Today we are roughly 150 years removed from the legal practice of slavery within the United States, which formally ended as a result of the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In reality, however, and as demonstrated in the 1976 novel, Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler, our society is not as removed from our legacy in slavery as the masses might like to think.
Dana Franklin, the black main character In Butler’s fantasy novel, Kindred, is brought back in time from 1976 to the antebellum south with the mission to save the life of her white, slave-holding ancestor. Central through the course of the novel are Dana’s relationships to the three white male characters, Tom Weylin, Rufus Weylin, and her husband Kevin Franklin. When Dana first meets her future husband, Kevin Franklin, she notes, “He was an unusual looking white man, his face young, almost unlined, but his hair completely gray and his eyes so pale as to be almost colorless” (54). In Butler’s first physical description of Kevin she emphasizes the whiteness of his character by characterizing his skin as unusually white, his hair as wholly gray (despite his relatively young age) and his eyes as nearly colorless. This hyperbolic description of whiteness as a very visible aspect to Kevin’s character is later used to create a parallel between him and the white slave-holding ancestors with whom Dana interacts. The overemphasis of Kevin’s whiteness is at first used to parallel his physical and behavioral similarities to these characters, and is then used as a tool to convey the important message, which is also echoed in the works of Bell Hooks and Carole E. Boyce Davies, that the legacies of the institution of slavery linger today.
Through most of the novel, Kevin is painted in a complex light. On one hand, he is relatively unaffected by prejudice that often is present around him: he marries Dana despite his sister’s disapproval and helps slaves escape back in time at great personal risk to himself. Nonetheless, there is still an undeniable aspect to his characterization that ties the negativities of the past and the present together. This parallel is first introduced through his physical and behavioral resemblance to Tom and Rufus Weylin. On the surface, Kevin Franklin, Tom Weylin, and Rufus Weylin are the only three prominent white males in the novel, so in this respect they share an obvious resemblance. More importantly, however, Butler describes a more alarming physical resemblance: the pale eyes of both Kevin and Tom.
During one of the first interactions Dana has with Tom Weylin she states, “His eyes went over me like a man sizing up a woman for sex, but I got no message of lust from him. His eyes, I noticed, not for the first time, were almost as pale as Kevin’s” (90). As the novel progresses, and Kevin becomes trapped in the past for five years, the physical similarities become even more noticeable and, in terms of his eyes, more alarmingly significant. As Dana tries to comfort Kevin in his frustrations of re-assimilating to the present she says, “I took his face between my hands and looked into his eyes, now truly cold… He pulled away from me and walked out of the room. The expression on his face was like something I’d seen, something I was used to seeing on Tom Weylin. Something closed and ugly” (194). If there is any truth to the common saying “the eyes are the window to the soul,”, then this resemblance holds great meaning in the novel.
Because Kevin is representative of the present and Tom is representative of the past, the similarities in their eyes suggest a commonality within the “souls” of their societies. Mirrors are made to show reflections. In other words, Butler is very deliberate in portraying the eyes of these men as significant because in doing so she brings about a provocative point about society. Upon Dana’s first encounter with Kevin, she was captivated by the “strangeness” of his pale eyes. She continues, “I looked away, startled, wondering whether I had really seen anger there. Maybe he was more important in the warehouse than I had thought. Maybe he had some authority…” (54). When Dana notices the same anger-filled look in Tom’s eyes, the connection between paleness and authority becomes clear. Through the similarities amongst these two men, the reader understands that within both the past and the present the idea of power and authority is connected to “paleness.” The connection implies that whites, both in the past and the present, hold the systematic power and authority of society.
In the same way that Kevin is portrayed as physically similar to Tom Weylin, he is also subtly characterized as behaviorally similar to Rufus Weylin. When Dana first met Kevin, he asked her to type up the manuscripts of the pieces of writing on which he was working. She recalls, “I’d done it the first time, grudgingly, not telling him how much I hated typing… The second time he asked, though, I told him, and I refused… The third time when I refused again, he was angry. He said if I couldn’t do him a little favor when he asked, I could leave” (109). Similarly, Rufus Weylin convinces Dana to write business letters for him, despite her original protest (226). The direct parallel between the typing and writing work Dana does for Kevin and Rufus emphasizes the fact that both men exploit Dana in the same way. In both situations the men coerce her to do work she does not want to perform; in both exchanges the men hold authority over Dana and maintain a power dynamic that is threatening to her autonomy. Later in the novel, Butler further confirms Kevin and Rufus’ underlying behavioral semblance by having them speak the same exact lines. After passing out in the dirt during her day of work in the fields Dana awakens to hear Rufus say, “Dana get up. You’ll be more hurt if I carry you than if you walk” (213). Confused, Dana explains, “The words echoed strangely in my head. Kevin had said something like that to me once. I opened my eyes again to be sure it was Rufus” (213). In this moment, the similarity in dialogue and characterization between Kevin and Rufus is so strong that even Dana herself cannot tell the difference with her eyes closed. Although Dana brushes this likeness aside, Butler did not likely intend for the reader to do the same. By consistently showing such meaningful behavioral parallels between Kevin Franklin and Rufus Weylin, Butler demonstrates that actions of today parallel actions of the past.
The physical and behavioral resemblance between Kevin and slave-holders Tom and Rufus causes Dana and, by extension, the reader to be conscious of further connections between present day society and the antebellum south. Immediately after being frightened by the mirrored looks in the eyes of Kevin and Tom, Dana directs her attention to her new home and their new offices, commenting, “They were big comfortable rooms that reminded me a little of the rooms in the Weylin house. No. I shook my head, denying the impression. This house was not like the Weylin house” (193). At this point Dana involuntarily expands her view of the similarities between past and present beyond their primary manifestations in Kevin’s character. While constantly switching between the two time periods, she is readily able to identify aspects of the past that are prevalent in the present. If Dana is able to see her house as representative of the Weylin house, what else in her life could be similar to the experiences of the past? While fiddling with the radio at her home, Dana quickly finds a startling real-world answer to this question. She explains, “The news switched to a story about South Africa… South African whites… were living in the past as far as their race relations went. They lived in ease and comfort supported by huge numbers of blacks whom they kept in poverty and held in contempt. Tom Weylin would have felt right at home” (196). This present-day example is simply a wake-up call for the reader: the legacies of the past and traditions of the present are contiguous.
Critic bell hooks eloquently relates this issue directly to American society in her book Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination by saying, “Even though legal racial apartheid no longer is a norm in the United States, the habits of being cultivated to uphold and maintain institutionalized white supremacy linger” (340). For hooks, American society has not yet fully separated itself from its historical legacy of racial oppression, and there are still aspects of our culture that continue the pattern of injustice. As Dana vehemently tries to explain to Kevin, “You don’t have to beat people to treat them brutally” (Butler 100). Dana suggests that, despite the lack of legalized violence against select racial groups in our society, certain people are still treated brutally in many different ways.
Carole E. Boyce Davies offers a specific example of this phenomenon and provides further proof of the lasting legacies of slavery. In her essay “Hearing Black Women’s Voices,” Boyce Davies talks about the systematic silencing of black females by the white male authority of today. She discusses the long-term consequences of slavery for today’s black women:
“Black women during slavery and its aftermath had no protection from harassment, abuse, rape. Nobody listened to a black woman when she said she was in pain, abused…. Thus, when a black woman gets up in a crowd to speak, (or presents herself publicly), she has to battle all the cultural and historical meanings about her,” (5)
Boyce Davies argues that black women in today’s society have not been fully allowed to separate themselves from the stereotypes, biases, and prejudices that arose through the institution of slavery. In the past they were given little to no rights, and because of this legacy their rights today continued to be infringed upon; black women who choose to speak out against the injustices surrounding them are rendered unimportant or insignificant (5). Overall, our society does not afford equal rights to all as easily as some assume. The the time-traveling aspect of the novel Kindred urges the reader to recognize that the legacies of slavery are still very much present in our everyday lives.
Octavia Butler’s violent end to the novel Kindred exemplifies the interconnectedness of the past and present. When Dana returns to 1976 for the final time she loses part of her arm in the travel. She explains her confusion, “I looked at the spot where flesh joined with plaster, stared at it uncomprehending. It was the exact spot Rufus’s fingers had grasped” (261). Rufus’ grasp on Dana in the past was influential enough to affect her physical being in the present. Similarly, throughout the duration of the book, physical scars pile up on Dana’s body from whippings and beatings in the past. These disfigurements remain with her as she travels to the present day. Through these cumulative injuries, which culminate into the permanent loss of a limb, Butler quite literally demonstrates the damages done to society, then and now, through the institution of slavery.
On July 4th, 1976—the day of the United States bicentennial (243)—Dana makes her final trip back in time to the antebellum south. Butler’s choice of this day is dramatic. It foregrounds the pride in our great nation 200 years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence yet disregards acknowledgement of the oppressive institution which greatly contributed to the country’s initial success. Within this detail, Butler encourages the reader to think critically about the effect the institution of slavery had on the development of the country. The past and the present are interconnected in Butler’s novel Kindred and, in many ways, are the same.
Boyce Davies, Carole E. “Hearing Black Women’s Voices: Transgressing Imposed Boundaries.” Moving Beyond Boundaries. Ed. Carole E. Boyce Davies and Molara Ogundipe-Leslie. New York: New York UP, n.d. 3-9. Print.
Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. Boston: Beacon, 2003. Print.
hooks, bell. Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.