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Dana tells the story of how she met Kevin. She wrote late at night, and to make ends meet, she did menial jobs assigned to her by a temp office, which they called a “slave market.” While working at an auto parts warehouse, she met Kevin. Although he was working at the warehouse fulltime, he had just sold a novel and heard that Dana was also a writer. Seeing that Dana didn’t have enough money to eat lunch, he bought her a meal. They bonded over stories of unsupportive relatives. Another employee teased them for being an interracial couple. The lunches continued, and eventually Kevin asked Dana to a play.
Dana gets dizzy, and Kevin holds on to her. In that way, he travels back to the South with her. Rufus has just fallen out of a tree and broken his leg. He is with a young black boy named Nigel, whom Dana sends to the house to get help. Rufus asks who Kevin is, and Kevin tells him that he is Dana’s husband. Rufus is shocked. He calls Dana “nigger” again, and again she corrects him. They tell Rufus that they come from California and the year 1976. He does not believe them. They tell him a bit about history to come and then show him coins with the date stamped on them. Rufus decides he does believe, even though he doesn’t understand. Dana asks him to tell no one besides Nigel. She also gets him to agree to pretend that Kevin owns her.
Tom Weylin, Rufus’s father, arrives to get Rufus. He wonders aloud, in a complaining voice, what the doctor will charge to fix Rufus’s leg. Kevin and Weylin have a private conversation. Rufus begs his father to allow Kevin and Dana to come with them. Weylin agrees and offers to let them stay at his home. When asked, Dana tells Weylin that they are from New York. The slave with Weylin, who seems to be Nigel’s father, warns Dana that Weylin can be a cruel man and that his son is not much better. At home, Margaret Weylin, Rufus’s mother, rushes to see Rufus, fussing over him and casting baleful glances at Dana. Over Rufus’s objections, Margaret sends Dana out to the cookhouse for dinner. Dana meets Carrie, the mute daughter of Sarah, the cook. Sarah despises Margaret. A man named Luke questions Dana about her origins while the group eats a dinner of cornmeal mush. Nigel asks Dana why she talks like a white person, and Dana tells him that her mother was a teacher. The slaves react to this story with skepticism and warn Dana that Weylin already resents her educated speech and the fact that she comes from a free state. They say he worries that Dana might give the slaves ideas about freedom.
Carrie slips Dana some bread and ham, which Dana eats with gratitude, although she worries about sanitation. Sarah tells Dana that her husband is dead, and that Carrie is the only one of her four children whom Weylin didn’t sell. Dana marvels that Sarah, who cooks the Weylins’ food, has not poisoned Mr. Weylin yet. Kevin comes for Dana, and they talk. She explains that she is worried he will be left behind if she gets dizzy when he is not around. Privately, she also worries that some taint from the past would rub off on Kevin if he is forced to play the role of a white slave owner. Kevin tells Dana that the doctor set Rufus’s leg, and that Weylin has hired Kevin to teach Rufus while he recuperates. Kevin has told Weylin that he is a writer from New York and that he bought Dana because he thought her education might be useful to him. He also implied that he is sleeping with Dana. He warns Dana that Weylin resents her education. Dana hopes she and Kevin will be able to prevent Rufus from turning into his father.
Dana’s attitude toward Rufus is puzzling. She is tied to him, since his scrapes and accidents are what bring her back to the South, so clearly there is no point in alienating him. Rufus is a also a white male, which means he is a powerful being who could do Dana harm, so logic demands that she treat him with a good measure of decency. But surprisingly, Dana supercedes mere decency. Rufus is from a family of slave owners; one day, he will be the same kind of master his father is. Therefore, Dana could be forgiven for seeing him as an enemy. But instead, she treats him not only with kindness but also a true tenderness. Her motives for behaving this way are complicated. In part, she is driven by simple affection for him. Perhaps it is impossible not to feel affection for someone whose life you have saved repeatedly. Dana also pities Rufus because of the vicious treatment he receives at the hands of his father. Rufus may be a shocking racist by the standards of our time, but when Dana compares him to his father, she finds him to be the lesser of two evils. He is sometimes willing to call Dana a black woman, and he often treats her with respect and affection. Rufus’s malleability also appeals to Dana. He is still a young boy, and he shows a willingness to learn. Teaching him tolerance will make Dana’s visits to the past more bearable and improve life for the Weylins’ slaves. Perhaps most important, Dana does not want to be descended from an evil man. Molding Rufus means molding one of her ancestors. Dana treats Rufus gently but firmly, almost as a good mother would, in the hopes that she can shape his character effectively.
Many works of literature set in the antebellum South contain a so-called mammy character, a cook or other domestic servant portrayed as a loving woman and a willing, jolly slave. In Butler’s novel, the cook, Sarah, is no mammy. In fact, Butler explicitly contrasts Sarah with the traditional mammy figure to undercut it. While she may appear docile to the Weylins, she is not a coward. Rather, she is a complex and passionate woman. Sarah burns with hatred toward those who have enslaved her and her family. She loathes Weylin for selling her children and understands the power he has over her. He uses Carrie as a bargaining chip: As long as Sarah has Carrie, he knows, she will not harm him or his family members, and she will not attempt to run away. She will feign loyalty in order to retain the one family member she has left. Her subservience is a front she keeps up to avoid losing anything else.
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