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Kevin wants to take Dana out to dinner for her birthday,
but she is afraid to leave the apartment. As she and Kevin eat dinner
in the kitchen, she feels dizzy and gets whisked away.
Dana finds herself in a bedroom. A red-haired boy stands
in front of burning drapes, holding a charred stick. Dana out puts
the fire. The boy turns out to be Rufus; he remembers
almost drowning a few years earlier. He also remembers that before
he went under, he saw Dana sitting in her apartment and unpacking
books. Because she was wearing pants, Rufus thought Dana was a man.
Rufus says he thinks Dana went back to the room with the books.
He says his mother thought Dana was just a “strange nigger.” Dana
bristles at the epithet, a reaction Rufus doesn’t understand. Dana
asks him to call her a black woman instead.
Rufus says he set fire to the drapes because his father
beat him. He shows her awful welts on his back, and she notices
old scars underneath the fresh wounds. He tells her that they are
in Maryland, and that it is the year 1815.
He says his last name is Weylin and confirms that he has a young
black friend, a free woman, named Alice Greenwood. When Dana hears
these names, she realizes that Rufus is her ancestor. Rufus tells
Dana that she would be safe at Alice’s house. He helps her sneak
out of the house, and she helps him destroy the charred curtains.
Dana makes her way through the fields and woods. She has
to duck out of sight to avoid encountering a patrol of several young
white men on horses. She follows the men to a cabin in the woods.
She watches as they drag a black man out of the cabin and tie him
to a tree. The men whip the black man and speak rudely to his wife,
who is standing in the yard with her young daughter. One of the
patrollers takes the black man away. Another punches the woman’s
face. After the white men leave, Dana calls out “Alice,” and the
young girl looks in her direction.
Dana helps bring Alice’s mother to consciousness and then
tells her that she is a free woman in need of help. Alice’s mother
tells Dana that the beaten man, her husband, is a slave of Tom Weylin,
Rufus’s father. Knowing that the idea of California would be confusing, since
in 1815 it was a Spanish colony, Dana lies
and says she is from New York, and that her husband is there. Dana
goes to retrieve the blanket from outside, but a patrolman has returned.
Mistaking Dana for the twin of Alice’s mother, he chases her into
the woods, beats her savagely, and rips her clothes off as a preface
to raping her. Dana hits him with a stick and loses consciousness.
Dana returns to her home, and Kevin is there. She refuses
to tell him what happened until after she has slept.
Kevin has packed a bag of items that Dana might need if
she time travels again—clothes, a knife, shoes—and fastens it to
her with rope. Dana tells him about her most recent experience in
the past, and they discuss how she can defend herself if she returns
again. They look at maps and read about certificates of freedom
and passes, which would help Dana avoid trouble. Kevin theorizes
that Dana returns home when she fears for her life. She worries
that she won’t be able to survive more trips to the past.
Because Dana comes from modern day, we can identify with
her emotional responses. Like her, we have grown up in a country plagued
by racism and by the legacy of slavery but not by the system of
slavery itself. Therefore, we share her outsider perspective on
the antebellum South. When Dana travels back in time, we imagine
that we might react to events as she does. When she experiences
shock at Rufus’s casual use of the word nigger, we
share her surprise. When she cannot help a slave being beaten by
a band of white men, her shame and horror are akin to what we might
feel in the same situation. Our connection to Dana means that we
are not allowed to see slavery as a relic of the past. Instead,
like Dana, we are plunged forcibly into the midst of the slave system,
while retaining our modern sensibilities. The Weylins are a standard
white family living on a standard plantation. In another novel,
they might come off as generic representatives of their time. In
Butler’s novel, however, they are vividly alive because we see them
through Dana’s eyes.
By using traditional epic devices, Butler gives Kindred weight and
a sense of timelessness. The chapter titles (“The River,” “The Fire,”
“The Fall,” and so on) reflect the epic nature of the story. Like many
epics, Kindred is episodic and rhythmic. Each chapter
begins in the twentieth century, with Dana at home in California.
Then Dana is whisked away to the South, where she saves Rufus’s
life. After various episodes occur, each of varying duration, someone gets
violent with Dana, and she returns to California. Like other epic
heroes, Dana struggles to survive her enemies’ attacks and return
home to her loved one. Butler’s novel both compares itself to and
differentiates itself from classic epics. Dana’s gender and race distinguish
her from traditional epic protagonists. And her enemies are not
fantastical, as are the enemies of a hero such as Odysseus. Rather
than fighting surreal creatures, Dana must fight her way through
real history. And while Dana’s forced journey makes her similar
to other epic heroes, hers is a journey through time, as opposed
to a more conventional journey through space.
Rufus and Dana’s relationship gets underway at a time
when Dana has some sway over Rufus. Not only is she older than him
at this point in her travels, but she is also strange to him, and
her strangeness makes him wary and predisposed to listen. The tenor
of Dana’s and Rufus’s early meetings sets a precedent, and Dana
is later able to exert some control over a man who, by the standards
of his day, has no cause to obey her or even consider her opinions
worthy of notice. In this section, their struggle over the word nigger provides
a précis of their relationship. The n-word, now incendiary, is part
of Rufus’s everyday vocabulary. Without doing so consciously, Rufus
claims the right to oppress Dana by using the word casually in conversation.
Although baffled, he does agree to Dana’s request that he call her
a black woman. Still, his agreement is unnecessary. If Rufus feels
like being magnanimous, he can be. Equally, if he feels like using
the n-word, he can do that too. His race and gender give him complete
power, even as a young boy. He likes Dana and fears her a bit, so
at times he responds to her, but his responsiveness is always whimsical
and could be reversed at any time.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Kindred!