Octavia Butler's Kindred is a fantastic story about a modern woman, Dana, facing her roots by being transported back in time to antebellum south. This modern-day slave narrative brings into sharp focus the reality that we cannot escape history. The culture of our ancestors has clearly changed, but just as we carry on the bloodlines and genetic information from our ancestors, we also carry forward the remnants of their culture. We cannot truly understand our present without understanding how the culture from times gone by has created the atmosphere within which we operate every day. In many ways the way we operate within relationships and within society is still directed by shadows of the standards and culture of times that we often believe we have come a long way from. Dana's ordeal is an exercise in acknowledging that sometimes the more things change the more they really stay the same.
Dana's experiences in 1815 Maryland taught her that being a slave is less dramatic than she had been taught to think. Hollywood and our history books show slavery as this constant uphill battle of physical torture, but the world that was waiting for Dana was far more mundane. The violence was certainly present, and every bit as brutal as she had been taught to believe, but she was not prepared for the reality of it. "I had seen people beaten on television and in the movies. I had seen the too-red blood substitute streaked across their backs and heard their well-rehearsed screams. But I hadn't lain nearby and smelled their sweat or heard them pleading and praying, shamed before their families and themselves. I was probably less prepared for the reality than the child crying not far from me" (Butler 36). The truth that she discovered was far more difficult to deal with. She discovered that slavery was more than just a physical oppression, but, even more tragically, a psychological oppression as well. It wasn't the beatings themselves that guaranteed that a slave would stay put and do what was asked of them, it was the idea of the beating that kept the slaves in line. This psychological enslavement is what made it the most difficult for Dana to survive in this setting.
Along with this lesson of what slavery really is, Dana must confront he fact that, though she should feel confident that she could survive a time passed given her modern education and abilities, it turns out that she is actually far less equipped than the other women at surviving this world. Even though circumstances and environment have certainly changed for the better for women and for minorities, our modern society has failed to teach these people true survival. In Maryland she depends on the men to defend and protect her because she has no sense of real survival. In this sense she is just as defenseless and helpless as her predecessors, just in a different way. The women she encounters are strong and know how to defend themselves because of the inevitable time when that defense would be absolutely necessary.
When Kevin, Dana's husband, unwittingly gets transported to Maryland with her, her slave role is even more pronounced. Since Kevin is white, and Dana is black, they set up a "cover" that Kevin is her owner, and as a literate slave, also his secretary. Dana realizes the uncomfortable truth that this pretend relationship that she and Kevin have in the past reflects their true relationship in the present. Dana is, in fact, Kevin's secretary in the present. When Kevin proposes to Dana he tells her that she can type all of his manuscripts. This seems benign enough on the surface, but this seems to be indicative of Kevin's opinions of Dana's place in their marriage as well as his opinion of her future prospects as a writer. There are times when Kevin seems to enjoy the role of master too much, especially when it comes to the couple's intimacy.
Dana and Kevin's marriage seemed to be an attempt to forget or to erase the cultural past that both of them seemingly didn't want to acknowledge. By spending so much time in the past, it becomes more and more clear that this heritage cannot be denied by simply eloping to Las Vegas and turning a blind eye to the deep history that flavors much of their relationship to start with.
Dana's fourth trip to Maryland brings Dana's helplessness into even sharper focus. Though Dana has only been gone eight days in the present, she has been gone for five years of the past. Kevin has moved north, and though Dana is told that he has been sent for, she finds out later that this was a lie. In the time that she spends alone without Kevin she begins to understand that she is helpless in this world. She finds it counterintuitive that she would be so helpless armed with her 20th century education and experience, but they fail her when she needs them the most because nothing in this education and experience has prepared her to succeed in such a hostile environment.
Perhaps Dana's education and experience failed her, not because they were lacking in what she needed to survive, but because she failed to utilize the resources of the 20th century properly. After Kevin ties a bag to her waist to give her some 20th century supplies that she missed dearly on her first two trips, and after Kevin winds up coming with her, it becomes evident that material objects can be transported when she makes the transition between worlds. What kept Dana from bringing along weapons to defend herself in the only ways she knew how? Why did Dana continue to play along with the charade when she could have brought back some sort of evidence to the people in Maryland of what was happening? If she brought some sort of evidence would it enable her to avoid the immersion into slavery? Since these answers can't be attained from the text, we must assume that Dana did all that she did for a reason. Perhaps Dana was trying to explore her roots in a hands-on manner, whether consciously or subconsciously.
By entering into the role of a slave, Dana begins to negotiate and develop the ethic of compromise within her own head. She is perfectly aware that killing her "owner," Rufus, would bring no legal action in the modern world, nor would it likely bear any guilt on her psyche. However, she has become keenly aware from her second visit to Maryland that Rufus is not just any slave owner, he happens to be the man who will eventually father the first ancestor listed in her family tree. The repercussions of killing him would then logically lead to Dana and the rest of her family simply never coming into existence. Begrudgingly Dana accepts this knowledge and learns to survive in the same way that Alice, one of the house slaves, survives. At first Dana didn't understand how Alice could tolerate, and even express mild affection toward, Rufus after learning that Rufus had sold off three of Alice's children. Eventually Dana understands the complex relationship that all of the slaves have with Rufus through the knowledge that she must protect someone who does her harm ironically for her own protection. In the end, however, Dana comes to a full realization of the situation, and after her ancestor has been born and safely sent away from the plantation, she finally is placed in a situation where she must kill Rufus. Dana realizes that she cannot accept slavery no matter how kind or well-intentioned the slave owner is. "A slave was a slave. Anything could be done to her," Dana thinks as she sinks the knife into Rufus'…