Slavery is an absolutely brutalizing system that affects whites and blacks alike. White slaveowners, as well as whites who wish they were slaveowners, have complete and arbitrary power. All good sentiments, rationality, and human sympathy are easily squelched. They are able to do practically anything they want to slaves or even free blacks, as slavery is defined by race. Slaves are beaten, raped, and tortured. They are punished for all offenses great, small, or even nonexistent. Their children can be sold, their marriages are invalid, and they have no rights or recourse to action. They work backbreaking, soulless tasks for their masters and have no autonomy. The slaves in this novel are clearly human beings, capable of pain, emotion, sorrow, and regret; however, they are treated like beasts. Slavery is demeaning and demoralizing in an inestimable way.
Dana appears to be more of an introvert when we meet her in the 20th century, and even when she travels back to the 19th century she initially seems to be aloof, desirous of keeping her distance from the other slaves and considering herself more of a spectator. As time goes on, though, she is further enmeshed in the community of slaves at the Weylin plantation and comes to see that they have formed a new definition of family. Slaves have no guarantees of remaining with their spouses or children, but they can form bonds with each other that provide sustenance and solace. Dana comes to acknowledge this, and opens herself up to this family.
The suffering of slave mothers is almost unfathomable. Women do not get to engage with the societally determined definition of motherhood as the apotheosis of womanhood because they are not considered to have power over their children. Like Sarah, they can see them sold away to other plantations for something as insignificant as new furniture. Alice kills herself because Rufus "jokes" with her that he has sold her children. Slave mothers must also watch as their children not only grow aware of their status as slaves, but also endure watching them be beaten, raped, insulted, worked like animals, and maybe even killed.
Past, Present, and History
When Dana begins her journeys she privileges the present and thinks an awareness of the historical past will allow her to be a distanced spectator and successfully navigate its treacherous terrain. As time goes on, though, she realizes that is almost wholly unprepared to be in the past and that she has to adjust her mannerisms, words, behavior, expectations, and more. Past and present will be interwoven and Dana will even lose part of her body to the past; the past marks the present indelibly and should not be looked on with nostalgia or superiority.
Home and Family
Both Dana and Kevin are surprised how they come to consider the Weylin plantation home, and how their own home in 1976 Altadena feels less like home after their journeys. Critic Ashraf H.A. Rushdy writes that Butler sees home as "more than a place" and as a "liminal site.” He sees that, for Dana, home is a place between Kevin and Rufus, present and past; for Kevin, it is where he communicates with Dana; for Rufus, it is ownership of property. Home is not to be found in writing, which Dana and Kevin initially think it might be–it is found in memory, in linking past and present and considering a new understanding of family and kindred.
While race is certainly the defining boundary of ‘slave’ and ‘free’, gender also plays a role in power dynamics in both the 19th and 20th centuries. White women like Margaret are second-class citizens and have nothing to do but be wives and mothers; their husbands have a public presence and can do what they want. Black women are doubly victimized: 20th century women like Dana still suffer from the patriarchy, while 19th century women can be indiscriminately raped and deprived of their role as mother and wife. Their rights are nonexistent by dint of their skin color and gender.
Power in this novel is defined in many ways. Tom and Rufus have power because they are white men and own property, not because they are educated, kind, or honorable. Black men and women do not have any official power in the 19th century (and are often oppressed in 1976 as well). Every relation is a power struggle in this novel, with characters doing their best to come out on top. Dana and Rufus in particular vie for power, with Dana occasionally besting him in subtle ways. She can even be said to win out in the end, as she kills Rufus and retains her sense of self. Other characters exercise power in more nebulous ways, from suicide to altering food to running away to refusing to love; the novel reveals that, while there are clear power hierarchies, there are also subtle and meaningful ways to resist.
Kindred Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Kindred is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.