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Rufus is the prime embodiment of this theme. When we first meet Rufus, he is a young boy. While his race and gender alone give him some measure of authority, his youth renders him relatively powerless, and at this stage in his life, Rufus is a humane, compassionate soul. Despite being bombarded by the message that his skin makes him superior to all African-American people, Rufus’s instinctive moral sense tells him that Alice and Nigel are worthy of his respect and friendship. Yet Rufus’s good instincts prove no match for the power he is given. When he comes into his inheritance and becomes a slave owner, Rufus begins to believe that he has a right to control the lives of others, mete out punishments, and have all of his demands satisfied. A small tyrant, he turns on his friends and elders, abusing Alice and treating Nigel as a subordinate. Like his son Rufus, Tom Weylin succumbs to the corrupting influence of his authority. We never see Weylin as a child, so we don’t know whether his instincts are as sound as his son’s. However, we do see him devolve from a routinely brutal master who uses violence to keep order into a capricious despot who whips slaves for tiny offenses such as talking back to him. With power comes the desire for more power and the conviction that one deserves all the power one accrues. Rufus and Weylin—and men like Jake Edwards and the doctor—don’t consider the possibility that they are benefiting from the wrongheaded conventions of an unjust society. Rather, they convince themselves that they are deserving of the power that falls into their laps.
In Butler’s novel, family ties keep slaves in one place, which makes familial love a tool of those who seek to oppress. The slaves know that if they displease the Weylins in any way, the Weylins might retaliate by selling them away from their families. This is what happens to Sam, who is sold away from his family for the crime of speaking to Dana. The Weylins also encourage family ties as a way to bind the slaves more closely to the plantation. They don’t trust Nigel until he marries Carrie and begins a family. By settling down, Nigel weds himself to the plantation and his life there. He loves his wife and children and wants to support them, so he is less likely to run away, rebel, or plan subversive actions. Sarah, too, is held hostage by her love for Carrie. Weylin knows he could get a good price for Carrie, but she is more valuable to him on the plantation. Not only does Carrie work hard, but she also inspires Sarah to work hard; as long as she has Carrie to protect, Sarah will stay on the plantation and follow Weylin’s orders. Alice is bound to the plantation—and to life—solely by her children. Once Rufus tells her he has sold her children, she has no family to hold her, and she promptly escapes by taking her own life. Family ties account, in part, for Dana’s loyalty to Rufus. Although Rufus mistreats her cruelly, Dana cannot help continuing to save his life. She feels a familial bond to him, and moreover, because he is her ancestor, she must save him to safeguard her own life. Family connections are one of the few sources of joy in the lives of the slaves Butler depicts. At the same time, though, family ties are what force the slaves to remain on the plantation, which is the source of their torment.
Read more about the power of familial bonds in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Kindred!