Politics of the Margins in Octavia Butler’s Kindred: Queerness, Disability, Race


SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

LSFRC 2021 Papers


Politics of the Margins in Octavia Butler’s Kindred: Queerness, Disability, Race

Marietta Kosma

Throughout Octavia Butler’s Kindred, the author raises numerous tensions around the notions of accessibility, disability, equality, and inclusion, exposing the crisis of black futures. My analysis focuses on the way that disability informs the protagonist Dana’s experiences in the context of slavery, her positioning in the contemporary discourse of neo-liberalism, and her positioning in the prospective future. Very few scholars perceive Dana’s subjectivity as an actual state of being that carries value both materially as well as metaphorically. The materiality of disability has not constituted part of the larger discourse of the American slave system. By examining how Butler  renders disability both figuratively and materially, I establish a connection between the past, the present, and the future. The different figurations of space and time exposed through Dana’s time-traveling help conceptualize her accessibility in different structures. Previous scholarship has focused exclusively on the origin and legacy of trauma, inflicted on the black female body of the twentieth century; however there has been too little criticism in relation to the active construction of black female subjectivity, located at the level of the body. I wish to explore how spectacles of violence against black female bodies function in the wider political imagery of the twenty-first century. The physical and psychological displacement of Dana, as a black female body, exposes her trauma and the difficulties she faces in order to reclaim her subjectivity in a society burdened by a history of violence and exploitation. Even though Kindred was written before the Black Lives Matter movement emerged, it can be analyzed in a way that asserts the continuity of African-American trauma, the perpetuation of systematic racism in the United States, and the crisis of blackness in the future. Systematic violence threatens black women’s wholeness and renders their bodies at risk.

This article discusses how Octavia Butler’s Kindred depicts how disability can be conceptualized as some form of ideological denaturalization of the domesticated able-bodied self. I take concern with issues of home, subjectivity, and health. Kindred depicts the collision of two different worlds: the antebellum past and twentieth-century Maryland. In an interview with Larry McCaffery, Butler states that Kindred originated from “a concern with how and why people reacted to slavery” (65). She wanted to describe the idea of how individuals engaged with the discourse of slavery. Through Dana, she describes how any person might react if transplanted to the antebellum past. The focus of this article is issues of health and disability, which I see as grounding race relations. Butler’s commentary on race, gender, and disability is bound to the concept of domesticity. The novel opens up in 1976, the United States’ bicentennial, when Dana and her husband Kevin have just moved to their new home in Maryland. Once they start unpacking, Dana is violently torn away to the nineteenth century to save Rufus, her white ancestor. Over the course of the novel, Dana is involuntarily summoned to the past to save Rufus when his life is in danger. The importance of the imminent change of spatiality and temporality through Dana’s time-traveling is brought to the forefront from the very start of the narrative.

Dana exists between two different homes. The concern of domesticity is clearly articulated through the first sentences of the narrative, “I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm. And I lost about a year of my life and much of the comfort and security I had not valued until it was gone” (Butler 9). In this passage, the ethical implications of the individual inhabiting spaces among homes arise. More specifically, “the world of healthy Cartesian subjects is a home of comfort and security, familiarity, and acceptance” (Comer 88). Therefore it is necessary to consider what ‘home’ means for Dana since none of the spaces where she exists provides her with comfort and security. Each time she goes back to the past, Dana forms a better understanding of her family’s history. Dana, a twentieth-century racially conscious black woman “is made a slave” [1] in the sense that she needs to endure the physical burden of slavery, (multiple beatings, attempted rapes, lashing, and forced labor) but also the psychological burden of slavery. More specifically, Dana’s ultimate torment is deciding whether to help her ancestor Alice preserve her life or whether to become complicit in Alice’s rape to ensure the continuation of her African American family’s ancestral line and by extension, her own life, both in a literal and metaphorical way. Dana is skeptical toward this responsibility of hers from the first time she encounters Rufus. She wonders “Was that why I was here? Not only to insure the survival of one accident-prone small boy, but to insure my family’s survival, my own survival? . . . If I was to live, if others were to live, he must live. I didn’t dare test the paradox” (Butler 29). The decisions she makes are impacted by the instinct of self-preservation.

Through time–traveling, Dana emerges as an itinerant subject. As a woman who belongs in 1976 California, Dana feels disdain toward her foremothers. At first, she exposes contempt and disdain towards Alice who chooses to do “the safe thing” and views her as “the kind of woman who might have been called ‘mammy’ in some other household” (Rushdy 163). Alice is viewed as embodying the stereotype of the Mammy, the female equivalent of Uncle Tom. Dana separates herself from Alice’s stance and refuses to enact the role of the mammy. She disrupts the collective mandate placed on her to create generations. Therefore, viewing Dana as a maternal figure is extremely troubling. Beaulieu and Mitchell perform such a reading and disrupt Dana’s positioning as the mother of Rufus. Even though Dana takes care of Rufus, being his mother would go against her personal strategies of self-preservation. The characters in the nineteenth century view Dana as a queer figure, as she encompasses many characteristics that were diverse to other women of her community. Her actions are acts of “resistance to being confined to the roles of motherhood and domesticity” (Miletic 273). She further develops other roles in relation to her standing in the present. More specifically, Butler states from the beginning of the narrative that Dana is a writer. Dana and Kevin meet through their common interest in writing, as they work at “a casual labor agency” that “regulars called . . . the slave market” (Butler 52).

What seemed more troubling was the fact that while at first Dana was sternly resisting her designation as an enslaved female body during the past, eventually she became accustomed to mistreatment. As mentioned during the following excerpt:

Time passed. Kevin and I became more a part of the household. Familiar, accepted, accepting. That disturbed me too when I thought about it. How easily we seemed to acclimatize. Not that I wanted us to have trouble, but it seemed as though we should have had a harder time adjusting to this particular segment of history—adjusting to our places in the household of a slaveholder . . . and I was perverse enough to be bothered by the ease. (Butler 97)

It is troubling that as time was passing Dana became so accustomed to her new home. The degree to which she became complacent to Rufus’s violence and to systemic violence overall should get questioned. It could be argued that Dana turned into a stranger in the territory she inhabits. This aligns with Du Bois’s question, “Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in my own house?” (8). Butler problematizes being at home. This is further extrapolated when Dana and Kevin observe some children of the slave community, playing an auction block game. Dana and Kevin remained hidden and look at the children while they:

went on with their play. . . . “Now here a likely wench,” called the boy on the stump. He gestures toward the girl who stood slightly behind him. “She cook and wash and iron. Come here, gal. Let the folks see you.” He drew the girl up beside him. “She young and strong,” he continued. “She worth plenty of money. Two hundred dollars. Who bid two hundred dollars?” The little girl turned to frown at him. “I’m worth more than two hundred dollars, Sammy!” she protested. “You sold Martha for five hundred dollars!” “You shut your mouth,” said the boy. “You ain’t supposed to say nothing. When Marse Tom bought Mama and me, we didn’t say nothing.” (Butler 99)

This passage shows that the ideology of slavery is passed on to the community from a very young age. The stance of endurance of the children is in opposition to Dana’s stance as a disabled body. These children unconsciously reproduce the roles that were prescribed for them by the antebellum south. By engaging in this game through role-playing, the actual auction block becomes normalized. This is troubling because it entails children from a very young age to reiterate the structure of slavery. In this game the little girl seems to be at a more disadvantaged state than her male counterpart as she is taught by her mother to endure the commands given to her by the boy in order to avoid greater harm. She knows that she needs to follow the boys’ commands and she employs endurance as a strategy of survival. In this context, having a black body is synonymous with objectification and degradation, of subjugation and dehumanization. It carries the power to suffocate and stifle the individual. The black female body is reduced to being a silent object that needs to remain invisible, unseen, protected from the male gaze, while embodying resilience.This scene brings to the forefront the way that black women are continuously negotiating questions of racialized denigration.

Dana differentiates herself from other members of her community and sets limits for her own body. Her standing as a member of the post-civil rights era helps her conceptualize the action of rape as criminal, while members of the antebellum era had to endure such criminality. Dana says to Kevin that:

“[Rufus] has to leave me enough control over my own life to make living look better to me than killing and dying.” “If your black ancestors had felt that way, you wouldn’t be here,” said Kevin. “I told you when all this started that I didn’t have their endurance. I still don’t. Some of them will go on struggling to survive, no matter what. I’m not like that.” (Butler 246)

She believes that she has to have the right to make her own choices instead of her whole life being dominated by Rufus. Dana believes that she needs to employ nonviolence “a practice of resistance, that becomes possible, if not mandatory, precisely at the moment when doing violence seems most justified and obvious” (27). Dana’s choice not to harm Rufus is a conscious one. While pursuing her self-preservation Dana makes sure to establish Rufus as the patriarch, even though her action entails violence towards a member of her community. She rather adopts an individualistic stance and tries to escape the predicament of victimization.

At the end of the novel, Dana escapes rape, as she views it as an occurrence that is even worse than death. She refuses getting raped by exposing itinerancy. She refuses the role of the victim and, for the first time, imposes her own conditions on her relationship with Rufus. She says, “I could accept him as my ancestor, my younger brother, my friend, but not as my master, and not as my lover” (260). When Rufus attempts to rape her, Dana kills him and returns to the present. Dana’s newfound sense of herself leads to an emancipatory revision of history. A few seconds before Rufus dies, he desperately tries to grab Dana’s arm. When Dana returns to consciousness she is back at her house in Maryland. She realizes that her arm is fused into the wall of her bedroom. Through the trope of time-traveling, Dana escapes the communal longing of reproduction and reconstructs her community’s history. She manages to survive and at the same time she rewrites history by reaching a more complex understanding of her standing in the present. She operates in her best interest as she ultimately kills the person to whom she was previously committed and protecting up to this point. The ultimate strategy that Dana chooses is refusing to allow Rufus to rape her. By killing him, she asserts her own authority. She asserts her subjectivity by resisting sexual victimization. She sets Rufus’s plantation house on fire, actively challenging the white master’s authority. By destroying the house, she renders impossible the continuation of the lives of slaves in the plantation. She provides them the possibility to escape from Rufus’s domination. By burning down the house, she gives them the opportunity to flee to the north and escape the plantation site.

I read Dana’s act as libratory to herself and others, as she gives them a chance to escape their position as slaves. She also provided the other members of the plantation with the psychological outlet of escape from slavery, as she gave them the opportunity to conceptualize a different future. However, it should be noted that she cannot be sure of the effects of her action on the slaves of plantation. Even though Dana acted in “self-defense,” she is aware of the danger in which she places the other members of her community. She voices her fears that the outcome of her own choice would have a “cost . . . [on] Nigel’s children, Sarah, all the others” (264). She values their lives but gives ultimate value to her own self-preservation. Dana’s violence takes on an institutional form, as it is addressed against the institution of slavery that renders the female body as property. Dana contests Rufus’s institutional power and intends to diminish the system that had previously enslaved her. Dana wants to protect her story as an individual, sustain herself and reach a more complex understanding of herself. There is no final resolution in the narrative, nor does Butler provide an insight to the afterlife of the other members of the plantation. As Dorothy Allison states, “Butler offers no resolutions at the end of Kindred . . . Dana is left wounded . . . [and] we do not know what will become of her marriage to Kevin, a white man” (476). Butler does not provide a resolution in the end, however she allows Dana to reach a more complex understanding of herself as she now understands the ways in which her past has affected her present. Dana “will always bear the mark of her kindred” (Salvaggio and McKee Chamas 33). Her individual needs and her communal obligations are in conflict but at the same time they are mutually supportive to a point. Even though she is in conversation with the history of her foremothers, at the same time she moves away from it.

In Kindred, disability and otherness are intricately linked. Disability “becomes an apt figure for both having one’s identity (with all the domestic violence that that implies) and not having it” (Comer 99). Disability is revealed as an oscillated exposure, between agency and submission. The assimilation of otherness from the outside to a domestic inside does not fully occur, as wholeness is not necessarily synonymous to being at home. Part of Dana’s arm is trapped in her nineteenth-century home and part of it rematerializes in a wall in her 1976 home. Her arm is a “literal and visceral reminder of her exposure to Rufus [as she is] physically strewn between two times, she will never be at home” (99). The loss of her arm not only reflects the eradication of the Other, Rufus, but also it is a highly performative act that functions as a reminder of a series of actions that cannot be wholly repressed. Dana’s murder of the Other function as the ultimate step of self-fashioning preserving the last kernel of her individualistic self. Violence against the other entails at the same time violence against one’s self. As Comer explains, “To be ontologically whole is to remain connected to others in the face of mortality—to keep the ‘house’ and all that it implies at some distance” (100). This is evident when Dana travels to the past in order to save Rufus when he and his home are in danger. She then returns to the future when she is faced with total eradication of herself. Even though she starts heading once at home, a closer look reveals that her healing begins once she is removed from Rufus’s presence. Both spaces can become domesticated as mortality functions as the origin of her oscillation between past and present and subsequently between Self and Other.

In conclusion, homes created within a normalizing ideological context become estranged in view of a disabled body. The disabled body exists both within yet outside of spatial arrangements. Dana is ideologically interjected in the discourse through her disability. Ideology “substantiates a status quo and uses actions to interpolate its subjects” (Comer 108). Then a crucial question arises: If identity is established through one’s acts, do those who are unable to perform some acts due to their disability continuously experience defamiliarization from home? Butler’s emphasis on embodiment in Kindred is agential in “refus[ing] to account for identity as reducible to the texts produced by political and cultural power for the purposes of oppressing those who do not merit representation” (Robertson 366). Her main focus is embodiment within the context of the United States’ history and therefore places the body at the very center of larger socio-cultural concerns. Instances of empowerment emerge through the process of decolonization, through undoing the oppressor’s ideology that only “able bodies” are worthy of attention. Butler’s Kindred constitutes a continuation of Du Bois’s discourse in regards to disability. Butler interrogates the privileging of wholeness, domestic boundaries, and normative bodies. Instead of dismissing the body in the pursuit of transcendence, she embraces the body, its non-domesticity, its finitude, its non-normativity, its disability and ultimately gestures toward a different way of being.

NOTES

[1] My reference is to a chiasmus from Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an African Slave: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man” (294).

WORKS CITED

Allison, Dorothy. “The Future of Female: Octavia Butler’s Mother Lode.” Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Meridian, 1990, pp. 471-478.

Butler, Octavia E. “An Interview with Octavia E. Butler.” Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers, edited by Larry McCaffery, U Illinois P, 1990, pp. 54–70.

–. Kindred. Beacon Press, 1979.

Comer, Todd. “The Domestic Politics of Disability in Octavia Butler’s Kindred.” JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory. vol. 48, no. 1, 2018, pp. 84-108.

Douglass, Frederick. “The Significance of Emancipation in the West Indies,” The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, edited by John W. Blassingame, vol. 3, 1855-63, Yale University Press, 1985.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folks. 1903. Vintage Books/Library of America, 1990.

Miletic, Philip. “Octavia E. Butler’s Response to Black Arts/Black Power Literature and Rhetoric in Kindred.” African American Review. vol. 49, no. 3, 2016, pp. 261-275.

Robertson, Benjamin. “‘Some Matching Strangeness’: Biology, Politics, and the Embrace of History in Octavia Butler’s Kindred.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 37, no. 3, 2010, pp. 362-381.

Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. Neo-slave narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Salvaggio, Ruth and Suzy McKee Chamas. “Octavia Butler,” Octavia Butler, and Joan D. Vinge, edited by Marleen S. Barr, Ruth Salvaggio, and Richard Law. Starmount House, 1986, pp. 1-44.

Marietta Kosma is a second year Ph.D. student in English at the University of Oxford at Lady Margaret Hall. Her academic background includes a master’s degree in English from JSU and a master’s degree in ancient Greek theater from the University of the Aegean. Her research interests lie in twentieth-century American literature, post-colonialism, and gender studies. Her research has been published internationally in Right for Education, U.S. Studies online forum for new writing, EJAS, Ideas and Cambridge Scholars Publishing among others . She has presented at BAAS Postgraduate Symposium 2021 and the Science Fiction: Activism and resistance conference among others.


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