One of the abiding themes of Kindred is the disturbing ease with which slavery can be accepted by individuals and by a whole community of people. Dana suppresses her instincts to rebel against slavery, especially after she has seen one man whipped, and Butler suggests that it is the constant threat of violence that forces people to accept it. The memory of Weylin’s brutality forces Dana to stay calm, for example, when Margaret slaps her across the face for sleeping in Kevin’s bed. Butler cites the threat of emotional violence as another reason to knuckle under. Sarah, a strong-willed and intelligent woman, tamps down her own fury to keep her one remaining child close to her. The knowledge that Weylin could sell off Carrie, as he sold off her sons, scares Sarah into obedience. But Butler suggests that it is not just the threat of physical and emotional violence that keeps slavery going. Rather, she argues, people have an amazing and disquieting predisposition to accept the status quo. Children observe their elders, figure out the way things are, and behave accordingly. The children even pretend to auction each other off. Although they do not consciously realize what they are doing, they are preparing themselves at an early age for a predictable life of slavery. Even outsiders find it easy to accept a state of slavery. It should be nearly impossible for Dana and Kevin, citizens of modern America, to adjust to 1800s Maryland. Yet they do adjust, and with astonishing ease. By part 7 of “The Fall,” Dana is feeling ashamed of her relationship with Kevin, and Kevin is hinting that life on the plantation isn’t all that bad. The natural human instinct to fit in, Butler suggests, makes change difficult and rebellion almost unthinkable.
Because he is a white man, Kevin cannot see the Weylin plantation as Dana sees it. In part, this is a literal failure to see. Kevin is in the house, kept away from the day-to-day lives of the slaves. He doesn’t observe, as Dana does, the whipping of spirited slaves, the forced illiteracy of children who want to learn, or the enduring pain of a mother who has lost her children. While Dana and the other slaves get up while the whites are still sleeping and stay awake, working, until after the whites have gone to bed, Kevin is well rested, well fed, and bored. But Kevin’s failure to see is also a failure of the imagination. Dana describes her husband as a liberal, forward-thinking man. But even enlightened, twentieth-century Kevin can block out the evil around him. Butler suggests that it is easy to ignore injustice we don’t experience firsthand, even when that injustice is happening right under our noses, and even when people we love are the ones suffering that injustice. Kevin stops far short of letting the Weylins off the hook, and he assures Dana he doesn’t mean to minimize the horror of what’s going on around them. Still, the fact that he doesn’t experience slavery in the palpable, personal, and humiliating way that Dana does means that he cannot fully understand it.