery in the USA from the point of view of a free black woman. However, the author insists on the fact that the novel Kindred belongs to the fantasy genre, because she did not use any science for explanation the time travel. The author tries to rewrite history of slavery using more complicated views. The time traveling of the main character, her experiences and thoughts help the readers to explore slavery in a new light and to see how slavery in the United States impacts the past and the present.

In the novel, the main character Dana Franklin, an African American woman, is transported from 1976 Los Angeles City to the 19-th century Maryland where she meets her ancestors: a white slave-holder Rufus and an African American woman Alice who was born as a free person but she was forced into slavery. Dana is a happily married African American woman and a successful writer who has moved into a new house in Los Angeles, and who feels dizzy, collapses and finds herself in Maryland more than 150 years in the past. The novel discusses a number of important issues, such racial conflicts, the abuse of power and limitation in gender roles. According to Angelyn Mitchell, in the novel Kindred, Octavia Butler “creates dialectic between two specific historical moments in American history: the period of chattel slavery and the richly symbolic bicentennial year of 1976” (43). It is known that in 1976, the USA celebrated 200 years of freedom. Dana travels six times to the past. Each time the main character is drawn back into the early 19-th century in order to save the life of her white ancestor, she gets new information concerning the complex nature of slavery in the United States and the intense anti-slavery struggle of African Americans. Dana meets Rufus Weylin, her white ancestor, and Alice, her black ancestor who is abused by Rufus. Alice resembles Dana and this resemblance creates the so-called connection between the two. The author of the novel uses Dana and Alice, who mirror each other in different situations, as models. According to Bettanin, “Dana metaphorically suffers what her ancestor had to suffer and Alice finds her way to freedom only in her descendant”(94).  Dana discovers that the true nature of slavery is more disturbing and more disgusting than it is portrayed in the books and movies. The author of the novel establishes the so-called dialogic relationship between Dana and her ancestors, between the present and the past. It is proved that the past and the present influence each other. According to Butler’s views, “the past is shaped, or constructed, by the present as to what we choose to remember as well as what we choose to forget” (Mitchell 46).The setting of Maryland chosen by the author proves the readers that slavery was widely spread in the United States and was not confined only to the deep South. Butler states that any type of slavery is inhuman and barbaric.

Different critics express different opinions concerning Butler’s novel Kindred. Sandra Y. Goven states that “Kindred is so closely related to the experience disclosed in slave narratives that its plot structure follows the classic patterns” (Mitchell 43). Angelyn Mitchel states that the author uses slavery as her memory in order to “deconstruct uninformed perceptions” (44). Another critic Gregory Hampton argues that “Kindred allows the reader to experience slavery with the protagonist, instead of merely identifying with the memoirs of an ex-slave second hand” (114).

In addition, Butler discusses such dominant themes of the 19-th century United States as “female sexuality, motherhood, individualism, and community” with the purpose “to interrogate the concept of freedom” (Mitchell 43). Butler uses science fiction in order to eliminate the line of boundaries of time that separates the past and the present. The readers have a chance to examine the past through the experiences of the main character. For example, one of the characters is a black woman Sarah who works as a cook at the Weylin plantation. Dana discusses Sarah’s behavior in the following way; “Sarah had done the safe thing ”“ had accepted a life of slavery because she was afraid” (Butler 145). Sarah hates her masters, but has to work in their house. The life of Sarah is ruined: her husband is dead, her three children are sold and the fourth child is mute. Dana notices anger in the eyes of Sarah. However, Sarah has her own method of resistance. Dana faces slavery and learns what it means to be a slave. She is a witness of brutal punishment, attempts to escape, betrayal and slave auction, etc. However, Dana was born free and through her experience she was made a slave (Bettanin 100).

To sum up, Butler’s novel Kindred is considered to be a powerful and accessible literary work which resembles a historical narrative about slavery in the United States told in modern voice and from a modern perspective. It is not only science fiction, but it is also a historical novel and memoir. It gives an opportunity to explore and experience slavery through Dana Franklin’s experiences when she traveled to the past. The author shows the impact of the history of slavery on the life of modern society. Therefore, the readers are forced to conclude that slavery is not just the events from the past, but slavery has enormous impact on society today and it lives in people. Today many people in our society are the descendants of slaves, and slavery is a part of their history. The main character’s story discussed in the novel proves the fact that the history of slavery in the United States is not just the history of African Americans, but it is the past and present of all Americans.

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