Octavia E. Butler

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Kindred Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Octavia E. Butler's Kindred. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Octavia E. Butler

Butler grew up in the racial mix of Pasadena, experiencing segregation and discrimination first-hand as she watched her mother and female relatives withstand abuse as maids from their employers. A dreamy and introspective child, Butler found escape in books and writing. After graduating high school, Butler found many temporary jobs that allowed her to attend Pasadena City College at night and later write in the early mornings. With the publication of the Patternist Series and Kindred in 1979, Butler was able to support herself on her writing alone. Butler has won numerous awards for her novels and short stories, including the Hugo for her short works Speech Sounds and Bloodchild and the Nebula Award for her book The Parable of the Talents. In 1995, Butler was the first science fiction author to receive the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant” meant to sponsor brilliant work from the country’s leading artists. She is most famous for the Patternist Series, the Xenogenesis Trilogy, and the Parable Series, with Kindred representing her most significant departure from more clearly science fiction work. In 1999, Butler moved to Lake Forest Park, Washington, where she lived until her death. Her papers and manuscripts are now housed in the Huntington Library.
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Historical Context of Kindred

Much of the novel deals with the effects of two interracial relationships, though one is a legal marriage and the other is an arrangement in which a master takes sexual advantage of his slave. From accounts of the time period, it seems to have been a matter of course for white male slave masters to sexually abuse their female slaves, and less likely for white women to engage in relationships with black men. Despite this, the public perception painted black men as predators of white women, and warned against diluting the “purity” of the white race through these couplings. Very few white men legally recognized the mixed-race children that came from these relations, as Dana urges Rufus to do at the end of Kindred. The status of children matched the status of the mother, meaning that most mixed-race children were kept as slaves just like their black mothers, though some of the lightest-skinned children could run away and attempt to “pass” as white by hiding their racial identity. This explains why Dana would have no idea that her ancestry included white blood. Interracial marriage was not fully legal in all 50 states until 1967, only about a decade before Kevin and Dana married within the world of the novel. However, there is still a strong preference in certain regions of America for partners of the same race, with interracial couples accounting for only 5% of all marriages annually.

Other Books Related to Kindred

In moving through time and space, Butler works within the template of a fantastic travelogue pioneered by science fiction authors such as Jules Verne, Jonathan Swift, and others – yet Butler approaches it from a specifically racially conscious perspective. Many works written after Butler’s initial foray into African American science fiction are collected in Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora edited by Sheree Thomas. Butler also includes elements of the slave narrative, with extensive research into the slave narratives she could find, especially those with a strong autobiographical component such as The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman’s accounts, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. Kindred is an important entry into the neo-slave narrative genre that reconstructs the lives of slaves from a modern historical perspective. Butler also uses both of the neo-slave and science fiction genres for feminist purposes, featuring a strong female protagonist similar to those found in the works of Gayl Jones (Corregidora) and Toni Cade Bambara (The Salt Eaters).
Key Facts about Kindred
  • Full Title: Kindred
  • When Published: 1979
  • Literary Period: Contemporary literature
  • Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction, Neo-Slave Narrative, Literature
  • Setting: California, 1976 and Maryland, pre-Civil War
  • Climax: When Rufus finally crosses the line of Dana’s freedom and attempts to rape her, Dana manages to stab Rufus and kill him. She returns to her present, but loses her left arm in the process.
  • Antagonist: Tom Weylin, the institution of slavery, racism and discrimination
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for Kindred

Contemporary remake. As of 2017, Kindred has been adapted to a graphic novel by writer Damien Duffy and illustrator John Jennings, bringing this visceral account of slavery to a new audience and updating it to address the racial upheaval of recent years in America.

Gender dynamics. Dana, the main character of Kindred, was originally planned to be a male protagonist. Butler then developed a female protagonist in order to explore the ways that women would be treated as if they were weak and safe when they could really be powerful and dangerous.