Octavia E. Butler's fourth novel, Kindred (1979), is a meditation on the impact of public education, popular media, and family lore upon our conceptions of shared legacies, future prospects, and present positions. Variously classified as realistic science fiction, grim fantasy, neo–slave narrative, and initiation novel, the book evades genre labeling. Using the fantastic convention of time travel to move Dana on repeated trips from twentieth-century southern California to antebellum Maryland, Butler narrates the coming of age of an African American woman during the social revolutions of the 1970s, explores the grim realities and legacies of antebellum slavery, and speculates upon future possibilities for human equality.
On her twenty-sixth birthday, Dana is abruptly and involuntarily transported to a Maryland riverbank in order to save a drowning child, Rufus, who will grow up to be a slaveowner and the father of Dana's grandmother, Hagar. Dana makes several trips between the centuries for she is jerked into the nineteenth century every time Rufus believes he is dying and Rufus's temper and lack of discipline often place him in mortal danger. She is returned to the twentieth century when she believes her own life is ending. During her travels into the past, Dana comes to understand slavery as a psychological as well as a physical danger, and she also learns how inadequate the average twentieth-century education is for knowing one's historical past or for surviving without technological aid. As she lives and becomes friends with other slaves, Dana develops a new understanding of heroism and perfidy, of human potential and human limitations. Dana betrays her great-grandmother Alice in order to save Alice's life. With her great-grandfather Rufus, she insists upon mutual respect despite or because of the differences that society affords to race, gender, and condition of servitude.
Butler's juxtapositioning of life in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America deliberately suggests complicated comparisons. For example, Dana, a black unpublished writer, is married to Kevin, a white recently published writer, who she met when they were both working for a temporary labor pool nicknamed the “slave market.” Though she loves her husband, Dana recognizes disturbing similarities between their relationship and those of the antebellum period, while Kevin comes to regard Rufus as his rival for Dana's attention and affection.
Kindred was written, Butler says, during the black consciousness period of the early 1970s as her attempt to understand her own identity and the experiences that had shaped her ancestors. It was influenced also by her discovery of slave narratives by writers such as Frederick Douglass. Though the antebellum slave past marked a distinct subject and era change for Octavia Butler, Kindred does continue the explorations of individual heroism, human relations, and social patterns that mark her other writings.
With Kindred Octavia Butler was among the first of recent writers, including Virginia Hamilton, Belinda Hurmance, Charles R. Johnson, and Ishmael Reed, to employ techniques of speculative fiction and fantasy in meditations on slavery and the human condition.
Jewelle Gomez, “Black Women Heroes: Here's Reality, Where's the Fiction?,” The Black Scholar 17.2 (Mar./Apr. 1986): 8–18.Robert Crossley, introduction to Kindred, 1988.