The Politics of Time: Neo-Slave Protest and Post-Race Consciousness in Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred


In their 2013 exhibit entitled “Black Kirby: In Search of the Motherboxx Connection,” comic artists John Jennings and Stacey Robinson included a painting of Octavia E. Butler done in the style of the late comic artist, Jack Kirby. The exhibit sought to introduce audiences to varied ideas of black storytelling using comics as a technology to communicate multivalency in black identity (Jennings, Robinson 8-9). The painting is entitled simply, “Octavia” and portrays her smiling and there are what appear to be stars strewn in her hair. Octavia E. Butler, largely considered to be the mother of Afrofuturism, a literary aesthetic that “combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs. In some cases, it’s a total re-envisioning of the past and speculation about the future rife with cultural critiques” (Womack 16). The purpose of the “Black Kirby” exhibit was to remain conscious or as Jennings puts it, “DOUBLE consciousness” (9). Jennings and Robinson negotiate space within a larger discourse of the American consciousness, as Butler did before them. In 2013, Jennings commenced work on a graphic novel adaptation of Butler’s novel Kindred (1979) along with longtime collaborator Damian Duffy that was published in early 2017. Their adaptation is another attempt to engage with the double consciousness that in many ways defines Kindred and a graphic novel adaptation exposes new facets to the original work. Kindred is a novel abounding with doubles which in turn define the novel’s form and function.

In order to decode the doubles and determine their function, I will look to W.E.B. Du Bois’s theory of double consciousness to provide the vocabulary for this project. W.E.B. Du Bois posits his concept of double consciousness in his seminal work The Souls of Black Folk (1903). In it he writes “the negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world-a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world” (Du Bois10). He refers to this peculiar sensation as “double consciousness” (Du Bois 11). He goes on to say that those who experience double consciousness are also suffering from “the contradiction of double aims” (Du Bois 11). The Souls of Black Folk is known for being one of the first sociological works, one that considers every facet of African-American society and culture. It is therefore important to note the relevance of doing a sociological reading of Kindred because of its sociological implications though this project will focus on close reading to delineate the doubles function. The doubling is as inevitable as it is troubling and African-Americans suffer from it due to interests and conditions far outside their control. It is impossible, he argues to attempt to rectify the two sides of a double consciousness. To do so would wreak “sad havoc” and it is therefore better to accept the doubling, sad state that it is (Du Bois 11). It is necessary for those living with double consciousness to straddle them, not to combine them. He admonishes that the African-American “must be himself, and not another” (Du Bois 14). In Kindred, Butler takes Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness and complicates it. There are multiple examples of “double consciousness” within the novel but they do not gain narrative traction by how the doubles work independently but how they work in tandem, creating in application if not in theory a new formalism.

Deconstructing Kindred’s form has many aims. First is to determine how they function individually as well as in conversation with one another. Butler packs Kindred with doubles of every conceivable form including but not limited to genre, time, consciousness and character. My second aim is to determine the purpose of the doubling and their affordances as they pertain to our contemporary moment. In the greater conversation about forms of social justice and activism, I argue that Kindred is one such submission in the archive of protest literature. Butler’s moves normalize the doubling which is necessary to orient the reader in the fluid, continuous temporality and form of protest literature.

Whole: Kindred as Science Fiction and Slave Narrative

In Kindred, Butler seamlessly blends the slave narrative tradition with a time-travelling science fiction novel. The protagonist and time-traveller, Dana, a black woman, lives in San Francisco with her husband in 1976 but travels back to antebellum Maryland whenever her white ancestor Rufus Weylin is in life-threatening danger. We have to consider the individual parameters of each genre as well as the effect of combining them. The slave narrative genre was born of a need for a new type of social protest. Abolitionists commissioned former slaves to write their experiences in order to convince a sympathetic white northern audience of their anti-slavery aims. White abolitionists heavily edited the slave narratives and writers subsequently had to adhere to a narrative framework dictated by white sponsors. However, the writers found ways to subvert the very form that they were creating. Butler writes Dana’s slave narrative but she is not beholden to the 19th-century form but has freedom of form. This freedom should render any subversion unnecessary but Butler subverts it. She takes up the tradition of subversion from the pioneers of the genre including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. The question is how best to subvert the slave narrative genre now that institutional slavery has been abolished. And furthermore, is it even necessary to subvert it? By doubling the slave narrative with science fiction, Butler subverts the historical implications, which would limit the form and thereby limit our conversation surrounding it.

The slave narrative genre or tradition consists of the written and auditory experiences of former slaves. A slave narrative is “an autobiographical and biographical accounts about enslavement, written or narrated by fugitive or formerly enslaved persons” (Rone 583). Abolitionists commissioned them to persuade Americans of the anti-slavery cause. Former slaves such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs and Solomon Northup all composed slave narratives and in the case of Douglass went on tour, sharing his experiences to predominately white Northern audiences. The slave narrative form is one of the first forms in African-American literature with each narrative following certain narrative and structural conventions. One such convention was that each writer had to authenticate their experience and in the process, their very existence. This was realized in two ways, by a white abolitionist vouching for them, validating their existence and providing some sort of proof that these former slaves actually wrote them. The writers, almost to a one, began their narratives with some form of the statement “I was born.” This statement was followed by as much documentation of their birth as they could assemble. Solomon Northup goes as far as providing the location for where documents of his birth and life could be found. In terms of narrative, abolitionists and other commissioners encouraged these freedwomen and men to share the horrors of slavery in as personal a manner as possible, however they cautioned them not to be too condemnatory of southern whites for fear of insulting their northern relatives. Political purpose and gain determined the early slave narrative form. Deviation from this form was unlikely and politically damaging. However, early slave narrative writers found ways around the pre-determined form, using subversion to create a form within a form.

In order to understand the historical implications of the slave narrative form, we have to situate it within the American literary cannon. There is a critical debate about whether the slave narrative form is a form of literature. Due to their autobiographical nature, critics describe them as declarations of independence the connotation being that sentimentality and gravitas define the genre more than literary merit (Meer 78). Their production entails a very particular discourse with specific intentions. Slave narratives had political implications and were produced for a political purpose so what happens when you make that literary? I would argue that the very structure of a slave narrative, as well as its political implications makes it literary Slave narratives “posit relationship between literacy, identity and freedom” (Meer 73). It is literary because it engages American society on all of these levels.

Slave narratives are not uniquely American but establishing its place within the American literary canon can help us situate Butler’s project as a bounded whole consisting of many parts. One aspect of the slave narrative form that assisted in the authentication process was the author’s ability to engage with the literary canon. Olaudah Equiano alludes to John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) in his Interesting Narrative (1789). Inter-textuality exposes literary awareness and the awareness goes both ways (Meer 74). Just as slave narrative authors were aware of literary discourse so to was the discourse influenced by slave narratives, which critics consider to be the genesis of the American autobiography and memoir genres (Rone 584). But even calling slave narratives, American literature is problematic because the authors, at the time of inscription and for many years after were not considered to be American citizens. So they are contextually American but not so legally. By engaging with the textual community, slave narratives authenticate their American-ness. There are temporal implications of this relationship between authentication, citizenship and form. The implications can be found in the historical record rendered from their first-hand accounts.

The historical implications of the slave narrative form can be found in its unifying power. Caroline Levine describes the unifying power as having the capacity to hold together disparate parts” (Levine 24). My project is interested specifically in how the historical implications manifest within Kindred as a bounded narrative. Within the bounded whole of the novel, there are disparate forms at work, however, no one form emerges as the pre-eminent form, rather, a new form takes shape. Kindred is not merely a slave narrative, but a neo-slave narrative. Neo slave narratives comprise an “array of genres” including but not limited to science fiction, fantasy, horror, gothic and historical fiction (Dubey 332). Kindred emerges during a renewed literary movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Dubey 332). In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries slave narrative exist acts of resistance against the institution of slavery but by the time period that Butler and others are writing neo-slave narratives, slavery has been abolished and African-Americans rise from the tempestuousness of the Civil Rights Movement with a promise of a brighter future. Slave narratives were politically successful and achieved their intended goal, so what is the new generation resisting? It is important to understand that neo-slave writers are not interested in rewriting slave narrative but revisiting the era of slavery. They revisit it because though slavery has been abolished the need for such a form has not abated. Critic Bernard Bell writes that neo-slave narratives detail “modern narratives of escape from bondage to freedom” (Dubey 332). So the question becomes, what bondage do modern slave narrative writers feel they are bound in? In academic circles, interest in revisiting slave narratives and thereby slave experience arose from the debate about how slavery should be represented “in the realm of historiography, literature and popular visual culture” (Dubey 333). They are “recovering the authentic perspectives of slaves on their own experience” (Dubey 334). Neo-slave narratives are recovery missions, reclaiming the narrative agency as the original slave narratives while addressing modern implications.

Perhaps one of the best methods for engaging in modern implications is to use a modern form. Science fiction appears “antithetical” to slave narratives but in reality it is able to reject the “boundaries of narrative realism” (Tucker 250). By writing neo-slave narratives, the writers betray skepticism of the heretofore-accepted historical record. They are interested in subjectivity and temporal boundaries of the original slave narratives. This is due in part to the “the instability of our narrative representation of the past” (Tucker 251). Science fiction, as a modern genre is able to call attention to the inadequate modes of storytelling. It can create anachronism and conflate time periods. SF is suited to the slave narrative tradition because it’s “as much about the environment, the constructed world, as it is about character” (Tucker 253). In Kindred, character and environment is delineated through Dana and her time travel. As Dana toggle back and forth, so does her temporal reality and subsequently her environmental awareness. Other genres are limiting and unable to fill in the gap between the end of slavery in 1865 and present struggles with freedom and agency. As a form, science fiction can eschew “realism, objectivity, and linearity” all of which neo slave narratives are suspicious of (Tucker 251). Butler’s neo-slave narrative demonstrates two discourses, science fiction and slave narrative in conversation and a new form emerges, the female neo-slave narrative.

The limits of bounded wholes expand when two separate unified wholes operate within the same work. Kindred links “aesthetic, philosophical, and political domains (Levine 27). I am interested in the affordances brought on by a bounded unified whole and “how different and bounded wholes might collide to generate ideologically intriguing results (Levine 37). Considering multiple bounded wholes might “help us to rethink historical contexts (Levine 39). It is important that we as literary critics determine historical voices when considering historical fiction. The question of voice as a mode of authentication is answered by Dana’s first person narrative and her voice is a composite of the female slaves whose voices have been lost to history. And we trust Dana, and authenticate her experience by following her back and forth from her temporal present to the past, which may not be as far in the past as history tells us. Original first person accounts of ex-slaves were written under severe constraints and therefore cannot be fully trusted to reveal the authenticity if slave experience” but we trust a time travelling contemporary woman who claims to have lost a literal part of her, her arm, in transit from past to present (Dubey 339). Neo slave narratives deal with the critique and “suspicion of historical knowledge” (Dubey 338). These narratives are not concerned with rewriting history but exposing the neo slave experience.

When Butler writes her version of a slave narrative in Kindred she continues the tradition of challenging form and convention. Traditional slave narratives track a person as they traverse from bondage to freedom. Butler tracks Dana from freedom to bondage and back to freedom again. The affordance of this reversal of form is capable of reconfiguring the concept of freedom. Freedom to a man who only knows bondage is limited, but freedom lost and then regained provides a more nuanced freedom. Traditional slave narratives comprehend freedom as a trajectory, something that needs to be achieved. In Kindred freedom is much more temporal, here one day and gone the next. Dana’s freedom is not guaranteed as she teeters between freedom and bondage. The boundaries of her time in 1976 are not enough to ensure her freedom in 1818.

The slave narrative, though studied for its literary merits are historical records of a time far removed from our own. Contemporary readers might be tempted to regard a historical record as being confined to the time in which it was composed. By blending science fiction with the slave narrative, Butler removes that temporal barrier, affording her the opportunity to redefine freedom. She makes a political statement about the temporal limits of freedom. But the temporality of freedom is more than simply free in 1976 and slave in 1818. Understanding the temporality of Dana’s time traveling is integral to understanding the boundaries of time and how they function. Butler combines the politics of freedom with the aesthetics of time travel.

Dana’s neo-slave experience is not concerned with changing history, as many a time traveler is wont to do, but with maintaining it. She has to keep Rufus alive, ensure that he rapes Alice and birth a generation of people burdened with that same history. The material past permeates the present because “slavery is not yet a matter of history” (Dubey 344). The temporal markers of American slavery (from 1619-1865) are not as rigid as history would seem and neo-slave narratives are suspicious of strict temporality and seek to dismantle temporal barriers.

Rhythm: Layering Past and Present

Time travel as a form, affords aesthetics and politics to coexist, a coexistence that Dana must contend with throughout Kindred. Dana calls the effects of her time traveling to be a “time distorted reality” (Butler 127). As a time traveler, her reality is an amalgamation of future and present. She lives an anachronistic existence that she has to adapt to in order to survive. On her first trip back in time, she is caught unawares. She describes her initial feeling of being pulled back in time as dizzying and nauseating, everything seeming to blur and spin right before her existence in 1976 vanished (Butler 13). In the next moment, 1818 is before her and the past has become her present. She only spends a few minutes in the past her first time; she saves the boy Rufus before being once again pulled forward to what she considers to be her own time. However, time as she had come to understand it had changed. She perceives that she has been gone for a “few minutes” but her husband Kevin rebuts that she has been gone for a “few seconds (Butler 15). The rules of time travel dictate that the present time often slows down exponentially in order for the past to progress naturally. After her second trip back, Dana begins preparing for her inevitable time travels. Kevin packs a canvas tote bag with clothes and “the biggest switchblade knife [she] had ever seen” (Butler 45). Dana wakes to find it tethered to her waist with a length of cord. The clothes she brings betray her time but they also provide her with a measure of control of time. Her simultaneous presence in the past and the present creates for Dana a perpetual present, which is layered and continuous. While she may exist in the 19th century she maintains some of her own time by the clothes that she wears. Her blue jeans, blouse and under clothing act as a figurative cord that keeps her tethered to her own time though for Dana time becomes obsolete.

Butler deconstructs time in Kindred where past, present and future no longer exist, instead there is a perpetual present, which is dualistic in nature. As a result of her duality of time, Dana is afforded a perspective unique to her situation. Being from a future where people of African descent are free (a relative freedom, but freedom nonetheless) affords her hindsight, which she uses to navigate her uncertain and at times treacherous past. In between trips back in time, Dana makes sure to study the history and politics of the time. Dana is aware of the historical significance of patrollers, freedom papers, and fugitive slave laws and ultimately the timeline of events. She knows that freedom; the very limited freedom available to African Americans following emancipation is still a long way off. There is to be no relief for she has travelled back to a time in American history where the institution of slavery is ingrained in every aspect of society. Her race as well as her gender leaves her vulnerable to the particulars of the time and so in order to survive the time she must study it. On her trips back to her own time, she takes time to read books on history and procure maps of Maryland. The maps are not as helpful because they are over one hundred years removed from the antebellum South. Eventually, the back and forth rhythm of Dana’s time travel becomes natural to her though she realizes that no amount of preparation can protect her from time. When at first she is nauseous and dizzy when time travelling, she gains control of her ability/curse and while she cannot stop Rufus from calling her to the past she has some control over her role in his life and in her own.

Time travel usually comes with certain affordances but also comes with restrictions, chief among them that said time traveler not alter anything while in the past. More extreme thoughts on time travel dictate that even the smallest alteration in the past could cause catastrophic changes in the future. The “unifying order” that Levine discusses in her section on “rhythm” can be applied to the pressure Dana feels. Her temporal existence is both past and present and her presence unites them. Dana’s presence in the past is not incidental. She travels back to the antebellum South when Rufus, a white man and her ancestor calls her forward. She deduces that he is in fact her ancestor because of a family Bible that lists the names of all of her relatives stretching back to Reconstruction. Her great-grandmother many times over, Hagar is her direct descendant, the first in her family born free (Butler 28). It is therefore Dana’s charge to ensure that Rufus lives long enough to father Hagar and thereby ensuring Dana’s existence. She is not brought back in time to change the world, quite the opposite; her mission is to ensure that events remain the same. Dana questions the morality of her crusade once she realizes that Hagar might not have been conceived consensually (Butler 29). Dana soon realizes that the moral implications of her future self being present in the past means that slavery and all of its atrocities must run its course until the determined time as foretold by history. The ripple effects of what she knows and what she has seen could alter the destinies of future abolitionists. She remarks that a young Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner live not too far from the Weylin plantation and their trajectory as pioneers and activists had to be protected (Butler 141). There is a lack of power in her ability; her foresight provides her with the mental fortitude but with few tangible tools for survival. Dana’s lack of action is necessary and intentional and through this, Butler reminds the reader that in order to consider the present we must consider the past.

In order for Dana to survive in the past, she must always remember that she is from the future. This becomes increasingly difficult the more entrenched in antebellum Maryland she becomes. Her time on the plantation forces her to adapt to the time: a black woman in the antebellum south meant that she was a slave or at risk of becoming one. Dana is not a slave though she survives by fulfilling the role of a slave.

Historical memory informs Dana’s actions in the novel but through the temporal doubling Butler casts doubt on the veracity of that same history. Butler can write about a time she is so removed from because she uses “science devices to re-present African American women’s histories” (Yaszek 1053). Lisa Yaszek seeks to unpack “afro-feminist projects to interrogate the relationship between historical memory and commercial culture by appropriating and adapting the commercial form of science fiction” (Yaszek 1054). Historical memory is also historical subjectivity and Butler returns agency to the female slave. A Rushdy as quoted by Yaszek writes, “history was made not solely by the imperial powers of a nation but also by those without any discernable institutional power” (Yaszek 1054). The memories and experiences of black female slaves are integral to American history. Women in slave narratives are reduced to the “stock conventions of the suffering enslaved woman” (Yaszek 1056). Dana is the embodiment of that move from object to subject. In many ways, the African American woman’s neo slave narrative is African American’s women’s history. Butler revisits that history so that it will not pass out of historical memory.

Understanding the historical moment during which the original slave narratives were written is essential to understanding the implications of the form. So too, it is essential to understand the historical moment of Butler and Morrison as they grappled with reclaiming a lost history. This post Civil Rights Movement, rising Black Power coincides with revolutions in the universities and a demand for black history. Caroline Levine writes in regard to rhythms, “institutional time manifests in historical record” (Levine 57). Butler, Morrison and others are aware of the temporal implications of their neo-slave narratives. After all, there are “rhythms of social experience” (Levine 51). Dana establishes a rhythm when she travels back and forth between the temporal past and her present, as she understands it. Some might argue that Kindred is disrespectful of the history and the experience by “insisting [on] and exploring the gaps between public fantasy and personal history” (Yaszek 1056). The goal is to represent historical memory in a way that acknowledges the impact of slavery not just on isolated individuals but on entire families and networks of kin” (Yaszek 1057). However Butler is providing an “alternate family history based on newfound understanding of historical representation” that poses as historical fact when in fact being subjective interpretations (Yaszek 1064). It is after all, significant that Dana goes back to her ancestors as opposed to a random slave because the familial connection is the strongest double in the narrative. Understanding familial ties translates to deciphering one’s historical memory. The time traveling and the doubles ultimately force Dana to recognize that she is a black woman with a particular familial history and so the time travel translates into memory travel.

One aspect of Dana’s time travel that makes her especially vulnerable is her lack of control. Even more, is that she does not know when it is going to end. She knows that she must remain until her great-grandmother many times over Hagar is born, but has no concrete indication of how long she must endure toggling between times. The rhythms of her time travel are pervasive resulting in social and temporal cohesion of her experience (Levine 49). Her lack of control becomes normalized. These institutional temporal rhythms are really social rhythms at work that Dana is unable to break from until history is realized. Dana gets caught up in the rhythm and in the back and forth, becomes accustomed to it. The repetition lulls her into acceptance until Rufus and his historical record jolt her back into consciousness. When Dana goes back to Maryland for the last time, her adjustment is quicker than any other time before. There’s no mention of dizziness of sickness instead she brushes herself “off quickly” (Butler 247). The historical implication of Dana’s travels back and forth betrays the cyclical nature of historical memory and experience. There is power in the repetition of experience with the significant advantage of ensuring that history does not repeat.

The cyclical nature of history appears to be insurmountable and Butler’s project might appear to be speculative history at best. But speculative history affords space for subjectivities that have been ignored to unpack into a wider historical consciousness (Levecq 525). Historiography, the body of work and literature dealing with historical matters comes to us historicized and privileges certain subjectivities over others (Levecq 525). What saves Dana from being caught up in the historical rhythms is her subjectivity, which she never loses no matter how many times she travels back and forth. The paradox of Dana’s particular subjectivity as a black female alternately endangers and protects her. It is only when Dana discovers her subjective history that she is able to use it to survive. However, she is unable to keep subjective distance from her experience, embodying the same body in two different times. Through Dana’s travels the past becomes her reality. Reality and experience become memory and memory becomes history. The historical records and documentation Dana are riddled with faulty memories. Dana and Kevin are unable to find more than ten books on African-American history in their home, which Dana notes is filled to the rafters with books. The ten books they do find are unable to adequately prepare Dana for the history she experiences.

Neo slave narratives of the mid to late 20th century were concerned with the black family and looking for comprehensive historical connections. Butler eliminates subjective distance in the novel, making historical slave experience a perpetually present one (Rushdy 237). Critic Ashraf Rushdy notes that by the diasporic nature of slavery African American families “contain a multitude of others” (Rushdy 238). Dana discovers that her family history is riddled with secrets, as the nature of the relationship between her ancestors Alice and Rufus is hidden until she discovers it. Their relationship, a coercive sexual relationship, is a tragic family secret, one that Dana understands is a possibility but her historical knowledge is not sufficient to prepare her for the historical reality. The Black family is “not an isolated kin group” and the slave experience is subsequently not isolated to black people, white people experienced it as well (Rushdy 239). The repercussions of slavery are generational and Butler’s experiment proposes what happens when a descendant experiences those repercussions in real time and history hurts. Her family history is painful and irrefutable; Rufus’s blood is Dana’s blood. Blood history informs Dana’s consciousness. And to survive she must rectify her historical consciousness with her biological one.

Hierarchy: Double Consciousness

Dana understands the tenuous circumstances she faces as a freed woman with no proof of that freedom. Rufus knows who she is, that she is free, but his worldview prevents him from seeing anything but her skin and its consequences. Their relationship is complicated, more than mere friendship, but racial-political lines prevent them from having a true friendship based on equality. There is an ingrained hierarchy along racial and gender lines that no amount of familiarity can overcome. Whenever Rufus is angry or scared, he lashes out and his preferred method punishment is to remind Dana by sending her into the field, pointing guns at her and threatening her life that her freedom is subjective, and consequently reminds her that the hierarchy exists. The shock of slavery isn’t initially shocking. Dana quickly adapts to life on the Weylin plantation and remarks “how easily we seemed to acclimatize” (Butler 97). During her third trip to the past Dana and Kevin (who accidentally comes with her) assume the identity of slave and owner respectively. Before this trip, they had ben looking for something they could pass off as free papers for Dana, which would afford her some measure of freedom. Freedom papers were not foolproof however, as courts often contested and disregarded especially in south. However, Kevin’s presence affords Dana more freedom because as a white man, he can protect her far better than a legal document. Kevin pretends to be her master but the nuance of their relationship protects her even more. While they do not say it explicitly at first, they imply it to the residents of the Weylin plantation slave and free that their relationship is intimate and equal which upsets the hierarchical integrity. Kevin would prefer to keep Dana with him at all times in case she returns home and to keep her safe. He tries to shield her from the indignities of slavery and is not entirely successful. Though Dana is Kevin’s slave, Tom Weylin, Rufus’s father expects her to work for her keep. She summarily becomes a house slave, a fate Dana considers to be less horrific than the alternative.

Being a house slave affords Dana relative freedom compared to the slaves who work in the cornfields. In the plantation hierarchy, Dana exists below the Weylin family and the white overseers but above the slaves forced to work in the fields. Instead of hard labor, Dana works in the cookhouse with an older slave named Sarah (Butler 76). Dana understands immediately the affordance of her position. She reassures Kevin “I’m not being treated any worse than any other house servant” and that she is “doing better than the field hands” (Butler 83). She is still a slave but it is understood that there are tiers to enslavement. The work in the cookhouse isn’t as physically strenuous as work in the fields. In the cookhouse, the slaves work at their own pace and so long as the food was cooked and served promptly and well, the Weylins and their guests didn’t bother them overmuch. There was no white overseer, the slaves in the cookhouse worked under Sarah’s watchful eye. Sarah who has been a slave all her life and was victim to her former master’s sexual perversion and hypocrisy serves as a necessary guide for Dana and helps her to understand the nuances of the hierarchy. Dana initially dismisses Sarah as a template for the mammy stereotype, a figure to be ridiculed and pitied. She comes to understand that Sarah works within the hierarchy in order to survive. If that means assuming the mammy cloak, then so be it. In the cookhouse, Dana became comfortable, so comfortable that it frightened her. She remarks, “see how easily slaves are made” (Butler 177). She is shocked by “how easily we seemed to acclimatize” and “for drop-ins from another century, I thought we had had a remarkably easy time. And I was perverse enough to be bothered by the ease” (Butler 97). Dana never realizes before she lives it “how easily people could be trained to accept slavery” (Butler 97). Had Dana gone immediately to the cornfield to work, her ready acceptance wouldn’t have been as swift. The state of slavery is not a rigid structure though the enforcers purport it to be so. Here we have the fluidity of freedom, the hierarchy within the institution. In the big picture, the men and women working on the Weylin plantation are not free but situation and placement afford them slivers of freedom. Nigel a young slave who grew up with Rufus comments on getting “some time of freedom” working in the cookhouse and overseeing fellow slaves (Butler 203). But partial freedom is not freedom.

Dana realizes the affordance and her privilege remarking that she does not have the endurance of her ancestors and her “time of freedom” or her place within the hierarchy depends on the institution as much as it does on the individual. When Dana is unable to prevent Tom Weylin from succumbing to illness, Rufus punishes her by sending her to the fields (Butler 211). It is her hope that her work in the factory and warehouse in her own time would make her “strong enough to survive” (Butler 212). The strength she refers to is physical strength as opposed to the mental strength to do her work in the cookhouse and in the master’s house. There are few threats to her physical person; though other female house slaves are at risk for sexual violence, they are at lower risk for brutal beatings and other tortures. Dana struggles with the fieldwork and the current overseer Evan Fowler beats her again and again until she collapses amidst the cornstalks. Dana never considers herself to be a slave but she understands that she is not truly free, even in her own time. She mentions the state of South Africa and the multitude of similarities between the white supremacist government in 1976 and the white supremacist government in the United States in 1819 (Butler 196). Freedom is a fluid concept even in her own time and the hierarchy determines who has it and who does not.

Dana’s double consciousness is steeped in paradox. The scientific mechanics of time travel bind her in a series of metaphysical laws compounded by her gender and her race. The intersection of her race and gender is indicative of the many hierarchies operating within the novel. Hierarchies “arrange bodies, things, and ideas according to levels of power or importance” (Levine 82). Dana’s position within the hierarchy on the Weylin Plantation complicates the inequality that she experiences. The novel begins at the end, and so we know that Dana survives the antebellum South in her black female body, but what is interesting is how she survives, how she adjusts to the hierarchy. There is evidence to suggest that she didn’t have to try very hard. In order to survive, Dana has to adjust her historical consciousness. Critic Saidiya Hartman argues that in order to become historically conscious while inhabiting a black body, we must reckon “ with our responsibility to the dead necessitates not only our remembrance but also a promise to forswear the injustice that enabled this crime against humanity to occur” (Hartman 757). Butler makes explicit this process using science fiction as a tool for Dana to literally get to know the ghosts in her attic. History depends on us remembering correctly, the “dead depend” on it (Hartman 758). Perhaps Dana hadn’t remembered, the ghosts of her past by necessity seep into the present and supernatural forces make sure that she does, she has to remember to grieve and she has to grieve in order to be truly liberated.

There is a link between memory and liberation. Dana is immersed in the slave experience, which is the black experience in America and ultimately “the key to [her] identity” (Hartman 758). Dana was at risk of losing her history and consciousness and her time travels enable her to re-sew the “the fabric of [her] own experience” (Hartman 758). Dana experiences slavery because she is the descendant of slaves and we are our history. The affordance of this remembrance is that is exposes the “artifice of historical barricades or the tenuousness of temporal markers like the past and present” (Hartman 763). Dana’s performance, as black woman in antebellum America transcends past and present because at some point it stops being a performance. And her performance is key for the reader because Dana acts so that we don’t have to. She bridges the past and present for the reader, bringing us closer to that lived experience. Acting out the past is the best tools to working through past implications that have leaked to the present.

Dana cannot deny her double consciousness, her existence as a traveller between time demands that she remain conscious at all times, her survival depends on it. Butler in her novel, is interested in in history, politics, and culture in the United States and the particular role that gender and racial identity plats in history. The survival of the black female body is at stake here, “the role of the body plays in Butler’s understanding of political difference” (Robertson 363). What’s more important is that double consciousnesses cannot be separated. The double consciousness of a body that is both black and female stands in direct opposition of whiteness and maleness (Robertson 370). “Double-subjectification” hinders political access, which ultimately translates to double consciousness. In the antebellum South, Dana is black, female, American and slave. The sum of these parts “opens Dana’s body, her flesh, to stories of marginalization, to norms, that could ever involve any other woman and/or black” (Robertson 370). Dana understands that she must remain in the double consciousness because as she says, “if I was to live, if others were to live, he must live. I didn’t dare test the paradox” (Butler 29). Double consciousness and the institutional hierarchies that produce them are paradoxes manifest through bodies. Robertson argues that “bodies are a link to history, and one’s knowledge of bodies, one’s own and those of others, rises in the novel to the status of historical fact” (371). Dana survives because she understands the bio-political hierarchy of her identity. The seemingly separate spheres work together to inform that identity.

The project of Kindred is preventative, the doubles aren’t operating in separate spheres, the tether of history intrinsically links them. Remembering alone does not set right the wrongs, you have to admit that the past is part of your present and future, you have to embody it. If experience can transform history into the present then “memory can prevent atrocity” (Hartman 774). Remembering can “potentially enable an escape from the regularity of terror and routine violence constitutive of black life in the United States” and allow the consciousness to work through the tragedies of the past (Hartman 774). Connecting the threads of doubling within the novel increases the potency of each individual double and exposes the network that ties them together.

Networks: Doppelgänger at Work

Whole, rhythm and hierarchy appear to operate independently of one another but when we apply this new formalism to Kindred. They are bound by links that interlace into a wider network of form. Network appears to be the “antithesis of form” because it is formless (Levine 112). They are defined as “patterns of interconnection and exchange that organize social and aesthetic experience” (Levine 113). Butler’s neo-slave narrative is a palimpsest of overlapping networks. This manifests in a palimpsest familial history. Even if Dana never goes back in time, the connections remain. Dana’s does not forge the links she exposes them. Dana “discovers the family secret that her own genesis is entangled in a violent history of rape and miscegenation” (Dubey 337).

The networks between the double consciousness of present and past, slave and free extend to the individuals caught up in the dualities until they become dualities themselves. The doubling manifests in Dana/Alice and Kevin/Rufus. The relationship between Dana and Rufus evolves, as he gets older. The relationship built on mutual understanding as well as an exchange of services maintains the status quo even when either Dana or Rufus seeks to change it. Dana first meets Rufus as a young boy drowning in a river. She saves his life continually over his life until circumstances and Rufus’s own choices cause Dana to end the life she so assiduously protected even to her own detriment. Dana endeavors to “maybe plant a few ideas in his mind that would help both me and the people who would be his slaves in the years to come” (Butler 68). She ultimately fails at this task. In the end, she is able to convince him to free his children with Alice, a freedwoman Rufus schemes to become his slave. To do so, she appeals to his links to Alice who he loved in his own twisted way, a love that perhaps in a different historical moment would have been pure and good, but instead was full of violence and hatred. She wants to change Rufus but cannot. Much of her efforts are on Alice’s behalf as well as her own. Dana understands her place in the network of her genealogy. She is the product of rape and violence, this history intrinsically linked to her very existence. Dana does not seek to change institutional beliefs or systems, she knows that slavery will be abolished and civil rights defended. Instead, she seeks to make changes on a personal level. She doesn’t show the same hesitation in trying to turn Rufus’s mind towards equality as opposed to expediting the abolition of slavery.

I find it curious that Butler chose to make Dana’s husband a white man in light of her relationship with her white ancestor Rufus. Kevin does not entirely believe that Dana is time travelling, despite her seconds long disappearance followed by her reappearance in a different place in their home. When she shares her experience, he is sympathetic and enraged on her behalf but it is not until he experiences the time jump that he is able to empathize. Due to his gender and his race, placing him high in the hierarchy, he has an easier time in the antebellum south, afforded the same freedom in 1819 that he has in 1976. He acclimatizes quicker than Dana and it is his first time in the past and her third. After her third trip to the past, Dana and Kevin are separated and she is propelled into the future while he remains behind. Eight days for Dana is equal to five years for Kevin and the changes to him are subtle but permanent. He brings the past with him and carries it with him into the present. She does not mention if this change is permanent, in fact she doesn’t mention it again. When they finally return to their own time together, Dana, by this time experienced in the back and forth duality bounces back while Kevin struggles to readjust to 1976 (Butler 190). Rufus struggles to comprehend the message of equality that Dana tries to communicate. He assents in small parts (freeing his children) but the relative little time he spends in Dana’s company and influence cannot combat a lifetime of immersive conditioning. Rufus seems to lack the ability or at the very least the perspective to understand. Kevin likewise fails to understand Dana’s perspective even though he lived during the same time she did (Butler 246). His whiteness precedes his time.

Dana’s black skin and hyper-visibility marks her from the beginning, but it is her physical resemblance to her great grandmother many times Alice that extends the network of double consciousness. Many characters in the novel remark upon how much the two women resemble each other. During Dana’s second trip a patroller seeking to rape Alice’s mother, attempts to rape Dana accepting her as a surrogate based on their resemblance alone. Barring their physical resemblance, their attitudes are divergent with Dana having the affordance of foresight. Alice however can only see as far her circumstance and seeks to break free by any means. They are both of them born free, only to have that freedom ripped from them, Dana by supernatural means and Alice by Rufus’ sinister and licentious machinations done in the name of love. Despite their abundant similarities they occupy different levels of the hierarchy. They each achieve ultimate freedom by self-inflicted violence though Alice does not survive her wounds.

Rufus conflates the two women and relies on them tangentially. Upon coming across Alice and Dana together, Rufus exclaims, “behold the woman!” and then to himself says, “you really are only one woman” (Butler 228). After he toddles off, happily, Alice morosely admits that Dana “gentle[s] him for [her]” (Butler 228). She continues, “He likes me in bed, and you out of bed, and you and I look alike if you can believe what people say” and “we’re two halves of the same woman-at least in his crazy head” (Butler 229). But Rufus isn’t crazy, the affordance of his upbringing, race and gender makes him capable of compartmentalizing human beings in terms of what they can do for him. With Dana, he is able to satisfy his emotional yearning and with Alice, his physical ones. However, once Alice kills herself, Rufus is left with a gaping hole. Dana realizes almost immediately that without Alice, there is no one to “take the pressure off any more” (Butler 256). Within days of burying her Rufus seeks to fill the void with Dana. In the face of his sexual aggression Dana reflects that she has two choices; she can either accept it and avoid further assault or defend herself to the death. She concludes that she could “accept him as [her] ancestor, [her] younger brother, [her] friend, but not as [her] master, and not as [her] lover” (Butler 260). She stabs Rufus, killing him after her vow to keep him alive; it was after all her only purpose in being there. In death Rufus holds on to her arm so tightly that when she returns for the final time to her own time, her arm remains in the past still clasped in Rufus’s dying hands (Butler 261). The link between them proves to be nearly unbreakable as her connection to the past and the men and women who endured slavery as she had for a time.

The doubling of character in the novel functions as a mode of embodiment. Dana’s embodied experience is more effective because of the structures of interconnectedness. New formalist criticism observes “linkages between objects, bodies, and discourse” (Levine 113). Rushdy identifies “three kinds of neo slave narratives, “the third-person historical novel of slavery, the first-person narration of the life-story of a slave, and the recounting of the traumatic legacy of slavery on later generations” (Vint 241). I contend that Kindred contain all three; it is not only Dana’s story, it’s a neo-slave narrative of every occupant, white and black of the Weylin plantation. The collective narrative contains “elements of the fantastic” (Vint 241). We therefore have to reconsider what we consider to be fantastic. In Beloved (1984), Toni Morrison posits that there was something supernatural about slavery, replete with ghosts and hauntings that linger long after slavery has ended. In Kindred, Dana’s embodies experience allows us to understand through her a history that is so far removed from ourselves (Vint 242). Dana bears physical marks of her embodied experience and she brings the marks from the past into the present. Her back bears the stripes of her beatings by the Patroller and Thomas Weylin, her wrists bear the deep self-inflicted cuts she made to save herself from a past that had begun to blend into the present. But Dana also bears Alice’s abuse and Sarah’s shame of being the master’s woman, victims of sexual degradation. Their suffering bodies authorize and authenticate the bound true history of female slaves (Vint 242). Dana “struggle with the consequences of being black female bodies in a racist and patriarchal system, and both must learn that denying their embodied selves only allow the wounding of slavery to continue” (Vint 242). Through this exercise, we can come to terms with the collective network of embodied experience. It is important that this be told in a first person narrative voice because of the authority needed for the networks to operate.

Dana’s slave experience needed to include physical violence; she needed to carry the scars with her into the future. The future is the next link in the chain, connecting the muddled past and present to the future and to contemporary readers. It becomes a collective network of experience.

Reclaiming the narrative requires admission and acceptance of the networks and has to come to terms with the fact that the network of slavery extends to present day. Dana’s body is the “mechanism of her time travel” she embodies the network of slavery (Vint 248). Butler exposes the networks of the bounded wholes, rhythms and hierarchies that characterize the black experience in America, past, present and future. Coming to terms with the embodied experience means becoming a witness.

One answer to the call for embodied experience and answering witness is the graphic narrative adaptation of Kindred by Damian Duffy and John Jennings published in 2017. It is a kinetic example of separate but overlapping networks, networks that consolidate disparate parts (Levine 122). The graphic narrative’s form on its own, affords multiple networks in one bounded whole. Comic artist Scott McCloud defines comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce and aesthetic response in the viewer” (9). Graphic novels are the perfect medium for aesthetic and politics to converse and overlap. The political and aesthetic connotations of adapting a pre-existing literary work can be found in the original work but also in the adaptation and the creative choices made as a work transforms from original to adaptation.

One way in which graphic novels communicate context is through what McCloud calls “amplification through simplification” (30). Damian Duffy for his part, abridges the novel’s original text for logistical reasons, a word for word graphic novel adaptation would translate to an immense tome. One aspect of the novel that is absent in the adaptation is Dana’s emotional responses to the stimuli on the Weylin plantation. Instead Jason Jennings uses visual art to communicate and fill the wordless void. Words and visual representation reconcile on the page and find balance within the adaptation. Many panels contain no words at all and instead allow for the visuals to communicate anger, fear and resignation on the faces of the characters brought to life in this adaptation. During Dana’s second trip, Jennings illustrates Dana and Rufus’s first conversation. We see Dana reprimand Rufus for setting fire to the drapes as in the novel, but instead of reading words of Rufus’s fury over being told what to do, by a black woman no less, we read the fury on his face. An entire panel is devoted to Rufus’s expression, the furrowed brow, splotches of color on his cheeks betraying his temper and his lips etched in a scowl (Damian et al 25). We see adult Rufus make a similar expression in “The Fight” (Damian et al 148). The only difference is that her is older. His expression is in response to her father’s admonition that he should sell Alice after the beating she receives from the slave catchers renders her incontinent and unable to take care of herself. In this narrative move, the graphic novel uncovers another connection within the greater Kindred network of doubles. Dana bemoans that she is unable to change Rufus and steer him from a villainous role in their family history. In the original text, she expresses hope until the end, but in the graphic novel, Damian and Jennings put forth that such a change is impossible and as immovable as Rufus’s expression.

Graphic novels deal in concepts while simultaneously evoking visual senses, none more provocative than a sensual conception of time. The panels act as indicators of time as does panel shape (McCloud 94). Ultimately, they allow the reader to reframe memory (Wolk 359). Days in Dana’s time on the Weylin Plantation pass in between the panels on the page. McCloud writes, “space does for comics what time does for film” (McCloud 7). Use of color and reliance on conceptual art as opposed to finely detailed depictions complicate Butler’s stance on historical temporality. The panels where Dana is home, in her present are colored in monochrome and sepia unlike the vivid slashes of color used in the panels in the past. The past panels also contain more details than the present suggesting that for Dana, the past is more fully realized than the present, a consciousness that the reader now implicitly shares. Here Duffy and Jennings converge with Butler in a joint effort to force the reader to experience the double consciousness of the slave experience. McCloud lists the six elements of any graphic novel or comic: idea/purpose, form, idiom, structure, craft, surface (170). Duffy and Jennings are more concerned with the first two, idea/purpose and form. Why adapt Kindred now? What historical moment are they responding to? Kindred was needed in 1979, Butler proves this through her doubles, but there is still a need in 2017 according to Duffy and Jennings. While it might be too soon to determine what they are responding to with any certainty, that there is a need speaks to slave narratives relevance not only across time, but also across form.


Butler produces doubles in every facet of Kindred, resisting the limits of form and reveling in its affordances. The prevalence of doubling doesn’t serve a mere narrative purpose but is done in order to normalize it. The doubles work from the outside in, moving concentrically towards a point where the reader’s consciousness is able to accept the novel’s double consciousness. In Butler’s narrative of social justice it is vital that the reader understand the duality of slavery. Butler has to use doubles in order to instruct the reader in the dialogue of social justice, which has a much to do with the past as it does with the present. The doubling has to become normal for the reader to engage in activism and they must adjust their concept of time.

By combining the slave narrative with science fiction, Butler subverts literariness. It is “perverse” to do so and even more so if we read Kindred as a protest novel. Then again, subversion is the lifeblood of most protest. The need for protest has not diminished in the intervening years of Kindred’s publication and present literary discourse. This year, Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad won both the National Book and Pulitzer Awards for fiction. The novel, a neo-slave narrative, is a response to the historical moment of police brutality and a political moment rife with racist and xenophobic language. The need for neo-slave narratives like Kindred has not diminished it has changed. The form will therefore remain a political tool so long as there is such a need.

Works Cited

Butler, Octavia. Kindred. Beacon, 1979.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Norton, 2016.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Norton, 1999.

Dubey, Madhu. “Neo-Slave Narratives.” A Companion to African American Literature. Gene       Andrew Jarrett, ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, pp. 332-346.

Duffy, Damian and John Jennings. Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Abrams, 2017.

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Broadview, 2001.

Hartman, Saidiya V. “The Time of Slavery.” The South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 101, no. 4, Fall     2002, pp. 757-777.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Norton, 2000.

Jennings, John and Stacey Robinson. Black Kirby: In Search of the Motherboxx Connection.          Create Space, 2013

Levecq, Christine. “Power and Repetition: Philosophies of (Literary) History in Octavia Butler’s            ‘Kindred.’” Contemporary Literature, vol. 41, no.3, Autumn 2000, pp. 525-553.

Levine, Caroline. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Princeton, 2015.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Harper Collins, 1993.

Meer, Sarah. “Slave Narratives as Literature.” The Cambridge Companion to Slavery in    American Literature. Ezra Tawil, ed. Cambridge UP, pp. 70-85.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Norton, 1993.

Olney, James. “I Was Born.” Callaloo, no. 20, Winter 1984, pp. 46-73.

Robertson, Benjamin. “Some Matching Strangeness: Biology, Politics, and the Embrace of            History in Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Science Fiction Studies, vol.37, no.3, November         2010, pp. 362-381.

Rone, Tracy R. “Slave Narratives.” Encyclopedia of African American Education. Gale Virtual      Reference Library, 2010, pp. 583-585.

Rushdy, Ashraf H.A. “Slavery and Historical Memory in Late-Twentieth-Century Fiction.” The             Cambridge Companion to Slavery in American Literature. Cambridge UP, pp. 236-249.

Tucker, Jeffrey Allen. “Beyond the Borders of the Neo-Slave Narrative: Science Fiction and         Fantasy.” The Cambridge Companion to Slavery in American Literature. Ezra Tawil, ed.             Cambridge, pp. 250-264.

Vint, Sheryl. “Only by Experience: Embodiment and the Limitations of Realism in Neo-Slave       Narratives.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 34, no. 2, July 2007, pp. 241-261.

Wilburn, Reginald. Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt: Appropriating Milton in Early African   American Literature. Duquesne UP, 2014.

Wolk, Douglas. Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Da Capo,      2007.

Womack, Ytasha L. Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. Lawrence         Hill Books, 2013.

Yaszek, Lisa. “A Grim Fantasy: Remaking American History in Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Signs,             vol. 28, no. 4, 2003, pp. 1053-1060.





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