Octavia Butler’s, Kindred, tells a story of how a modern day black woman, Dana, is transported from California to the antebellum South to protect a man that would become her ancestor. Her survival essentially relies on her ability to keep him alive. She is summoned to a plantation in Maryland that her ancestor, Rufus Weylin, lives on. Every time Rufus faces danger Dana would be called upon to protect him, so that he can father the child that will become her ancestor. Each time Dana goes back to the past, she is confronted by the brutal reality of the slave trade in America.
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Throughout her journey, she discovers the true meaning of freedom when she is able to compare her own life to those who are in bondage on his father’s, Tom Weylin, plantation. The experience that Dana has in the antebellum south, tells a story of the slave trade in a fresh and innovative way. All the characters in the book have a pivotal role in the development of Dana, one in particular being Alice. Alice is the woman who must bear the child that will become Dana’s great-grandmother. Although she does not love Rufus, she must submit to him, which is a foreign concept for the 1976 mind frame of Dana. Butler creates a relationship between Dana and Alice that provides for the reader an understanding not only of a twentieth century black woman’s experiences in the antebellum south, but more importantly, a window into the a nineteenth century black woman’s life in slavery. It was necessary for Alice to be created because she presents a parallelism between the past and the present, revealing how they influence each other in areas such as: sexuality, the importance of motherhood, and definition of ones self in a repressive society. Thus, Octavia helps the contemporary reader understand 19th century America and the slave trade in greater detail.
The idea of sexuality for Dana is initially one that she feels comfortable with and has control over when she is in twentieth century California. Dana views sexual intercourse as a way of enjoyment and pleasure, much to the contrary of her foremother, Alice, whose sexuality creates pain and agony. In the beginning of the novel when Dana discusses when she first met her husband, Kevin, she talks about their first sexual contact in a way that possessed a certain amount of comfort and pleasure. “Sometime during the early hours of the next morning when we lay together, tired and content in my bed, I realized that I knew less about loneliness than I had thought” (57). So for Dana, sexuality was a way to be free and confident, because her environment didn’t suppress or abuse her. Conversely, Alice’s sexual world of vulnerability and victimization characterized the sexual experiences of the black woman during slavery. For Alice, she was faced with the grim reality that she would have to have sex with Rufus for her survival. She initially rejects Rufus, which exemplifies her need for individuality and control over her life. She goes even further to marry Isaac, a slave from another plantation, in which Rufus becomes infuriated and rapes her. After a brawl between Isaac and Rufus, Isaac attempts to run away, but he is caught and sold. Rufus then buys Alice so that he can have her as his own, however, Alice does not allocate to him the most essential part-her spirit. Rufus cannot buy Alice’s desires, thoughts, and wants: he can only buy her body. Alice further explains this when she is talking to Dana about being property of Rufus. While Dana contends that Alice is in control of her own body, Alice makes it clear when she says, “Not mines, his. He paid for it, didn’t he?” (167). By submitting her body and not her spirit, Alice resists Rufus to retain her sense of self, never fully giving in to her sexual enslavement. For Dana, she eventually kills Rufus because of his sexual advances towards her. She only continued to protect Rufus for self-preservation. She knew that she had to keep him alive until her ancestor was born, but she still held the power of self-authorization throughout the novel. In short, the idea of sexuality as viewed by Alice and Dana, provide the reader with the different perspectives, thus creating meaning and better understanding of the importance of sexuality.
Motherhood is another example of the elements that Dana and Alice exemplify throughout the novel, that allow us to see the similarities and differences in the times. Butler creates a spin on the way we the contemporary reader would view the theme motherhood. For Dana, who is not a mother, the maternal instincts immediately surface when she is placed in the antebellum South. Her understanding that everything she does on the plantation will affect everyone on that plantation primarily causes this. Therefore, she has to keep in mind doing things for the enslaved community, as opposed for herself, while still not understanding the full implications of motherhood. For Alice, being a mother is the only thing that keeps her from killing herself-at least for most of the novel. . Alice has to live in a society where death sometimes seems like the better way to live. For Alice, motherhood complicated her life because she knew that her children would be slaves, since she was a slave herself. Furthermore, Rufus used her children as a bribe to gain her affection and sexual pleasures towards him. Because Alice was unable to own her children, it was difficult for her to love them the way she wanted, because she feared that the result of their lives would be slavery forever. Alice also refrained from running away, primarily because of her children. She knew that if she ran away, Rufus would sell her children, and that was something that she could not live with. So, she resorted to giving in to Rufus for the protection of her children because of the difficulties involved in running away with a child. So in her symbolic way of freeing them, she named them Joseph and Hagar, biblical names of former enslaved people. In the end, Alice did kill herself, but only because Rufus had her believe that he sold her children. For Alice, her children were her reason for living, as was many enslaved women of that time.
For the nineteenth century black woman, there were few possibilities for self-definition. Alice’s life exemplifies that of a nineteenth century black woman. Although Alice was born free, she still couldn’t escape the wrath of slavery, primarily because she married a slave. When her and her husband attempt to run away, Rufus jumps at the chance to buy Alice, when there is auction to sell the both of them. The fact that Alice never fully develops is something that had to happen for the reader to see development of Dana in a more lucid way, for Dana symbolically represents what Alice could have been if in another place or time. Alice accepted a lot because she did not want to loose anything else. Furthermore, she pushed the limits by repressing Rufus, without getting killed. While Rufus may have controlled her body, she controlled her mind.
With the creation of Alice, Butler shows us that the past informs the present and eventually the future. Butler goes beyond what information we have always known about the black slave woman’s life, by creating a dualism between the present and the past so that we can step back and examine each as they relate to one another. In doing this, she intensifies our understanding of the condition of the black woman in slavery and the freed black woman. In her analysis of Kindred, Beverly Friend states that, “transporting a contemporary heroin into the past serves neatly to highlight the contrast between current freedom and past oppression”.
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