The Device of Time-Travel in Butler’s Kindred
The institution of slavery is often thought of as a relic in our shared past. As Americans, this is an aspect of our history that we remember with shame and disgust, but also with distance and complacency. In our reflection on the iniquities which were so regularly visited upon the African and Caribbean Islanders who were shipped into the United States to serve as its forced labor, we tend to view these events as having occurred many years in the past. This is true even to the extent that we may take the nature of these events or their lasting impact fully for granted, dismissing their relevance to the lives of African-American today or to the modern racial hierarchy. This seems to be a preeminent concern of the text by Octavia Butler. Her 1979 novel Kinrdred is widely regarded as an important metafictional examination of this subject, casting slavery as a period of American history which left us with indelible markings as a culture. Through her central protagonist, Dana, Butler uses the device of time-travel to place a pointedly modern and educated women who is yet at a distance from her racial history into the midst of this period. The device serves to demonstrate amply that the grotesque realities of American history are often forgotten or viewed as relegated to an ancient past, but that in fact they remain a determinant factor in the lives of Americans.
So denotes the perspective of the narrator and protagonist, who begins to experience her sudden shifting in time without warning or apparent reason. As she and her husband Kevin move into a new home together, she suddenly finds herself pulled through a wormhole and case into the lush and hostile prewar South. Within seconds of her arrival and no apparent consideration of the racial implications, she has already been physically assaulted and finds herself at the end of the barrel of a gun. Upon her return, she, Kevin and the reader try collectively to assess the seemingly impossible occurrence of her time travel. The narrator’s own words seem to provide an unwitting explanation from which we can draw some explanation for the chosen device. Here, Dana immediately begins to doubt the veracity of her own experience, claiming that “I don’t know. As real as the whole episode was, as real as I know it was, it’s beginning to recede from me somehow. it’s becoming like something I saw on television or read about — like something I got second had.” (Butler, 17)
This is a compelling set of remarks that may be seen as directly analogous to the way that we tend to experience history, regardless of its proximity to our real experiences with the world. For Dana, for instance, her forays into the past will ultimately reveal that her very existence would hinge on the relationship between the son of a slave owner named Rufus and his rape of one of her ancestors. With each trip to coastal Maryland, Dana would come more to understand both this literal connection to the events of slavery and the philosophical relationship between this and her modern life. The notion that first strikes her, that these experiences might well have been a dream or a viewing experience gathered ‘second hand’ underscores Butler’s primary interest in the time-travel device. Namely, there is this suggest that one would need more compelling evidence that the strictly reflective and historically cast understanding of slavery which had emerged only a century since abolition.
Butler declares as much of this purpose by suggesting Dana’s experience to be a vessel through which the convey the actual closeness of slavery to our modern history for the reader, regardless of race. To this end, research finds that in her own words, “I was trying to get people to feel slavery,” Butler said in a 2004 interview. ‘I was trying to get across the kind of emotional and psychological stones that slavery threw at people.’ In another interview, she said, ‘I think people really need to think what it’s like to have all of society arrayed against you.'” (Wikipedia, 1) Certainly, Dana would have perceived no such threat or danger in her modern life. Indeed, engaged in an interracial marriage with little consideration of its sociological implications, Dana and Kevin both come to understand more closely the significance of their union as it becomes cast in the shadows of America’s past.
And through their marriage, it is not simply the construct of race that is explored. Dana is constantly moved through time by the unconscious beckoning of Rufus, whom she appears dispatched to rescue only to the extent that this moves them mutually closer to the point at which her ancestor is conceived. The irony of this imperative is even greater than the sheer racial dynamic in which an African-American woman is cast as the savior of a white slave-master’s son. Indeed, Kenan (1991) points to the way that this imperative intertwines with other features in the dynamic between Rufus and Dana as way of elucidating the realities of the slavery era. Kenan remarks that “Butler manages to use the conventions of science fiction to subvert many long held assumptions about race, gender and power; in her hands these devices become adept metaphors for reinterpreting and reconsidering our world. Strong women, multiracial societies . . . challenge humanity’s penchant for destruction.” (Kenan, 495)
To this perspective, the themes of gender and power dynamic are perhaps just as important as those relating to race. Dana’s experiences reveal that the inherency of the female experience was yet a greater level of subjugation even than that experienced by African-American men. In a regard, Dana’s role as the constant protector for Rufus would seem to be an ironic empowerment of a black woman over a white male. And yet, in so many ways, we find that Dana’s experiences have become controlled by the will of Rufus, whether he knows it or not. One might suggest in fact that she has become inherently enslaved by his interests, as her conception depends very much upon his survival. As with her ancestors then, the device of time travel reveals Dana to be directly controlled by Rufus in a dynamic larger than both of them. That she must help Rufus survive to the point of violating her ancestor is a magnification of the fact that truly, we are all the products of the conditions in this era. For Dana, time travel and firsthand encounters with her own history had made it impossible to any longer dismiss the implications of either her race or her gender as they had forged her identity. These had been shaped in the fires of slavery.
This was true regardless of the life which she had crafted for herself in the liberal bastion of Southern California in the 1970s. Here, we also denote that the device of time travel has been largely used to erase the protective regional forces that would make America a patchwork of different racial dispositions in the late 20th century. Many of these would present a false impression that the ugly views of the past had been eliminated. To Butler’s view, the sense of many African-Americans persisting by the late 20th century as free from the racial iniquities of the past would be an illusion of utopian accomplishment conjured by genuine but limited progress. The distance which this would afford modern African-Americans from the slaves in their past would, in a sense, become a way of obscuring the remaining racial hierarchy now permeating the undertones of American culture. Butler’s text, therefore, casts into direct opposition of one another the utopian appearances of Dana’s life with Kevin and the dystopian conditions defining the antebellum south to which Dana is mysteriously and repeated whisked away. As the article by Zaki (1990) indicates, much can be gained when we “reveal the dynamic interplay of utopian, dystopian, and ideological elements in Butler’s works in the effort to show how one example of popular culture, containing as it does many authentic utopian elements, also includes less hopeful forces of anti-utopianism and ideology.” (Zaki, 239)
In a sense, we might argue that Butler has employed time-travel in order to force her characters to recognize the illusory nature of their utopian perceptions. For Dana, the remoteness of her origins would allow her to experience the modern world free from any comprehension of the racial iniquities which have flowed as an undercurrent for American society. We may suggest in this way that Butler wished to use time travel not as a way of conjuring America’s dark past but as a way of casting light on its imperfect present. With America always struggling to redress the racial and sexual barriers that are part and parcel to our longstanding identity, Butler dispatches figures such as Dana with a distinct knowledge that might help bring further change. In other words, the insights which Dana gains through time-travel to the early 19th century serve as a unique way of formulating a powerful advocate in the late 20th century for civil rights and women’s suffrage.
This is the view taken by Salvaggio (1984), who observes that “Butler places her heroines in worlds filled with racial and sexual obstacles, forcing her characters to survive and eventually overcome these societal barriers to their independence. Sometimes her black heroines are paired with white men who challenge their abilities; sometimes they are paired with powerful black men who threaten their very autonomy and existence. And always, the society in which they live constantly reminds them of barriers to their independence.” (Salvaggio, 78) This is to make the case that Butler’s use of time travel is as a way of reminding Dana not just of her past but of the way that these dynamics remain relevant to the present, even where the conditions of her life have allowed her to assume otherwise. As other black women continued to live lives of inequality and subjugation even late into the 20th century, Dana’s previous state of blissful ignorance to the real travails of her ancestors would help to personalize these struggles for her.
Certainly, she has herself freely admitted in the text of the book that she generally wished to avoid any explicit awareness of the suffering which came before her. For instance, in one passage she remarks on reading one of Kevin’s World War II books. As she explains it, “stories of beatings, starvation, filth, disease, torture, every possible degradation. As though the Germans had been trying to do in only a few years what the Americans had worked at for nearly two hundred. The books depressed me, scared me, made me stuff Kevin’s sleeping pills into my bag. Like the Nazis, antebellum whites had known quite a bit about torture — quite a bit more than I ever wanted to learn.” (Butler, 117)
This is the perspective which may best explain the reason that Dana was truly sent back into the past. Her desire not to be exposed to the unpleasant realities of her own history are met with this rude intervention, one which dispels her of the illusion that she can be protected from these things. Ultimately, these experiences produce a remarkable appreciation for the iniquities which must be seen as a defining part of America’s past and as a lingering reality even for those such as Dana persisting under the modern illusion of redemption.
Butler, O.E. (1979). Kindred. Beacon Press.
Kenan, R. (1991). An Interview With Octavio E. Butler. Callaloo, 14(2), 495-504.
Salvaggio, R. (1984). Octavia Butler and the Black Science-Fiction Heroine. St. Louis University.
Wikipedia. (2010). Kindred. Wikimedia, Ltd. Inc.
Zaki, H.M. (1990). Utopia, Dystopia, and Ideology in the Science Fiction of Octavia Butler. SF-TH Inc.