As Butler delves into the everyday lives of Antebellum slaves in a neo-slave narrative, she also points out the places where slaves take back agency and power in their lives despite the oppressive system that attempts to rob them of their choice and humanity. At points, it seems as though slaves are choosing to stay oppressed. The Weylins’ cook, Sarah, flatly refuses to think of running away to the North, a choice that Dana secretly thinks would be seen as weak and cowardly by later generations of African Americans. Yet Butler points out that these supposedly weak choices actually display the strength of slaves who are choosing to accept abuse to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. Sarah cannot attempt to run away as long as she has to worry about keeping her mute daughter Carrie free from harm. The Weylin slaves do not need Dana (or Kevin) to step in and educate them on how they should be taking back their own freedom—rather they need Dana to respect the choices that they have made in order to survive within this horrific societal system. As Butler portrays it, the life of a slave is marked by using the illusion of powerlessness to protect what agency and choice the slaves can save for themselves. Carrie is the ultimate example of this, without even a voice to express her pain and an inability to communicate verbally that suggests that she has no power or choice over her own life. Yet Dana finds out that Carrie still finds ways to communicate through self-devised sign language, and that Carrie is actually one of the brightest slaves on the Weylin estate. Though Carrie may not seem to have any agency, she is one of the few slaves to escape at the end of the novel, as Butler overturns the usual expectations about power and potential.
The insane horror of slavery sometimes pushes the slaves to make the hardest choice of all, when it is the only choice left to them. For some, this means choosing death when life is unbearable, such as when Alice chooses to commit suicide after the perceived sale of her children. Butler certainly does not glorify this choice, but she does present it as an understandable reaction to Alice’s feeling that all of her power, choice, and life’s purpose had been taken away. In comparison, Dana consistently asserts her power in her interactions with Rufus, making sure that Rufus understands that he must respect her if he wants her to continue to help him when he gets into trouble. Yet Dana must temper her power with the knowledge that Rufus may lash out at other slaves if Rufus feels that Dana is stepping out of her “place” too far, eventually choosing to feign powerlessness in order to protect others. When other tactics of entering a healthy partnership with Rufus ultimately fail, Dana makes the difficult choice of taking Rufus’s life in self-defense. Rufus has no respect for Dana’s agency over her own body, and underestimates Dana’s power over his life. This fundamental lack of understanding pushes Dana past her breaking point and into this critical decision of murder.
Throughout the novel, Butler shows the ways that people who might seem powerless might actually be the most powerful. Yet the mask of powerlessness comes with a price. When people’s fundamental agency is constricted, they can be pushed into making life-or-death decisions that display their true power.
Choice and Power ThemeTracker
Choice and Power Quotes in Kindred
The expression in her eyes had gone from sadness—she seemed almost ready to cry—to anger. Quiet, almost frightening anger. Her husband dead, three children sold, the fourth defective, and her having to thank God for the defect. She had reason for more than anger. How amazing that Weylin had sold her children and still kept her to cook his meals. How amazing that he was still alive.
His father wasn't the monster he could have been with the power he held over his slaves. He wasn't a monster at all. Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society said were legal and proper. But I had seen no particular fairness in him. He did as he pleased. If you told him he wasn't being fair, he would whip you for talking back.
She had done the safe thing—had accepted a life of slavery because she was afraid. She was the kind of woman who might have been called "mammy" in some other household. She was the kind of woman who would be held in contempt during the militant nineteen sixties. The house-nigger, the handkerchief-head, the female Uncle Tom—the frightened powerless woman who had already lost all she could stand to lose, and who knew as little about the freedom of the North as she knew about the hereafter.
Carrie clasped her hands around her neck again. Then she drew closer to me and clasped them around my neck. Finally, she went over to the crib that her youngest child had recently outgrown and there, symbolically, clasped her hands again, leaving enough of an open circle for a small neck…. Margaret Weylin could not run the plantation. Both the land and the people would be sold. And if Tom Weylin was any example, the people would be sold without regard for family ties.
Her names were only symbolic, but I had more than symbols to remind me that freedom was possible—probable—and for me, very near.
Or was it?
Slowly, I began to calm down. The danger to my family was past, yes. Hagar had been born. But the danger to me personally ... the danger to me personally still walked and talked and sometimes sat with Alice in her cabin in the evening as she nursed Hagar.
He gave me a long searching look. "You want to be with that white man, girl?"
"If I were anywhere else, no black child on the place would be learning anything."
"Some folks say ..."
"Hold on." I was suddenly angry. "I don't want to hear what 'some folks' say. 'Some folks' let Fowler drive them into the fields every day and work them like mules."
"Let him! They do it to keep the skin on their backs and breath in their bodies. Well, they're not the only ones who have to do things they don't like to stay alive and whole. Now you tell me why that should be so hard for 'some folks' to understand?"
"I'm not property, Kevin. I'm not a horse or a sack of wheat. If I have to seem to be property, if I have to accept limits on my freedom for Rufus's sake, then he also has to accept limits - on his behavior toward me. He has to leave me enough control of 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."
A slave was a slave. Anything could be done to her. And Rufus was Rufus—erratic, alternately generous and vicious. I could accept him as my ancestor, my younger brother, my friend, but not as my master, and not as my lover. He had understood that once.