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Other Volumes in the Black Women Writers Series

Series Editor: Deborah E. McDowell

Marita Bonner/Frye Street and Environs
Octavia E. Butler/Kindred
Alice Childress/Lzfce One of the Family
Frances E. W. Harper//o/a Leroy
Gayl lones/Corregidora; Eva’s Man
Ann Petry/The Narrows; The Street
Carlene Hatcher Polite/77ze Flagellants

Octavia E. Butler

With an Introduction by Robert Crossley

Beacon Press Boston

Beacon Press

25 Beacon Street

Boston, Massachusetts 02108

Beacon Press books

are published under the auspices of

the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

© 1979 by Octavia E. Butler

Introduction © 1988 by Beacon Press

First published as a Beacon paperback in 1988

All rights reserved

Printed in the United States of America

95 94 93 92 91 90 89 88 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Butler, Octavia E.


(Black women writers series)

I. Title. II. Series.

PS3552.U827K5 1988 813′.54 87-47879

ISBN 0-8070-8305-4

To Victoria Rose,

friend and goad











Robert Crossley

What tangled skeins are the genealogies of slavery!

Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1861

The American slave narrative is a literary form whose historical bound¬

aries are firmly marked. While first-person narratives about oppression

and exclusion will persist as long as racism persists, slave narratives

ceased to be written when the last American citizen who had lived under

institutionalized slavery died. The only way in which a new slave-memoir

could be written is if someone were able to travel into the past, become

a slave, and return to tell the story. Because the laws of physics, such

as we know them, preclude traveling backwards in time, such a book

would have to be a hybrid of autobiographical narrative and scientific

fantasy. That is exactly the sort of book Octavia Butler imagined when

she wrote Kindred, first published in 1979. Like all good works of fiction,

it lies like the truth.

Kindred begins and ends in mystery. On June 9, 1976, her twenty-

sixth birthday, Edana, a black woman moving with her white husband

Kevin Franklin to a new house in a Los Angeles suburb, is overcome by

nausea while unpacking cartons. Abruptly she finds herself kneeling on

a riverbank; hearing a child’s screams, she runs into the river to save

him, applies artificial respiration, and as the boy begins breathing again

she looks up into a rifle barrel. Again she sickens and is once more in

her new house, but now she is soaked and covered in mud. This is the

first of several such episodes of varying duration which make up the bulk

of the novel. Sometimes Dana (the shortened form of her name she


prefers) is transported alone, sometimes with Kevin; but the dizzy spells

that immediately precede her movements occur without warning and she

can induce her return to Los Angeles only at the hazard of her life. To

her horror Dana discovers during a second and longer episode of dis¬

orientation that she is moving not simply through space but through time

as well—to antebellum Maryland, to the plantation of a slaveowner who

is her own distant (though not nearly distant enough) ancestor. These

trips, like convulsive memories dislocating her in time, occupy only a

few minutes or hours of her life in 1976, but her stay in the alternative

time is stretched as she lives out an imposed remembrance of things past.

Because of this dual time level a brief absence from Los Angeles may

result in months spent on the Maryland plantation, observing and suffering

the backbreaking field work, persistent verbal abuse, whippings, and

other daily cruelties of enslavement. Eventually Dana realizes that Rufus

Weylin, the child she first rescues from drowning, periodically “calls”

her from the twentieth century whenever his life is in danger. As he

grows older he becomes more repugnant and brutal, but she must try to

keep him alive until he and a slave woman named Alice Greenwood

conceive a child, to be named Hagar, who will initiate Dana’s own family

line. Only at Weylin’s death does Dana return permanently to 1976.

But she returns mutilated. The narrative comes full circle to the book’s

strange and disturbing opening paragraph: “I lost an arm on my last trip

home. My left arm.” Although the novel illuminates the paradoxes of

Dana’s homecoming—the degree to which her comfortable house in 1976

and the Weylin plantation are both inescapably “home” to her—Butler

is silent on the mechanics of time travel. We know that Dana’s arm is

amputated in the jaws of the past, that time is revealed to be damaging

as well as healing, that historical understanding of human crimes is never

easy and always achieved at the price of suffering, that Dana’s murderous

relative, like Hamlet’s, is “more than kin and less than kind.” The loss

of her arm becomes in fact, as Ruth Salvaggio has suggested, “a kind

of birthmark,” the emblem of Dana’s “disfigured heritage.”1 The sym¬

bolic meanings Kindred yields are powerful and readily articulable. The

literal truth is harder to state. In The Time Machine (1895) H. G. Wells

had his traveler display the shiny vehicle on which he rode into the future

to verify the strange truth of his journey; in Kindred the method of

transport remains a fantastic given. An irresistible psychohistorical force,

not a feat of engineering, motivates Butler’s plot. How Dana travels in

time and how she loses her arm are problems of physics irrelevant to

Butler’s aims. In that respect Kindred reads less like Wellsian science


fiction than like that classic fable of alienation, Kafka’s Metamorphosis,

whose protagonist simply wakes up one morning as a giant beetle, a

fantastic eruption into the normal world.

Perhaps Butler deliberately sacrificed the neat closure that a scientific—

or even pseudo-scientific—explanation of telekinesis and chronoportation

would have given her novel. Leaving the novel’s ending rough-edged

and raw like Dana’s wound, Butler leaves the reader uneasy and disturbed

by the intersection of story and history rather than comforted by a tale

that “makes sense.” Certainly, Butler did not need to show off a tech¬

nological marvel of the sort Wells provided to mark his traveler’s path

through time; the only time machine in Kindred is present by implication:

it is the vehicle that looms behind every American slave narrative, the

grim death-ship of the Middle Passage from Africa to the slave markets

of the New World. In her experience of being kidnapped in time and

space, Dana recapitulates the dreadful, disorienting, involuntary voyage

of her ancestors, just as her employment in 1976 through a temporary

job agency—“we regulars called it a slave market,” Dana says with

grouchy irony (p. 52)—operates as a benign ghostly version of institu¬

tional slavery’s auction block.

In many ways Kindred departs from Octavia Butler’s characteristic

kind of fiction. Most of her work, from her first novel Patternmaster

,(1975) through Clay’s Ark (1984), has been situated in the future, often

a damaged future, and has focused on power relationships between “nor¬

mal” human beings- {Homo sapiens) and human mutants, gifted with

extraordinary mental power, who might generically be named Homo

superior. More recently, in her prize-winning story “Bloodchild” (1984)

and her novel Dawn (1987), Butler has shifted her attention to the intricate

web of power and affection in the relationships between human beings

and alien species. In all her science fiction she has produced fables that

speak directly or indirectly to issues of cultural difference, whether sex¬

ual, racial, political, economic, or psychological. Kindred shares with

Butler’s other works an ideological interest in exploring relationships

between the empowered and the powerless, but except for Wild Seed

(1980), Kindred is her only novel situated in the past. And even Wild

Seed—set in seventeenth-century Africa, colonial New England, and

antebellum Louisiana—is strongly mythical in flavor and is populated by

some of the same long-lived, psychically advanced characters who appear

in her futuristic novels. Kindred is technically a much sparer story; the

psychic power that draws the central character back in time to the era of

slavery remains in the novel’s background, and the autobiographical voice


of the modem descendant of, witness to, victim of American slavery is

foregrounded. Moreover, apart from the single fantastic premise of in¬

stantaneous movement through time and space, Kindred is consistently

realistic in presentation and depends on the author’s reading of authentic

slave narratives and her visits to the Talbot County, Maryland, sites of

the novel. Butler herself, when interviewed by Black Scholar, denied

that Kindred is science fiction since there is “absolutely no science in


The term “science fiction” is, however, notoriously resistant to def¬

inition and is popularly used to designate a wide range of imaginative

literature inspired and patterned by the natural sciences (chemistry, phys¬

ics, geology, astronomy, biology), by such social sciences as anthro¬

pology, sociology, and psychology, and by pseudo-sciences like

parapsychology and Scientology.3 The proportion of science-fictional

texts based on scrupulously applied scientific principles rather than on

faulty science, pseudo-science, or wishful science is probably quite small.

If, for instance, all the narratives and films premised on “starships” and

the fantastic notion of faster-than-light travel were denied the title of

“science fiction,” the canon would shrink dramatically. By the most

conservative of definitions—those which emphasize the natural sciences,

rigorously applied to fictional invention—Kindred is not science fiction.

Butler’s own preferred designation of Kindred as “a grim fantasy” is a

more precise indicator of its literary form and its emotional tenor. The

exact generic label we assign Kindred may be, however, the least im¬

portant thing about it. Like Kafka’s Metamorphosis or Anna Kavan’s

Ice, Butler’s novel is an experiment that resists easy classification by

blurring the usual boundaries of genre. Inevitably, readers will wonder

what provoked the author to adapt the form of a fantastic travelogue to

a restoration of the genre of slave-memoir.


When she enrolled in a summer workshop for novice science fiction

writers in 1970 at the age of twenty-three, Octavia Estelle Butler took a

decisive step toward satisfying an ambition she had cherished since she

was twelve. An only child whose father died when she was a baby, Butler

was aware very early of women struggling to survive. Her maternal

grandmother had stories to tell about long hours of work in the canefields

of Louisiana while raising seven children. Her mother, Octavia M. Butler,


had been working since the age of ten and spent all her adult life earning

a living as a housemaid. As the author told Veronica Mixon in an inter¬

view just before Kindred appeared, the experiences of the women in her

family influenced her youthful reading and her earliest efforts at writing:

“Their lives seemed so terrible to me at times—so devoid of joy or

reward. I needed my fantasies to shield me from their world.”4 The

powerful imaginative impulse that produced Kindred had its origin in the

escapist fantasies of a child who needed to find or invent alternative

realities. By temperament and by virtue of the strict Baptist upbringing

her mother enforced, Butler was reclusive; imaginary worlds solaced her

for the pinched rewards of the actual world, and books took the place of


Kindred, however, is not an escapist fantasy. If as a girl Butler needed

to distance herself from the grimness of her mother’s life, she nevertheless

always had her eyes open. What she saw as a child she later confronted

and reshaped as a novelist. When her mother couldn’t find or afford a

babysitter, young Octavia was often taken along to work, as she told the

interviewer from Black Scholar. Even then she observed the long arm

of slavery: the degree to which her mother operated in white society as

an invisible woman and, worse, the degree to which she accepted and

internalized her status. “I used to see her going in back doors, being

talked about while she was standing right there and basically being treated

like a non-person, something beneath notice. . . . And I could see her

later as I grew up. I could see her absorbing more of what she was hearing

from the whites than I think even she would have wanted to absorb.”5

Some of these childhood memories infiltrated the fiction she produced in

her maturity; certainly, they shaped her purpose in Kindred in imagining

the privations of earlier generations of black Americans who were in

danger of being forgotten by the black middle class as well as ignored

by white Americans. Butler’s effort to recover something of the expe¬

rience of the nineteenth-century ancestors of those who, like herself,

grew up in the heady days of the 1960s civil rights movement was a

homage both to those women in her family who still struggled for an

identity and to those more distant relations whose identities had been

lost. “So many relatives that I had never known, would never know”

(p. 28), the contemporary black woman from California muses sadly

early on in Kindred as she thinks of the bare names inked in her family

Although Dana’s experiences when she is hurled into the midst of slave

society are full of terror and pain, they also illuminate her past and freshen


her understanding of those generations forced to be nonpersons. One of

the protagonist’s—and Butler’s—achievements in traveling to the past is

to see individual slaves as people rather than as encrusted literary or

sociological types. Perhaps most impressive is Sarah the cook, the ste¬

reotypical “mammy” of books and films, whose apparent acceptance of

humiliation, Dana comes to understand, masks a deep anger over the

master’s sale of nearly all her children: “She was the kind of woman

who would be held in contempt during the militant nineteen sixties. The

house-nigger, the handkerchief-head, the female Uncle Tom—the fright¬

ened powerless woman who had already lost all she could stand to lose,

and who knew as little about the freedom of the North as she knew about

the hereafter” (p. 145). Here we see literary fantasy in the service of the

recovery of historical and psychological realities. As fictional memoir,

Kindred is Butler’s contribution to the literature of memory every bit as

much as it is an exercise in the fantastic imagination.

The artfulness of Kindred is the product of a single-minded and largely

isolated literary apprenticeship. In her younger years Butler’s relatives

paid little attention to what she read, as long as it wasn’t obscene. Her

teachers were baffled by and unreceptive to the science fiction stories she

occasionally submitted in English classes. Her schoolmates simply

thought her tastes in reading and writing strange, and increasingly Butler

kept her literary interests to herself. In her adolescence she immersed

herself in the science-fictional worlds of Theodore Sturgeon, Leigh Brack¬

ett, and Ray Bradbury, and the absence of black women writers from

the genre did not deter her own ambitions: “Frankly, it never occurred

to me that I needed someone who looked like me to show me the way.

I was ignorant and arrogant and persistent and the writing left me no

choice at all.”6

In the 1940s and 1950s no black writers and almost no women were

publishing science fiction. Not surprisingly, few black readers—and, we

can assume, very few black girls—found much to interest them in the

science fiction of the period, geared as it was toward white adolescent

boys. Some of it was provocatively racist, including Robert Heinlein’s

The Sixth Column (1949), whose heroic protagonist in a future race war

was unsubtly named Whitey. The highest tribute paid to a character of

color in such novels was for the author to have him sacrifice his life for

his white comrades, as an Asian soldier named Franklin Roosevelt Matsui

does in The Sixth Column, as does the one black character in Leigh

Brackett’s story “The Vanishing Venusians” (1944). Other books tried

resolutely to be “colorblind,” imagining a future in which race no longer


was a factor; such novels often embodied the white liberal fantasy of a

single black character functioning amiably in a predominantly white so¬

ciety. Jan Rodricks, the last survivor on earth in Arthur C. Clarke’s

Childhood’s End (1953), is a representative instance of the black character

whose blackness supposedly doesn’t matter; but the novel’s one overt

comment on race is a flippant allusion to a future reversal of South African

apartheid in which whites are the victims of black discrimination—the

stereotypical white conservative fantasy.

A diligent reader in the 1950s, searching for science fiction novels

with something more than a patronizing image of black assimilation on

white terms, could have turned up only a few texts in which black

characters’ blackness was acknowledged and allowed to shape the novel’s

thematic and ideological concerns.7 Perhaps the most interesting example

is a chapter in a book that Butler read in her youth, Bradbury’s The

Martian Chronicles (1950). Titled “Way in the Middle of the Air,” the

chapter describes a mass emigration of black Southerners to Mars in the

year 2003. The Southern economy and the cultural assumptions of white

supremacy are devastated when the entire black populace unites to ensure

that all members of the community can pay their debts and arrive at the

rocket base in time for the great exodus. Barefoot white boys report in

astonishment this unanticipated strategy for a black utopia: “Them that

has helps them that hasn’t! And that way they all get free!” In a speech

that ironically skewers the myth of progress in the history of black Amer¬

ica, one petulant white man complains:

I can’t figure why they left now. With things lookin’ up. I mean, every day
they got more rights. What they want, anyway? Here’s the poll tax gone, and
more and more states passin’ anti-lynchin’ bills, and all kinds of equal rights.

What more they want? They make almost as good money as a white man,
but there they go.8

“Way in the Middle of the Air” may be the single most incisive episode

of black and white relations in science fiction by a white author. But its

very rarity demonstrates how alien the territory of American science

fiction in its so-called golden age after the second world war was for

black readers and for aspiring writers like Octavia Butler.

Butler’s formative years and her early career coincide with the years

when American science fiction took down the “males only” sign over

the entrance. Major expansions and redefinitions of the genre have been

accomplished by such writers as Ursula K. LeGuin, Joanna Russ, Pamela

Sargent, Alice Sheldon (writing under the pseudonym of James Tiptree,

Jr.), Pamela Zoline, Marge Piercy, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Butler


herself. The alien in many of the new fictions by women has been not a

monstrous figure from a distant planet but the invisible alien within

modem, familiar, human society: the woman as alien, sometimes more

specifically, the black woman, or the Chicana, or the housewife, or the

lesbian, or the woman in poverty, or the unmarried woman. Sheldon’s

famous story “The Women Men Don’t See’’ (1974), about a mother and

daughter who embark on a ship with extraterrestrials rather than remain

unnoticed and unvalued on earth, is a touchstone for the reconception of

the old science-fictional motifs of estrangement and alienation. In a writ¬

ers’ forum Butler has commented on the paradoxical poverty of imagi¬

nation in science-fictional representations of the human image: ‘‘Science

fiction has long treated people who might or might not exist—extrater¬

restrials. Unfortunately, however, many of the same science fiction writ¬

ers who started us thinking about the possibility of extraterrestrial life

did nothing to make us think about here-at-home human variation.”9 As

American women writers have abandoned the character types that pre¬

dominated in science fiction for a richer plurality of human images, they

have collectively written a new chapter in the genre’s history.10

But the dramatic numbers of women writers subverting and transform¬

ing the conventions, stereotypes, and thematic issues of science fiction

have not been matched by an influx of black writers of similar proportions.

Samuel R. Delany, the first and most prolific black American writer to

publish science fiction, beginning in 1962 with The Jewels ofAptor, has

specialized in stylish and complexly structured fictions more closely tied

to European literary theory than to black experiences. Another of the

handful of black North Americans writing in the allied genres of science

fiction and heroic fantasy is Charles Saunders, a Pennsylvanian trans¬

planted to Canada. Saunders’s most distinctive literary innovation has

been his effort to write fantasies set in Africa and based on historical

research into precolonial cultures and myths. His hero Imaro appears in

several novels and is meant to replace the Tarzan-image of the white

noble savage with an authentic African hero; he has also produced some

engaging short stories centered on a woman warrior of Dahomey named

Dossouye.11 Most recently Jewelle Gomez has begun publishing a loosely

connected set of fantasies about an escaped slave from 1850 who becomes

a vampire and extends her life over the next several centuries; the character

functions, according to Gomez, as “a super heroic black woman who

interprets our lives through a phenomenal perspective.”12

In an essay called ‘‘Why Blacks Don’t Read Science Fiction,” Saun¬

ders proposes that black writers of science fiction and fantasy remain few


because the black readership has grown little since the 1950s. New readers

of science fiction, he suggests, frequently come to the fiction by way of

the nonprint media, and science fiction television and cinema remain

overwhelmingly white and uninviting to young black audiences. Fur¬

thermore, black readers

who share the common demographic characteristics of white science fiction

readers (i.e., young, educated, middle-class) tend to be more interested in

political and sociological works along with the fiction of black writers like

James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. To them, science fiction and fantasy may

well seem irrelevant to their main concerns.13

Saunders concludes that, despite his own interests in African-based heroic

fantasy, the prospects for black science fiction are dim. While welcoming

the enlargement of the genre’s racial horizons—and he singles out Butler’s

early fiction as the chief instance of a black presence in science fiction—

he fears that a specifically black science fiction will share the fate of so-

called blaxpoitation movies of the 1970s and be justifiably short-lived.


Perhaps Saunders would have been more sanguine about the possibility

of serious black science fiction if Kindred had been available when he

wrote his essay. If any contemporary writer is likely to redraw science

fiction’s cultural boundaries and to attract new black readers—and per¬

haps writers—to this most distinctive of twentieth-century genres, it is

Octavia Butler. More consistently than any other black author, she has

deployed the genre’s conventions to tell stories with a political and so¬

ciological edge to them, stories that speak to issues, feelings, and his¬

torical truths arising out of Afro-American experience. In centering her

fiction on women who lack power, suffer abuse, and are committed to

claiming power over their own lives and to exercising that power harshly

when necessary, Butler has not merely used science fiction as a “feminist

didactic,” in Beverly Friend’s term,14 but she has generated her fiction

out of a black feminist aesthetic. Her novels pointedly expose various

chauvinisms (sexual, racial, and cultural), are enriched by a historical

consciousness that shapes the depiction of enslavement both in the real

past and in imaginary pasts and futures, and enact struggles for personal

freedom and cultural pluralism.

At the same time, Butler has been eager to avoid turning her fiction

into polemic. Science fiction is a richly metaphorical literature. Just as


Mary Shelley in Frankenstein invented a monstrous child bom from a

male scientist’s imagination as a metaphor for the exclusion of women

from acts of creation, and just as Wells’s Time Machine used hairy

subterranean Morlocks and effete aboveground Eloi as metaphors for the

upstairs-downstairs class divisions of Victorian England, so Butler has

specialized in metaphors that dramatize the tyranny of one species or race

or gender over another.15 But her work does not read like fiction composed

by agenda. White writers, she has pointed out, tend to include black

characters in science fiction only to illustrate a problem or as signposts

to advertise the author’s distaste for racism; black people in most science

fiction are represented as “other.”16 All her fiction stands in quiet re¬

sistance to the notion that a black character in a science fiction novel is

there for a reason. In a Butler novel the black protagonist is there, like

the mountain, because she is there. Although she does not hesitate to

harness the power of fiction as fable to create striking analogies to the

oppressive realities of our own present world, Butler also peoples her

imagined worlds with black characters as a matter of course. Events and

lives are usually in crisis in her books, but she celebrates racial difference.

While Butler’s frequent use of black women as protagonists has often

been noticed, it is also important that there are always numbers of char¬

acters of color in her novels. There is enough of a critical mass of racial

and sexual and cultural diversity in any Butler novel to make reading it

different from the experience of reading the work of almost any other

practicing science fiction writer. One of the exciting features of Kindred

is that so much of the novel is attentive not to the exceptional situation

of an isolated modern black woman in a white household under slavery

but to her complex social and psychological relationships with the com¬

munity of black slaves she joins. Despite the severe stresses under which

they live, the slaves constitute a rich human society: Dana’s proud and

vulnerable ancestor Alice Greenwood; the mute housemaid Carrie; Sarah,

the cook who nurses old grievances while kneading down the bread dough;

young Nigel, whom Dana teaches to read from a stolen primer; Sam

James the field hand, who begs Dana to teach his brother and sister;

Alice’s husband Isaac, mutilated and sold to Mississippi after a failed

escape attempt; even Liza the sewing woman, who betrays Dana to the

master and is punished by the other slaves for her complicity with the

white owners. Although the black community is persistently fractured by

the sudden removal of its members through either the calculated strategy

or the mere whim of their white controllers, that community always

patches itself back together, drawing from its common suffering and

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