Fighting historical amnesia: Octavia E. Butler’s "Kindred"

Dialectics of oppression and social aspects

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

30 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction

2 Handling history
2.1 Kindred as accurately fictionalized history
2.2 Challenges of history and historiography
2.2.1 Missing sources and perspectivism in past and present
2.2.2 Contemporary silencing of the historical past
2.2.3 Media’s misleading influence on the historical memory

3 Social complexities of slavery
3.1 Threats within the slave community
3.2 The meaning of home
3.3 Family bonds as bondage
3.3.1 The ‘happy mammy’ as a result of forced accommodation
3.3.2 Family love and emotional ties as tools of threat
3.4 Master-slave intricacies
3.4.1 Rufus’ and Dana’s “matching strangeness”
3.4.2 Further love-hate-relationships
3.4.3 Mental manipulations and psychological conditioning
3.5 Fear and threat of physical punishment

4 Concluding thoughts

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction

Kindred was published in 1979, which marks the end of two decades of intense debate over the representation of African American history.1 In this context, it is not a coinci- dence that Kindred ’s didactic purpose takes up this issue. Butler states in an interview that she responded to a present sense of shame for older African American generations, who reputedly showed humility towards their white masters: “Kindred was a kind of reaction to some of the things going on during the sixties when people were feeling ashamed of, or more strongly, angry with their parents for not having improved things faster, and I wanted to take a person from today and send that person back to slavery.”2 An ignorant remark of a fellow student, who failed to analyze the slaves’ behavior in context of their time period, inspired her in particular to write this novel:

His attitude about slavery was very much like the attitude I had held when I was thirteen - that is, he felt that the older generation should have rebelled. He once commented ‘I wish I could kill all these people who have been holding us back for so long, but I can't because I would have to start with my own parents.3

This accusation of African American passiveness results from a missing and false his- torical knowledge. Therefore, the second chapter focuses on how the problem of histo- riography of slavery is depicted in Kindred. Further, the student neglected to take the complex social situation for the enslaved into account, which influenced the options of revolt. On this account, the third chapter explores the relationships within the slave community as well as towards their master. Jacobs suggests to better understand slav- ery, one shall “go on a southern plantation, and call yourself a negro trader. Then there will be no concealment; and you will see and hear things that will seem to you impossi- ble among human beings with immortal souls.”4 Butler chooses a similar way by send- ing Dana to the antebellum South. Overall, the analysis foregrounds social-emotional issues according to Butler’s intention: “I was trying to get people to feel slavery. I was trying to get across the kind of emotional and psychological stones that slavery threw at people.”5

2 Handling history

2.1 Kindred as accurately fictionalized history

First of all, it is important to stress the detailed and accurate fictional representation of history in Kindred, which promotes the readership’s education about slavery. According to Govan, “without turning to an actual slave narrative, there is probably no more vivid description of life on an Eastern Shore plantation than that found in Kindred.”6 For instance, a few literary scholars see analogies to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Wagers regards Alice Greenwood as the “literary ancestor” of Harriet Jacobs since they both suffer as a devoted mother from sexual harassment.7

Most obvious are the resemblances between Kindred and The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Not only the setting in Maryland to the south of Easton in Talbot County references to Douglass’s birthplace, but also descriptions such as the first cookhouse scene in Kindred (71)8 are very similar to his text.9 Dana is relieved to see two children “sitting on the floor, eating with their fingers” since she “read about kids their age being rounded up and fed from troughs like pigs” (72). This scene obviously derives from Douglass’ narrative, in which he describes that food “was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush.”10 Fur- thermore, the overseer Evan Fowler of Butler’s novel is redolent of Douglass’ Covey. Whereas Fowler is attributed to “an animal” (212) and surprises the slaves by his “com- ing up suddenly” (213), Covey, “the snake,” “had the faculty of making us feel that he was ever present with us.”11

Dana’s final realization that “slavery was a long slow process of dulling” (183) alludes to Douglass’ conclusion after his six months with Covey: “Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, […] the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!”12 Even more apparent is an allusion to Douglass’ decision to fight the overseer: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”13 After Dana’s abortive escape attempt, she receives her first whipping, which has a comparable tremendous influence on her: “Would I really try again? Could I? I moved, twisted myself somehow, from my stom- ach onto my side. I tried to get away from my thoughts, but they still came. See how easily slaves are made? they said” (177). Of course, similarities between Douglass’ nar- rative and Butler’s novel are hereby not exhausted but are enough to justify Kindred ’s didactic purposes.

2.2 Challenges of history and historiography

On one hand, Kindred entertains its readership. On the other hand, it widens its audi- ence’s horizon by presenting realistic accounts of slavery. Moreover, the novel points out reasons for the emergence of misconceptions about the life of African Americans in the antebellum South. By picking up the problem of source material, narrow perspec- tives and misleading media productions, Butler raises awareness for a more careful han- dling of history.

2.2.1 Missing sources and perspectivism in past and present

Dana is confronted with a lack of historical sources about her family’s fate. Before her time travel, Dana can only dimly recall her family history thanks to a “large Bible in an ornately carved, wooden chest,” in which Hagar “had begun keeping family records” (28). This symbolic entombment mirrors the way history is handled and ignored rather than used in Dana’s modern world.14 When Hagar passed away in 1880, most of the information about her life “had died with her,” Dana regrets, “at least it had died before it filtered down to me” (28).

On her travel to Maryland in order to search for records of her ancestors, she just finds “an old newspaper article” and a “notice of the sale of the slaves” (262). The only traceable information is the mysterious death of the master, Mr. Rufus Weylin. Her Af- rican American ancestors are briefly mentioned as the “slaves from Mr. Rufus Weylin’s estate” and “listed by their first names with their approximate ages and their skills giv- en” (262f.). Consequently, Dana is left trying to piece together their fates from an auction advertisement:

All three of Nigel’s sons were listed, but Nigel and Carrie were not. Sarah was listed, but Joe and Hagar were not […] I thought about that, put together as many pieces as I could. […] Margaret might have taken both children. Perhaps with Alice dead she had accepted them. They were her grandchildren, after all, the son and daughter of her on- ly child. She might have cared for them. She might have held them as slaves. But even if she had, Hagar, at least, lived long enough for the Fourteenth Amendment to free her. (263)

According to McKible, it is no coincidence that the “Maryland Historical Society’s re- maining records of its antebellum past are housed in ‘a converted early mansion’ (264) once owned by a member of the slavocracy.” Here, the text hints at historiography as “a place of struggle.”15 First, the missing records show that slaves were hardly worth men- tioning, which underlines their low value as humans. In addition, only few African Americans slaves could write down information about their lives due to their denial of literacy by law. This deficient state of source material goes along with Benjamin’s sug- gestion that history is written by those in power. Therefore, “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”16 Just as the miss- ing slave records show, historical documentation of the ruling culture is characterized by effacing “as much contradiction as it can, destroying certain records, highlighting others, and creating heroes and villains generally convenient to it.”17

Rufus is also in the position of power to decide over restrictions of written documents. As Dana brings along a history book about the abolition of slavery, he forces her to burn it. When she throws it into the fire, her thoughts shift “to Nazi book burnings. Repressive societies always seemed to understand the danger of ‘wrong’ ideas” (141). This link to Germany’s National Socialism of the 1940s might allude to Elkins work Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life of 1959, in which he underscores the degradation of American slavery. Nevertheless, his comparison of the slaves’ powerless, docile condition to victims in Nazi concentration camps is considered to be disproportionate by many scholars.18

Kevin’s opinion on plantation life similarly exemplifies the challenge historians face if they depend on contemporary witnesses’ views. Whereas Dana experiences the hardship of the daily slave life including insufficient food and whippings, Kevin’s per- ception sharply contrasts with it. Being mostly in the house socializing with guests and complaining about boredom (97), he is absent from Dana’s realities. For example, when a field hand gets violently punished “for the crime of answering back,” “Kevin was in the main house somewhere, probably not even aware of what was happening” (92). He is even positively surprised about the minimized brutality he considers to be the truth: “This place isn’t what I would have imagined. No overseer. No more work than people can manage” (100). Consequently, he remarks fascinated: ”This could be a great time to live in. […] I keep thinking what an experience it would be to stay in it - go West and watch the building of the country, see how much of the Old West mythology is true”

(97). When Dana criticizes his focus on the myth of the American frontier while neglecting the fates of African Americans and Indians, he responds by giving her uncomprehending, strange looks (97).

In summary, one cause for incomplete documentations of the past is a onedimensional view by contemporary witnesses, which influences the perception of slavery nowadays. Moreover, whereas Kevin’s biased perception is unintended, the novel suggests that a silencing of the past intentionally continues in a wider, political context as well as due to personal issues.

2.2.2 Contemporary silencing of the historical past

The date of Dana’s final return to Los Angeles is not coincidentally on the bicentennial of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Whereas the nation is looking proudly upon its history, Dana and Kevin spend the day of the 200th anniversary isolat- ed in hospital dealing with the injuries of America’s slaveholding past. In this context, Mitchell points out that “using the bicentennial in conversation with slavery […] reveals inherent contradictions in American history.”19 Here, a line can be drawn back to Fred- erick Douglass’ speech The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro from July 5th, 1852:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of lib- erty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks- givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy - a thin veil to cover up crimes which would dis- grace a nation of savages.20

This practice of “cover[ing] up crimes” experienced Butler while she was doing re- search for the novel at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate in Maryland. Instead of finding rebuilt slave cabins, “there was all this very carefully orchestrated dancing around the fact that it had been a slave plantation.”21 Accordingly, the tour guide avoid- ed to mention the word ‘slave’ by referring to them as ‘servants’. The guide’s attempt to conceal the plantation’s past during slavery particularly inspired Butler to pick up the topic of handling history in Kindred.22 In this sense, the novel warns against a single- sided historical memory and aims to “force the reader to consider the relation of the past in constructing the future.”23 While Dana reads “a book of excerpts from the recollec- tions of concentration camp survivors” including “stories of beatings, starvation, filth, disease, torture, every possible degradation,” she reaffirms history as a continuing cycle of conflict and emphasizes the reproduction of errors: “As though the Germans had been trying to do in only a few years what the Americans had worked at for nearly two hundred” (117).24

Finally, Kindred alludes to a silencing of the history of slavery due to personal concerns. As soon as Dana returns from her first time travel to the antebellum South, she rigidly distances herself from it by stressing the split between past and present. She reduces her new experiences to a “story,” “the memory” which she “remembered,” “re- lived” (15) and “recalled […] “like something I saw on television, or read about - like something I got second hand” (16f.). Using the prosaic metaphor of watching television, Dana dissociates herself from the unsettling possibility that the past “might be some- thing that quite literally touches her.”25

In a similar way, she also does not want Kevin to get into contact with the past. She fears that his trip to the antebellum South “would endanger him in a way [she] did- n't want to talk to him about. If he was stranded here for years, some part of this place would rub off on him” (77). Supposedly, she is scared that he might adopt racist views she is often confronted with. For example, a co-worker makes fun about Dana’s interra- cial romance with Kevin, and brings up the term “chocolate and vanilla porn” (56) re- ferring to the stereotypical, crude belief about black women as “objects of display.”26 Kevin’s sister Carol clearly shows her hostility towards Dana when she hears about his plan to marry her: “[S]he didn’t want to meet you, wouldn't have you in her house - or me either if I married you” (110). Therefore, Dana prefers to get married in Las Vegas, where the couple can pretend to not have any relatives (112). However, after his stay in the antebellum South, Kevin has actually changed, “nothing really noticeable, but he did sound a little like Rufus and Tom Weylin. Just a little” (190). Since his affection to- wards her has not decreased, Dana’s worries were unfounded. Therefore, this scene can be interpreted as an encouragement to face the past without having to fear negative con- sequences on the present.

2.2.3 Media’s misleading influence on the historical memory

Dana’s careless comparison of her ancestor’s fate to the temporary agency she works at is striking: “We regulars called it a slave market” (52). Here, Dana either intentionally distances herself from the past of her ancestors by making jokes, or she actually suffers from ignorance, which might be caused by media-based productions. The second option is supported by Dana’s raising awareness for medial misconceptions after having expe- rienced slavery during her time travel: “I read books about slavery, fiction and nonfic- tion. I read everything I had in the house that was even distantly related to the subject - even Gone With the Wind, or part of it. But its version of happy darkies in tender loving bondage were more than I could stand” (116). Her insufficient historical knowledge about the cruelties of slavery also becomes obvious as she “witnesses the patrollers catching the runaway, unprepared to bear witness to such horror” (36):

I had seen people beaten on television and in the movies. I had seen the too-red blood substitute streaked across their back and heard their well-rehearsed screams. But I hadn’t lain nearby and smelled their sweat or heard them pleading and praying, shamed before their families and themselves. I was probably less prepared for the reality than the child crying not far from me. (36)


1 Lisa Yaszek, “A Grim Fantasy: Remaking American History in Octavia Butler’s Kindred,” Signs 28.4 (2003): 1054.

2 Randall Kenan, “An Interview with Octavia E. Butler,” Callaloo 14.2 (1991): 496.

3 Larry McCaffrey, Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers (Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1990) 65.

4 Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Los Angeles: Indo-European Publishing, 2010) 57.

5 John C. Snider, “Interview: Octavia E. Butler,” 2004. (14.08.13).

6 Sandra Y. Govan, “Homage to Tradition: Octavia Butler Renovates the Historical Novel,” MELUS 13.1&2 (1986): 94.

7 Kelley Wagers, “Seeing ‘from the far side of the Hill’: Narrative, History, and Understanding in Kindred and The Chaneysville Incident,” MELUS 34.1 (2009): 88.

8 The following citations refer to Octavia E. Butler, Kindred (Boston: Beacon, 1979).

9 Wagers, Seeing 85.

10 Douglass in Christine Levecq, “Power and Repetition: Philosophies of (Literary) History in Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred,” Contemporary Literature 41.3 (Autumn 2000): 543.

11 Douglass in Levecq 543.

12 Douglass in Levecq 543.

13 Douglass in Levecq 543.

14 Wagers 29.

15 Adam McKible, “’These are the facts of the darky’s history’: Thinking History and Reading Names in Four African American Texts,” African American Review 28.2 (1994): 225.

16 Benjamin in McKible 224.

17 McKible 224 .

18 Kenneth Morgan, Slavery in America: A Reader and a Guide (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005) 168.

19 Angelyn Mitchell, “Not Enough of the Past: Feminist Revisions of Slavery in Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred,” MELUS 26.3 (2001): 53.

20 Douglass in James R. Arnold and Roberta Wiener (Ed.), American Civil War: The Essential Reference Guide (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2011) 243.

21 Kenan 496.

22 Kenan 496.

23 Mitchell 53.

24 Levecq 533.

25 Yaszek 1059.

26 Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990) 168.

Excerpt out of 30 pages


Fighting historical amnesia: Octavia E. Butler’s "Kindred"
Dialectics of oppression and social aspects
University of Mannheim
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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531 KB
Kindred, Octavia E. Butler, Slavery, American history, Antebellum South, minorities, African American, Women
Quote paper
B.A. Saskia Guckenburg (Author), 2013, Fighting historical amnesia: Octavia E. Butler’s "Kindred", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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