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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!