Back to Slavery
Updated: Apr 13, 2022
in a nutshell Dana celebrates her 26th birthday in 1976, in California - she has her husband Kevin, their new house, the prospect of a writing career ahead of her, but her body is maimed. Why, and how did it happen? The answers are to be found across country in Maryland, on a plantation before the Civil War to which Dana is unexpectedly and repeatedly called back. A place where, as a black woman, Dana can't be anything other than a slave. Trapped in a sort of 3D video game over which she has seemingly no control, Dana continues to travel back and forth between the present and the past in order to fulfil a delicate mission - her survival, in more than one sense - meanwhile gaining an ever deeper, darker understanding of the full extent of what it means to be a slave.
why? An absorbing story, simple yet effective prose, lots of food for thought.
flavour extract PROLOGUE I lost an arm on my last trip home.
My left arm. And I lost about a year of my life and much of the comfort and security I had not valued until it was gone. When the police released Kevin, he came to the hospital and stayed with me so that I would know I hadn't lost him too.
I had been meaning to read this novel by Octavia Butler ever since coming across some of her (terrifying) short science fiction. I had a hunch this novel would be right up my alley, and I wasn't disappointed. It was an easier read than expected, and perhaps I was slightly disappointed by the simplicity of the prose, but overall it was an enthralling read. I say I found it easier, but I want to make it clear that it is by no means an easy read, because, although the framework is that of speculative time travel fiction, the depiction of slavery is realistic in its brutality and at times downright harrowing, especially towards the end.
Let's start with the plot and its framework. Dana quickly discovers that the reason she keeps being called back to pre-Civil War Maryland is to help ensure the survival of Rufus, the son of a local planter, who turns out to be one of her forebearers. Every time she travels back there, Dana meets Rufus at different points in his life - first as a child, then as a teenager and finally as a young adult. By saving his life, she is also ensuring her own continued existence in the present, and yet, at the same time, it is her immediate survival that is at risk whenever she travels back in time. In the world of the past Dana is faced with prejudice and expectations that, despite her knowledge of American history, take her by surprise. As modern-day readers, supposedly knowledgeable about the past too, we share her sense of surprise. To give an example, as a woman of the 19th century it is shocking for everyone - black and white, masters and slaves - to see Dana wearing trousers; as a black woman, it is unthinkable and even suspicious that she is able to speak 'proper' English, almost impossible to conceive that she can read so well as to help young master Rufus.
It was this aspect that made me think of Dana's experience as similar to that of playing a video game, because knowledge is gained in an interactive way, through immersion and direct experience rather than reflecting or reading about it. Although video games have traditionally been looked down upon by the literary and artistic intelligentsia, the comparison is not meant to somehow diminish or question the literary value of the novel. On the contrary. I think Butler's choice of using time travel in a very literal sense is a bold, powerful and ultimately quite prescient move, because in collapsing the distance between past and present it demands a response from Dana as much as it forces the readers to ask themselves how they would have acted, given the opportunity. On a side but related note, I am very curious to see how my students will react to Kindred this year, if they will pick up on this interactive representation of history, and how, if at all, they will respond to it.
As I was saying, Dana - along with the reader - finds herself immersed in a reality she only knew from history books, and not only does the gap between knowledge and experience prove broader than expected, but it also forces her to act. And what does Dana do? Interestingly, Dana buys into the system. She does not try to start a revolution or change Rufus for the better, she just tries to teach him to be more humane:
Someday Rufus would own the plantation. Someday, he would be the slaveholder, responsible in his own right for what happened to the people who lived in those half-hidden cabins. The boy was literally growing up as I watched—growing up because I watched and because I helped to keep him safe. I was the worst possible guardian for him—a black to watch over him in a society that considered blacks subhuman, a woman to watch over him in a society that considered women perennial children. I would have all I could do to look after myself. But I would help him as best I could. And I would try to keep friendship with him, maybe plant a few ideas in his mind that would help both me and the people who would be his slaves in the years to come.
From Dana's point of view, understandably, ensuring her immediate survival is hard enough and attempting to change the course of history would be too daring. Even with the other slaves, Dana is never too open or idealistic. She keeps her head down and to an extent does her best to be a 'good' slave. It takes a first whipping to make her realise that there is no such thing as being good when you are a slave, because all kinds of moral subtlety lose meaning. History leaves physical marks on Dana's body, but they also scar her soul, and a new knowledge dawns on her upon once again returning to the twentieth century:
Maybe I'm just like a victim of robbery or rape or something - a victim who survives, but who doesn't feel safe anymore.
Dana's realisation that she is a victim is an important step, but it is interesting that she fails to mention of what she is a victim, leaving it unsaid in that vague 'something'. Perhaps 'something' is better than nothing, and yet that 'something' has many names - racial hatred, enslavement, crime against humanity, or just simply racism.
One way of interpreting Dana's experience is that she is haunted by the ghost of the past, not the kind of ghost that wears a shroud and howls at night, but rather a ghost as sociologist Avery Gordon intends: "The ghost, as I understand it, is not the invisible or some ineffable excess. The whole essence, if you can use that word, of a ghost is that it has a real presence and it demands its due, your attention" (Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, xvi). Ghosts, in other words, through haunting, are the reminders that something is out of place and could (or should) be inquired into, in fact, the whole point of haunting, says Gordon, is that it should produce : "a something-to-be-done".
What Dana, an aspiring writer, chooses to do is chronicle and share her experience in the autobiographical essay that is Kindred's narrative, exposing a seemingly impossible and incomprehensible experience to reveal a true portion of history. In particular, the ending of the novel sees Dana flying to contemporary Maryland to try and unearth any records about her black ancestors, in particular Alice, the mother of her great-great-grandmother Hagar. Unfortunately, Alice's existence can be found in no records, entirely subsumed into the passing of time, which has also destroyed the plantation and its house. Yet, although her trip proves fruitless, Dana has discovered through haunting that "dense site where history and subjectivity make social life" (Gordon, 8), a site that she is able to put on paper and share with readers. For Dana and the reader, the ghostly figures of Alice, Sarah, Carrie, Luke, Nigel and the other slaves become "social figures" (Gordon, 8) whose erasure from public records demands rewriting - so that we do not forget, do not underplay this dramatic part of history.
Interestingly, the only surviving record that Dana and Kevin manage to find is that of the fire that destroyed the plantation's master house, which reinforces the fact that it is often erasure that survives, not memory. In a year that has seen the attack on public monuments such as statues of white slavers - the most memorable, the throwing of Edward Colston's statue into the river in Bristol, a city built on the profits of the transatlantic slave trade - reading Kindred is especially poignant, as it asks us the question of what to do with the extant remnants of slavery. What the novel seems to indicate, in my opinion, is that we should find ways to balance erasure and inscription, let the ghostly manifest itself but prevent it from taking people's voice away - or an arm, like in Dana's case. A bit like Italo Calvino's invisible city of Zaira - a description of which "as it is today should contain all of Zaira's past" - the novel seems to suggest that our cities should strive, or at least dream, to inscribe the past onto our streets "like the lines of a hand", to ensure that the private stories that make up the whole of history be heard, thus stopping more people from falling victim to the past when we attempt to erase it.