Saturday, June 13, 2015
Thinking Through Racism with Octavia Butler
I want to write more about my reactions to Kindred and encourage more people to read it. Octavia Butler has been one of my favorite authors since I read Dawn when I was in elementary school. I picked it up off the desk in my scientist father's office one day, and I just started reading. When I read Dawn, I didn't know that Octavia Butler was a black woman. I wouldn't have attached any special significance to it if I had. It spoke to me because it addressed a problem that made a lot of sense to a young girl raised on Star Trek. What would happen when the aliens came, and what if they wanted to assimilate us? It was a different take on assimilation, of course, than that of the obviously evil Borg (who became more complicated in First Contact and Voyager, but this was before that), and it fascinated me. Was it really more important to be "pure" human? What if the aliens were nice, and could cure cancer? I struggled continually with the question, and could not come up with a satisfactory answer.
I didn't connect it to race. When I grew up, I thought of us all as human, fully human. I knew African Americans had been slaves, but I didn't know that racial issues had persisted into the present day. I know this is classic white privilege, as we'd call it today. I was so insulated that I didn't even know it. I remember hearing a poem read at an assembly in middle school. It was a poem that struck a chord of dread in me, even more so because I knew it would never be directed at me. More recently, I looked that poem up. All I had remembered was the ending. I hadn't remembered that the poem is set in Baltimore, my hometown, and now that is even more heartbreaking.
But it all begins in the past. And that is what Octavia Butler's Kindred shows us. Butler uses a move here which I think is brilliant, and I think more authors should use. A black woman, Dana, from the present (1970s California) travels back in time to Maryland in the early 1800s. I love present-era protagonists traveling back in time because it allows for authentic evaluation. It feels unbelievable sometimes for characters in historical fiction to have modern perspectives. It's not necessarily ahistorical (a different issue), but time travel steps around that issue and invites reflection.
I don't have all the answers, but here are some parts of Kindred that really stuck with me:
1. As soon as Dana realizes what era she's in, she realizes that she is in big trouble. She thinks about time travel stories, and how much fun it seems to go back to historical periods in books. But for Dana as a black woman, traveling back in history, especially to the American South in the 1800s, is dangerous. Imagine, for Dana, even fantasy and science fiction are circumscribed by race.
2. When Dana's husband Kevin, who is white, travels back in time with her, she is even more worried about what he's being exposed to. And she predicts, rightly, that in some ways the experience is even more scarring to him. This observation is astute, and reminds me of how sexism and racism hurt everyone. If it's inferior to be a woman, then it's considered inferior for men to express certain emotions. If it's okay to treat some people like animals because of their skin color, where do you stop? You don't learn how to treat people, and you end up bitter and alone.
3. The arguably most complicated relationship in the book is between Dana and her white male ancestor Rufus. She is called to him when he is in mortal danger, and wields the power of life or death over him, but then, as a white man, he owns her until she can get home. What is her duty to him? She feels obligated to help him survive, so that her own family and ultimately herself will be born, but she comes to care for him and try to change him on his own account. Is Rufus a bad person or a victim of his circumstance and upbringing, just as his slaves are?
4. One of the other most complicated relationships is that between Dana and her black female ancestress Alice. Born a free woman, Alice is enslaved after trying to help a black male slave, her husband, escape. Her husband is sold South and Alice is claimed by Rufus, who has loved her since they were children. Rufus enlists Dana in trying to make Alice "come quietly" and though both women refuse, they ultimately must give in. Alice accuses Dana repeatedly of talking and acting too "white" and resents her close but platonic relationship with Rufus. Why is it that Dana's speech and attitude from the future are coded as "white"? It's also observed that she does not talk the way Rufus and his parents do either. Is it just that she is born in a free society, or that the trappings of freedom are seen, at least in this society, as having racial overtones?
5. Towards the end of the book, Dana describes her complex relationship with Rufus: one of dependence and resentment, admiration and contempt. She thought her relationship with him was unique, born of whatever tie that keeps calling her out of the present and into his past. She realizes though, that her relationship with him is similar to what he has with his slaves. It is that odd unnatural intimacy of master and slave. Why do power imbalances tend to create these types of relationships that compel the oppressed toward obedience despite their oppression? And one wonders if Rufus is even as aware of the nature of their relationship as Dana and his slaves are.
I highly recommend Kindred as a book that will make you think. It's particularly meaningful to me right now that it is set in Maryland, and it's clear that Octavia Butler chose that setting for a reason. Maryland was on the border; it was, in fact, split--half slave, half free. It is and was emblematic of the deep grey areas that penetrated slavery and race in the American South and throughout history. As Butler, through Dana, points out in the novel, many of the most famous escaped slaves, such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, came from Maryland. It's ironic that today, some of Maryland's most famous were also her most mistreated. A disturbing and hopefully instructive legacy.
More Similar Books for Your Reading List:
I thought immediately of these two books when reading Kindred, and wanted to recommend them too. They both feature a character from the present going back to a painful time in their family history. Both are aimed at children, but the ideas behind them are relevant for all.
The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen sends Hannah back in time to share her relatives' experience in the Holocaust.
One of the Magic Attic Club books, Viva Heather! sends Heather back in time to share her ancestors' experience during the Spanish Inquisition. Can you recommend any other similar books? Have you read Kindred or any of these books? What do you think? Do they help you relate?