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In Kindred, whips symbolize the white man’s power and capacity for violence. The men who wield whips in the novel are men to be feared. They are small-minded, angry people who use violence to get what they want, dole out punishment, spur slaves on, or relieve their own irritation. A whip in the hand of a white man embodies all that is evil in the antebellum South. The way the whips function stands for the slow, soul-crushing effect of slavery. Whips have the capacity to kill, but, unlike guns, they kill slowly. They are a premeditated instrument of slow torture. In the same way, slavery kills the soul piece by piece.
Birthdays stand for the cruel cycle of slavery. For the slaves on the Weylin plantation, the birth of infants is a mixed blessing. Although the birth of a child brings with it great joy, it also creates great suffering. The necessity of caring for an infant links parents more closely to the plantation, making it almost impossible for them to consider escape. As the infant grows, the parent must suffer from the knowledge that his or her child is enslaved and must fear the possibility that a family member will be sold. Butler makes Dana’s first trip to Maryland coincide with her birthday to suggest that, like an infant on the Weylins’ plantation, she has been born into suffering. Dana’s final trip to Maryland comes on the Fourth of July, the birthday of the United States. The timing of this trip reminds us that this nation is grounded in a history of agony. Although the birth of the United States brought about great good, it brought pain in equal measure.
In antebellum Maryland, maps stand for the possibility of freedom. For that reason, it is extremely dangerous to possess a map. When Rufus forces Dana to burn her map, he is forcing her to burn her ability to navigate the Maryland shore. When he teaches his son to read a map, he is giving him the ability to seek his own freedom. A person with a map can find his way. A person without one can only go as far as his personal experience and memory allows.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Kindred!