Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.
This is an unflinching, unrelentingly confrontational book that goes after racism with a chainsaw in one hand and a gun in the other. The very best approach there is.
“Don’t want to hear no more ’bout it!” She had raised her voice sharply. That was unusual, and it seemed to surprise her as much as it surprised me. “Don’t want to hear no more,” she repeated softly. “Things ain’t bad here. I can get along.”
She had done the safe thing—had accepted a life of slavery because she was afraid. She was the kind of woman who might have been called “mammy” in some other household. She was the kind of woman who would be held in contempt during the militant nineteen sixties. The house-nigger, the handkerchief-head, the female Uncle Tom—the frightened powerless woman who had already lost all she could stand to lose, and who knew as little about the freedom of the North as she knew about the hereafter.
After coming to grip with the idea that she’s really time-traveling Dana at first retains her distance, observing without becoming part of it, but as her stay becomes longer and she’s exposed to more of the plantation life she becomes more acclimated to it, and more so when she loses some of the protection she’s been granted due to her peculiar, supernatural relationship with Rufus Weylin: over the course of the text she is whipped twice, and it horrifies her that this brutality is stealing away her sense of self, the reality of her life in the twentieth century where she has rights and can marry a white man.
And I went out, God help me, and tried to do the wash. I couldn’t face another beating so soon. I just couldn’t.
When Edwards was gone, Alice came out of Carrie’s cabin and began to help me. I felt sweat on my face mingling with silent tears of frustration and anger. My back had already begun to ache dully, and I felt dully ashamed. Slavery was a long slow process of dulling.
Once Rufus has understood that Dana shows up when his life is in danger–and that the power to not rescue him rests in her hands–he becomes both afraid and codependent on her, and because he can hardly live with the idea that a black woman might have power over him, he alternately tries to win her affection and lashes out at her. His time is inhumane, uncivilized, ruled by savages, and while the Weylins are slightly less bestial than some they are still just as much savages as any other of their breed. There are moments where Rufus shows potential for humanity, but each time he’d turn around and exhibit the “low cunning of his class.” What fledgling trust Dana has in him proves misplaced time and again as he piles one unforgivable act on top of the next, from participating in slave trade to rape to ultimately an act that severs his connection with Dana for good.
The writing is simplistic, but the content is brutal, the conclusion of Dana’s and Rufus’ relationship coldly unsentimental, and entirely realistic. A lesser writer would have been tempted to have this play out differently. A white author would absolutely have thrown in a sympathetic antebellum white, with shades of Mighty Whitey; a white writer might have written Rufus as redeemable rather than a devolved, degrading creature that he is. A white writer would have written Dana’s white husband as the perfect liberal; Butler instead writes him exactly like a liberal twentieth-century white man.
Kevin frowned thoughtfully. “It’s surprising to me that there’s so little to see. Weylin doesn’t seem to pay much attention to what his people do, but the work gets done.”
“You think he doesn’t pay attention. Nobody calls you out to see the whippings.”
“How many whippings?”
“One that I’ve seen. One too goddamn many!”
“One is too many, yes, but still, this place isn’t what I would have imagined. No overseer. No more work than the people can manage . . .”
“. . . no decent housing,” I cut in. “Dirt floors to sleep on, food so inadequate they’d all be sick if they didn’t keep gardens in what’s supposed to be their leisure time and steal from the cookhouse when Sarah lets them. And no rights and the possibility of being mistreated or sold away from their families for any reason—or no reason. Kevin, you don’t have to beat people to treat them brutally.”
“Wait a minute,” he said. “I’m not minimizing the wrong that’s being done here. I just…”
“Yes you are. You don’t mean to be, but you are.”
I don’t know how a white reader would react to Kindred, but I quite hope the white reader would be made to squirm. This shouldn’t be a comfortable read to one of them, not even if they declare themselves a great anti-racist whose ancestors didn’t have slaves.