Academic journal article African American Review

Reproducing Time, Reproducing History: Love and Black Feminist Sentimentality in Octavia Butler's Kindred

Academic journal article African American Review

Reproducing Time, Reproducing History: Love and Black Feminist Sentimentality in Octavia Butler's Kindred

Article excerpt

... I turned to say good-bye to Alice, called her name once. She was beating a pair of Rufus's pants, and she kept beating them with no break in her rhythm to indicate that she had heard me.

"Alice!" I called louder.

She did not turn, did not stop her beating and beating of those pants, though I was certain now that she heard me.... "Good-bye, Alice," I said, this rime not expecting any answer. There was none.

--Octavia Butler, Kindred

The above scene of Dana's leave-taking is the most sentimental of scenes in Octavia Butler's 1979 novel Kindred. It is also the most problematic. Taken in its full length, it functions as a snapshot that freezes Alice, a black female slave, and renders her at once impenetrable and exposed. Butler develops the scene from the vantage point of her main character, E. Dana Franklin, whose memorial disposition in the scene reduces Alice to the numbing effect of labor and repetition, the "beating and beating of those pants" (185). Kindred's disappointed spectacle--its uncompleted parting between Alice and Dana--paradoxically animates Alice's lack of engagement and makes it the all-important element of emotion that carries the scene. Thus affectively positioned as the emptied variable--the token unsentimental--Alice is the gravitational nexus for a sentimental drama that wholly disinvests in her dimensionality as historical, social, and political being. In fact, the obverse might well be true. Generic variables notwithstanding, the scene's interpretation and impact within the text and among scholars replays a host of antiblack, antifeminist tendencies that continue to embed themselves in contemporary liberal analysis.

To fully parse out the implications of the novel in these terms, I read the epigraphic scene alongside two distinct moments of racialization. The first is the material transformation of temporal experience into what I refer to as speculative time. Speculative time underscores a correlation between whiteness and futurity that is secured through contractual investments in the slave trade, investments that are sentimentalized into a historical narrative by liberal philosophy as the developmental rime of the subject. The second moment of racialization is the literary and cultural (re)production of violence in sentimental and abolitionist literature emergent in the nineteenth century. Both of these formative moments rehearse the elision of material and symbolic violence in their (re)creation of the valued subject of whiteness, an elision that Lindon Barrett articulated in this way: "The perspective of the Other reveals the relativities of value as ratios of violence .... Violence introduces itself by way of a violent agency, which it then seeks to deny. Value is a two-fold action, a presentation and a re-presentation" (79). Through an interrogation of the racial inflections of time and its contracted promises of future security, this essay looks to understanding the ethical pitfalls of eliding present practices for a futurity that belongs only to some.

Admittedly, the epigraphic scene portrays neither the most startling act of violence nor the most egregious, given the novel's antebellum episodes. Its form of violence is instead elliptical--a naturalization of how we sentimentalize history, intimacy, and love to the detriment of what I cal] a black feminist sentimentality. Black feminist sentimentality refuses speculative time as a temporal narrative that insures "the future" on the continual violation and management of black female subjects. It is this investment in speculative time that shapes Dana's problematic disidentification with Alice in the epigraphic scene--a disidentification that solidifies Alice's two- dimensionality in perpetuity. Alice's presumed emotional incapacity completes rather than disrupts the scene's maudlin mood; her unavailable turn incites distress in the reader as the relationship between the two women escapes closure. Through a critical reframing of the sentimental alignment between Dana and Alice and between text and reader, this essay prepares groundwork for a black feminist sentimentality, a practice and recognition of affective refusal rather than incapacity. …

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