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Relationships between brothers and sisters can be complicated; relationships between parents and children can be even more so. Family often varies in definition from one person to the next. For the majority of the population, the idea of a “nuclear family” doesn’t exist. In the novel Kindred, Octavia Butler uses both science fiction and slave narrative to explore the variances in familial bonds. Every situation is different, but a few aspects of familial relationships are practically guaranteed. Although we relentlessly seek the love that comes from our kindred, humanity is continuously hurt by familial bondage.
At the beginning of Dana and Kevin’s relationship, they didn’t talk to each other extensively about their families. Dana’s parents were dead and later she would find out that Kevin’s parents were both dead, too. Years ago, his parents died in an automobile accident (Butler 56). Further along in their time together, Kevin asks Dana to marry him. This very traditional topic brings up both Dana and Kevin’s very untraditional families. Dana expresses her concern to Kevin about his only close living relative, a sister. Interracial marriages were not yet socially acceptable in the late 1970’s, and Dana is reasonably worried about what her future husband’s family will think of her (109). When Kevin returns from visiting his sister, he is shocked by her reaction to the upcoming wedding: “She didn’t want to meet you, wouldn’t have you in her house – or me either if I married you” (110). Unsurprised, Dana reports that her aunt and uncle had a similar reaction. “Forgiving” the marriage only because it will result in Dana’s children being lighter-skinned, Dana’s aunt criticizes the match. Dana’s uncle, also, tells her, “The worst thing he could think of to do” (112). This worst thing is writing Dana out of his will so that nothing will fall into “white hands”. It is clear that although Kevin and Dana are hopeful in searching for the approval of their families, this approval is not something that is ever going to occur. Instead of putting their wedding on hold, Kevin suggests the only thing they can do: “Let’s go to Vegas and pretend we haven’t got relatives” (112). Kevin and Dana desperately want their families to approve of their spouse, but are let down when the negative responses come pouring in.
Slavery consistently turns motherhood into a complicated matter. A child does not simply belong to his mother. Regardless of whether the father is the master of the plantation, another slave, or even a free black man, that baby becomes a slave from the moment of birth. Sarah, who runs the cookhouse, has four children: three sons and one daughter. Tragically, her husband dies when a tree he was cutting falls on him (76). Shortly afterwards, Tom Weylin sells Sarah’s three sons. Sarah blames Margaret Weylin for this sale, telling Dana that Margaret, “Made Marse Tom sell my three boys to get money to buy things she didn’t even need!” (95). Although Sarah is the mother to these four children, she has little say in what takes place in their lives. As masters of the plantation, Tom and Margaret have the power to decide what happens to any and every slave. Sarah thinks that the only reason Carrie has not been sold yet is because of her inability to talk. Dana assesses the situation, “Her husband dead, three children sold, the fourth defective, and her having to thank God for the defect” (76). But, Carrie’s inability to talk is not the only reason that Weylin has kept her around. If Carrie was sold to a different plantation, Sarah would have no familial bonds or reasons to remain on the Weylin 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.
Later in Carrie’s life, Carrie’s marriage to Nigel serves a similar purpose in the eyes of Weylin. Nigel attempted to run away, but patrollers brought him back hungry and sick. Weylin wanted to sell Nigel off as a punishment, but Rufus talked his father into keeping him on the plantation. Rufus tells Dana, “I don’t think Daddy relaxed until Nigel married Carrie. Man marries, has children, he’s more likely to stay where he is” (139). By marrying Carrie, Nigel relinquishes his passion for freedom. Through the selling and marrying of slaves, familial love becomes a tool of those who seek to oppress. Although Sarah and Nigel both love Carrie dearly, their love for her interferes with their freedom and overall well-being. Family ties account for a majority of the loyalty Dana has to Rufus. Right from the beginning, Dana has a feeling that there is something special that draws her to him. She begins to wonder if Rufus really could be her relative. Dana thinks, “Not that I really thought a blood relationship could explain the way I had twice been drawn to him. It wouldn’t. But then, neither would anything else” (29). The way Dana feels about Rufus must be partially due to their connected bloodlines. Rufus is a part of Dana’s ancestry, possibly her great-great-grandfather (28). As impossible as it might be for Dana to believe this, there is no reason that better explains the common thread between them.Day after day, Rufus treats Dana cruelly. The two of them share a few pivotal moments and experiences that bond them further together, but overall the relationship between Dana and Rufus is not optimal. Every single time that Dana is hurt by Rufus, though, she forgives him. Dana says, “Somehow I always seem to forgive him for what he does to me. I can’t hate him the way I should” (223). For a lot of people, it is difficult to have hostility towards your family. Humans crave the sense of belonging and approval that comes from their kindred. Quite often, just as Dana does, parents and siblings will forgive and forget to prevent jeopardizing this connection.
Dana experiences regret about saving Rufus after the traumatizing sale of a few of the slaves: “I wish I had left Rufus lying in the mud…To think I saved him so he could do something like this” (223). Rufus hurts many people, both with and without Dana’s help. Alice, Dana’s other half according to Rufus, is manipulated countless times by both Rufus and Dana. Because she is counting on Alice to be the mother of her great-grandmother, Dana helps Rufus coerce Alice into a sexual relationship (164). This ruthlessness of Rufus’s actions leaves Dana feeling guilty about her need to continuously save him to insure her own birth and survival. If Dana could have let go of her familial bond to Rufus, she might have been able to prevent the pain in Alice and the other slaves’ lives. Oppression through familial love is a skill passed down from father to son. After Tom Weylin is gone, Rufus becomes the master of the plantation. Although Rufus persuaded his father before not to sell Nigel, he has no qualms about using family bonds to punish the love of his life, Alice. Together, Alice and Rufus have two children – Joe and Hagar. After an attempted escape, Alice is returned to the plantation and beaten both physically and emotionally (250). Receiving much more than just a whipping, both of Alice’s children are “sold”. Rufus tells Alice that he has sold her children as a punishment for her runaway. Truly, though, Rufus has only brought their children to his aunt’s place in Baltimore (250). Joe and Hagar are the only good things that Alice has in her life. In the darkness of their absence, Alice decides she has nothing left to live for. Dana finds alice hanging in the barn… Alice is bound to both the plantation and her life solely through her children. The bondage of familial love rarely leads to pure happiness; often it leads to both physical and emotional harm.
Every single day, siblings across the globe say the wrong words, parents do the wrong things, and children make the wrong decisions. The harm that familial love causes cannot be denied. Yet, still clinging to the love of our parents and relatives, it is biologically ingrained in us to crave the love of those closest to us. What would we do without this love – without those bound to us in such a biological way? Bloodlines tie one another together for better or for worse. But, in the end, life might not be worth living without the other members of our family. Without Carrie, Sarah might have given up on finding a worthwhile life and happiness within the plantation. Without Rufus, Dana wouldn’t have felt the thrill and satisfaction of saving her great-great-grandfather or growing close enough to him to cause an influence. Without one another we might be better off. However, we would certainly miss out on the biological sense of belonging that common bloodlines create.
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