It’s not like I didn’t know how terrible slavery was (is?). I’ve read fiction and non-fiction, saw movies and documentaries. It was a hot topic in the Brazilian soap-operas I watched while growing up. But Kindred felt more real than most other stories about that period, and for that I blame the way it blurs the borders between right and wrong and focuses on that darn human complexity.
People survive, people adapt and it’s not always easy to see slave owners and anything but evil and slaves as anything but victims.
With Kindred, Octavia Butler created the perfect setting to illustrate these nuances: Dana is a young black woman in 1976 who has both slave and white ancestry. She just bought a house with her (white) husband. For reasons never explained, she shares a special connection with her white, slave-owning ancestor, Rufus. This tie forces her to travel back in time to help him when his life is endangered.
She doesn’t know when (or if) she’ll come back, so she makes the best to fit in and survive.
With her modern moral superiority, Dana begins by acting her part, but after trying to escape, being beaten and wiped for it, almost raped and betrayed by another slave, she starts to realize how easily she’s becoming a part to this world. She’s a house slave and there are certain comforts in that, comforts she’s coming to appreciate and even enjoy. The plantation house is slowly becoming more of a home than her own back in the 20th century – “Slavery is a long slow process of dulling.”
More shades of grey: when she’s beaten up, Dana doesn’t blame the slaves who do not interfere (would I in their place?). Rufus is raised by a tyrant father who has an unbreakable code of honor that eventually works in Dana’s favor. Rufus has been raised and cared for by slaves, whom he cares for as well, until he begins to see them as property and violently demanding their love. After all, Rufus would not be judged by his peers for sleeping with slaves, but loving them is another matter. Rufus’ mother abuses young female slaves, but she often sees them pregnant by her husband (what would I do in her situation?).
So Dana, in her decreasingly detached clarity, starts to realize that there’s more to slavery, and people’s attitudes towards it, than what’s in the history books. And I’m sure we can apply this to lots of other things: prostitution, terrorism, genocide.
An author’s capacity to make a reader acknowledge humanity’s true complexity, even at the cost of comfort, is a real gift.