Dana recounts how she and Kevin met. She worked at a casual labor agency where she was sent out to odd jobs and made minimum wage. Work meant money and food although there was no joy in it. She did this to be able to write her novel, which she did for a few hours per night.
One day Kevin Franklin, who worked at an auto-parts warehouse where she was sent to do an inventory, asked her why she always looked like a zombie. They talked about writing, and Kevin said he was also a writer. He was a white man, young but with gray hair and pale eyes.
They began having lunch together and he told her that he’d made a paperback sale and could quit his warehouse job. They spoke of their experiences writing and how their families didn’t approve. Dana spoke of going to college like her aunt and uncle wanted her to, but how she eventually quit because it was not what she wanted to do. She then took extension classes on writing.
She and Kevin began to see each other after he left the warehouse, and eventually started sleeping together and dating.
Back in the present, Dana decides not go to the library with Kevin, worried that she will be taken back in time in a car and then not end up back in the car when she returns. When the dizziness sets in again, Kevin grabs onto her and both are transported back.
Rufus is lying nearby, his leg hurt, and a young black boy standing near him. Rufus tells this boy, Nigel, that Dana is okay as she nears. She send Nigel to go tell Tom Weylin about his son, and to fetch him. Nigel seems afraid but agrees.
Rufus is in pain. When he says ‘nigger’ Dana tries to tell him that it is insulting. He asks more about them and they decide to tell him the truth. They mention 1976 and California. When he appears skeptical, Dana tells him about future presidents and events. He looks at some of Kevin’s contemporary coins but maintains a reluctance to believe them. Finally he says he does believe them, saying that he saw them again before they arrived. Dana and Kevin agree that when Tom comes, they will pretend Kevin owns her.
Weylin arrives. Dana notes that he is tall but does not seem depraved, only annoyed. He looks at his son’s leg and gruffly wonders how much it will cost.
Rufus is loaded into the wagon and they prepare to leave, but Rufus begs Dana to stay. She realizes she does care for the boy. Weylin does not seem inclined to talk to Dana but does stare at her face as if he recognized her. She lowers her eyes so as not to appear insolent. Weylin invites Kevin to dine with them and Dana comes along as his companion.
They arrive at the house, which is lovely but not too imposing. The tall black man who drove the wagon, Luke, is told to take Dana to get food in the back. He softly warns her to be careful. She sees that he and Nigel are father and son.
Dana knows Rufus will grow up and be a slaveholder and that she is not a good guardian for him, but hopes to influence him positively as much as she can.
Rufus is brought to his room. His mother, Margaret Weylin, comes in, hysterical and fawning over him. She is annoyed by Dana’s presence but Weylin says she belongs to Mr. Franklin (i.e. Kevin). She orders Dana downstairs to the cookhouse to eat, although Rufus wants her to stay.
A young slave girl named Carrie, mute but sweet, takes Dana to the cookhouse. She looks at Dana’s strange, masculine clothes with curiosity and Dana lies and says her master will not buy her a new dress.
In the cookhouse Nigel and Luke eat from wooden bowls. A stocky middle-aged woman, Sarah, is cooking. Dana mentions Mrs. Weylin sent her here and Sarah curses her mistress. Luke warns her to be careful.
Dana takes a bowl of cornmash and starts to wonder about diseases and germs of the period. She talks with Luke and Nigel, saying she is from New York, but their questions make her nervous. She says her mother taught school and that is why she talks like white folks. Nigel speculates that they won’t like her here because she is too educated and comes from a free state.
Dana knows she will have to stay here until the dizziness brings her home, and asks if she can help. Rufus’s screams from the treatment of his leg reach her. Sarah talks to Dana for a bit, telling her Carrie is her fourth child and the only one that is left since Weylin sold her others. Carrie, Sarah says, remains because she is seems dumb and thus is worth nothing. Dana is struck by the sadness of this woman’s situation.
Kevin finds Dana and the two walk out of the cookhouse and sit under a tree so they can talk quietly. They agree he must stay close because if the dizziness comes and he is not there he could be left behind. Dana privately worries about how the situation might affect him–he may begin to tolerate the life, but he may resist and get killed.
Kevin tells her Weylin offered him a job teaching Rufus, which is beneficial because it will allow them to stay and have food and shelter. Dana adds that she needs to work too, because the other slaves will resent her if she did not and she needs to have friends in this place.
Kevin’s story is that he is a writer from New York and traveling through the South for research. He was robbed but had bought Dana because she could read and write and could be useful to him. Weylin had warned him that keeping a slave like her could be difficult, so he lied and said he was going to sell her in Louisiana. This seemed to please Weylin. Dana asks if she can help him work on making Rufus as least objectionable as possible.
It is a few days before Dana sees Rufus again. In the meantime, she helps Sarah in the kitchen and the woman warms up to her. She is sleeping in the attic with the rest of the servants due to an understanding that they seem to be required to maintain discretion.
Margaret Weylin is becoming a problem for Dana, as she seems to hate her. Kevin wants to leave, suggesting that not even Dana’s presence might help Rufus retain his humanity. He is not happy with her sleeping on a rag pallet either, and says he will demand she stay with him. He also suggests trying to scare her home, but she asks him to at least wait until Rufus’s leg is healed.
Kevin tells her that Margaret has come on to him, which piques Dana. Weylin also seems to have sired other children. Both Kevin and Dana are curious, though, if their “immorality” will make Margaret mad.
Margaret goes out for the day and Rufus summons Dana. They talk for a bit and Rufus asks if she can read. She says yes and pulls out Robinson Crusoe. Happy to escape into this world, she reads to him for a while. She says she noticed the books downstairs and he explains they belonged to his father’s first wife.
Rufus comments that he thinks reading is too much trouble and his teacher Mr. Jennings told him he was stupid. Dana encourages him to prove the man wrong and keep up with other students. She asks him to try and he does, but becomes frustrated when it is hard for him.
She asks after Alice; Rufus says her father was sold and she is still around. When thinking about the river, he adds that he told his mother that Dana had been the one who saved him. She seemed to believe him.
On her way out of the room she runs into Weylin, who sternly asks what she is doing there. She admits to reading to him and he looks at her appraisingly, but not out of lust. He asks how old she is and if she has children, then suddenly asks if she wants to teach Rufus. She says she will ask Mr. Franklin. Kevin warns her to be careful.
Days pass, and Dana gets in the routine of being a well-behaved slave. She sees other slaves being whipped, one being made an example of by Weylin. All the slaves were forced to watch. She moves into Kevin’s room. This becomes a problem when Margaret finds out, calling Dana a whore and slapping her. It seems she might actually be afraid of Dana.
Margaret has very little to do since her slaves do it all for her, and so she spends her time criticizing and ordering people around. Poor, uneducated, and nervous, this is all her life could be. As for Weylin, he is not sadistic, but certainly manages his plantation.
Sarah talks with Dana and expresses how much she hates Margaret, for Margaret sold Sarah’s children to have money for furnishings. Sarah says Weylin was asking what kind of worker Dana was, and Sarah spoke highly of her.
Dana admires how Luke keeps a high position despite his attitude. One day Weylin sees Dana coming out of Kevin’s room and gives her a knowing half-smile.
As time passes Dana grows a little disturbed how she and Kevin seem to easily fit into the household. Weylin does catch her in the library reading and scolds her, telling her she can only read to his son. She has to meekly agree. Nigel comes to her, though, and asks her to teach him to read She steals a book and begins to do so.
One hot and muggy day Dana and Kevin walk around the grounds. They are disturbed to see a group of slave children “playing” at slavery because they do not understand it yet. This saddens Dana, and Kevin tells her she is reading too much into it. His comments annoy her, and she tells him about some of the things he does not see as a white man on the planation. It seems to her like he is minimizing the wrongs being done, and they squabble a bit.
As they continue to talk, Dana tells him about teaching Nigel. He warns her to be careful. Parting, Dana comments on how easily people can be trained to accept slavery.
One day Dana reads to Rufus, but his mother comes in and lingers, fretting over him and interrupting Dana; Rufus blows up at her and Dana is a little surprised at his anger, wondering if that is what he will be like as an adult. Later Carrie approaches Dana and indicates that she wants to learn how to read as well. Dana works with Nigel for a while, giving him a spelling test in the cookhouse. She always remembers to burn their materials after.
Suddenly, though, Tom Weylin is at the door of the cookhouse, even though whites never typically come down here. Enraged, he accuses her of stealing his books and drags her outside. Gasping, she tells Nigel to get Kevin. Weylin whips her across the back and she tries to crawl away, her mouth full of dirt and blood. She vomits and the dizziness begins to ascend. She sees Kevin in the haze and screams for him. She passes out.
Just as historians and slaves themselves have revealed, slavery is disastrous for both blacks and whites. The slaves in Kindred are treated at best like servants, at worst like beasts. Sarah’s children are sold, many of them are whipped, reading and writing are forbidden, women are raped and bear the children of their rapists, and those enslaved are meant to be docile, meek, accommodating, and amenable to the whims of their oftentimes cruel employers. Even the slave children, who do not yet know what enslavement means, internalize the realities and rhythms of the slave system through their playacting of an auction.
As for the white characters, they are not immune. Slavery gives a disproportionate, arbitrary, and unequivocal power to whites (it is telling that Weylin and Margaret are practically illiterate and Rufus has trouble with learning as well). They occasionally find it impossible not to indulge in their baser human instincts of cruelty, oppression, control, and violence. Margaret is afflicted by her race and gender: having nothing of importance to do in the public sphere, she tyrannizes her slaves in the private sphere. Young Rufus already demonstrates the disconcerting cunning and callousness of his father. And Tom Weylin, while not a monster like other slaveholders, fully engages in the system: he beats his slaves, sells them, sleeps with the women, chastises them like children or dogs, and does not allow them to speak for themselves or develop any notion of selfhood. Even Kevin, a 20th century liberal married to a black woman whom he loves, disturbs Dana with the ease with which he fits in; he does not see the whippings she does, and does not think as deeply about how bad the time is for anyone other than a white man. Time spent in this century, as Dana presciently believes, “would mark him somehow” (77).
The legacies of slavery and racism are seen in the present day part of the novel as well, with Dana’s boss making “chocolate and vanilla” comments and both Dana and Kevin’s families rejecting their relationship. Of course, the present day is much better than the past, but the wrongs of the past manifest themselves in the present. Marriage, even one that is as seemingly egalitarian as Dana and Kevin’s, is “a commitment based on ownership and possession, as thereby reflecting some of the insidious elements of slavery,” as scholar Marc Steinberg writes. Kevin, especially as evinced in his request for Dana to type his manuscripts, “along with many men, is quietly guilty of a kind of contemporary enslavement that mirrors the notions of servitude apparent in the antebellum South.”
Perhaps the most interesting intersection of Kevin with slavery is the doubling of him and Rufus, Dana’s oppressor. Occasionally in her stupor, Dana mixes up the two, and, as Steinberg says, it “takes Dana a lifetime as a black woman and a trip back into bondage to realize fully the intractable persistence of a white, male-dominated hegemony.” Kevin and Rufus are not the only doubles in the text, for Dana and Alice will soon be seen as two halves of the same woman. Impersonation and role-playing are also pervasive, with Dana dressing up as a man, pretending to be a slave owned by Kevin, and even being referred to as a slave wanting to impersonate a white person.
The doubling theme extends, of course, to the sense that past and present are enmeshed, or that they are two sides of the same coin. Dana has to use her knowledge of the past to navigate it, but occasionally finds this inadequate. She also takes her intimate awareness of the reality of slavery back with her to the present, where she comes to term with what it means to be a black woman in America. Her trips back and forth are not without cost, though: not only does she lose an arm, but she is also psychically damaged. As Steinberg writes, her six trips into the past bring her to a “painful yet symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship with [it].” She sees that history is not exactly linear (as it would be for the oppressor) but rather complicated and cyclical.