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While reading Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, the topic of slavery in America was presented to me in a way I had never experienced before. By looking at the way Butler highlights the impact antebellum-era medicine had on slavery and comparing it to modern day medicine during this era we can see how the reader is able to view the brutality and profound affect slavery had on history through an effective and relatable lens. Before traveling back in time to the peak of slavery in the 1800’s, like us, Dana had the opportunity to experience the drastic advances in medicine while she was in what was present day to her, the late 1970’s. We as readers knowing what modern medicine is like allowed us to connect with Dana when she was in the 1800’s experiencing the significantly inferior forms of medicine. Although all walks of life were impacted by this, the lack of medical knowledge during this time affected the plantations greatly and most of all, the slaves.
In part five of The Storm, Dana is exposed to the barbaric methods of medicine practiced in the 1800’s when Alice tells her how two of her children had died since the last time she was there. “What did they die of?’ I asked. ‘Fevers. The doctor came and bled them and purged them, but they still died’. ‘He bled and purged babies?’ ‘They were two and three. He said it would break the fever. And it did. But they…they died anyway’” (210). Dana was appalled a doctor would do this to infants as a form of treatment for fevers. Something like this happening would be unheard of today but it shows how primitive the medical practices were, especially on slaves, compared to when Dana was in the present.
Butler uses this scene to show the extent of how badly the slaves were affected by the medical procedures used during this time period. For a mother to have to watch a doctor bleed and purge her babies as a last resort to save their lives would be devastating, especially since she had no choice. Dana even suggested that Alice shouldn’t have let the doctors near her babies at all, but since they were Rufus’s children too, she had no say in the matter. Being a slave and having her children fathered by the man that owned her meant she had no control of the decisions made regarding her children, even when it came down to life or death. Since Dana and the reader both understand the importance modern medicine has in people’s daily lives, this allows the reader to better understand and connect to what Dana was going through while Butler highlighted these medievalesque forms of medicine.
When Rufus became very ill in part three of The Storm, Tom Weylin insists on Dana curing him and even goes to the length of threating her life if Rufus were to die. “What is all this about mosquitoes giving people ague?’ He demanded. ‘We may be able to forget that,’ I said. ‘This doesn’t look like malaria. He’s in a lot of pain. I think we should go for the doctor’” (205). This was an exchange Dana and Tom had while they were standing next to Rufus while he laid in agenizing pain. Dana is given the task of curing a very intense and life-threatening illness of which she doesn’t even know what it actually is. Tom is stubborn enough to not even want a doctor to help Rufus heal and lays all the responsibility on Dana to do it. Because of Dana’s previous display of saving Rufus’s life on numerous occasions, Tom expects her to be able to do it again with no problem. He doesn’t realize how serious the sickness is and that it is completely out of Dana’s control. Dana was finally able to easy Rufus’s pain by dissolving aspirin she had brought with her from home into water and forcing Rufus to take it.
I believe Butler used this scene to show how rare, and almost nonexistent it was for any kind of quality medical attention to be used on a plantation during this time period. Rufus was the son of the plantation owner and he wasn’t even treated at all until Dana acted upon it. Even one of the most common drugs there is did miracles in helping an extremely ill person back in the 1800’s. No one had any idea of how to cure Rufus, no medicines, no methods, and no procedures were ever mentioned while he was sick. They just tried to make him comfortable. Death was always lingering because of the lack of effective medicine which entail created a hostile environment when it came to sickness, disease, or injury because even a small cut or fever could result in death.
In part 7 of The Fight, Alice sustained serious injuries from dog bites after being caught while trying to escape. Tom Weylin won’t pay for doctors to cure his slaves so Dana takes it upon herself to help Alice. She asks Rufus if he has any antiseptics to which he reply’s “anti-what?” (146). Dana settles for using a brine to treat the wounds. “But…that’s what Daddy uses on field hands’ he said. ‘It hurts them worse than the beatings sometimes.’ ‘It won’t hurt her as bad as an infection would later’” (147). Dana knows how painful and deadly infected wounds could become if not treated properly so even though the salt based brine will be extremely painful to Alice, it is necessary for her survival. Dana even admitted to herself she didn’t know half of what she was doing. This is another example of how Butler shows the readers through lack of adequate medical attention the cruelty the slaves had to endure. Rufus not even knowing what an antiseptic was truly showed how little medicine had been advanced up to that point.
Butler shines a light on the raw truths of slavery and all that came with it. In many movies and other books regarding slavery we as readers are presented with whippings and beatings, but none go into detail of the aftermath and medical aspect quit like Butler does. She presents this idea of the horrors of antebellum-era medicine and effectively uses it throughout Kindred on multiple occasions to show the readers how brutal slavery really was.
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