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Considering all the intellectual and physical accomplishments women—both white and nonwhite—have made over the millennia, how have we been able to tolerate being secondary to men on so many social levels? Why is equality still controversial in 2021? Setting what some believe are religious dictates aside, what are the emotional forces that perpetuate female roles as victims, as functions more than actors? KINDRED, a novel by Octavia E. Butler, allows the reader to comprehend answers to both sexism and racism with unassuming, well-researched reality quietly exposed in what she called a “grim fantasy.”
The fanciful part of the novel ties Dana, a modern black writer, to one of her ancestors, a white slave-owner in antebellum times. Whenever Rufus’s life is endangered, Dana is automatically transported from 1976 (present day for the manuscript) to the early 1800s to save him and her heritage—over and over again. But being a hero doesn’t counterbalance Dana’s status as a black person. She’s only a white man’s whim away from being forced into slavery, so she must act in servitude to survive. At one point, her white husband Kevin clings to her to be transported to the past with her, imagining that he’ll be able to protect her if he’s there. But he isn’t a rich southern landowner. Suddenly economic class is a factor. He has nothing but his skin color to empower him. She can’t be sheltered as his wife since their marriage would be illegal. They have to let people assume she’s his sexual amusement. The slaves urge her to escape from him to find someone more advantageous while she’s still free.
Kevin can return to the present only with Dana, and she returns only when her life is threatened, so when she’s unwillingly ripped back to the present without him, he spends agonizing years in the past that translate to mere days lost from the present. Neither knows when, if ever, they will see one another again. He’s left to discover the contrast between his romantic notions of history and the facts.
KINDRED is not the kind of melodramatic time travel story to which we’ve become accustomed. Butler did meticulous research so the past to which the main characters are exposed is as close to a journal from history as possible. Dana’s relatives are neither the ultimate in sadism nor exceptions of kindness. In fact, Dana’s matter-of-fact first person narrative is all the more chilling because nothing is exaggerated. The first cold realization I reached was how dire Dana’s situation was in the past. Her independence and education were fodder for scorn from both whites and blacks. The roots of white male privilege had her trapped.
What is terrifying to both main characters is how they come to adapt to their alternative “home” over time, although they both do their best to change what they can. As a white reader not entirely unlike the modern Dana, I have read no other book that demonstrated white male supremacy as powerfully. We are all indoctrinated into our roles and eventually lose sight of precisely which myths we’ve accepted in self-defense. As a woman raised to be a “lady” in an earlier generation, I understand how many women are offended by feminism—the idea of women as regular people. And after reading this book, I understand better why so many are choosing hatred to defend their identity when others who are unlike them claim personhood.