The Merging Of Times In Kindred By Octavia E. Butler

One of the longest and most pivotal transformations the United States has been through is the abolishing of slavery and Jim Crow laws. However, race and gender inequality still persist in many avenues of society ranging from the streets to the workplace. To showcase the persistence of these troubles, Octavia E. Butler wrote a neo-slave narrative Kindred in which a pseudo-psychological force transports the main character Dana back in time from 1976 to the early 1800s antebellum south, where the reader is presented with a psychological realistic narrative of the horrors of slavery on a Maryland plantation. Throughout the novel, Dana is conflicted by feelings of alienation and assimilation. She wants to stay in a superior position to antebellum slaves yet feels a constant sense of sympathy for them. She eventually unconsciously learns to assimilate with the antebellum society during her stay there to the point where the temporal shift Dana goes through becomes nearly nonexistent. Such is what Gregory Hampton argues in his critical essay “Kindred: History, Revision, and (Re)memory of Bodies”. Hampton claims that the times of past and present intersect so much to the point they become eventually synonymous in nature. The different timelines both have something to share with each other and can affect each other significantly. Contrastingly, however, in Lisa Yaszek’s “‘A Grim Fantasy’: Remaking American History in Octavia Butler’s Kindred”, a sense of alienation between the two different timelines is brought up, to the point Dana has become an “alien other” of history. She can be affected by her experiences in the past but remains an alien herself. Yaszek further claims that the establishment of an “alien other” is a significant science fiction device Butler uses to solidify and contextualize Dana’s place in history. As Hampton states, Dana’s travel to the past, governed by merely memory and imagination, has a significant overarching role in her present timeline, to the point the past and present can coexist in each other.

In “Kindred: History, Revision, and (Re)memory of Bodies”, Hampton supports his claim that the two periods of history Dana is exposed to play an interconnected role in each other’s progression by the use of the final scene in which Dana kills Rufus and transports back to the present. Hampton interprets this scene as an ultimatum of a long held symbiotic relationships between Dana and Rufus, member of two different time periods. Dana gave Rufus a part of her flesh, her missing arm, as he dies in the process while Rufus gives Dana the sense of security she sought as she entered the antebellum time period: he ensured the birth of Hagar, thus, ensuring Dana and her family’s existence. In short, Hampton claims that both the past and present timelines paid a price for “crossing boundaries of time, place and body”. What brought Dana back in time to the present for good was her will power to never “accept him…as her lover”. Hampton also claims that the novel “blurs genre borders” as Dana’s source of time travel lie in her imagination and memory alone. Memory was the source of the travel as Dana remembered vaguely the names of her ancestors from the old family bible she kept, and the imagination of a child “who believes anything is possible”. Through memory Dana was able to put her and Rufus’ imagination that led the following course of events into context of her present-day life. They both receive something but at the cost of something else. Finally, Hampton brings up the “redefinition of social meaning” of Dana’s body through the different time periods. It has “neither the security nor the agency it may have had in 1976”. This triggers a fear in her that being exposed to an antebellum time period would change her and her husband’s relationship as they have been acting what they are not — a slave and master relationship instead of the married couple they are from their original time period. Hampton ultimately claims white privileges are a commonality between the two time periods but two different degrees, and thus, Dana must “negotiate with this power” if she were to thrive in either period. Ultimately, the two time periods were a two-sided street that could affect each other mutually. They are not completely different from each other have the potential to impact each other through the commonalities they have.

Hampton’s analysis is a valid interpretation of Kindred as the main purpose of the novel is to show a deep interrelation between the two time periods to highlight the strain of racial relations that have existed throughout American history. After all, Butler includes a pseudo-psychological temporal shift of Dana to emphasize the ethical responsibility to learn about history to uncover our contemporary privileges which hide the harsh cruelties of the past. Of course, Dana does learn about the miseries of the antebellum time period by not only witnessing but by experiencing and undergoing them herself. Rather than outsider, she merges into society. During the two months she stays there, she biologically ages two months even though only a few hours have passed in 1976. Such is the nature of the temporal shift Dana undergoes. The past becomes Dana’s present. Dana’s present period also becomes the past as well. The significant effects this experience had on her both figuratively and physically on her body clearly highlights how she has changed for good after this experience. This can be seen when Dana replies, “I know” to Kevin in the epilogue when he claims she would never know what truly happened on the plantation after she killed Rufus. In a literal sense, Dana is able to infer what may have happened; however, figuratively, Dana has developed a new outlook of her rich African American ancestry. They aren’t just figments of history that she has merely seen in books or other aspects of the modern-day commercialized culture used as memory devices of the past. Instead, her ancestors and their sufferings in the past have become a part of her present, giving her a new “imaginative and informed point of view”. 

Furthermore, Dana’s unconscious merging of times is evident as she develops a resistance to these cruelties over the duration of her experience. Originally a whipping itself was able to make Dana think that “Weylin meant to kill her”. However, in “The Fight”, Dana know longer fears as much for her life when she is whipped brutally for attempting to escape the Weylin plantation. This gradual immunity Dana develops goes to show how the past becomes her present. She eventually learns to accept the nineteenth century life but never does so completely. As the past affects her, she attempts to exert influence on what has become her present as she tries to change Rufus’ ideals for the better to give Rufus a sense of “insurance” on his character growth. She is able to convince him to free Hagar and secure her present existence. This is an apt example of Kindred’s specialty that lies in how Dana abides by the paradigm by whatever happens in the past affects her present choices in the past — the timelines merge and intertwine in a novel way; however, unconsciously Dana is able to make her present the past as she assimilates to the conditions of the antebellum time.

These effects of this experience are not novel to Dana but are common in her husband Kevin. Butler shows these effects on Kevin in a similar yet different manner. After Kevin returns home from being stranded in the antebellum period for five years, Dana notices his “face…lined with a grim beard…a jagged scar across his forehead.” As Dana physically changed through the amputation of her arm, so did Kevin’s physical appearance change. However, they did not change through the same manner. Kevin’s change through aging, but Dana’s was through torture. By blending and contrasting the effects of the past on these characters and bringing them along into their present lives, Butler highlights the significant theme of racial inequality and the cruel path African American history has been through. Ultimately, Dana’s memory and imagination were the two main sources of the mysterious force that brought sense of convergence of the time periods. The fact American vices haven’t really left society is what the convergence of the past and present timelines represent in Kindred.

However, in “‘A Grim Fantasy’: Remaking American History in Octavia Butler’s Kindred”, Yaszek claims that Dana is on the other side of history due to commercialized versions of African American plight. Yaszek interprets the experiences Dana has been through as an encounter with the “alien other”. Yaszek cites the main reason behind the alienation of times is the contemporary commercial culture of the 1960s and 1970s. Ever since massive television and various commercials and advertisements use African Americans in their scenes to display a sense of compassion and helping out the needy, the modern public is shielded from the hardhips African Americans went through in history. Even Dana after one of her returns from the antebellum south herself claims about the written history and contemporary commercialized versions of African American memory that “Their versions of happy darkies in tender loving bondage were more than I could stand”. However, Yaszek claims that Dana becomes part of the “American social experience as a whole”.

Yaszek’s interpretation is incomplete as she doesn’t take into account the two way interaction the characters’ past and present timelines have with each other. For example, when Yaszek interprets Dana’s refusal of Rufus’ sexual favor request of establishing her “newfound sense of herself as the alien other leading to…an emancipatory revision of history”. Although Yaszek is correct at the moment the murdering of Rufus occurs, her statement is an under analysis of the novel as whole. Throughout the novel Dana can be seen developing a significant portion of her identity. She uncovers the truth of her ancestors which she curiosly yearned to know. She, in a sense, becomes a significant part of the history of her family and ancestors. Without her efforts, her whole family line would have failed to exist. Hagar would not have not been born. This supports Hampton’s theory of a mutualistic symbiotic relationship between the past and present — between Dana and Rufus. A price was paid for crossing the frontiers of space, time, and imagination. Both characters received something from the other as both of their memories and imaginations were the power of the source that triggered the mysterious transport in time.

Altogether, to qualify Yaszek’s argument, although commercialized versions of memory and imagination do hide the harsh realities of the antebellum time period, it does not completely make Dana immune to assimilation and a legitimate experience. In fact, even Dana and the other slaves feel as if Dana “is more white than black” (Butler 224). However, as the mute Carrie says, “it doesn’t come off” (Butler 224). This goes hand in hand with Hampton’s argument of assimilation, symbiosis, and a blend of the time periods. Dana remains the African American woman she is, a significant part of her identity that this time travelling experience helps to solidify, as the past and present converge in the form of a new version for Dana. As Dana and Kevin visit Maryland after this experience to assure their sanity, their new identities are established. Dana’s present has become the past as she revised and made her effect on history. In fact, Dana asks Kevin “Why did I even want to come here. You'd think I would have had enough of the past?” (Butler 264). The answer to this is simple. Dana’s present has become the past. Her experiences have merged with both the times ultimately changing her viewpoint on history forever.

Works Cited

  • Hampton, Gregory. “Kindred: History, Revision, and (Re)Memory of Bodies.” Obsidian III, vol. 6, no. 2, 2005, pp. 105–117,264.
  • Yaszek, Lisa. “‘A Grim Fantasy’: Remaking American History in Octavia Butler's Kindred” Signs, vol. 28, no. 4, 2003, pp. 1053–1066.
  • Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. 25th anniverary ed., Beacon Press, 2003.                                                                                 
16 December 2021
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