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In the novel Kindred, Octavia Butler tells the experience of Dana Franklin as she travels back and forth through time and space from her home in 1976 to the ante bellum South in 1815 Maryland, where she finds herself on a plantation of which her ancestors are slaves. It is through the lens of time travel that allows Dana and the reader to witness first-hand, the tragic and horrific time of slavery. It is this first-hand experience that drives the neo-slave story of Dana and her ancestors to act and react so they may survive a complex system of slavery on the plantation. The most personal consequences of these events are manifested to Dana and her experiences with physical violence and emotional manipulation, all of which have a drastic effect on her which will change her forever.
Dana’s first experience is sudden and harrowing, as she is ripped from her own home and time and deposited on the bank of a muddy river she has never seen before. After saving the young boy she would later discover to be her ancestor, and being threatened by a gun to her face, she is again removed from the situation and returns to her home and husband, confused and scared. “I don’t have a name for the thing that happened to me but it was real” (Butler 17). When Dana is transported the second time, she begins to realize why this is happening and what it has to do with Rufus. “Dana’s obligation to Rufus’ life, which is also an obligation to her own, structures the interplay of history and morality that motivates Butler’s plot. If Rufus dies, Dana will never be born. Or rather, she cannot afford to find out what would happen to her if she were not to save him. By putting Dana in this dilemma, Butler is able to illustrate the deep and thorny entanglement at the heart of Southern plantation slavery, thus undoing any cultural myth of alien encounter.
Further, by structuring the text around Dana’s various obligations (her own, Rufus’s, other slaves), Butler not only complicates the range of Dana’s responses in any situation, but she also forces the reader to abide by the same rules” (Parham 1318). Dana will have to not only make decisions she never thought she would have to make, but also take action she never thought she’d have to take, and suffer the consequences for not only herself, but others as well. All in the paradoxical effort to preserve her future families existence, even if that could mean at the potential cost of hers, “If I was to live, if others were to live, he must live. I didn’t dare test the paradox” (Butler 29). One of the most obvious methods Butler uses to illustrate this conscious approach by Dana is through slavery and violence, more specifically, violence towards the female slaves.
During her nest visit to Rufus, Dana witnesses first-hand the everyday violence and treatment slaves had to endure when she witnesses the beating of a black man for no clear reason by patrollers. Dana’s response to watching something like this so close and personal is to say the least, eye opening. “I had seen people beaten on television and in the movies. But I hadn’t lain nearby and smelled their sweat or heard them pleading and praying, shamed before their families and themselves” (Butler 36). Because Dana is from the future and is experiencing this for the first time as well, the reader’s experience is parallel to hers.
Butler’s surreal description of the event and along with Dana’s reaction not only adds to the reality and horror that slavery was, we know that already; rather it comes across in a very real way conveying a more clear and deeper understanding of what it was like to be beaten and suffer as a slave. Unfortunately, it would not be long before Dana would experience this kind of physical torture first hand when Tom Weylin sees Dana reading. “Weylin dragged me a few feet, then pushed me hard … I never saw where the whip came from, never even saw the first blow coming. But it came – like a hot iron across my back, burning into me through my light shirt and searing my skin I thought Weylin meant to kill me” (Butler 107). Not only is this a brutal experience and description, but it is significant because now Dana has been completely and unflinchingly been treated as a slave.
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