The subject of slavery has always been a complex one to discuss, whether a hundred years ago or now. The most significant impact that the tragedy remains relevant today and the negative emotions associated with slavery have been embedded into the psyche of the global society. Literature has long served one of the vehicles used for transferring the stories about what had occurred in the past, and slavery is still a relevant topic that is being discussed in modern literature. Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred, first published in 1979, is still widely popular today because of its intense theme and the way in which the narrative is structured to allow the audience reflect on the complicated issue. It has been often chosen as a text for not only community-wide reading but also for college and high school courses as a minority piece of literature that explores the subjects of race relations, gender inequality, and the perceptions of historical trauma. The novel is classified as a neo-slave narrative grounded on the science-fiction framework, which makes the book unique in its way of presenting such a complex, daunting, and traumatizing subject matter.
The novel is being told from the perspective of a young African-American woman Dana (Edana) Franklin, who finds herself transferred from her home in Los Angeles in 1976 to a pre-Civil War plantation in Maryland. Dana is a writer and is married to a white man, named Kevin, who is also a writer. The young woman meets her predecessors, a proud Black free woman, Alice, and a white planter, Rufus, that forced her into being a slave. As the protagonist stays in the past for longer, she becomes involved in the life of her community, and she is challenged to make complicated decisions to survive through the slavery to make sure to return back in 1976. The importance of the novel in the context of exploring slavery is that the protagonist is aware of the implications of slavery for the society of the twentieth century and perceives the life at the plantation from the contemporary perspective.
Time Travel as a Literary Tool
Since Dana is the story’s narrator, the reader can experience everything from a first-person standpoint of her inner thoughts, fears, plans, and decisions. The protagonist discovers the past experiences of slaver for herself and is challenged to come to terms with the complexity of the situation, which is something that a regular person will find hard to do. Therefore, the author uses her novel relating to various truths and misconceptions about antebellum South America to her reader. Witnessing life on the plantation brings Dana to a new understanding of history that is impossible for getting from historical studies separately. By being a direct participator of the events, Dana sees what most of society cannot see and can, therefore, understand the roots of the issue. The emotional and physical scars that the young woman gets after returning home gives her a new view of history and a unique view of the present. The trip to the South is a piece of “solid evidence” that the young woman needs in order to come to terms with her past and her ethnic roots (Butler, p. 264). Therefore, the literary tool of time travel is used intentionally to show that without experiencing an even first hand, it is impossible to have an accurate understanding of its historical value.
The time travel element is highly valuable for the storytelling and the understanding of the role of slavery in shaping modern society. The main character realizes that she is not randomly being transported to the past, but she is coming to help another person who is mortal peril every time that she is transported back. Dana develops good connections with some of the slaves on the plantation despite her being quite different to them. Throughout her perceptions of slavery, the reader can see differences between what society says about the Antebellum era in the South of America and what it was actually like (Parham, p. 1319). While the author of the novel also bases her storytelling on historical findings, the fictional story is structured in the way that brings the understanding of a very real past in the way that does not include alienation and brings people together. The tool of time travel can eliminate the problems on the human level, which is something that researchers have covered through different approaches and studies about Butler’s perspective (Parham, p. 1320).
Value of Time Travel for Understanding History
Through time travel, the main character is conflicted about her thoughts of changing the past to make sure that she can exist in the future. Dana becomes the force behind the abuse of her ancestor because there is no other way to ensure her existence in 1976. Alice, who used to be a free woman who was forced into slavery, is no longer in the agency of herself and is being abused by a white man. Even though Dana wants desperately to help her ancestor, she cannot because her family line had to continue. According to Woolfork, “not only is repeated rape trauma to Alice, who must endure it bodily and emotionally, but Dana must also live with the traumatic knowledge that her family line was generated by coerced sex” (p. 25). This opinion is further supported by Hua who points out that Dana’s moral compass prompts her in the direction of saving a suffering woman from abuse, but she can do nothing to stop it (p. 400). Therefore, the time travel aspect of the narrative presents no good options for the protagonist despite the fact that she was the only one who had some agency to act. Therefore, Dana is challenged by making an emotionally painful decision of not being involved and preserving her own existence over changing her whole family’s timeline.
No matter which way the aspect of time travel is being explored, the protagonist still sees the only logical option in her decision-making. By not intervening into the lives of her ancestors in the Antebellum South, Dana herself makes her contribution into slavery. According to Hua, Dana’s “justification is a critique of slavery’s far-reaching consequences on human liberty, but its cautionary tone reminds us of Dana’s complicity in rendering Alice a victim for the purpose of (re)producing ‘history'” (p. 398). The lesson that the protagonist learns is that she cannot change her future, but that past will always include slavery regardless of her actions. Such a narrative can also be traced in other science fiction novels exploring the historical narrative. For example, in Stephen Fry’s Making History, which tells the story of a protagonist returning into the past to prevent Hitler from being born, the outcome is that a tyrant that is worse than Hitler emerges. Dana quickly learns that she is bound by history the same way that her ancestor is bound by slavery. The guilt that the young woman has over allowing her friend and relative to suffer from slavery is the same guilt that Fry’s protagonist has over changing history and letting an even worse dictator emerge.
Without considering the possibility that Dana could happen not existing at all in the future, there is also a possibility for the reader to ask the question of why she does not change the past drastically in favor of the people suffering, such as Alice and the other slaves on the Maryland plantation. For Woolfork, Butler’s novel presents history as inflexible because of the need “to allow the characters to have access to a past significantly marked by trauma. If history were presented as flexible, then [the characters] would never know the physical, mental, and emotional complexity of life in slavery” (p. 25). Thus, the scholar underlines the idea that there is a difference between Dana and other people that she encounters on the plantation. She is not “a participant who actively engages” but rather an “observer who watches” (Woolfolk 26). Such a take on Butler’s novel drives the narrative of the story and facilitates the decision-making of her characters. Dana cannot make any significant changes in the past that will facilitate substantial alterations in the future. No immediate life-changing events will occur after Dana comes to save the day because she cannot facilitate them on her on own. Alice, which is an embodiment of the past, fits better into the mold of helping Dana because she is the one person whose fate the protagonist cannot indeed alter.
The identity of Dana is also important to discuss in the context of time travel being the core of Kindred. The protagonist’s identity as Black is not the same as Alice’s; she is not Black in the same sense that the slaves at the plantation are. To the reader, it seems that the slaves will be the first people with whom the main character could identify, and to some degree, Dana agrees with it. However, the slaves themselves have their own conflicts and divisions that concern them. When Dana was finding herself forcing Alice to have a physical relationship with her oppressor despite the woman not wanting to, she is at odds with herself about such an issue throughout the novel. It is not surprising that Alice becomes later angry at Dana for pushing her into a relationship with a white man. However, Dana does this because Butler’s novel is structured in such a way that history is unalterable and is necessary to preserve.
Butler’s approach, which suggests that history is unalterable, leads to the logical conclusion that slavery should have happened. Importantly, Butler does not justify slavery despite the fact that the past is highly complex. Nevertheless, the critics of such an approach suggest that slavery should not have existed, and post-slavery society had experienced even more complicated challenges having to adjust to the new structures (Rossi, p. 303). To counter this point, it is necessary to note that the situation into which Dana was forced is set in moral grey areas that cannot be resolved in a specific way. The unwillingness of the protagonist to kill the oppressor, Rufus, is proof that the situation is complicated. She cannot kill him because it was necessary to ensure that he lives to his adulthood. Inevitably, Dana connects to him personally, and the author wants her readers to feel the same. By killing Rufus, Dana takes back her life and her future in 1976 by sacrificing her arm, and the loss of the limb is a symbol of the inability to escape the trauma of the past without being hurt. According to Bast, the death of Rufus represents freedom for the main character, which she can now enjoy (p. 162). The trauma that Dana endures is both physical and emotional, and the readers are encouraged to acknowledge the emotional connections that the protagonist makes with the past and the situations in which she is placed. As the protagonist manages to go past defining her trauma, she faces the emotional and physical pain of understanding what people had to go through to provide a future for their children and their children.
Butler’s approach to storytelling, which is rooted in time travel, suggests that the human aspect of the past can bring the audience closer to understanding history. Slavery had to occur, and the historical trauma that was experienced and created by people, contributed to the events in the present, should be overcome by people. Today, when slavery is no longer an issue, other challenges between races are still present, and the wound of the past makes itself known (Manis, p. 47). Only by acknowledging the trauma and understanding why it occurred, it is possible to obtain a certain level of peace regarding the past. As the main characters reconcile in order to move on, they agree with the fact that they cannot facilitate change by themselves, but they can make a minor contribution. Therefore, Kindred is a representation of the historical trauma at its beginning, and many years later, to understand why the problem of race remains relevant even today.
Kindred is used as a way of telling modern readers that the wounds of the past cannot be fully healed because they may need to erase them from their memories. Butler’s choice of time travel as the critical literary tool shows that history is something from which people should learn and from which they should not turn away. The book is an example of minority literature that encourages people to understand that facts are worth knowing in order to understand one’s modern life. Past is being brought down to the human level when the protagonist is brought back to meet her ancestor. Without the human element and the vulnerability associated with it, it is impossible to understand that history cannot be altered, and the past will continue existing despite the emotional connections that people make. Travelling back into the past does not mean that pain will go away; rather, the pain will stand out even further, but it is imperative for moving in the forward direction (Flagel, p. 230). Butler, as a minority writer, aims to provide her audience with an exploration of complex human issues of history necessary for moving past the historical wound and learning about its importance.
- Bast, Florian. “No: The Narrative Theorizing of Embodied Agency in Octavia Butler’s Kindred.” Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy, vol. 53, no. 2, 2012, pp. 151-181.
- Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. Beacon Press, 2003.
- Flagel, N. ““It’s Almost Like Being There”: Speculative Fiction, Slave Narrative, and the Crisis of Representation in Octavia Butler’s Kindred.” Canadian Review of American Studies, vol. 42, no. 2, 2012, pp. 216-245.
- Hua, L. U. “Reproducing Time, Reproducing History: Love and Black Feminist Sentimentality in Octavia Butler’s Kindred.” African American Review, vol. 44, no. 3, 2011, pp. 391-407.
- Manis, Haley. “Reconciling the Past in Octavia Butler’s Kindred.” Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 3173, 2016.
- Parham, M. “Saying “Yes”: Textual Traumas in Octavia Butler’s Kindred.” Callaloo, vol. 32, no. 4, 2009, pp. 1315-1331.
- Rossi, Benedetta. “African Post-Slavery: A History of the Future.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies, vol. 48, no. 2, 2015, pp. 303-324.
- Woolfork, Lisa. Trauma and Time Travel. Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture. University of Illinois Press, 2009.