Re-negotiation of Black History and Speculative Time in Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred: Unravelling White Supremacy in the Implied Future
“You’re gambling. Hell, you’re gambling against history.”
“What else can I do? I’ve got to try, Kevin, and if trying means taking small risks and putting up with small humiliations now so that I can survive later, I’ll do it”
—Octavia Butler, Kindred
The scene above, from Octavia E. Butler’s 1979 novel, Kindred, portrays Dana, the protagonist, getting subjected to her husband, Kevin Franklin’s scrutiny for her resistless submission to Margaret Weylin’s verbal and physical abuse upon her third transportation to antebellum Maryland in 1819. When Kevin, Dana’s husband, driven by his 20th-century pro-black consciousness, questions Dana, she justifies her silent acquiescence as a negotiation to secure her future survival. It epitomizes how “speculative time as a temporal narrative… insures “the future” on the continual violation and management of black female subjects” (Hua 392).
The implicit homogenization of white supremacy and the implied future precipitated by the speculative time necessitates slaveholding and violence as contractual means to ensure safe futurity across all spatiotemporal spheres in favour of the whites. In the course of Dana’s seven spatiotemporal displacements from 20th century California to 19th century Maryland, she came across numerous instances that prompted her disidentification with other characters and concomitantly her evolving into an identity hybrid: ‘mammy’, ‘white-nigger’ by way of disregarding the present to the implication of the past for a safe future upholding white supremacy.
When Nigel, a plantation slave child, approached Dana to teach him how to read, she was perplexed, contemplating the repercussions of such an act, as plantation owners strictly inhibited slaves from reading since the whites presumed it would make them think and eventually help them break free. At this point, Dana realized the voyeuristic nature of Kevin and her onlooking over history taking its course. As Dana initially assumed her and Kevin’s roles as mere actors in the realm of linear history written by Euro-American whites, her bewilderment at Nigel’s plight reveals the comprehension of her experience concerning her reading of 20th-century writing, her discernment of the “already-read” (déjà-lu) in Barthes’ term. To Dana, time travel solely served as a medium for them to traverse through the fabula (the chronological sequence of events) of antebellum black history to structure it into a linear sjuzhet (the re-structuring of the events) in continuation to her “already-red” history.
However, the symbiotic nature of sjuzhet/fabula of the past jeopardized Dana and Kevin’s voyeuristic vantage positions bereft of any harmful effects. They gradually delved into the fabric of reality of the 19th-century South, that perceived blacks as nothing more than non-human commodities. Dana’s active participation in the past events thus shrunk in her perceptive distance from the occurrences in the past. The attributes of her 20th-century black woman persona—her autonomy, literacy, individualistic outlook on life, and even her clothing stood in stark contrast to the 19th-century sub-human status of blacks. Rufus recalls his first memory of Dana “wearing pants like a man,” disregarding her sexual identity as abnormal to his setting. Nigel and Luke’s questioning whether all the citizens in New York talk like her (as Dana claimed she got transported from New York), more like white folks whose opinions matter, reveals their inaccessibility to the language of an alien land. Dana’s reinstating: “I mean, this is really the way I talk” further consolidates their identification of Dana as an extraterrestrial entity from an alien land and Dana’s distancing herself from antebellum Maryland. Dana’s affinity for verbal reciprocation with the white plantation owners, being black, took Rufus aback, delegating Dana’s status to a wild animal in his eyes.
When Dana conveys to Alice that “He (Rufus) wants you tonight,” Alice asks for her suggestion, to which Dana firmly provides her with three options: “You can go to him as he orders; you can refuse, be whipped, and then have him take you by force; or you can run away again” (166). Dana’s options exclude killing Rufus in the first place, which later, Alice mentions and asserts Dana is an ally of the white folks who aid them in taming her tribe. Contrary to that, Alice avows to “have ten black men” but stands by her tribe, alienating Dana further from the blacks. Dana’s longing for temporal coherence in expectations of assimilating the essential past to the coeval future made her consider ensuring Rufus’s safety, safeguarding the white patriarchal nexus as the fundamental purpose of her transportation to the South that made her rule out the option of killing Rufus. The entire novel comprises enough room for Dana to conceive of her existence in 20th-century California without Rufus committing rape on Alice. But Dana’s earnest anticipation for Hagar’s birth to be indispensable in securing Rufus’s bloodlines unveils her conception of a linear future only through implicit conformity to white patriarchal violence inflicted on the blacks.
Moreover, the typical ‘mammy’ portrayal of Sarah compared to Dana or Alice might appear to embrace her subordinate status. But she unfolds as a combative woman striving to retain her privileged position at par with the power dynamics of the plantation camp, ensuring a safe place for her folks. The conception of black femininity revealed through the mirror image of Dana and Alice, as Rufus asserts, “Two halves of a whole,” unleash possibilities for reform of the racist, patriarchal system of slavery. Whereas Alice plays a forced concubine falling prey to the ravaging ownership of the master Rufus manifesting the austere confines of slavery, Dana’s displacement in the 19th-century pro-slavery setting engenders deep scrutiny of the white supremacist social paradigm.
After Alice’s final act of rebellion, her suicide, Dana is rendered the last resort of Rufus, his potential subject. Dana’s time travel that began with her 1819 “call-and-response” agility to save Rufus from every possible danger for ensuring her 20th-century existence ends with Rufus’s attempt of rape and Dana’s 1976 ‘demand for action’ in killing him to essentially sabotage the claws of White patriarchal slaveholding necessitating gore, bloodshed. Dana’s killing of Rufus and the ensuing dismemberment of her hand enunciates her temporal independence from deterministic history and her significant rebirth into 1976 America on July 4, the bicentennial year of America’s independence. However, Dana’s subsequent endeavour to be a part of the written records in search of solace implies her harmonizing narrative threads of the oppressive past and the future promises into one homogeneous strain of history through speculative time. In this combat for equality and respect, Dana evolves from a mere actor in a historical plot into a well-fleshed-out character in 19th-century Maryland, blurring the socio-temporal divergence to fathom the exacting ‘stark, powerful reality’ of black history in its cruellest form.
Hua, Linh U. “Reproducing Time, Reproducing History: Love and Black Feminist Sentimentality in Octavia Butler’s Kindred.” African American Review, vol. 44, no. 3, Fall 2011, pp. 391-407.
Butler, Octavia. Kindred. 1979. Boston: Beacon, 1988.
Wood, Sarah. “Exorcizing the Past: The Slave Narrative as Historical Fantasy.” Feminist Review, no. 85, 2007, pp. 83-96.