Kindred didn't pander to me and I liked that
I loved the book The Help when I was in high school – it takes place in the 1960s and the protagonist is a white woman who writes about black maids working in white households. It’s not a terrible book, but it centers on a nice white woman who helps black people (who don’t really need the help in the first place) and then profits off of it. I liked the book because it was readable and the characters were overall compelling, but even more so, I liked it because it pandered to me, a white reader.
More broadly, many of the books I read when I was a child that took place during the time of slavery focused primarily if not exclusively on a nice white person who is unfortunate enough to be born during slavery.
Because of this background, the white characters in Kindred really struck me – they were so different from the sympathetic white characters I was used to, the kind of characters I could relate to without feeling too uncomfortable. The white characters in Kindred made me uncomfortable because they were “nice people” but completely morally indefensible. I’m not used to not being pandered to.
In Kindred, Dana (a black woman) travels back in time from 1976 to 1815 to save her white ancestor Rufus from a series of accidents. Rufus is a kind, caring child who grows up to be a callous adult with some nice-ish tendencies. Dana’s relationship with Rufus mirrors the white reader’s relationship with Rufus: the white reader (at least, this white reader) expects that Rufus will be good – that the goodness he displays as a child will translate to goodness as an adult and he will be the exception to the rule in a time where it was hard but not impossible to be a moral white person who will one day inherit his father's slaves. In fact, every chapter (that is, every time Dana goes back in time) is a new chance for Rufus to be good, to be an exception to the system of slavery and slave owning. If there can be an exception to the system, the white reader might unconsciously think, then perhaps the system wasn’t that, all-encompassingly bad. But it is. And because it is, Rufus is not a good person – because there are no good white slaveholders.
Dana and the reader find out early on that Rufus had a child with Alice, a free black woman. This child is Dana’s great grandmother. Rufus and Alice’s childhood friendship combined with Alice’s free status combined with Rufus’s childlike goodness caused at least one white reader (me) to expect sort of a forbidden love story where everyone ends up happy despite a lot of difficult trials. But of course, that turns out not to be the case. Rufus is in love with Alice and repeatedly tries to get her to love him back. She repeatedly refuses him, and he finally rapes her. After she and her enslaved husband are captured while trying to escape, Rufus buys Alice and continues to rape her for the rest of her short life.
There is one genuinely good white person in Kindred, and that’s Kevin, Dana’s husband. Kevin goes back into time with Dana the third time she goes back. Because Dana can’t precisely control exactly when she goes back to 1976 (she goes back when she thinks she is about to die), she ends up leaving Kevin in 1815. While Dana spends only a few days without Kevin in 1976, Kevin spends almost a decade alone in the 1800s. And he bears the scars of being a good white person in the slaveholding South – he gets a literal scar on his forehead and has to grow his beard out as a disguise as a result of harboring escaping slaves. And when he finally gets back to 1976, he has trouble adjusting and reconciling the trauma he witnessed and experienced with his nice, comfortable life.
A lot of people have written a lot more eloquently than me about both The Help and Kindred:
- Janet Maslin reviewed The Help for The New York Times and called it an “ultimately soft-pedaled version of Southern women’s lives, one in which real danger is usually at a distance.” (link)
- Charles H. Rowell interviewed Octavia Butler for the Callaloo Journal in 1997. In that interview, Butler explains how she got the idea to write Kindred: “I heard some remarks from a young man who was the same age I was but who had apparently never made the connection with what his parents did to keep him alive. He was still blaming them for their humility and acceptance of disgusting behavior on the part of employers and other people.” (link)
- Gabrielle Bellot wrote a lovely, meandering review of Kindred for LitHub focused on how "Kindred erodes the naïve idea that the brutalities of the past are no more in the present." (link)