The Issue Of Race And Gender In Octavia Butler’s Kindred

While Kindred by Octavia E. Butler is primarily a novel exploring the slavery of blacks in the United States, it also takes a secondary theme of exploring the lives of women in general in the South during this time. The contrast between Dana and the characters of the past serves to highlight the changes that have taken place in women’s rights in general over the past century, but the hardship Dana still faces as a modern woman highlights the changes that still need to occur for complete equality to be realized. In Kindred, a 20th century African American woman named Dana is transported to the antebellum South by the near death experiences of Rufus Weylin and gets to experience first hand what it’s like to be a slave. Through her day-to-day life on the Weylin plantation, we begin to understand just how complex slavery is and how it affects not only the slaves but also the plantation owners. In Kindred, the female characters of the antebellum South, both black and white, are contrasted with the modern character of Dana to highlight the significance of the progress of the women’s rights movement.

Butler portrays fluctuating identities and ideas on race and gender, as a means of rejecting social constructions, especially essentializing myths about African American women. In the sections where Dana accounts for her life in the present, she is portrayed as an independent woman who attempts to resist the pressure from the outside world. Her gender identity defies contemporary expectations of femininity, for example, she prefers short hair, doesn’t own a dress, and has shortened her name Edana to Dana, which is considered as a gender-neutral name. Moreover, instead of submitting to society’s gender roles in general and her family’s expectations, she follows her own instincts, for example, she marries Kevin, a white man even though her uncle disapproves, “now... it’s as though I've rejected him. Or at least that’s the way he feels... He wants me to marry someone like him – someone who looks like him. A black man.” Although her aunt and uncle told her they would only support her if she went to a secretarial school, she decided to drop out of school in order to pursue her passion which was writing. Dana demonstrates her independence and free will by choosing to define herself instead of accepting the definitions of others. However, the novel shows that there is a penalty for transgressing the boundaries of social norms; as a woman who refuses to live in accordance with the gender roles, Dana must suffer the consequences. Through her portrayal of Dana, Butler also deconstructs the stereotypical image of black women’s immorality and excessive sexual appetite. While separated from Kevin, Dana is desired by Sam, one of the enslaved men on the plantation, she adamantly declares that one husband is enough for her, contradicting the supposed lust of enslaved Black women. The novel rejects the stigmatization of African American women by revealing how enslaved women perceived themselves.

During the 19th century, women were generally trapped in their houses and performed only domestic duties. Society had put them into the role of home keepers and homemakers for their families. Margaret Weylin portrays this role of the 19th century homemaker. In the novel, Margaret is a white woman who stays at home and has nothing to do but be a wife and mother to her husband, Tom Weylin, and child, Rufus. Although she has way more privileges than African American women during her time, she still felt powerless. “But Margaret Weylin still rushes everywhere. She had little or nothing to do,” said Dana (p.93). Despite her position of power over her slaves, Margaret still suffered from knowing that her husband was sleeping with the slaves. She had no real respect from anyone and felt that she had no real role in her household. This led to Margaret finding amusement in making the slaves suffer. She abused Dana and poured scalding coffee at her for doing chores “wrong”. 'I did know how to sweep and dust no matter what century it was. Margaret complained because she couldn't find anything to complain about”. Margaret intentionally finds something to be mad about to get amusement from knowing that she has power over these African American women and can do anything she wants to them. She not only victimized slave women but also victimized their children. Margaret’s child abuse is evident when Dana states, 'I'd seen Margaret Weylin slap one of them hard across the face. The child had done nothing more than toddle into her path'. She abused these children and women to prove her worth and power. In the 18th century, Margaret was legally allowed to abuse these children and women because she had white privilege. As a white woman, living in the 18th century, she had a lot of freedom to do what she wanted as long as it was done around the household.

Where Rufus represents the white man during the slave era, Alice represents the slave. Her role in the novel is largely defined by the decisions of Rufus and Dana, and these decisions ultimately lead to her suicide. As a formerly free black woman, becoming a slave puts Alice in an immediately disadvantageous position. She cannot leave without risks, she cannot refuse any demands, and she cannot hope to regain her freedom after trying to help her husband run away. When news broke that Rufus raped Alice, Dana states, “there was no shame in raping a black woman...”. The rape of a slave was not a big deal in the 1800s because slaves were property and slave masters were free to do whatever they wanted with them. More evidence of lack of freedom for African American women in the 1800s is shared by Dana when she states that Rufus, “sent me to the field, had me beaten, made me spend nearly eight months sleeping on the floor of his mother's room, sold people…”. Dana was abused and could not do anything about it. In addition, Butler constructed Dana and Alice as doubles, by doing this she highlights both women’s victimization under white male authority. Rufus may be said to represent the prevailing racist views that serve to oppress and claim dominance over black women, which is shown by when he refers to Alice and Dana as “one woman”. Alice explains to Dana that “... he likes me in bed, and you out of bed, and you and I look alike if we can believe what people say… we’re two halves of the same woman”. Rufus’s conjoining of Dana and Alice might be interpreted as an example of the historically imposing way of defining the black female identity. This is common in slavery because to acknowledge individuality or subjectivity would serve to erase slavery’s very foundation.

Dana represents a more modern, open-minded society and believes that her survival and the fight for her life would be better than living a life of slavery and condemnation, while Alice was raised in a society that supports and allows racism and slavery and in turn took her own life, representing the idea that death was more kind than the life she was living.

In conclusion, Octavia E. Butler’s novel Kindred portrays how 19th century society was structured around maintaining the fundamental institution of slavery. Race and gender were central components of this oppressive regime and created the social hierarchy which sustained the system. As the members of the ruling class, White males were bestowed with a superior status which granted slave masters with absolute power. Due to their gender, white women were subjugated by the male-dominated society and this lack of power transgressed into their aggression towards slaves. As slavery was racially based, one’s inferiority was determined by their skin color with little regard to their slave status. As a result, blacks were denied many rights in the jurisdiction of the law, contributing to slavery by making the slaves subjects to harsh treatment from their masters and denied any validity of familiar relations. The system was further sustained by the sexual exploitation of Black women, as the children produced from such relations increased the property of their masters. Overall, societal standards enabled slavery to function effortlessly and promoted the acceptance of the institution.  

16 December 2021
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