The Prescience of Octavia Butler’s Kindred

Since the 2016 election of Donald Trump, acknowledgments of Octavia E. Butler’s prescience have become more routine. With its stark picture of citizens desperate for water and safety, her 1993 novel Parable of the Sower became a New York Times bestseller in September 2020. This fulfilled one of its author’s goals, even if posthumously. As readers live with climate change and face a pandemic with remarkably unqualified people in charge, other Butler titles are commanding attention. Parable of the Talents (1998), set in 2032 and offering a bleak portrait of the future, was recently re-published. Meanwhile, a Library of America volume is in the works that will include Fledgling (2005) and its vampire protagonist.

Kindred, Butler’s 1979 novel whose characters experience slavery through unexplained time travel, is enjoying robust sales, partly thanks to its 2017 graphic novel adaptation. However, this text is generally ignored in discussions of Butler’s prescience. Yet, Kindred, with its ties to the nineteenth-century past, has as much to offer those struggling with the current historical moment as does her apocalypse fiction.

In particular, Kindred pushes against the urge to respond to Trump’s naked racism with a renewed faith in colorblindness. He launched his campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists,” and his administration initiated a “Muslim ban” and incarcerates immigrant children. In this climate, some are clinging to a conception of American progress that revolves around “transcending” race, rather than committing to dismantling racism. Kindred can help readers see the danger of that tendency. As Butler’s novel takes pains to help readers navigate the past, present, and future, it is unequivocal about the folly of ignoring race, and racism’s prominence — even, and particularly, in the most intimate matters.

In Kindred, the black woman protagonist Dana has recently moved to the suburbs with her white husband Kevin, and they believe their home benefits not only them but also the nation. In short, they believe interracial marriage epitomizes progress. However, Dana is pulled back into the 1800s on several occasions, all when the life of her slaveholding great, great grandfather Rufus is in danger. After Kevin ends up transported with her, they must play “master” and “slave” to survive, and the experience forces an acknowledgement of the racial dynamics of their marriage, even in their 1970s present. The question hovering over this couple is a question that Kindred insists hovers over the nation: Is this still the master’s house??? Butler’s novel suggests that any definition of success or progress that involves evading that question will doom individuals and the nation.

Kevin and Dana love each other, but that does not keep them from wondering whether their life together is a modern-day version of a sexualized master/slave relationship. Prior to history’s intrusion, Kevin and Dana happily ignore the nation’s racial past and present, defining success in terms of transcending race, but time travel as Black woman and white man makes racial obliviousness impossible. Butler leaves no ambiguity: when both members of an interracial couple recognize that history cannot be escaped, each wonders whether there is any real difference between the circumstances of their modern relationship and the circumstances that defined those of the past.

Once she begins facing the link between the past and present, Dana wonders if she might be a race traitor as she begins regretting the ties she severed. She had dismissed family members who were disappointed because she had not married a Black man, but she later wonders if they had simply understood that race still mattered. Likewise, Kevin wonders whether he can ever be more in Dana’s eyes than a racist, like those who brutalize her in the slave past.

Kevin faces the reverberating power of the past when Dana returns to the 1970s while being attacked by a rapacious slave patroller. When she regains consciousness, she does not realize that the man hovering over her is her loving husband Kevin and not the patroller. Panicking, she “scrambled away, kicking him, clawing the hands that reached out for [her], trying to bite, lunging up towards his eyes.” Later, Kevin asks, “Do I really look like that patroller?” She says he does not, but Kevin’s uneasiness fails to subside and he asks further, “Do I look like someone you can come back to?” Kevin seems to wonder what will become of their union if Dana can no longer distinguish between him and the brutal white men in her time traveling past. If Dana can see no difference, she cannot be with Kevin, and this possibility creates tremendous anxiety.

At another point, Kevin returns to the 1970s from being in the nineteenth century alone, and he mentions having been accused of helping enslaved people escape. It does not take long for Dana to ask, “Were you helping slaves to escape?” He snaps back, “Of course I was!” Dana narrates, “he sounded angry, almost defensive about what he had done.” Corroborating this impression, Kevin explains his tone by saying that it had been a while since he had spoken about those activities with someone who understands. Yet, his anger and defensiveness could just as easily arise from the fact that Dana feels the need to ask the question. It is reasonable for readers to notice that Dana did not take for granted that Kevin would have been part of the antislavery cause. Kevin’s sharing that “Around that time, I was accused of helping slaves to escape. I barely got out ahead of the mob” does not keep Dana from asking, “Were you helping slaves to escape?”

Therefore, Kevin’s and Dana’s awareness of it comes and goes, but the question—is this still the master’s house?—hovers over them. Indeed, it will continue to do so for the duration of their relationship. If Dana wonders whether Kevin is a racist (or at least an accomplice), then how can she keep from wondering whether she is a race traitor for choosing him as a partner? Of course, Kevin can no longer take anything for granted either. He must ask, “Do I look like someone you can come home to?” and the relevance of this question never fades.

Butler’s Kindred suggests, in fact, that ignoring the similarities between the past and present is not only pointless but dangerous because the novel is based on a worldview famously articulated by earlier American authors. For William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” James Baldwin similarly insisted, “History . . . is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

Octavia Butler's science fiction made black girls heroes | by Bené Viera |  Timeline

Interracial couples and the mixed-race children they produce are often used to represent social and political achievement. As Jasmine Mitchell (no relation) argues in Imagining the Mulatta, throughout the Americas, mixed-race people are believed to signal not only hope for racial progress but also the elimination of race itself.  However, her research shows that “mixed-race people will not save us from racism.” After all, interracial sex and coupling—both consensual and not—were and remain integral to colonialism, imperialism, and racism all over the world.

Trump’s presidency has been a wake-up call. As journalist Lori L. Tharps found, some in interracial relationships grapple with the complexities of “sleeping with the enemy.” Some confess that Trump’s prominence has “radicalized” their parenting because they are no longer convinced that ignoring racism will protect their mixed-race children. But, interracial couples and mixed-race people are far from the only ones who can benefit from Kindred’s caveats about “transcending” race.  As Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman explain in Big Friendship, “For both of us, talking about race has been the only way to process its effects on our relationship and to make sense of the fact that racism is both personal and not personal at the same time.”

Ignoring the presence of the past is a recipe for disaster because justice requires clarity. Subtlety achieves nothing for people who are in danger. Especially when Donald Trump and his supporters are so blunt, heeding those who insist upon “civility” makes little sense. Being moderate and subtle guarantees falling short; it’s time to be anti-racist, not simply a “good” person who “sees people as people.”

Death and destruction have always run rampant in the presence of “good” people, so the dream of racial transcendence relies on convenient amnesia. By gifting the world Kindred, Butler connects readers to the past while they work toward a better future for the generations that will inhabit it. Even while grappling with the chaos that Trump seems intent upon creating in the present, connections to the past and future can help us keep our bearings.

Koritha Mitchell is author of the award-winning book Living with Lynching and the new book From Slave Cabins to the White House: Homemade Citizenship in African American Culture. She is also an associate professor of English at Ohio State University and a Society of Senior Ford Fellows (SSFF) board member. Follow her @ProfKori.