It’s no secret or shock to anyone with a decent knowledge of history that America is a country built on the backs of enslaved people. When Michelle Obama, speaking at the DNC in 2016, stated that slaves built the White House, it generated waves of shock and faux outrage. How dare she point out a historical fact. I remember not being surprised by her statement at the time nor thinking it should be particularly shocking to anyone, but it was for white people who didn’t want to face hard truth. Similarly, reading Kindred should not have come as any shock to me – knowing, at least intellectually, that slavery was an integral part of our country and truly how awful it was for the enslaved – but I was shocked at times, and profoundly moved. Stories about this period of history I tend to shy away from due to the real life horror of it all, but hiding from historical horrors don’t make them less real, or less relevant now. Depending on what was happening in the novel, I was either nearly unable to put it down or unable to read another moment from the increasing tension. It was teaching me hard truths about the past and the present, allowing me to examine this country through the eyes of a black woman, while giving me the opportunity to examine my own white perspective.
The novel begins in 1976 by introducing us to Dana, a young black writer, and her husband, a white man. Somehow Dana is transported back in time to early 1800’s Maryland just in time to save the life of a drowning white boy. Her effort is rewarded with a rifle in the face, and she is whisked back to her own time. She is forced to travel back to the same era to visit the same white boy throughout the novel, and it’s revealed that the boy happens to be her ancestor. Time passes at different rates for her in 1976 than it does for the boy – Rufus – in the past. It’s never explained how she is traveling back in time, but the timing for her journeys coincides with whenever Rufus is in danger and needs his life saved. Whether or not she is willing to go back, she must in order to ensure that her ancestral line will continue and she will be born.
She and Rufus develop a complicated relationship over his lifetime, as they both begin to understand how they must rely on each other to live: he to have his life saved at crucial moments, and her to ensure that he lives to father a daughter with the slave Alice. Their relationship fluctuates between friendly, almost familial, and adversarial. Through it all, Dana is treated as less than a full person. She is considered a slave, one with some comforts compared to the field hands, but less than an equal person despite her ability to read, write and the advanced medical knowledge that comes from being from 1976. Rufus has no compunction about using these abilities to serve his own needs. Meanwhile, Dana learns how to live as a slave and with other people also enslaved. Her ability to read and write is mistrusted and she doesn’t know how to do anything useful in the kitchen or laundry until she is taught. Yet she finds her place and develops relationships with the slaves, suffering with them and learning from them how to conceal and manage her anger.
The novel succeeds on so many levels. It’s a fantastic use of a classic science fiction device to tell a socially relevant story and is somewhat reminiscent of how classic Star Trek episodes couched such stories in a futuristic way. The plotting is tight and the quick pace keeps the reader engaged. All the characters – white and black, past and present – feel like actual people, not caricatures. One has hope for Rufus in the beginning since we are introduced to him as a child, but it’s quickly clear that he can’t escape his upbringing. His father is cruel both to his family and the people he considers his property, but he operates out of his own skewed sense of what is right. There is little room for sympathy for the white masters, but they are presented as actual people and not monsters. One can easily imagine these white people in a modern day setting simply divested of their whips and only saying the n-word in private.
In meeting actually enslaved people, Dana must overcome her own presuppositions that she brought with her from the ‘70’s. They are people trying to live under a horribly oppressive system and keep their families together if possible, not traitors to their race for allowing themselves to be enslaved. They have various means of coping with the constant threat of whippings and being sold away, and Dana sees firsthand how their struggle to survive means compromising on a near daily basis. She finds she must consider the same sort of compromises for the good of others and herself. Dana also has a complicated friendship with Alice, Rufus’s kept woman and Dana’s fore mother. Alice and Dana are described as appearing to be nearly identical twins, yet Rufus treats them very differently and Alice stews with jealousy at Dana and boils with anger over her treatment.
There are many gut punch moments in the book. Dana nearly being raped, the descriptions of being whipped and what it did to a person, the descriptions of how dogs would go after runaways. The physical violence is painful even when it’s expected, but just as difficult to read about is the psychological damage. A white person reading about time travel doesn’t think about the danger of going back to the past in the way a black person automatically does. Yes, a white woman wouldn’t have had as much rights and freedom, but she wouldn’t be immediately questioned “Who’s your owner?” on her arrival to that time, with a threat of violence implicit. That’s one of the first truths I had to face on the start of this book. Another was reading about Dana being grateful to meet young Rufus, when he had just been calling her the n-word and talking about how many slaves they owned, because she could have met someone much worse. The idea that she was grateful it wasn’t worse after being talked down to as she had been was chilling. Another such hard truth was on her third visit to the past when she manages to bring her husband Kevin. He is of course appalled by what’s happening, and yet, she worries that if they stay in the past too long he will begin to unconsciously internalize the white culture of the time and that those beliefs would leave their mark on him. It’s a fear that she doesn’t feel able to even articulate to her white husband, the gulf between their racial identities has been so widened by their journey.
There are many moments like that in this amazing book. I could go on to identify such gut punches from nearly every chapter, but for spoilers. It can be a difficult read at times but it never feels like a slog because the pace moves everything along to a satisfying conclusion. Dana must forge a life in a horrible situation in order to ensure the continuity of her family and her own existence. Meeting her own ancestors, she meets aspects of herself. You can see their anger and their stubbornness in her. She gets an opportunity to meet two people responsible for her own genetics, part of the collective unconscious that filters down and contributes to everything she is. In the same way, being enslaved and the owning of slaves has imprinted itself on America; it is a part of the collective unconscious we are still working to undo. Racism isn’t gone, the idea of slavery survives in other insidious ways, and white privilege is still the order of the day. Knowing intellectually that our country was built on the labor of slavery is a different sort of knowledge than having it illustrated so personally as Butler does here. The experience is more real and resonates more deeply than dry, academic facts. It’s important to be reminded of the personal toll that is taken even today, even when it’s a difficult read, especially when it’s a difficult read. When we face the truths and the experiences of our ancestors, we face ourselves. Even if that makes us uncomfortable, we have to look before anything can change.