Academic journal article Extrapolation

You've Found No Records

Academic journal article Extrapolation

You've Found No Records

Article excerpt

Near the end of Octavia Butler's Kindred, Dana and Kevin, once again living in their present of 1976, fly to Maryland to search for some trace of their time-traveling experiences in the state's slave-holding past. They follow the trail of the slaves of the early nineteenth-century Weylin plantation through modern-day Maryland, visit the Georgian brick colonials left from the plantation past around Easton, return to Baltimore to do research at the Maryland Historical Society, and read old newspapers for clues to the fate of the Weylin slaves. Their fictional journey traces the actual journey that Butler made in the late 1970s, when she took a bus from Los Angeles to Baltimore to do research for her novel. In this essay, we trace this journey, both the physical one that Butler made through the Maryland landscape, and the textual one that she made through the sources about Maryland slaves available to her in the late 1970s.1

Dana and Kevin's research is unsuccessful: "You've found no records" (264), Kevin says to Dana after they have failed to find the Weylin plantation, the graves of the white family or the slaves, even newspaper records of the children Hagar and Joe. Thus, through Dana and Kevin's journey to Easton, Butler demonstrates the most depressing aspect of her own research for Kindred-a lack of records that offer clear and simple explanations for the complex issues caused by slavery.2

Butler's Purpose in Writing Kindred

Kindred is a time travel fantasy set in two places. In 1976 Los Angeles, while at part-time jobs they have taken to survive as they work on their writing, Dana, an African-American would-be writer, meets Kevin, a white aspiring novelist. They fall in love and marry. But just as they begin their life together, the past intervenes. Dana is mysteriously and repeatedly pulled back in time in order to save the life of Rufus Weylin, the heir to an Eastern shore plantation. As a black woman without free papers in early nineteenth-century Maryland, Dana is forced into slavery.3 While Dana is in the past, she meets Alice, the black freewoman Rufus loves, and realizes she must convince her to have Rufus's children. In effect, Dana is protecting her own life, since Hagar, the daughter of Alice and Rufus, is Dana's great-grandmother. As Gerry Canavan explains in his critical biography, Octavia E. Butler, Dana "is alive after slavery and despite slavery, but also because of slavery" (61). A weird power-dynamic springs up between Dana and Rufus, for Rufus is both Dana's ancestor and (later, after Alice's suicide) Dana's would-be lover-although not her master as he would like her to believe. Dana learns all too much about slavery- working in the house for an arbitrary mistress, whipped for teaching a black boy to read, put in the fields as punishment for resisting the role of slave, and whipped again for running away. These events occur during multiple trips to the past; during one of these trips, Dana's husband Kevin grabs her as she disappears and ends up with her in the past, their marriage invalid, and their relationship unavoidably changed by the master-slave dynamic. After Kevin is safely returned to the present, Dana's time travels finally end when she kills Rufus for attempting to rape her. The novel concludes with Dana and Kevin making their pilgrimage of sorts to Maryland, in order to reconcile themselves to the past.

In interviews Octavia Butler discussed her purpose in writing Kindred. "I wanted to write a book," said Butler, "that would make people feel history" (Butler, Reading and Interview at Vertigo Books, 2003).4 In another interview with Larry McCaffery, Butler explained that "Kindred grew out of something I heard when I was in college, during the mid-1960s" ("An Interview" 65). At a meeting of the black student union, Butler met a young man who believed that the "older generation should have rebelled" (65). Butler commented, "This man knew a great deal more than I did about black history, but he didn't feel it in his gut" (65). …

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