The late, great Octavia Butler was best-known as a rare black female superstar in a genre –science-fiction –largely dominated by white men. One of her most famous and influential books, however, was not science-fiction at all (although it did share with science fiction the methodology of starting with a core departure from present reality, and carefully following it through all its ramifications).
“Kindred” is the story of a black American woman of modern times (1976, contemporary as of the publication of the book) who is helplessly yanked back in time, apparently with the task of rescuing and protecting her distant ancestor, the young heir of a slaveholding plantation. The book makes no attempt to explain or understand this occurrence, it is simply an unforgiving reality that the narrator, and later her husband, will have to face.
Butler has described the book as a reaction to the contempt with which one of her classmates described earlier generations of black Americans as shamefully complicit in their own degraded state. By sending a modern couple into the distant past she destroys the comforting barrier of distance we place between us and our past as a nation built on the backs of slaves. It is easily to approach accounts of slaves –or slaveholders –with neither empathy nor understanding. They are not us, so we cannot or will not imagine ourselves in their places. But Butler’s narrative forces us to do so. As can also be said of the parallel but true-life story of Solomon Northup, the protagonist of Twelve Years a Slave, the fact that the narrative begins in a more familiar and civilized location makes all the more startling the transition into the living hell that follows.
Together with the narrator, we learn the harsh lesson that nothing she brings with her –her intelligence, her education, her knowledge from the future, the love and protection of her husband, and even her status as a time traveler –is much protection against the brutality of the institution of American slavery. Neither her attempts to exploit or subvert the system pay many dividends, and she’s finally forced into demeaning and morally compromising complicity just to stay alive. When she finally escapes, she, like Northup, does so not only at considerable personal cost, but also at the cost of betraying and abandoning those she leaves behind.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of Kindred is the way it paints a portrait of slaveholders that reveals both their most human aspects and their most monstrous ones. The primary vehicle for this exploration is Rufus, the narrator’s ancestor, who we meet first as a relatively innocent child, and who we follow throughout life as the institution of slavery deforms and ultimately destroys him, its putative beneficiary. We see how the slaveholders themselves are prisoners of privilege, morally crippled by the power they wield, and prevented from ever truly loving or forming genuine relationships across the color barrier. We also see how the narrator’s every effort to save and enlighten even one lost soul on the other side is defeated by the inescapable matrix of power and oppression.
Unlike much science fiction which quickly grows obsolete, and much fantasy, which quickly grows quaint, Kindred remains as powerful and as current today as when it was first written. It is an important book, and Americans of all races owe it to themselves to give it a read.