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Kindred | Study Guide

Octavia Butler

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Kindred | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


Why does Butler wait to reveal that Kevin is white until "The Fall" chapter in Kindred?

Butler may have waited to announce Kevin's skin color in order to surprise readers. Once readers reach "The Fall," Dana has already time traveled twice, and during the second trip, her time in the past includes a brutal beating and attempted rape by a white man who mistakes her for another woman. This is a place in which blacks have no rights and the rape of black women is not illegal. Kevin's whiteness links him to the privilege in this world, whether Dana likes to admit it or not. By having a white man and a black woman travel back to the 1800s and by illustrating the vastly different lives they lead in the antebellum South, Butler shows how racism and sexism have been carried forward in time. These beliefs continue to exist despite the abolition of slavery in 1865, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the feminist movement of the late 1960s.

How does Kevin and Dana's relationship in Kindred challenge the boundaries of black and white, husband and wife?

In a flashback, Dana relates how she and Kevin met while she was working a temporary job in the place where he worked. Though 1976 is not the period of the antebellum South, the two push against a mainstream social norm by being in an interracial marriage. The reactions of their families provide evidence for this type of boundary breaking. Kevin's sister, who married a very vocal racist, will not even meet Dana. Dana's uncle, who raised her, does not approve of their relationship. He is so opposed to their marriage that he no longer wants to bequeath his property to Dana when he dies; he doesn't want a white man to own rental property blacks live in. Dana and Kevin are able to challenge these social norms through their marriage, which would have been illegal in the 1800s, and they have to do so without familial approval and support.

Why does Dana feel a range of emotions when Kevin time travels with her in Kindred?

On one level, Dana is relieved that Kevin has time traveled with her to the antebellum South. They land under a tree, and Dana holds Kevin's hand, "glad of its familiarity." The feeling changes quickly because, though Kevin is a comfort to her and as a white man could give her more protection in the antebellum time period, she does not want the era to taint him in any way. She says, "I didn't want this place to touch him except through me." Readers can also infer that Dana feels validation when Kevin opens his eyes and says, "It's real!" This confirms what Dana knows to be true, and having Kevin affirm her experience is likely a relief.

What does Rufus's acceptance of Dana's time travel in Kindred show about his character?

Rufus takes a logical approach when it comes to Dana and Kevin's explanation of how they time travel to 19th-century Maryland. Rufus does not readily believe what Dana and Kevin say; namely, that they are from California and 1976. He asks a series of questions in order to assess if what they say is true. For example, he asks when and how California became a state. He implores Dana to tell him other facts, which represent the past to Dana but the future to Rufus. Finally, after Kevin shows Rufus coins stamped with the year 1976, he believes them, even though he says he doesn't understand why they are able to travel. Rufus's course of questioning shows his logical way of thinking about a complicated situation. Rufus also cares for Dana and implores her and Kevin to play roles acceptable to 1819—that is, they cannot tell anyone that they are husband and wife, and they must say that Dana is a slave who belongs to Kevin. Rufus shows that he can recognize a black person as a human being and not solely as property.

In "The Fall" section of Kindred, what is Dana's view of how antebellum society "considered women perennial children"?

Dana states, "I was the worst possible guardian for [Rufus]—a black to watch over him in a society that considered blacks subhuman, a woman to watch over him in a society that considered women perennial children." In the early 1800s, white women did not usually own property or work, which made them just as dependent on men for their food, clothing, shelter, and safety as were their children. Legally, a woman belonged to her father until given in marriage to her husband, to whom she then legally belonged. All property that a woman brought with her to a marriage became her husband's. Many white women were not educated, so they were not intellectually challenged and were kept in a state of ignorance. In the antebellum South, black women were typically slaves and were expected to do as they were told; they were considered property, were not educated, and were considered subhuman.

In Kindred, why is Kevin's warning about how Rufus will grow to be like Tom Weylin significant?

Dana wants to believe that if she is good to Rufus, he will remember this when she returns. She hopes to create some ongoing goodwill between them, ensuring both of their lives and nurturing him to be a more empathetic adult than his father. Kevin counters this thought, saying that time and place take precedent over her goodwill and that Rufus's "environment will be influencing him every day you're gone." Kevin reminds Dana that Rufus is still a child and that white children often saw themselves on equal terms with the slaves, especially if they played with slave children. However, as Rufus grows up, his "maturity" will "put both in their 'places.'" Kevin reveals a harsh reality and foreshadows later events in the novel.

How does Dana reading to Rufus in "The Fall" chapter of Kindred support the themes of education and power over versus power under?

While Rufus's leg heals, Dana reads to him books of the time period—Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim's Progress, Gulliver's Travels—saying she likes the "escape into the fictional world of someone else's trouble." Dana enjoys teaching Rufus, which reverses the power structure of the master/slave relationship; as an educator, she has the power to shape Rufus's mind. Rufus's education leads to Tom Weylin learning about Dana's ability to read. This foreshadows Weylin later learning that Dana is teaching Nigel, a slave, to read as well, which prompts Weylin to assert his power as a slave owner and whip Dana. Like almost all slave owners, Weylin does not want his slaves to learn to read or write; keeping the slaves uneducated makes them less likely to escape.

In "The Fall" section of Kindred, what is the meaning of Tom Weylin's warning to Dana about staying with Kevin?

Tom Weylin tells Dana that he could buy her from Kevin. In response, Dana says that she would rather stay with Kevin. Weylin gives Dana a "look of pity" and says, "If you do, girl, you'll live to regret it." Weylin watches Dana with an interest that is beyond master and slave. Though not educated or refined, Weylin has a keen mind, one that zeros in on others' strengths and weaknesses in order to suit his own wants and needs. He knows Dana could be useful to him in ways other slaves cannot, mainly because she is educated, which leads him to try to manipulate her by invoking regret. Also, Kevin has told Weylin that he plans to sell Dana when they get further South, so it appears that Weylin may actually feel sorry for Dana.

In Kindred, why does Dana say, "We were observers watching a show"?

Dana refers to how she and Kevin play roles while living in the antebellum South. In "The Fall," she likens this to "watching a show" because they are able, as outsiders, to detach themselves from the people and events on the plantation. She marvels at how she and Kevin fit in so well in antebellum Maryland and believes this is because they are acting—playing parts and humoring others around them—and do not accept that this timeline is their real life. The idea of the "show" may also refer to the 1976 era from which Dana and Kevin come. It is a time of easily accessible television and movies; people can watch real-life news or fictional depictions of real life. Though they are live actors in antebellum Maryland, Dana feels the situation is unreal at times.

Why do the differences in Rufus's and Nigel's lessons make Dana "bitter" in "The Fall" section of Kindred?

Dana plays the role of tutor, reader, and instructor to Rufus, who exhibits laziness and a lack of interest in acquiring knowledge. In contrast, Nigel absorbs each reading and writing lesson with acuity and vigor. For Nigel, the hope is that education will lead to more pathways to freedom, perhaps in the shape of writing his own pass to freedom. However, the stakes are higher for Nigel because, if caught, he will be whipped, tortured, and possibly sold further South as punishment. Dana feels bitterness because Rufus has freedom and luxuries that he does not take advantage of, while Nigel has no such privilege. In the end, no matter how hard Nigel works, he may one day die as a slave rather than as a free man.

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