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Critical Essay by Sandra Y. Govan
SOURCE: "Homage to Tradition: Octavia Butler Renovates the Historical Novel," in MELUS, Vol. 13, Nos. 1 and 2, Spring-Summer, 1986, pp. 79-96.
In the following essay, Govan delineates the similarities between Butler's Wild Seed and Kindred, including strong, black, female protagonists, and the use of history and black tradition.
Despite the fact that her novels are sometimes difficult to find, Octavia Butler has nonetheless firmly established herself as a major new voice in science fiction. The five published novels of her Patternist saga, depicting over a vast time span both the genesis and evolution of Homo Superior (psionically enhanced human beings) and his mutated bestial counterpart; the one novel, Kindred, outside the serial story; and the short stories, all speak exceptionally well for Butler's artistry and growth.
Through the interviews she has given, the articles she's written, the pieces published about her, and of course, her novels, Octavia Butler emerges as a forthright and honest author. She is a writer very conscious of the power of art to affect social perceptions and behavior and a writer unafraid to admit that, when appropriate, she borrows from tradition, that she takes and reshapes African and Afro-American cultural values, that she has heuristic and didactic impulses which she transforms into art. With Wild Seed and Kindred, for instance, Butler seizes the possibilities inherent in the historical novel and the Black tradition in autobiography. She adapts these forms to produce extrapolative fiction which, for its impetus, looks to an historically grounded African-American past rather than to a completely speculative future. On the surface, this seems indeed a curious connection, this linkage of future fiction to the past. Regardless of the surface appearance, the format itself, extrapolating or projecting from social structures of the past to those possible in the future, is not new (Isaac Asimov's Foundation series is a model precursor). What is new and distinctive is Butler's handling of the format or frame, her particular choice of past cultures to extrapolate from. She has chosen to link science fiction not only to anthropology and history, via the historical novel, but directly to the Black American slavery experiences via the slave narrative. This is a fundamental departure for science fiction as genre. Wild Seed and Kindred demonstrate this new configuration aptly. However, before engaging in an immediate discussion of these two novels, it seems appropriate to delay the discussion momentarily in order to better frame it with some critical definitions.
Most of us probably have seen the historical novel as a continuation of the realistic social novel; we associate it with Sir Walter Scott or Charles Dickens, or perhaps with Margaret Mitchell or Margaret Walker. We know that its setting and characters are established in a particular historic context—the age of chivalry or the French Revolution or the antebellum American South. Casual readers of the European or Western historical novel are usually content to forgo the kind of rigorous economic, philosophic, political analysis that Georg Lukács, in The Historical Novel, brings to his discussion of the form's origins. Lukács argues, for instance, that of prime importance to the historical novel's development "is the increasing historical awareness of the decisive role played in human progress by the struggle of classes in history." In his analysis, knowledge of "the rise of modern bourgeois society" from "the class struggles between nobility and bourgeoisie,… class struggles which raged throughout the entire 'idyllic Middle Ages' and whose last decisive stage was the great French Revolution," is crucial to the historical novel.
Using Sir Walter Scott as his archetypal model, Lukács outlines Scott's principal contributions to the form: "the broad delineation of manners and circumstances attendant upon events, the dramatic character of action and, in close connection with this, the new and important role of dialog in the novel." For my immediate purposes however, Lukács' remarks are most germane when he says the authentic historical novel is "specifically historical," that its history is not "mere costumery," and that it presents an "artistically faithful image of a concrete historical epoch."
Slave narratives, the first Black autobiographies, have a great deal in common with our understanding of the attributes of the historical novel. Each narrative is "specifically historical" (Marion Starling has traced narratives as far back as 1703 and followed them forward to 1944; their peak period was 1836–1860). The historical circumstances of each text are so far removed from "mere costumery" that extensive, often intrusive, documentation of the exslave's veracity is quite frequently an established feature of the text, part of what Robert Stepto refers to as the "authenticating" strategy of the narrative voice. And without question, slave narrators strove to produce a powerful yet "faithful image of a concrete historical epoch." Perhaps only a handful of the six thousand extant narratives became artistic successes, works with the strength and quality of Frederick Douglass' The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl or the dramatic tale of William and Ellen Craft's Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. But successful literary works or not, most slave narratives depicted faithfully and graphically the brutal reality of slave life and each showed the direct impact of slavery, that peculiar institution, not only on the narrator's own life and that of his/her family but also the debilitating and corrupting effects of such an institution on those who held power within it, slaveholders.
Because the slave narrative and the historical novel, especially the historical novel which concerns itself with life in the antebellum South, share some common characteristics, a clear relationship between them may be easily established. For instance, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is unquestionably indebted to the life story of Josiah Henson, fugitive slave. But, of more importance than demonstrating a relationship between the historical novel and the slave narrative is our understanding of the specific function slave narratives served. Unlike the novel, whose primary purpose was entertainment, the primary function of the slave narrative was to educate and politicize in no uncertain terms. At the height of their popularity, slave narratives, called "those literary nigritudes—little tadpoles of the press which run to editions of hundreds of thousands," were highly influential tools used by abolitionist societies here and abroad to mold public opinion, to bend the public mind toward the task of eliminating slavery. As a group, slave narratives exhibited these characteristic traits: they focused on the special experience of racial oppression; they were intended to be records of resistance; they employed a variety of literary/rhetorical devices including concrete imagery and diction, understatement, polemical voice, and satire to describe vividly the actual conditions of slavery; they looked at the self outside the typical western perspective of the individual and chose instead to recognize or represent the self in relationship to the oppressed group with ties and responsibilities to group members. Slave narrators were conscious of their own cultural schizophrenia, their burden of blackness in white America, or, as W. E. B. DuBois said in his seminal The Souls of Black Folk, their "double consciousness," their two "warring selves in one dark skin."
Slave narrators were conscious, too, that they were presenting objective fact through the filter of their own subjective experience. Taken collectively, their narratives frequently show recurrent patterns. There is a loss of innocence wherein the slave, usually as a child, recollects his or her first awareness of the personal impact of slavery. There are detailed descriptions of various phases of bondage as the slave witnesses them and then experiences them. There is the punishment factor, the resistance motif, the glimpse of life-in-the-quarters. There is also the slave's quest for education, the slave's encounter with abusive sexual misconduct and immoral behavior, the slave's recognition of religious hypocrisy and the adulterated Christianity practiced by "Christian" slave holders, the slave's escape attempts, and, finally, the slave's successful escape. Of course, this pattern varied from narrative to narrative and oftentimes, what was stressed depended upon the discretion and sensibilities of the narrator or, sometimes, on the concerns or dictates of an editor or an amanuensis.
Butler's Wild Seed and Kindred are rich texts which neatly define the junction where the historical novel, the slave narrative, and science fiction meet. The two novels build upon tenets clearly identified with the expected conventions or norms of the genres she employs. Then, because Butler's forte is extrapolative fiction, we can easily see the melding as each novel moves us through the recreated, historically plausible, viable, yet totally speculative alternative reality which is the realm of science fiction—as distinct from the codified expectations we have of fiction which operates from the realistic or naturalistic realm. To phrase it succinctly, Octavia Butler's work stands on the foundation of traditional form and proceeds to renovate that form.
Wild Seed is not about Arthurian England or the French Revolution. Instead, it is about alienation and loneliness; about needs, dreams, ambitions, and power. It is also about love. Africa provides the cultural backdrop for the initial interaction between plot and character. Although the opening setting of Wild Seed is 17th-century west Africa, specifically the Niger river region of eastern Nigeria, the setting shifts through the course of the novel and we follow the lives of Butler's two immortal central characters, Doro, a four thousand year old Nubian, and Anyanwu, a three hundred year old Onitsha priestess, through the Middle Passage voyage to life in a colonial New England village, to life on an antebellum Louisiana plantation, to California just after the Civil War. In the course of two hundred years of movement we are privy to a broad and vivid historical canvas. Again, however, Butler's use of history and cultural anthropology do more than simply illuminate the text or serve as mere coloration. Both disciplines are intrinsic to our understanding of character, theme, and action. Their use also permits Butler to employ a more original approach to the old theme of the trials of immortality, the theme of the spiritual disintegration of the man who cannot die.
The specifically African segment of Wild Seed only occupies four chapters of the text but an African ethos dominates the whole book. The novel opens in 1690. Doro has returned to Africa to look for one of his "seed villages," one of several communities he has carefully nurtured, composed of people with nascent or lateral mutant abilities. They know things or hear things or see things others cannot and so in their home communities, they are misfits or outcasts or "witches" because of their abilities. In his autonomous villages wherein he collects and breeds these people, Doro is their protector; his motives, however, are far from altruistic for he needs his people in a very real way. He "enjoys their company and sadly, they provide his most satisfying kills." Doro's mutant power is the ability to transfer his psychic essence to any human host; thus, he kills to live. And, as he kills, he literally "feeds" off the spirit of the host body. But whenever Doro kills or "takes" his own kind, he gains more sustenance from their heightened psychic energy than he derives from the "taking" of ordinary non-mutant human beings.
The village Doro returns to has been destroyed by slave hunters and as he contemplates the carnage and thinks about tracking and regrouping the captured survivors, his gift of attraction to other mutants, an innate tracking sense or "telescent" subtly makes him conscious of the distant Anyanwu. He finds himself pulled toward her. Butler's narration here adeptly conveys both character and place.
He wandered southwest toward the forest, leaving as he had arrived—alone, unarmed, without supplies, accepting the savanna and later the forest as easily as he accepted any terrain. He was killed several times—by disease, by animals, by hostile people. This was a harsh land. Yet he continued to move southwest, unthinkingly veering away from the section of the coast where his ship awaited him. After a while, he realized it was no longer his anger at the loss of his seed village that drove him. It was something new—an impulse, a feeling, a kind of mental undertow pulling at him.
It is a subtle awareness of Anyanwu which attracts Doro and pulls him to a country he has not visited in three hundred years. When he finally meets and talks with her, Doro suspects immediately that they are distant kin, that she is "wild seed," the fruit of [his] peoples' passing by [hers] during one of Africa's many periods of flux. Ironically, Anyanwu herself supports this idea when she recalls a half remembered and whispered rumor that she was not father's child but had been begotten by a passing stranger. Originally, Doro's people were the Kush, an ancient people part of the vast Ethiopian Empire. Anyanwu's people are the Igbo or Onitsha Ibo people of eastern Nigeria. Traditional Onitsha society, explains ethnologist Richard Henderson, was a "community strongly concerned with maintaining oral accounts of the past." Henderson tells us that "Onitsha lacked an elaborate mythology as its cultural charter, and instead emphasized a quasi-historical 'ideology' based on stories tracing the founding of its villages to pre-historic migrations and political fusions." We see an example of this quasi-history when Doro questions Anyanwu, trying to place her in his long personal history. "'Your people have crossed the Niger'—he hesitated, frowning, then gave the river its proper name—'the Orumili. When I saw them last, they lived on the other side in Benin.'" At this point Butler deliberately employs the omniscient narrative voice in conjunction with Doro's to signal the embedded signs of heritage and culture she wants her audience to note. Anyanwu's near poetic reply compresses years of African history, years of tribal warfare and tribal development, years of gradual adaptation to change. "We crossed long ago…. Children born in that time have grown old and died. We were Ado and Idu, subject to Benin before the crossing. Then we fought Benin and crossed the river to Onitsha to become free people, our own masters."
Butler's Anyanwu is partly based on a legendary Ibo heroine, Atagbusi, a village protector and a magical "shape shifter." Henderson, whom Butler acknowledges as a source, says that Atagbusi "is said to have been a daughter of the tiny clan called Okposi-eke, a descent group renowned for its native doctors and responsible for magical protection of the northwestern bush outskirts of the town. She was believed capable, as are other persons of Okposi-eke, of transforming herself into various large and dangerous animals, and it is believed that she concocted the medicine that protects the community on its western front."
Like the legendary Atagbusi, Butler's Anyanwu is also a shape-shifter, a woman capable of physical metamorphosis. She can become a leopard, a python, an eagle, a dolphin, a dog, or a man. For self-protection, most of Anyanwu's powers are hidden from the villagers. And to reduce fear of the inexplicable, Anyanwu alters her body gradually so that she seemingly ages at the same rate as the various husbands she has married over the years, the same rate as the people around her. But whenever she chooses Anyanwu can regain her natural body, that of a sturdy, beautiful, twenty-year-old woman. Anyanwu is the village healer, a doctor for her people. She grows traditional herbs to make the customary medicines even though her power to heal does not always require the use of herbs. A respected and powerful person in the village hierarchy, Anyanwu's place is well defined.
She served her people by giving them relief from pain and sickness. Also, she enriched them by allowing them to spread word of her abilities to neighboring people. She was an oracle. A woman through whom a god spoke. Strangers paid heavily for her services. They paid her people, then they paid her. That was as it should have been. Her people could see that they benefited from her presence, and that they had reason to fear her abilities. Thus she was protected from them—and they from her—most of the time.
Anyanwu's sense of protection, her maternal instinct of care and concern for her people, is part of the African ethos which pervades the text. Of paramount importance to Anyanwu is the well being and safety of her kin—her children and her grandchildren. This is entirely in keeping with African tradition which holds "children are worth." Henderson affirms this with the observation that the Onitsha are "rooted firmly in notions of filiation and descent. When Onitsha people assess the career of a person, their primary criterion is the number of children he has raised to support and survive him. Children are extolled in proverbs above any other good, even above the accumulation of wealth; 'children first, wealth follows' is a proverb affirming the route to success."
After three hundred years, ten husbands and forty-seven children, Anyanwu's descendants people the land. Their security is the lever Doro uses to pry Anyanwu away from her homeland. He appeals first to her innate sense of isolation and loneliness, proclaiming her place is among her own kind, then he appeals to her maternal spirit, promising children with genetic traits like their mother. "A mother," he tells her, "should not have to watch her children grow old and die. If you live, they should live. It is the fault of their fathers that they die. Let me give you children who will live!" Reluctantly and somewhat apprehensively, Anyanwu agrees to leave the village with Doro. But, when Doro speculates that her children, although they manifest no sign of her mutant ability, are also his peoples' children and that perhaps they should accompany them to the new world, Anyanwu becomes adamant—"you will not touch my children"—and remains so until Doro pledges he will not harm her children.
Unwittingly, Anyanwu's resolute stand in protection of her children gives Doro yet another lever to use against her. Totally devoid of scruples, and possessing a keen insight into her psychological makeup, quite early in their journey to the coast Doro plots the strategy he will use to bind Anyanwu to him. It is a time-encrusted masculine ploy. He will get her pregnant; then, with a new child,
her independence would vanish without a struggle. She would do whatever he asked then to keep the child safe. She was too valuable to kill, and if he abducted any of her descendants, she would no doubt goad him into killing her. But once she was isolated in America with an infant to care for, she would learn submissiveness.
Doro's power play, his perception of the most immediate method he can use to control Anyanwu reflects his understanding of cultural ties, of the "appropriate manners and customs" which are part of Anyanwu's historical legacy. Though a powerful woman on her own turf, essentially Anyanwu leaves her tribal homeland to protect her kin.
Of course, Anyanwu never does learn submissiveness. Although she and Doro share a link forged in a bygone age, his name means "the east—the direction from which the sun comes" and hers means "the sun," they are not alike. Anyanwu is distinct from any woman Doro has encountered in thirty-seven hundred years. She is his female counterpart with one important distinction—she is not a predator. Her powers have long made her independent not withstanding her emergence from a culture where wives are considered the property of husbands. In one sense, however, Doro assesses Anyanwu correctly; she remains in his compound for years, she even marries as he directs (primarily out of fear and a strong survival instinct); but, she remains, too, for the sake of the children she bears and out of her concern for the strange, sometimes pitiable, sometimes warped or dangerous children who are the products of Doro's mutant communities. Much of Wild Seed's tension is controlled by Doro's efforts to break Anyanwu, to use and then destroy her. She resists and fights back with the resources she has—her own strength of will. Again, however, the struggle is not solely for her sake but also for the safety of the children, the kin she forever shields.
African kinship networks seem to be the major structural device Butler uses to build dramatic complexity in this novel. When the principal characters first meet, the question of identity is crucial. Following the customary "who are you?" comes the equally important "who are your people?" The latter question springs from the African sense of connectedness to a specific place, a specific people, or a specific heritage. As indicated above, Doro traces his origins to the ancient Kush, one of the three great sub-Saharan societies. Anyanwu ties the history of her people, through wars and unification, to the powerful kingdom of Benin.
The importance of kinship is demonstrated repeatedly. When Anyanwu embarks on an attenuated version of the slave trade's Middle Passage, she happens upon two captured slaves she can actually help. Fortunately, they have been sold to Doro. It is their good fortune in this sense: Okoye is the son of Anyanwu's youngest daughter. Udenkwo, a young mother stolen from her village and separated from her five-year-old son, is a more distant relative. Anyanwu tells Udenkwo to trace her lineage through her clan and her male ancestry, a process which suggests subtly the value Africans attached to collective identity, familial bonding, and communal history. It happens that one of Udenkwo's ancestors was Anyanwu's eighth son, another, Anyanwu's third husband. (Here Butler slips in a quick feminist thrust: although Udenkwo traces her patrilineage, it is her matrilineal descent, her connection to Anyanwu, literally an earth mother, which saves her.) Because both Okoye and Udenkwo are Anyanwu's descendants, they will be spared the more brutal aspects of slavery. They will not be separated or sold again to some terrifying white plantation master. They will not be assaulted or beaten by Doro or his people. And although they are kinsmen, they will be permitted to marry despite the idea of "abomination" such an act connotes for Anyanwu. The marriage will permit them to offer each other comfort in their new and strange surroundings for as Doro says of his seed people, "our kind have a special need to be either with our kinsmen or others who are like us."
The initial contact with the new world is not quite as traumatic for Anyanwu as it was for true slaves but still, she must cope with complete change. She must reckon with strange and restrictive western clothing, with a new diet (animal milk—another "abomination"), with learning a new language and new customs among a new and foreign people. And she must make all these adjustments in a land where color automatically determines status. The New England village Doro brings Anyanwu to is Wheatley, ostensibly named for an English family Doro supports and a principal cash crop. Butler slips in another quick thrust here for "Wheatley" is an allusion to young Phillis Wheatley, the child stolen from Africa who became known as the "Sable Muse" and was recognized as a significant contributor to 18th-century American poetry. Wheatley, however, is significant for another reason: life in the village cushions the impact of Anyanwu's contact with America's hardening race and color caste system. Doro's villagers are a racial amalgam—Blacks, Indians, mixed bloods, and whites, a mixture not uncommon in the northeastern states before the increase in the slave trade. Anyanwu finds most of the villagers are friendly and also that village society is tight-knit, functioning roughly in a manner that approximates the familiar rhythms of clan life she had known. Relatives within the compound live with or near other relatives. People who share a common language are allowed to group together. Where no blood or tribal ties previously exist, newly formed families function as extended family and the weak, insecure, or unstable are placed with those who will care for them. The villagers see Doro as a guardian spirit who protects them from Indian raids and like disasters even as he controls their lives. They even make blood sacrifices to him for he takes from among them when he needs a new body. Yet despite the death he inevitably brings, whenever Doro is present in his compound he receives all the homage due a titled tribal elder with many children. And in fact, he has several children within the village.
The most serious clash of wills between Doro and Anyanwu is about the value assigned kinship. Doro's genetics program respects no tradition or socially sanctioned belief. He breeds people, related or not, to improve the pedigree of his stock. When in Wheatley he commands Anyanwu to marry and bear children by his son, and suggests that later she will also bear his children, Anyanwu withdraws in total revulsion—a greater abomination she cannot imagine. A century will pass, Anyanwu will have escaped Doro and formed her own special protected community (composed of mutants linked by blood and heightened psychic sensitivity) on a Louisiana plantation where she is the master, before she and Doro can come to civil terms again. They forge a new alliance based on respect and compromise. She recognizes he must kill to live but he learns genuine respect for her feelings and abilities and he also realizes that he must cease killing those of his own who serve him best or any of her close relatives. For Doro to regain Anyanwu's companionship, he must salvage what humanity remains to him.
If kinship is an underlying motif contributing to the dramatic tension in Wild Seed, it is clearly the focal point of Kindred, the motif underscoring the theme. Kindred is outside the Patternist saga, yet it shares with Wild Seed three common denominators: Black and white characters who move through an historically viable setting, one which explores the tangled complexities of interracial mixing during slavery and beyond; linkage through phenomenal psychic energy; an emphasis on blood ties and the responsibilities that result. The bonds of blood in Kindred however are not created by exotic mutation nor genetic engineering. They are the result of plain undisguised lust and the raw exertion of power.
Kindred is a neatly packaged historical novel which uses scenes of plantation life and the techniques of the slave narrative to frame the plot. Dana Franklin, the heroine, is a Black woman, a writer who lives in Los Angeles, California, a woman very much of the present. Her family's roots are in Maryland; a fact made all the more pertinent when Dana finds herself traversing time and geography to move between twentieth-century California and nineteenth-century Maryland. The reason she moves is simple—Rufus Weylin "calls" her to him whenever he gets into trouble he cannot resolve alone, be it drowning, or arson, a bad fall, or a beating. Rufus is a child when he and Dana first meet. He is also white and destined to become her great grandfather, several times removed. The agency which moves Dana is never clear. She never understands how it happens. The "why" is easier. Whenever Rufus fears for his life, his subconscious mind somehow reaches out to Dana and transfers her to his setting and his time to meet his need. The only way she can return to her era is if she believes a corresponding threat to her own life exists. Time is totally disjointed for Dana during these transferences. There is no correlation between the time she spends in the past, her own history, and the time which passes while she is absent from her present. Dana's only clue to the mystery surrounding these transfers is the blood tie linking her to Rufus; but even the blood relationship is not, for her, a satisfactory explanation for an inexplicable process.
Once Dana knows Rufus' identity and comprehends what his relationship to her will become, she understands her role more precisely. She is to assure the child's survival until he can father the first branch of her family tree. She must serve as his mentor and be his teacher. The task of trying to mold a humane slave holder, in an era where all the accepted social norms mitigate against the possibility, falls to her. And an awesome responsibility it is considering her circumstances: a modern Black woman periodically surfaces in antebellum Maryland over approximately a twenty-year span, with no free papers, no owner to vouch for her, no way to explain her dress, her speech, or her behavior. Her role is to protect a boy/man who is alternately and erratically "generous and vicious." Immediately, Dana recognizes that she is "the worst possible guardian" for Rufus—"a black woman to watch over him in a society that considered Blacks sub-human, and a woman to watch over him in a society that considered women perennial children." In that age and in that place, Dana is simply a "strange nigger," a fact the child Rufus promptly explains. But because she saves his life and because he realizes they are linked, even though he does not know the extent of their relationship, Rufus, the child, is Dana's unexpected, if unstable, ally.
Quite apart from her role as mentor to Rufus stands Dana's other function. Kindred, far more than Wild Seed, is an overtly didactic novel, although its artistry is such that one does not realize how much antebellum history gets absorbed. Dana is Butler's tool for sketching a far less romanticized portrait of plantation life from 1815 through the 1830s. She is both a reporter and a respondent for she witnesses and participates in the slave experience. In fact, Kindred, is so closely related to the experience disclosed in slave narratives that its plot structure follows the classic patterns with only the requisite changes to flesh out character, story, and action.
Dana's loss of innocence, her discovery that she has slave status is as abrupt and brutal as the same discoveries recorded by Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs in their respective narratives. Tom Weylin is a harsh disciplinarian; he beats his slaves, his horses, and his son with the same whip. On her first visit, he almost shoots the "strange nigger" caught with his son and wife. On her second visit, having seen Rufus' scars, Dana acquires some of her own. Seeking safety away from the big house, she leaves the Weylins to seek help from the black family destined to become her forbears. Patrollers (and Butler carefully identifies them as young whites charged with policing or "maintaining order" among the slave population) arrive at the cabin first. Ostensibly, they have come to see whether a slave husband is meeting illegally with his free wife. The man is. He has no pass permitting his absence from his owner's plantation. For the crime of visiting his family the slave is beaten, then tied to a tree and whipped savagely while his wife and child watch helplessly. Dana is our hidden mute witness. Yet in order to bring her readers closer to the immediacy of the horror we have just seen. Butler moves Dana rapidly from witnessing slavery to experiencing it, from watching, to feeling, to testifying what life was like for a Black woman, even if she were nominally free. After the slave is dragged away, Dana goes to the assistance of his wife. They talk guardedly for Dana cannot explain who she is or where she comes from; nevertheless, the woman grants her permission to stay. Shortly thereafter, Dana steps outside of the cabin and is captured and attacked by one of the patrollers who had returned alone to rape the slave's wife. He realizes instantly that he has not captured the wife but determines almost as quickly that Dana will satisfy his lust. Degradation, brutality, powerlessness, the commonplace violence directed against Black men and women could be no more sharply delineated. Dana's violent struggle to escape the atroller returns her to her own time.
The third time Dana is called into her own history we are privy to a much broader look at life on the plantation from the master's big house to the slave's quarters. She learns that even "favored" house slaves are given a meager diet of table scraps and corn meal mush, occasionally supplemented by what can be stolen from the plantation's larders. Field hands are supposed to work even harder yet are expected to subsist off even less. Just as almost every slave narrative dramatizes the theme of family separation, Butler also brings this theme to life. Dana is sent to the kitchen to learn from Sarah, the plantation's cook. She learns quickly that Sarah has had three children sold away from her; a fourth she was allowed to keep because the child was born mute, therefore "defective," therefore "not worth much" on the slave market. Both in and out of the kitchen Dana discovers what the typical slave's work day is like, first in the big house and later in the fields. She also discovers how slavery can effect a plantation mistress if the woman has no viable authority. Margaret Weylin is described as temperamental, flighty, beautiful, bored, useless. Her husband controls all of the plantation's business affairs and Margaret is left with nothing to do but lavish unreturned affection on her son because "slaves kept her house clean, did much of her sewing, all of her cooking and washing." Margaret cannot even dress or undress without a slave attendant. During her extended third journey into the past, Dana is called to witness another brutal whipping, this time administered for the offense of "answering back." Shortly thereafter, she is the recipient of the same treatment but her offense is far more serious. She has been caught reading to a slave and almost caught teaching slaves thirsty for knowledge how to read and write. An education was, of course, legally denied slaves. Dana's infraction of this rule was both a courageous and dangerous act. The same hostility which fell on Frederick Douglass' attempts to teach his fellowslaves fell on Dana; Tom Weylin seizes her and whips her viciously. He fears a slave who can read and write will escape by forging a pass: for their part, slaves knew being armed with knowledge was freedom and many took great risks in order to learn.
The large, panoramic slice-of-plantation-life we see in this segment of the novel is deftly handled "faction," that blend of authentic verifiable historical fact and well-rendered fiction. Butler treats the recurring themes of casual brutality, forcible separation of families, the quest for knowledge, the desire to escape, the tremendous work loads expected of slaves as effectively as any of the narratives or documentary histories discussing the slavery experience. Her use of these details is more than mere costumery, it is part of the "broad delineation of manners and circumstances" inherent in the historical record and essential for developing plot and character.
Kindred incorporates other devices and themes associated with the slave narrative. These narratives repeatedly demonstrate that slavery as a system displayed little regard for marital status among slaves and no respect for the sanctity of the family unit unless a master chose to recognize a family bond. Kindred illustrates this. The narratives record ad infinitum the harsh punishment meted out to any slave who dared evince a sense of self-respect, pride, manhood; but if a slave's spirit would not be broken, it could be sorely tried and his body could be broken. Kindred illustrates this extreme as well. Although Butler does not belabor the Christian hypocrisy theme, a popular and effective tactic used in many narrative accounts to arouse moral indignation, she does make the novel's climatic denouement turn on the other principal axis of the formulaic narrative, careful attention to socially sanctioned yet unacknowledged miscegenation, illicit sex and lust behind the facade of law and respectability.
Tom Weylin has sired at least three children by slave mothers who are still on his plantation. On Dana's second trip to the past the patroller who attacks her was actually returning to the cabin to molest a free Black woman; when he found himself with Dana instead, the difference between the two Black women never disturbed him. On her third journey back, Dana's husband Kevin is transported with her. Because Kevin is white, he affords her some measure of protection by posing as her master. Ironically, in 1976, while their marriage must withstand some subtle societal disapproval, it is at least legally recognized. In 1819 Maryland, Dana and Kevin dare not admit their marital bond because such a relationship is illegal, unimaginable, and dangerous. Casual sexual liaisons between white men and Black women were permissible but intermarriage was not. White men were expected to be rakes, or at least their licentiousness was tacitly condoned; white women were expected to be chaste (certainly they dare not openly consort with Black men the way their husbands, fathers, sons took liberties with Black women); and Black women, of course, were often treated as mere sexual vessels. A brief glance at an actual narrative describing the entanglements produced by an absence of moral integrity is pertinent and may make Butler's account of events at the Weylin plantation even more credible. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl bluntly discusses the moral "corruption produced by slavery." Jacobs records how "the slave girl is reared in an atmosphere of licentiousness and fear." She is "bribed" … or "whipped or starved into submission" to the will of her master and/or his sons. "The slaveholder's sons, are, of course, vitiated, even while boys, by the unclean influences everywhere around them. Nor do the master's daughters always escape." At this point the Jacobs narrative discloses the forbidden activities of some white women in response to the moral degeneracy surrounding them. Jacobs' testimony is explicit:
They know that the women slaves are subject to their father's authority in all things; and in some cases they exercise the same authority over the men slaves. I have myself seen the master of such a household…. It was known in the neighborhood that his daughter had selected one of the meanest slaves on his plantation to be the father of his first grandchild. She did not make her advances to her equals, nor even to her father's more intelligent servants. In such cases the infant is smothered, or sent where it is never seen by any who knows its history. But if the white parent is the father, instead of the mother, the offspring are unblushingly reared for market.
The sexual tension existing at the Weylin home poses both the customary morality/hypocrisy questions and also allows Butler the opportunity to explore another dimension of this tension, sexuality-and-the-white-woman with a little gallows humor. Margaret Weylin discovers that Dana has been sleeping in Kevin's room on a pallet rather than in the attic where other house slaves are expected to sleep. She turns livid with rage. As the Jacobs narrative shows, white men may not be denied their concubines yet they certainly are not supposed to conduct their liaisons in the big house; just down in the slave quarters, out of sight. Margaret slaps Dana, screams at her that she is "a filthy black whore!" and protests loudly that hers is a "Christian house." Of course, Dana cannot retaliate but she does think, rather charitably, that for all her flaws, Margaret Weylin must be a moral woman. However, Dana is soon made privy to an irony she had not anticipated. Margaret, although long married, is smitten by a strong attraction to Kevin; she chases him with a barely concealed ardor and is, therefore, extremely jealous of the near connubial relationship Kevin and Dana attempt to maintain. Jealousy based on the unacknowledged sexual tension between white mistresses and Black slave women linked to white men surfaces frequently in slavery annals.
The most critical sexual relationship in the text however remains the relationship an adult Rufus Weylin forces on Alice Greenwood, a free Black woman on the Weylin plantation. Rufus' feelings for Alice are a mixture of love and lust. He loves her, and he wants her to love him, but he also feels he has a "right" to her and that he is entitled to win her or take her any way he can. Unfortunately, Alice loves a Black man, a slave. Since neither man can openly compete for Alice's affections, this triangle degenerates into an extraordinarily painful relationship, one compounded by rivalry, passion, guilt, love, lust, punishment, pride, power, and implacable hatred. But there are two Black women in young Rufus' life and this adds another level to the sexual tension. Dana and Alice are virtual doubles of each other. Physically, they look alike; intellectually and emotionally, they function as two halves of the same woman, flawed duplicates separated by the dictates of their respective historical time and the resultant sexual-political consciousness each maintains by virtue of their particular social circumstances. In other words, although she is unaccountably displaced in time, Dana retains the attributes of a late twentieth-century woman—knowledgeable, assertive, independent. In contrast, Alice is a nineteenth-century Black woman forced into chattel slavery—by definition her assumed posture is that of ignorance, passiveness, dependence on the will or whim of her owner. Yet even as Butler draws these distinctions they become superficial and the space between Dana and Alice shrinks. For Dana, looking at Alice is like looking at herself, to use Alice Walker's term, "suspended" by historical circumstance. It is as if the folk wisdom of "there but for the grace of God go I" had suddenly been made manifest.
From Dana, Rufus draws a controlled, limited, camaraderie and intellectual stimulation. From Alice he demands sexual attention and actually expects emotional attachment. Although he cannot make her love him, Rufus can and does force Alice to share his bed. And despite the obvious pain that being a witness to (almost a participant in) this crude liaison causes her, Dana abets it until Alice gives birth to Hagar, the woman who is the founder of her family tree. (Distasteful as the situation is, Dana must assist Rufus in his conquest of Alice or her personal history, her present, will be irrevocably altered. This is a variant of science fiction's time travel paradox, the problem of the time-space continuum theme.) Eventually, unable to endure the vicious games of Rufus (he pretends to sell her children), her powerlessness, or her concubinage any longer, Alice commits suicide. Almost immediately, a chastened and tortured Rufus then transfers his entire emotional attention to Dana, seeing her as a replicate of Alice, virtually the same woman, this time whole and complete. Because the insidious institution of slavery has given him virtual carte blanche power over Black lives, Rufus has no misgivings, feels no remorse about attempting to seduce or possess Dana in the same manner he won Alice—that is, by cajolery if possible, force or violence if necessary. It does not matter that Dana has saved his life repeatedly, that she has been, in common parlance, a "good" slave for Rufus. Nor does it matter that the "love" he bears for her borders on incestuousness; after all, Dana has been his protector, his confidant, his mentor, and in some respects, his mother and his sister. Since selfish, childish and unstable Rufus can think only of his own immediate needs and wants, and since the system gives him the power to take what he wants—he decides that Dana shall replace Alice and he will not hear her refusal.
Without turning to an actual slave narrative, there probably is no more vivid depiction of life on an Eastern Shore plantation than that found in Kindred. The composite rendering is as exact as detailed research could make it. Butler admits to having tempered some of the harshness of the real experience because the slave narratives proved such "grim reading" that she realized she would have to present a "cleaned-up, somewhat gentler version of slavery for there was no entertainment in the real thing." Kindred, however, is entertaining and compelling; yet for all the history it enlivens, the average reader absorbs the information without any awareness of an inherently didactic purpose framing an exciting, action filled story. Far from impeding the story line, the didacticism informs it.
Kindred and Wild Seed break new ground in science fiction. They are both novels which feature Black characters in major significant roles; they both feature Black women as heroic characters, protagonists who either share power with men or who maintain their right to wield power on an equal basis. Neither of the two women principals yields her basic integrity or submits to male dominance. In each novel we look at a speculative past firmly grounded in an African and African-American social and cultural history. Both Wild Seed and Kindred mirror Lukács' "broad delineation of manners and circumstances attendant upon events," his insistence upon "dramatic character of action," and his large role voice and dialog within the narrative. Each text is "specifically historical," indeed history is integral to plot, and each effectively welds function to form giving us precise yet "artistically faithful" images of "concrete historical epochs," whole chapters of African-American history, keeping us spellbound all the while.
Butler's works do something else not generally asked of good historical fiction. They reach an entirely different audience, an established science fiction readership which, taken as a whole, is more accustomed to future histories and alien spaces than it is to authentic African and African-American landscapes. That is, I suppose, one of the benefits of renovation: more people are attracted to the old, the historically significant, recreated and redressed in a new light.
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