by Eric L.
I recently read Kindred by Octavia Butler in my book discussion group. It was my first exposure to Butler, and I like both her style and the book overall quite a bit. We also read the graphic novel as a supplement. I recommend it, too, as the illustration and style were excellent.
Written in the 1970s, the plot concerns a Black woman from Los Angeles who is mysteriously transported back to the antebellum south, specifically to the eastern shore of Maryland. It continues to happen, and each time the protagonist remains a bit longer. The time she stays in the past is greater than the length of time she is missing from 1970s L.A. It goes without saying that the past is terrible for a Black woman.
Hence my question about being southern. As someone from Baltimore, I tend to view myself as an “enlightened north-easter.” However, the racial history of this country is something that should be given some thought. It’s not just a southern plantation owner issue that ended in 1863.
Dana is a writer. Her husband is also a writer, and he is white. I’d rather not give too much away so you can read the book to determine why this is happening, but in a little bit of a spoiler, she has relatives on this plantation that she returns to again and again. One of them, who eventually becomes the plantation owner, is white; the other is a Black woman, technically a “free” woman. It’s not exactly the freest environment even if you’re not enslaved.
Her reminiscence about how she met her husband is sweetly romantic and interspersed throughout the book. The juxtaposition of the recent past, the present, and the distant past is an interesting story technique. At one point, her husband purposefully holds on to her during one of her time travels in an effort to accompany her. As a white man, he obviously has a much higher social standing than she does and hopes to provide some protection. He is successful, to some extent. She wonders if he will somehow be changed by spending time in this time period. Really, she’s wondering how anyone could not be changed, herself included.
The discussions and disagreements between the two of them about common misunderstandings between men and women, Black people and white people, are telling. The whole book offers a compelling study in empathy. The protagonist’s own status as a free Black woman and a visitor to the plantation, along with her relations with both white people and enslaved persons, highlight ideas of jealousy and privilege. That said, Butler deftly deals with the concept of how we all think we’d comport ourselves in oppressive situations. When one’s actual survival is at stake, how outspoken could anyone be with a very real threat of state-sanctioned terror and beatings?
To be clear: this is not a defense of race relations in the 1970s, or now for that matter. The protagonist experiences profound culture shock (e.g., I could beat you for speaking to me that way). For me, this story further acknowledges the history of those who resisted and fought back against nearly insurmountable odds. The protagonist is forced to reckon with her own privilege in the antebellum south and her relatively comfortable life in 1970s America. She leads you to this by thinking that, in just a few years, Harriet Tubman begins bringing enslaved people to freedom. As a reader you wonder, how?
This book is the type of fiction that weaves a thought-provoking story with great social and moral commentary. It is my kind of read: messy, complicated, and realistic (except for the time travel).
In sum, I think I am southern. Maybe many Americans are?
Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at Elkridge Branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.