Octavia Butler: Kindred Essay Example
In today’s world, a majority of history is taught only through second-hand sources. Through stories and movies, through textbooks and founded memories. But whether it sticks to how the events truly played out is impossible to say. In Kindred, Octavia Butler uses her time traveling neo-slave narrative to show the importance of not forgetting aspects of what happened in the past in order to find comfort in the present.
Dana’s blind acceptance and comfortability with the watered down history taught in books and movies about the topic of slavery in Butler’s novel served to represent the majority of the general public. Butler sets this idea up from the beginning of the novel, shortly after Dana returns from her second trip to Maryland. In a discussion with Kevin, Dana states how she “had seen people beaten on television in the movies [, and] had seen the too-red blood substitute streaked across their backs and heard their well-rehearsed screams. But [she] hadn’t lain nearby and smelled the sweat or heard them pleading and praying” (Butler 36) before then. Dana wasn’t ignorant, she knew about the atrocities that went on in the antebellum south.
She knew of the injustices but had only ever seen recreations of it through second-hand sources. This opened her eyes, and as she experienced more and more injustice through her return trips to Maryland, she began to realize that she had “been watching the violence of this time go by on the screen long enough,” and that she came to the conclusion that “most of the people around Rufus [knew] more about real violence than the screenwriters of today [ever knew]” (Butler 48). Dana quickly learns of the gap between what is portrayed on the screen and what actually happened in the time period. She realizes how history had been altered to sell, to entertain, to create a toned-down version of what actually went on. For too long Dana had assumed that the movies and books followed along with what truly happened.
And while they did hold some good information, it quickly became apparent that the history she had learned came from a place that focused on comfort for all audiences and creating a history that didn’t cause too many uproars, rather than showcasing history as it truly occurred. Eventually, Dana even believes that “like the Nazis, antebellum whites had known quite a bit about torture- quite a bit more than [she had] ever wanted to learn” (Butler 117).
The comparison here between antebellum whites and Nazis not only shows the evolving realizations of Dana but also serves as a shock to readers to help them gain a deeper understanding of the horrid actions during the time of slavery. Everyone is taught how awful the Nazis and the Holocaust were. There’s no attempt to sugarcoat their actions or make people feel comfortable with what they did. However, it is common for people to attempt to find reasoning for antebellum whites’ actions or find a way to tone down the true horrors that a whole race of people endured. By showcasing this change of comfortability in Dana in regards to the toned-down history, Butler is able to shock the readers with the reality of the South in 19th century America.
After realizing that the history she had been taught in regards to slavery had been altered to not offend, Dana begins to learn the true horrors of the antebellum south as she experiences them first-hand as a slave. For her first couple trips to Maryland, Dana’s system and senses were shocked. She saw a small glimpse of life for slaves and freemen alike. But it wasn’t until her third trip, not until she “never [even] saw where the whip came from, never even saw the first blow coming. But it came - like a hot iron across [her] back, burning into [her] through [her] light shirt, [and] searing [her] skin” (Butler 107).
Before this, Dana had only seen someone being whipped. She was still experiencing everything at a different level, she was removed. She was almost experiencing a movie in hyper-realism until she was whipped. After that, Dana then knew and understood what it was like to be whipped, knew the pain it brought and came to understand the injustice of it all. The injustice, she realized, was sourced from the masters. This idea became even more impactful when she realized that it applied to Rufus as well. When she realized that “he did as he pleased [, and that] if you told him he wasn’t being fair, he would whip you for talking back” (Butler 134).
Dana realizing the power Rufus, and other slave owners had, and the fact that they could do whatever they saw fit with their slaves, was a major part in Butler’s novel. Whether this was to work them, sell them, or rape them, they had the right to do it. If the slaves were to fight back or say they had a problem, then they would be punished rather than heard out. But in realizing the threats that these slaves were constantly under, she also began noticing how the slaves got through their lives with as little trouble as possible.
She noticed how Nigel would agree to Rufus and Mr. Weylin’s face before turning around and doing what he pleased, how Carrie would attempt to keep her head down and stay out of the way, and how Sarah “had done the safe thing[. That she] had accepted a life of slavery because she was afraid[.] The frightened powerless woman who had already lost all she could stand to lose” (Butler 145). By learning this, the walls put up by the watered down history lessons continued to melt away and continued to be proven wrong. From her trips back in time to Maryland, Dana began to become accustomed to the ins and outs of plantation life and learn of the true horrors that were the reality for many in 19th century America.
Dana’s experiences in Kindred help readers understand that much of history has been altered as to not offend the general public. Octavia Butler uses Dana’s acceptance of what is seen in movies represents how society blindly accepts when parts of history are altered, or even erased, in favor of comfort. The altering of history is not a new practice. If there are parts that are seen as unsavory or possibly offensive, aspects will be downplayed to cushion it. However, as a result of this practice the truth is misconstrued and after a while, no one questions it anymore and it becomes a common belief. Butler, realizing this, uses Dana as an example of why it is wrong. Dana had known, of course, of the wrongs that were committed during the time of slavery, but what she knew was a relatively padded version of the truth.
As she learns of the reality, through first-hand experiences, Butler is able to simultaneously show her readers the truth of not only slavery and the antebellum south, but also showcase the way we alter history to restrict discomfort. Dana is shocked, surprised that what she knew, and what actually happened, were on totally different levels. Butler attempts to show that it is the idea that, with history, we try so hard to please everyone and not offend, that we lose sight of the truth and the power that it holds. The goal of her novel is not to necessarily show readers that the way we taught slavery is wrong, but to show the way society has affected how we teach controversial history as a whole. To show, and hopefully compel society, the importance of teaching history right. To set aside the idea of pleasing and not offending in favor of keeping to the straight facts and remembering the injustices rather than hiding them away. Overall, the messages in Kindred serve as reminders of history and how we, as readers, can question what we are taught through second-hand, watered down, sources.
Octavia Butler uses Kindred to comment on the way history has been altered in order to find comfort in the present. Using Dana’s fictional story of experiencing slavery first hand allows the novel to compel to a larger audience and continue to spread this idea further. Because in a time where we are so worried about pleasing everyone around us, we have forgotten the importance of not forgetting. Of not forgetting the atrocities, the wrongs, the way we dehumanized a whole race of people simply because their skin was the “wrong” color. Rather than attempting to tone this down, we should spread the facts far and wide. Because at the end of the day, whatever discomfort is caused by learning the truth is only a small fraction of the discomfort these people felt on a daily basis.