Kindred, and Reclaiming Kumbaya
By Hilary Misle
When real life feels too overwhelming, I like to escape into fiction. (To be honest, I like to escape into fiction when everything is peachy, too). But these last couple of weeks, with my heart aching and breaking in the wake of news about yet another black life senselessly ended too soon in my native country, I found context in a surprising genre — science fiction.
Kindred, a neo-slave narrative written by science fiction giant Octavia Butler, is a Black Lives Matter novel. The last few weeks, conscientious readers who want to better understand historic and structural racism started compiling reading lists — mostly nonfiction — to help them contextualize this moment in time. I’m no different, and I have several titles waiting to be read, including Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. But this one felt just as pressing to me as the critical examinations of racial dynamics. Why does a sci-fi / fantasy tale about time travel feel so relevant today?
Although it was published in 1979, Kindred corresponds very well to our modern world. Too well, really, considering the bulk of the story takes place on a plantation in antebellum Maryland. Several times throughout the novel, the protagonist, Dana, finds herself ripped from the present and thrust into a world where she is seen as a slave. While she can’t explain what’s happening, Dana realizes she’s traveling through time and space whenever the life of the white plantation owner’s son is endangered. The kicker? She can’t just let the boy die — no matter how badly she is mistreated — because he is her distant relative.
And make no doubt about it, Dana is mistreated, even after the boy, Rufus, comes to understand the reality of her predicament. “Mistreated” is really too gentle of a word to describe the sickening, sadistic punishments inflicted upon Dana and the other enslaved people. Not even the free black people she meets are safe from the whites, who control everything in that world. And therein lies the connection to today. Although slavery has been abolished, we haven’t achieved true equality, and we never will as long as the playing field remains unequal.
Thinking about how this novel fits into current society, my gaze focuses on Dana’s white husband, Kevin. During one of her trips to the plantation, he travels with her, and when she’s propelled back to the present, he gets stuck behind. For five years. Once he’s able to escape to the present again with Dana, she senses he has changed — and not just because he developed a slight accent. Did he become a slave owner? No. In fact, he even helped out with the Underground Railroad, to his own personal risk. But she can’t help but observe how he adapted a little too easily to the circumstances of that time and place. Even the enslaved children play at being field hands. “I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery,” she says. And in some ways, to her horror, Dana feels almost comfortable there, too. Which leads to some uncomfortable questions.
Speaking of parallels to our current age, the word “kindred” brings to mind family relationships, kinship, and also a certain kumbaya attitude that implies “we’re all one and we’re all the same.” For some readers, the title may evoke another popular refrain, “All Lives Matter,” seemingly used these days as a contrary retort to the increasingly insistent declarations that Black Lives Matter. On an interesting side note, it is believed that “Kumbaya” originated among African Americans in the South as a musical appeal to god to help those in need. More recently, that word has come to signify derisive doubt about compromise and cooperation.
Coming back to the original meaning: when we’re desolate, we may ask ourselves what more can we do but sing, cry, and pray like the desperate “someone” in the hymn? I would argue that it’s time to take back that song. But instead of appealing to a higher power, it’s time we take care of ourselves and of each other. I’d like to imagine Dana reclaiming kumbaya, along with her own power, in the climax of the book. There’s a breath or two where she considers going along and giving up; after all, it would be so much easier. And she doesn’t extract herself from the situation unscathed; far from it. Maybe she’d tell us that fighting for ourselves, our neighbors, and for justice isn’t easy. But when was the path to change ever smooth?
Antiracist reading list: https://www.goodreads.com/blog/show/1873
What are you reading to help you process the racial violence and disparities that’s on all of our minds right now? Let me know in the comments.