Kindred by Octavia E Butler.
Foreword by Ayòbámi Adébáyò.
Headline, 2018 (1979).
Dana Jackson finds herself called back to early nineteenth-century Maryland from 1970s California on her 26th birthday, and it keeps happening again and again over the next few days and weeks. She soon realises it’s because she has to save her ancestor Rufus Weylin from dying—whether by drowning, a fire, a beating, or an attempt to commit suicide—before he has a chance to continue his bloodline and for her to exist.
But Dana, in a mixed marriage with Kevin a decade after agitation for Civil Rights had initiated change in American society, has a culture shock to endure: Maryland was a slave state, and Dana’s arrival on the Weylin plantation as an independent educated black woman is not a welcome development for the white owners, Tom and Margaret Weylin, Rufus’s parents.
What counts as a few weeks in 1976 equates to several months and even years as Dana (and, for a long spell, Kevin too) gets marooned in a period dangerous for slaves, freed blacks and white sympathisers alike. All the while Dana has to forge a tricky relationship with her ancestor Rufus, a red-haired five-year-old, and later a man in his twenties, who isn’t always kind to her despite being (unbeknown to him) her kindred.
Unlike Tom in Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958) — which had a similar time-travelling scenario, in which the ghostly protagonist stays the same age while his Victorian friend ages with each visit — Dana isn’t spirit-like: she is physically transported back over a century and a half, making her subject to the same unreasonable demands, harsh treatment, beatings and worse that blacks were then liable to suffer. In fact this was a particularly uncomfortable narrative for me to read, knowing that it reflected a historical reality, a reality where casual cruelty and deliberate violence were meted out by landowners, overseers and Patrollers to slaves so as to keep them in line. Unfortunately, as Dana discovers, it is only when her very life is threatened that she finds herself back in her own time, bearing the bruises, wounds, bites, cuts and more that she was receiving when death stared her in the face.
I was concerned that this would be a long sequence of constant tensions with precious little release until I realised this may have been the point: Kindred was reminding us of the endemic persecution that blacks had to put up with on a daily basis in slave states. It’s a tragedy and a travesty that this reflects the kind of prejudice and even treatment that many their descendants still have to endure on a daily basis two hundred years later, four decades after Butler’s novel was published.
But even more disturbing to me than the casual violence meted out by whites to blacks in general, if that were possible, was the domestic abuse Butler describes: Tom Weylin beating the child Rufus, setting up a learnt pattern for the future; a petty Margaret Weylin’s finding fault and asserting control over domestics demonstrating her intellectual vacuity; Rufus repeating the classic behaviours of the abuser towards partners with repeated beatings followed by guilty avowals of remorse, all in an endless cycle. Such violent demonstrations of control by abusers must surely mask their fears of a loss of control over others, maybe even anxieties about reprisals, and could be attempts to gloss over unacknowledged character weaknesses. Meanwhile the responses of the abused that Butler clearly outlines in her narrative are universal: the ambivalent emotions the abused often feel towards their abusers — love, hate, pity, and fear alternating — along with instincts for fight, flight or freeze, any one of which can too easily lead to further jeopardy.
Books and reading, and their centrality to education and enlightenment, are also central to Kindred. Dana and Kevin are both writers in the 20th century; in the 19th century Dana is first regarded with suspicion for being an educated black and for her potential to taint slaves with the skills of reading and writing; the Weylins, though they have inherited a library, are relatively illiterate and require Dana to teach Rufus to write, to read to Margaret, and in time to teach the children of the adult Rufus (one of whom will be her direct ancestor). The danger such skills represent are omnipresent, persisting through the years, affecting both past and future, and requiring Dana to bear a legacy of physical and emotional scars and suffering a sacrifice that’s as traumatic as it’s symbolic.
Should we have any quibbles about the mechanics of Dana’s time-travelling to rescue a past ancestor from death? I don’t think so: it’s enough that it happened. To fathom how it happened is as pointless as Dana trying, when faced with injury and infection, to explain to the Weylins the notion of microbes or the need for hygiene without her being accused of witchcraft. As she says to Kevin, “If we told anyone else about this, anyone at all, they wouldn’t think we were so sane.” But what matters is the essential truth of Butler’s story: it lays bare a history that needs to be visited and examined for us all, as Kevin speculates, “To try to understand.”
No 10 of 15 Books of Summer