Kindred : Essay Questions
1.Dana says that slavery is a “slow dulling.” What does she mean by that, and what examples from the novel support this idea?
Dana goes into Rufus’s time having read the history of slavery and firmly believing that slavery is wrong and that a person should fight it with every means possible. She does not understand how a person can be forced to accept slavery, how he or she can lose the will to escape.
When she meets Sarah, for example, Dana is appalled at what Sarah has suffered—mainly, the loss of all her children except Carrie. Sarah, however, does not want to hear Dana’s tales about slaves who do make it to freedom. She would rather keep her head down and remain as she is. Such complacency puzzles Dana, who is determined not to accept being the Weylands’ slave.
Dana is willing to talk back, to argue, and even to run away—until repeated whippings take their toll on her will. When Tom Weylin whips her for teaching Nigel to read, she is shocked at the pain. The second time she is whipped, after trying to run away, she realizes that her fear of punishment is now growing stronger than her will to be free. When she is repeatedly whipped by the overseer one day in the fields, she finally understands why slaves like Sarah do not struggle against their fates. She finds that her desire to fight slavery dulls each time she is threatened with violence. The other slaves, particularly Alice, sneer at the way she has become more and more like Sarah, the “Mammy” type of slave.
Only at the end of the novel, when Rufus threatens to rape Dana and turn her into his new “Alice” does Dana regain her fight. Her desire for freedom and justice and self-respect surges, and she is able to truly escape this time, by killing Rufus. The price for freedom, she thoroughly understands, is high.
Dana discovers that slavery is not as simple as history books present it. It is actually a complicated relationship between master and slave. How is this relationship complicated?
Dana believes, at first, that slavery is wrong—period. She is well-schooled in stories of slaves who made heroic escapes, in tales of the Underground Railroad, in the rights that black people have gained since slavery was abolished. All of these sources, as well as the books and movies she knows, indicate that there is no redeeming quality to slavery.
Dana carries this ardent opinion into Rufus’s time. She gets particularly upset when Rufus or his father sells slaves, usually on a whim or as punishment. When she tries to convince Rufus not sell any more slaves, however, she discovers an aspect that she had not considered: the masters depend on slaves for economic survival, but the slaves in turn depend on the masters for survival. If Rufus dies, his slaves will be sold; slave families will be split up and scattered, and some slaves might find themselves with even crueler masters than the Weylins. Dana cannot bear to think that Carrie might be sold away from Nigel, or that their children might be sold away individually. Sarah’s losses, and that of Sam James’s sisters, have shown her the terrible heartbreak of separation. In addition, Dana realizes that there are worse plantations than the Weylins’. There is no guarantee that the Weylin slaves would be sold into better conditions. Through the example of Alice and her mother, Dana has also seen that being a free slave in the antebellum South is no guarantee of safety or happiness, either. Slavery offers a certain protection, in a sense. Dana discovers this when she must pretend to be Kevin’s slave; as his property, she is somewhat protected from punishment or abuse from other white men.
Dana’s own relationship with Rufus exemplifies the relationship between master and slave. Rufus depends on Dana for his survival, and she in turn depends upon him for her survival, while always aware that he can turn on her—and she on him. It is violence, finally, that severs that connection. Like Dana plunging a knife into Rufus, the Civil War rips asunder the age-old relationship between master and slave.
Dana thought she had a handle on reality—until she began to time travel. Suddenly, all that she believed to be real was turned upside down. What does Dana discover about the nature of reality?
Dana discovers that reality is dependent upon physical circumstances. Before she traveled to antebellum Maryland, she believed that she could alter her physical realities. She believed that through hard work, she could succeed. She could become a writer, a good wife and partner for Kevin, a good woman. She believed in racial equality, in freedom, in educated decisions. Her reality was composed of what she thought she knew.
Dana goes into antebellum Maryland believing that she would never be a slave in her mind, but the physical circumstances she encounters soon sway her belief. The violence and indignities she suffers, as well as the mind games Rufus plays with her, eventually wear down the old Dana, the Dana who stood up for herself and believed freedom was just a matter of being brave. The new Dana finds herself willing to compromise, even to accept her slavery. The physical realities of Rufus’s time become so vivid to her that even the Weylin Plantation seems more real to her than her own modern home. She begins to feel that she belongs there, while 1976 seems alien.
Kevin, in particular, shows her that physical realities shape mental realities. When he returns to their apartment after five years in the past, the things he once cherished and understood—his typewriter, the kitchen appliances, the TV—do not have the same importance to him that they once did. They seem “trivial” compared to the physical hardships he endured. They are no longer real to him. Only after he has been back some time do they again become his reality.
It is Kevin, too, who suggests that Dana must sever her physical connection to Rufus’s time in order to get back to the reality he shares with her. He sees, as Dana eventually does, that she must kill Rufus, eliminate him physically, before she can return to normal life. As long as Rufus is physically real, Dana’s reality is centered in him.
Although Dana lives in 1976, echoes of the time of slavery surround her. What are some of these echoes?
Dana may come from 1976, the centennial year of the United States, but she recognizes echoes of slavery in many places, some of them entirely unexpected.
Although it is called “work,” slavery still exists in Dana’s time in the form of wage slavery, the low-paying, no-benefits jobs she undertakes before she marries Kevin. She works temporary, mentally unsatisfying jobs just to pay her rent and continue paying for school. At night, she works on her novel. If Dana were not such a determined person, she might never escape wage slavery—in fact, many people do not escape wage slavery. It is her literacy that helps her rise above such slavery. Similarly, antebellum slavery was a dead end, and only those slaves who could read stood a chance of escaping that dead end. The Weylins punish Dana for teaching slaves to read, but at the same time, Rufus recognizes that literacy is a gift, one that he can give his own children and perhaps better their lives.
Dana also sees that racial prejudice still exists. When she marries Kevin, a white man, her aunt and uncle greatly disapprove, although her aunt takes comfort in the fact that her children will be partly white, which she presumes will give them an edge in the world. Kevin’s own sister, with whom he was quite close, makes clear that she does not approve of Dana because she is black, no matter how much Kevin loves her.
Dana also finds parallels between antebellum slavery and the Nazis’ attempt to control and annihilate Jews. The only difference, Dana notices, is that white people in the antebellum South need slaves in a way that the Nazis did not need Jews. Still, the hatred of one race for another is there. Slaves are whipped and raped and treated like animals, just as the Nazis beat and starved and imprisoned Jews like they were animals rather than human beings.
Most shocking, Dana recognizes that slave times are so far removed from modern experience that even black people can make flippant allusions to it. Her own aunt’s threat to “flay” her niece for misbehaving connects directly back to the whippings in which slaves’ skin was literally flayed off of them. Dana sees that the reality of slavery has become buried in books and movies for modern black people. She herself, however, knows better.
When Dana returns from antebellum Maryland for the last time, she loses part of her arm. Why is this injury significant?
Butler’s purpose in writing Kindred was to make readers feel and understand the reality of slavery, unbuffered by history books, popular literature, and movies. Dana’s injury is meant to show that modern blacks may be removed from slavery by the passage of time, but they carry it in their lives, in their history. Part of who they are now was planted in the past. Part of who they are remains rooted in the past.
The slaves of the past suffered tremendous physical and emotional abuse at the hands of their owners. Yet they were also dependent upon their owners. Dana—and through her, readers—comes to understand this reality. She finds herself subject to both merciless pain and empathy for those who inflicted that pain. Rufus is both her “master” and her kindred, and as such she alternates between hating him and at least understanding him. He is, literally, part of her body, yet separate from her. Without him, she would never be born; with him, she is born with an inheritance tainted by slavery.
Dana’s severed arm is a horrific injury, and as such it is meant to capture the horror of slavery. That she suffers her injury because Rufus hangs on to her is significant, too. Like Rufus holding onto Dana, the past literally has a “hold” on the present; the sacrifices of the past shape the present. Dana loses an arm, an important body part, especially for a writer, but she escapes with her life. The slaves of the past sacrificed skin and bone and sanity, yet some of them escaped, albeit scarred. Dana’s horrific injury makes painfully real all of the sacrifices slaves made in order to make lives better for future generations. Part of her lies in the past; part of today’s generation lies in the past. Butler wants to make sure readers understand that.