When trying to characterize America’s racial history from a zoomed-out level, describing it as full of “mistakes” or “complications” would be reductive, disingenuous, and incorrect. Trying to see “both sides” where there is really just one, or distributing guilt as if it were equally deserved or it were hard to determine, is a dishonest evasion of responsibility if that’s where the conversation starts. Simply: our country’s history is full of straight-up colonization and subjugation by white males.
But there really is complexity to be found, once the initial premise is acknowledged and the issue becomes tangible– no longer the abstract realm of statistics, but the concrete ground a person stands on and the air they breathe. If a book can take readers to that experience, it hits more directly to the soul than any simple infographic.
That’s exactly what Octavia Butler’s classic science fiction novel Kindred did for me. It bravely explores not only the simple horrors of slavery that you can imagine already; it weaves the complex horrors that only come about once you know the gray shades of a character and their changes over time.
In the book, Dana is a black woman in 1970’s USA and is mysteriously and suddenly transported back to the exact plantation where her ancestors were enslaved. As her time-travel trips get longer (spanning many days at a time), she experiences first-hand the pain and burden of slavery. The urgency of Butler’s writing makes the physical terror of her situation palpable; the book grabbed my attention immediately and never let go.
Back in the 1970’s, Dana is married to Kevin, a white male. When he is transported along with Dana for one of her unexplained voyages back, his experience contrasts hers right away. Their different races keep them from making their marriage known and living together. And while he becomes an abolitionist in that time period, he still doesn’t know– can’t know– the awful world of slavery the same way that Dana does.
Comedian Louis CK puts it this way: that being able to time travel to any time safely would be a form of white privilege.
Meanwhile, Dana’s relationship with Rufus, the white son of the plantation owner, is remarkably complex and affecting. During Dana’s first episode, Rufus is just a little child. He is relatively innocent and listens to Dana with some level of respect. She saves him from drowning and that’s all there is to their relationship at first.
But Dana’s later episodes start to skip ahead years at a time, and Rufus starts to inherit some of his father’s property, as well some of his father’s terrible tendencies– while still retaining some of his innocence. Their relationship deepens but also becomes more tenuous. Rufus doesn’t fall cleanly into the “monster slave owner” type, and Dana acknowledges this, but she can never be free with him either.
Even the ending to the book is not simple. Back in the 1970s for good, Dana visits the site of the plantation to try and track down its remains and what might have become of its inhabitants. But her findings don’t close the story, and it is no longer satisfying for her to try and paint her experience with a single color– there is too much inside it.
This book really affected me and I’ll likely never forget it. Soon on my reading list are several other books by Octavia Butler…