1. When Dana first met Kevin, she was working for a casual labor agency – which the regulars called the “slave market,” even though it was the opposite of slavery. She goes into the office every day at 6 am to see if she has a job that day, accepting jobs that require menial labor for minimum wage where the more mindless the worker is, the better. Dana works here so that she can shuffle through the day and write her novel at night. She is half asleep at work, prompting Kevin to introduce himself by asking why Dana always looks like a zombie.
Dana was once able to casually joke about slavery from her perspective in the present. These temporary warehouse jobs do not require any special skill, just like the slaves were actively discouraged from developing their education—however, Dana chooses to do these jobs rather than being forced into them, reserving her mental energy for her writing.
Kevin tries to talk to Dana, though Dana doesn’t want to get in trouble for slacking off on the job. Another employee, Buz, told Kevin that Dana was a writer, and Kevin reveals that he is also a writer who works at a warehouse for rent money while his books aren’t yet profitable. Dana truly looks at Kevin for the first time, noting his strangely pale face, hair, and eyes. Dana is jealous that Kevin even has a book published.
Dana and Kevin bond over their desires to be writers, something that people like Buz laugh at as unrealistic. Both Dana and Kevin place the ability to express themselves in writing above physical comforts. Significantly, Dana doesn’t seem to register Kevin’s skin color until she is already interested by his personality.
Buz teases Dana for meeting up with Kevin to talk about writing, but Dana looks forward to having lunch with Kevin. Kevin animatedly talks about his book before noticing that Dana has nothing to eat. Dana says she’s on a diet, but Kevin goes out to a food truck and buys Dana a hamburger, saying that he has been on that kind of diet. As Dana eats, she tells Kevin about her short stories and the two laugh about the lack of family support for their dreams of becoming authors. They also find out that they are both orphans.
Dana is incredibly independent and self-sufficient, but Kevin already shows that he is willing to take care of her without embarrassing Dana or making her indebted to him. The two of them bond further over their shared familial backgrounds, even though Kevin and Dana obviously have different experiences between growing up white and growing up black.
Dana tells Kevin that her aunt and uncle want her to take sensible classes and write on the side, but Dana can’t pretend to be interested enough in any other subjects to keep up with the work. Buz comes into the break room and hisses “chocolate and vanilla porn” at Dana. Dana tries to laugh it off and Kevin grins at her.
Dana puts her aspirations as a writer above everything, something that her family and others at the warehouse do not understand. Buz highlights the racial discrimination that still follows interracial couples in 1976 by fetishizing their relationship as porn.
Kevin and Dana eat lunch together the next week and talk about their novels, their families, and their lives of barely scraping by. Soon, the warehouse is calling them the “weirdest-looking couple” and Dana is pleasantly surprised to find that she likes thinking of them as a couple. Kevin surprises her the next day with play tickets. Soon enough, Kevin and Dana sleep over at each other’s places regularly and Dana realizes that she is no longer lonely.
Kevin is not only white, but very pale, making Dana look even darker in comparison. Their coworkers comment on this physical difference, unwilling to see the similarities in personality that bring Dana and Kevin together as a couple.
2. Back in the present, Dana is too worried to go to the library with Kevin so she stays home while Kevin leaves to look for records of certificates of freedom. As Kevin checks in on her before walking out the door, Dana feels dizzy again. Kevin rushes to her side and holds her tightly. Both Dana and Kevin then find themselves in a forest, the emergency bag still tied to Dana’s wrist. Dana grabs Kevin’s hand, grateful for his protection but wishing that he weren’t here.
Kevin supports Dana in the present by trying to gain as much knowledge as possible about her potential situation, and then offers physical support when he goes to the past with her. As nice as it is for Dana and Kevin to be together, Dana wanted Kevin, her safe home, to stay separate from these traumatic events.
Dana looks around for Rufus, finally noticing him lying on the ground clutching his leg while a young black boy crouches beside him. Dana goes over to Rufus, noting that he looks about 12, and Rufus explains that he fell from a tree and hurt his leg. The black boy, Nigel, is afraid of Dana until Rufus says that Dana is here to help. Dana sends Nigel to get Tom Weylin to bring a wagon for Rufus, and Nigel is distracted by Dana’s “funny” accent and men’s clothing. Rufus tells Nigel to go.
Nigel looks to Rufus for what to do, only listening to Dana’s directions when Rufus gives the okay. Even though Dana is a competent adult, Nigel trusts the word of a white boy more. Furthermore, Dana does not speak or look like the other black people that Nigel is used to interacting with. Her clothing again causes confusion because Dana’s “men’s” clothing does not match society’s expectation of women in this time.
As they wait for Nigel to return, Dana asks Rufus if Nigel will get in trouble for leaving Rufus behind. Rufus responds that it depends what mood Tom Weylin is in. Kevin then introduces himself, explaining that Dana is his wife. Rufus is aghast at the thought of “niggers” marrying white people, and Kevin is upset at Rufus’ language. Dana cuts Kevin off before he says something rash, and gently reminds Rufus not to use that word in her presence.
Kevin gets upset on Dana’s behalf for Rufus’s slurs. Rufus has no concept of white and black people being together in a relationship of mutual respect. But where Kevin responds with anger, Dana is more willing to forgive Rufus for his misstep and try to redirect his behavior away from the damaging effects society has had on him.
Rufus is confused that Kevin and Dana can marry, as blacks and whites are not allowed to marry in his time. Dana and Kevin decide to tell Rufus the truth about where they come from: California of 1976. Rufus has trouble wrapping his head around the possibility of time travel, insisting that Dana is making it up. Rufus demands real proof that Dana is from the future, so Dana tells him that the next president with be John Quincy Adams. Kevin gets out some coins from his pocket, showing Rufus the dates from the 1960s and 70s. Rufus still doesn’t understand, but says he believes their story.
The facts that Dana and Kevin tell Rufus about the past are not actually very useful in establishing that they come from the future, as Rufus has no way of knowing if they will be right about the next president and he does not have very much experience seeing money. Yet Rufus has seen Dana appear and disappear, and has also seen how Dana and now Kevin do not act like anyone he’s seen before.
3. Tom arrives with a wagon, Nigel, and an older black man. Tom is suspicious of Kevin and Dana, but lets Kevin explain that he and Dana simply came across Rufus and Nigel after Rufus fell out of the tree and broke his leg. Tom examines Rufus’s leg and grumbles about how much the doctor will cost. The large black man lifts Rufus into the wagon gently, but Rufus still cries out in pain. Rufus asks Dana not to go, and Dana realizes she wants to stay to help Rufus through the pain of nineteenth-century “medicine.”
In the interaction with Tom, only Kevin–as a white male—has any authority. Tom and Rufus’s strained relationship shows again in Tom’s lack of concern for his son’s welfare in the face of the cost of a doctor. Though Dana herself does not have specific medical training, the average educated person in the 1970s has more up-to-date knowledge than anyone in Rufus’s time.
Tom has a quiet conversation with Kevin, then turns to go without offering hospitality to Kevin and Dana. Rufus pleads with his father and earns Kevin and Dana a begrudging invitation, as Tom stares at Dana. Dana stares back before remembering that slaves were supposed to lower their eyes in respect. Tom demands to know Dana’s name and where she comes from. Dana answers New York, after looking to Kevin to make sure she won’t contradict anything he has previously said. Tom glares at Dana, then turns and drives the wagon back home.
Tom speaks civilly to Kevin, whereas he treats Dana with disrespect and contempt. Dana looks to Kevin to make sure that their stories are in sync, but to Tom it appears that Dana is rightfully looking to Kevin for permission to speak. From Tom’s perspective Kevin and Dana could never be partners—the white male has authority over any black woman.
Dana and Kevin ride in the back of the wagon, watching slaves in the fields as the wagon jostles along the road back to the Weylin house. The building itself is smaller than Dana expects, affordable even for her and Kevin in 1976. At the house, Tom tells the large black man, Luke, to take Dana to the back for some food, but Dana looks at Rufus’s pained face and asks to stay with him. Tom agrees and carelessly lifts his son out of the wagon and brings him into the house. Luke whispers a warning to Dana that Master Tom can turn mean quickly.
Though the Weylins are rich by the standards of their time, they seem fairly poor by the standards of Dana’s present. The actual circumstances of life in the past are different from what Dana expects just from reading historical accounts. Meanwhile, Tom again shows disregard for anyone’s feelings but his own, even his injured son. Luke seems to care for Rufus while being wary of Tom.
Nigel comes out and stands next to Luke, allowing Dana to see that Nigel is probably Luke’s son. Their familial resemblance is much stronger than the similarity between Tom and Rufus. Dana worries that she will not be able to keep Rufus safe in this world, and that Rufus will grow up to be like his father in personality when Rufus inherits the plantation.
The family resemblance between Luke and Nigel symbolically represents how the family relationships of the black slaves on the Weylin plantation are much closer than the Weylin family themselves. Dana feels some responsibility for Rufus as her ancestor, hoping that her family is not completely unsalvageable.
Tom puts Rufus on the bed, neither trying to hurt him nor taking care of the boy’s injured leg. A red-haired woman hustles in and begins to become hysterical about Rufus. Tom catches the woman, Margaret, before she can lash out at Dana, and explains that Dana “belongs” to Kevin Franklin, the man who found Rufus when he got hurt. Tom leaves the room and Kevin reluctantly follows.
Margaret babies her son, blaming anyone she can for her son’s pain even when Dana has actually been trying to help Rufus. Though Dana knows more about Rufus’s situation, the Weylins believe more in Kevin’s authority simply because he is a white man.
Alone in the room with Rufus, Margaret glares at Dana and says that she has seen Dana before. Rufus interrupts with a soft “mama,” and Margaret rushes to Rufus’s side to fuss over him. She demands that Dana go get water, then leaves in disgust to get it herself when Dana asks where to go to get water. Margaret sweeps back in and nastily sends Dana out to the cookhouse. Dana leaves, wondering why everyone in this time period seems to hate her in particular when they are obviously used to seeing black people.
Margaret seems to hate Dana’s confidence and self-possession, expecting black people to act submissive as slaves are taught to do.
Dana sees a young girl in the hallway and asks for directions to the cookhouse, but the girl doesn’t answer. The girl stares for a minute and then goes down the stairs. At a loss for other options, Dana follows. The girl looks back and covers her mouth, making Dana realize that the girl can’t talk. The girl then points to Dana’s clothing and Dana wonders if her “men’s” pants are the reason she has been met with so much hostility. Dana makes up an excuse, blaming Kevin for not giving her proper women’s clothing.
The young girl represents enslaved people’s lack of agency and rights, without any kind of voice to express herself. Dana uses her lack of control (as a perceived slave) as protection, claiming that Kevin only gives her men’s clothing to avoid questions of propriety about her style of dress.
The girl leads Dana to the cookhouse, a small white cottage outside the Weylin house. Luke and Nigel are inside eating, with younger children sitting on the floor eating with their fingers. Dana is relieved to see that children on this plantation are not fed from troughs. The cook, busy at a huge fireplace, turns and asks the young girl, Carrie, who Dana is. Dana notes that the cook and Carrie have the same light brown skin and pretty features. Dana introduces herself and says that Rufus’s mother sent her out here for food. The cook calls Margaret a “bitch” and Luke cautions the cook, whose name is Sarah, against saying that too loudly.
Butler again adds details that enforce how slavery continually shamed black people and robbed them of human dignity, such as feeding black children in troughs as if they were livestock. The cookhouse is a safe place for the slaves, where they can show their true feelings for their masters without too much fear of punishment. Yet they still have to be careful, as they constantly have to watch out for other slaves who might betray them to the masters.
Sarah dishes Dana some sad-looking corn meal mush while Dana wistfully smells the stew Sarah is making for the Weylins. Luke explains that the slaves get to eat the leftovers when the Weylins are done, but that just makes Dana worry about the possibility of disease from sharing food. Luke questions Dana about her background in New York, and Dana lies as best she can. She can sense that the other slaves are treating her coldly, but can’t figure out the reason until Nigel asks why Dana talks like a white person. Dana lies that her mother was a free black who taught school, and Nigel cautions Dana about acting educated around Master Tom.
Life in the past is far more difficult than Dana’s life in the present. Aside from the dangers of living as a slave, Dana also has to worry about risks like disease. Dana is also unused to many of the more personally shameful aspects of being enslaved. Dana’s demeanor is also different from most slaves because she had the opportunity to gain an education in the present that most black people in Rufus’s time were completely denied.
4. Dana finishes her corn meal mush but stays in the cookhouse because she is worried about being too far from Kevin in the main house if she starts to feel dizzy enough to go back to 1976. Carrie slips Dana some bread and ham, which Dana eats gratefully while trying to ignore concerns of food safety and hygiene. The cookhouse is a whirl of activity as other black people come in to get food or talk to Sarah.
Carrie may not be able to speak, but she has more power than it seemed at first. Carrie performs small acts of resistance to make life more bearable for the slaves, such as sneaking more nutritious food than they would otherwise be given.
All the way in the cookhouse, Dana can hear Rufus scream as the doctor sets his broken leg. Carrie runs into the cookhouse with her hands over her ears, and Sarah explains that Carrie likes Rufus because Rufus kept the other children from teasing her when she was little. Carrie is Sarah’s fourth child, but the only one that Master Tom hasn’t sold away. Dana can see the anger in Sarah’s eyes as she explains that Carrie only isn’t sold because her speech defect makes her worth less money. Dana thinks that Master Tom could easily find his food poisoned if he were ever stupid enough to sell Carrie too.
Even efforts to help people in the past, such as setting a broken bone, include more violence than Dana is used to. Dana is also surprised that Carrie is able to care for Rufus so strongly when Rufus is part of the family that keeps her enslaved. Carrie shows great sensitivity and concern for others. Sarah reveals how the Weylins manipulate their slaves by selling off members of their family to show the consequences of disobedience. After so many losses, Sarah is forced to be loyal to the Weylins so that she has a chance of keeping her last remaining child. Tom frames this as a monetary consideration due to Carrie’s speech impediment, but Dana knows that it is also a tool to keep Sarah in line.
After a couple hours, Kevin calls to Dana from the yard. Dana forces herself not to show how eager she is to get back to him. Kevin tries to take Dana’s hand in the yard, but she resists. Kevin then leads Dana behind the protective branches of an oak tree, where they can talk without being seen. Kevin wistfully thinks of all the more interesting times they could have traveled back to, but Dana snorts that very few times in the past would have been safe for her.
Dana and Kevin have to play-act at a master-slave relationship in order to hide their true affection for each other, because this time period cannot comprehend true partnership between people of different races. Kevin has far more privilege in this time period than he already had as a white male in the present. He is able to entertain thoughts of traveling through the past for fun, while Dana, as a black woman, is stuck dealing with various degrees of oppression in almost every era of the past.
Dana warns Kevin to come quick if he ever hears her calling, fearing that Kevin would be stuck here for good if Dana transports back to 1976 without him. Kevin agrees, but points out that he would have an easier time surviving here than Dana does. Dana doesn’t say that Kevin would be in danger of letting the twisted worldview of the Antebellum South rub off on him.
While Kevin may be less physically vulnerable than Dana due to his gender and skin color, he is still susceptible to the damaging atmosphere of past injustices. The longer Kevin spends in the past, the more he is in danger of accepting the privilege and control over others that this society gives him at the cost of his own human decency.
Dana asks after Rufus, and Kevin assures her that the doctor thinks Rufus will be all right. Kevin himself has scratches on his arm from trying to hold Margaret back while the doctor set Rufus’s leg. Tom has also asked Kevin to stay on to tutor Rufus, as Rufus can’t go to school as long as his leg is healing. Dana wonders what work Tom will give her while they are here, a thought that Kevin doesn’t like. Yet Dana knows that she has to fit in as a slave for her own safety, and that slaves have to work.
Margaret again shows the destructive nature of how the Weylin family shows love, hurting other people in a misguided desire to get to her “baby.” Dana has to swallow her pride and pretend to be a slave because that is what society expects of her. She would be just as competent a tutor as Kevin, but her skin color prevents her from doing anything but menial labor.
Kevin and Dana get their story straight, deciding that Kevin is a writer from New York who taught Dana to read and write so that she could help with the work. Kevin is in the South researching for a book, but got robbed a couple days ago. Kevin warns Dana that Tom was angry to hear how educated Dana is, and tells her to stay out of his way. Furthermore, Kevin had to tell Tom that he was planning to sell Dana in Louisiana, and also said that keeps Dana docile with the promise of freedom in return for sexual favors—just to keep Tom happy about the “threat” of an educated slave on his plantation. Kevin and Dana decide that they will do everything they can to keep Rufus from turning into his parents, so that Dana might be safe here if she ever has to come again by herself.
Dana and Kevin have to explain how Dana is able to read and write, as black people rarely had the chance to be educated, and many states even outlawed teaching slaves to read and write. The opportunities that reading and writing give were often deemed too dangerous for slaves, as they could then write their own passes or better organize slave revolts. Kevin has to degrade his own principles in order to fit into this society—exactly what Dana is afraid of if they have to stay here much longer. Yet the longer they stay, the more chance they have to introduce Rufus to more evolved viewpoints on race relations and respect for all peoples.
5. Sarah takes Dana into the cookhouse and begins teaching her to cook, while Margaret follows Dana around in the house and complains about the way that Dana does every chore. Dana hides in Kevin’s room when she can, but she has to sleep on a mat in the attic. Kevin wants to leave and get Dana out of this poisonous atmosphere, possibly going to Philadelphia, but Dana would rather face the relatively small threat of the Weylins and build up credit for herself with Rufus in case she travels back here during a time when Rufus has control of the plantation.
Not only does Dana have to submit to doing all these chores, but she has to listen to Margaret demean her as well. Hearing Margaret complain only compounds how unfair it is that Dana has to do all the work that benefits only Margaret. Butler uses Kevin’s suggestion that they escape to Philadelphia to introduce the idea that running away from the conditions of slavery will not actually fix the problem, and could even make matters worse for Dana later.
Kevin wants to test his theory that Dana goes home when she is scared for her life, but Dana asks him to wait six more weeks until Rufus’s leg heals. Kevin backs down, but insists that Dana come sleep in his room at night. Dana agrees, especially when she hears that Margaret has been pursuing Kevin. They hope that the Weylins will ignore the “immorality” of them sleeping together, the way that Margaret ignores the slave children that Tom bears.
Kevin and Dana make decisions together, showing true partnership as they work out how to deal with this tough situation. However, their marriage is illegal here and they must hide their love. Hypocritically, the Weylins turn the other check to white people sleeping with black people outside of committed relationships, and even cheat on each other, but they would not put up with a healthy interracial relationship.
Later that day, Dana is making biscuits with Sarah when Carrie comes in and signs that a white person wants to see Dana. Dana follows Carrie to Rufus’s room, where Rufus is lying in bed with his leg in traction. Rufus asks if Dana is happy with “Aunt Sarah,” explaining that Sarah beat the last girl she had as help when she was angry after her boys were sold.
Despite the fact that Carrie is mute, she still finds ways to communicate, showing the resourcefulness of enslaved people who have to find non-traditional ways of asserting their power. Rufus also seems to consider the slaves part of his family in some sense, calling Sarah “aunt,” yet he still doesn’t care that Sarah’s children were sold because he does not consider slaves to be capable of real feelings.
Rufus then asks Dana to read to him, if she really knows how, and produces a copy of Robinson Crusoe that Kevin had brought in for him. Dana begins to read, getting involved in the story even though it is not her favorite book, and Rufus seems to enjoy the tale. Dana puts the book down when she thinks Rufus has gone to sleep, but Rufus tells her that he likes her reading. Rufus and Margaret do not like to read for themselves, unlike Tom’s first wife, Miss Hannah.
Rufus respects Dana more than Tom does, but he has obviously internalized some of the contempt that his society has for black people. Reading and using her education is one way that Dana can show Rufus that black people are just as intelligent and dignified as white people. Characters in the novel who enjoy reading are more admirable than those who do not, putting Dana above Rufus and Margaret.
Dana convinces Rufus not to give up on reading, playing to his pride and promising that there are more books like Robinson Crusoe that he can enjoy. Rufus wants Dana to stay and read more, but Dana doesn’t want to get in trouble with Margaret. Dana convinces Rufus to try reading a couple of lines himself, but his progress is achingly slow.
Though Robinson Crusoe treats slavery casually, reading will still help Rufus broaden his worldview and hopefully learn to treat people like Dana with respect. Rufus has to start at the very beginning, learning both how to read and how to treat others as equals.
Dana asks what happened to Alice. Rufus, surprised at the question, says nothing happened, and he has to be reminded that Alice’s father was beaten before remembering that Tom sold Alice’s father to Georgia. As far as Dana can tell, the white patroller she hit didn’t spread any stories about her. Rufus reveals that he told his mother that Dana was the woman from the river, hoping that it would make his mom like Dana more. Rufus doesn’t understand why his parents don’t like Dana, and he too warns her to be careful.
Rufus has the privilege of forgetting many of the awful things that happen around him, such as Alice’s father’s beating, because they do not affect him directly. Yet Rufus still has some amount of care for Dana, hoping to make his family like her more, even though his efforts with Margaret may actually backfire. Rufus’ impulsiveness shows again, though he has good intentions.
As Dana leaves Rufus’s room, she meets Tom on the stairs. Tom is angry at overhearing Dana read to Rufus. Dana forces herself to face Tom calmly, noticing that Tom’s eyes look similar to Kevin’s. Tom asks Dana how old she is and what year she was born, answers that Dana has practiced for just such an occasion. Tom asks about children, and assumes that Dana is barren when she says she has none. As Tom inquires further about whether she likes Rufus and if she can teach reading and math, Dana realizes that Tom means to buy her. She answers as diplomatically as possible that she would rather stay with Kevin.
Butler draws physical similarities between Tom and Kevin, showing how easy it would be for Kevin to take advantage of the privilege that his white skin gives him. Tom believes that he can have whatever he want, demanding personal information about Dana and planning to buy her instead of considering what Dana may wish to do in this situation. Dana attempts to assert her own choice, but is forced to do so by invoking Kevin’s authority.
6. Dana is as careful as possible, especially after witnessing Tom whip a field hand for talking back. The harsh punishment serves as a warning to all the slaves what Tom Weylin will do to enforce obedience. Dana worries that sleeping in Kevin’s room – even if Kevin were to say that it was his orders – would be enough to earn her a beating. Dana does as many chores as possible in Kevin’s room to give her a reason to be in there alone with Kevin.
Tom wields the whip himself, showing that he does not care about harming other people to get what he wants. While he pretends that the slave did something to “earn” this beating, Butler makes it clear that there is no reason why anyone should be punished in such a harsh way. The threat of physical harm is enough to force Dana to police her own behavior – another terrible result of slavery.
As Dana sweeps the library one day, Margaret corners her and slaps her across the face for shaming the Weylins’ Christian morals by sleeping in Kevin’s room. Unsure how to react, Dana stays silent and goes on sweeping while watching Margaret for signs of worse violence. Margaret leaves the library in a huff, presumably to go “supervise” and criticize the work of the other house slaves. Dana can tell that Margaret micromanages the house out of boredom and a desire to prove she is a real lady.
Margaret shows extreme hypocrisy in punishing Dana for sleeping with her husband when Margaret herself has been trying to seduce Kevin. Margaret truly has nothing in her life to bring her real pleasure, and is trapped in her position as a “lady” with no purpose except stealing from the energy of others. Slavery is obviously more damaging to black lives, but it also harms the white slave holders.
Dana goes about her work that day wondering if Tom will punish her for sleeping with Kevin. She finishes her tasks and goes to find Sarah in the cookhouse. Sarah greets Dana by saying that she spoke up for Dana today. Dana assumes that Sarah spoke to Margaret, but Sarah says she has as little to do with Margaret as possible because Margaret’s fancy taste forced Tom to sell Sarah’s children for money. Sarah says that she spoke for Dana’s ability as a hard worker to Tom. Dana explains that Kevin won’t sell her, and Sarah agrees that that’s for the best.
Sarah acts as though she has done Dana a favor by talking her up to Tom, not seeing how it is demeaning for Dana to have her worth assessed by other people who try to control her future. Dana has to defer to Kevin’s authority instead of telling Sarah that it is her own choice not to work for Tom. Sarah didn’t even have the ability to keep her family together, as Tom sold her children to make money for Margaret. Again, the Weylins have no regard for their slaves’ feelings or families when it gets in the way of what they want.
Sarah warns Dana not to cross Margaret anymore, suggesting that Dana should make Kevin let her sleep in the attic again. Sarah hints that she knows that Dana can make Kevin do anything she wants, and that she should take advantage of this while she is young and pretty. Dana realizes that Sarah was probably in a similar situation with a white master when Sarah herself was young, but Sarah refuses to say anything more.
Sarah misreads Dana and Kevin’s relationship in a different way, suggesting that Dana has seduced Kevin in order to use her sexuality to gain some power over Kevin. Butler suggests that this was not an uncommon occurrence among female slaves, who had little option outside of sexual favors to assert their agency over white men, who otherwise completely controlled their lives.
7. Instead of moving back to the attic, Dana decides to follow some of Luke’s advice and tell white people what they want to hear while doing what she wants to do. Tom often threatens to whip Luke, but rarely does so. Dana even sees Tom in the hall one morning as she stumbles out of Kevin’s room, but Tom just winks. As time passes, Dana and Kevin become more integrated into the Weylin household and Dana adjusts to the drudgery of life as a slave. Kevin dislikes having to put up with the Weylins’ boring guests and wishes that he and Dana could go explore the old West. Dana is resistant, not wishing to see Native Americans mistreated there the way that blacks are in the South.
In some aspects, the Weylin slaves pay lip service to their master’s control over their lives and make decisions on their own. This mirrors the way that Dana play-acts at being Kevin’s slave while continuing to maintain her romantic partnership with him. Tom has no problem with Kevin and Dana sleeping together because he too sleeps with his slaves, yet Tom does not understand that Dana actually wants to be with Kevin. Kevin may be bored in the past, but he has a far easier time than Dana does. Dana now has more empathy for all those mistreated during this time period, because she is suffering in the same way.
Tom catches Dana in the library reading one day, and tells her not to go in the library any more. But that night, Nigel asks Dana to teach him how to read. Aware of the risks if they are found out, Dana agrees. After thinking over Nigel’s request, Dana realizes that she and Kevin are still just play-acting at being part of this time period, while people like Nigel truly have to live here.
Tom clearly thinks that educated slaves are dangerous, as knowledge can translate to power. In order to assuage her conscience at the privilege that she has due to her modern education, Dana helps Nigel learn to read so that Nigel will also have that power and self-respect.
On a miserably hot day, Kevin and Dana walk to the woods to have a private moment together. On the way, they see some slave children playing at buying and selling one another. As the children argue about how much they are worth, Dana walks away disgusted. Kevin is less upset, rationalizing that the children are only doing what they have seen adults do. When Dana glares at him, Kevin admits that he can’t know how she feels about this. He and Dana have to focus on surviving, not saving these children from their likely futures.
The institution of slavery continues because the children, both black and white, perpetuate the actions they have seen their parents and other adults do. While Rufus learns to act as the master from his father, the children of enslaved people learn that their future is to be bought and sold. Kevin is less upset by this because his white skin gives him some distance from these children, while Dana sees these children as a potential part of her family.
Kevin goes further to say that the plantation is better than he expected, though he doesn’t know about the whipping that Dana witnessed. Dana is angry, responding that the Weylins don’t have to beat their slaves to be cruel to them. Dana explains that Kevin has more shielding than she does, though both of them are often able to act as observers. Dana reveals that she has started to teach Nigel to read in order to relieve some of her guilt at her inability to change the slaves’ lives. Kevin is happy to hear that Nigel is gaining this skill, but warns Dana to be careful.
Even if there was no physical punishment on the Weylin plantation, the conditions of slavery would still damage the enslaved people because they have no control over their lives. Dana feels deeply how limited her options are in this time period, while Kevin actually has more freedom here as a white man who ostensibly owns other people.
8. Dana goes to read to Rufus again, though Tom doesn’t like the thought of a black person reading to his son. Margaret often comes in, annoying Dana by interrupting frequently to offer Rufus food and drink. Snappish after two months of bed rest, Rufus sends Margaret out this time. Dana is surprised at how harshly Rufus speaks to Margaret, but Margaret does not fight back. Rufus laughs that his mother will be back soon with a piece of cake for him, and Dana continues reading.
Margaret tries to disrupt Dana’s attempts to help Rufus learn, not seeing the value in reading—which Dana knows can help Rufus become a better person. Meanwhile, Rufus’s sense of entitlement shows in his relationship with his mother. Rufus is used to getting whatever he wants no matter how cruelly he treats his mother, because there have never been any consequences for this kind of behavior in the past.
Later, Dana goes to the cookhouse to give Nigel a reading lesson. She finds Nigel and Carrie hunched over books and the two children are frozen with fear until they realize it is just Dana at the door. Dana is sad to realize that though writing would give Carrie a much-needed way to communicate, it would also most likely get her beaten by the Weylins. Dana offers to teach Carrie as well, though she knows that Sarah doesn’t want Carrie to take the risk of learning. Carrie runs out of the cookhouse to return to her chores.
Nigel continues to spread the power of reading and writing to Carrie, offering her a chance to have a voice when the Weylins would rather she stay silenced. Though Dana knows the risks involved and understands that Sarah is right about the danger Carrie could get in, she also understands that it is more important for Carrie to have some ability to communicate that will give her a greater ability to affect the path of her own life.
Dana warns Nigel to be more careful than ever about letting someone find out about their reading, and then gives Nigel a spelling test. Though the Weylins usually never come into the cookhouse, Tom bursts into the room while Dana still has the spelling book in her hand. Knowing she is in for a harsh beating, Dana wonders where Kevin is. Tom knocks Dana to the floor and drags her to the door as Dana manages to mouth “Get Kevin” to Nigel.
Though Dana might hope that she can give Nigel more opportunities in life, Tom’s interruption proves that very little is actually under Dana’s control on the Weylin plantation. Dana can tell that Tom might beat her within an inch of her life, and wants to get Kevin in case she transports back to the future—but she also wants him to be there because Kevin’s authority as a white man has the potential to protect her.
Once in the yard, Tom begins to whip Dana. The leather sears through her light shirt, feeling like hot iron. Dana screams and twists, but can’t escape the blows. After several harsh lashes, Dana feels as though Tom is trying to kill her, and even welcomes the thought of death if it means ending the pain. Through blurred vision, Dana sees Kevin racing over from across the yard. As the dizziness takes over, Dana reaches towards Kevin, but passes out before Kevin gets to her.
This is one of Dana’s worst experiences during her time as a slave: receiving an incredibly harsh whipping for simply giving a black boy the tools to gain an education. In conditions as demeaning and awful as this, life is not necessarily worth the pain for Dana. Butler does not shy away from describing the extent of Dana’s pain in this moment, trying to convey in the present the visceral reality of slavery’s brutality.