As Dana moves between time periods, she (and her husband Kevin) also move between various states of freedom and privilege. Dana, a modern African American woman, has to deal with the total loss of her freedom in order to keep herself alive on the estate of her white ancestor, Rufus Weylin, in the oppressive Antebellum South. In contrast, Kevin must learn to resist the increased privilege he gains as a white male in the Antebellum South. Though Kevin and Dana already have to balance Kevin’s white male privilege in their relationship in the present, the gap between them is even more pronounced in the past. Kevin is encouraged to use the full extent of his privilege to brutalize others in the past, straining their relationship and threatening to demean Dana as an abused slave and Kevin as a cruel master.
While taking on the persona of a slave, Dana must be very careful not to forget her own freedom. She faces the constant struggle against white supremacy as embodied by Rufus and his family who believe that they can use and abuse all black people however they see fit. Various characters remark that Dana sounds “white” due to her education and writing ability, equating freedom of expression and self-confidence with whiteness. No matter where in time she is, Dana finds freedom in writing, using the practice to assert her own identity in the face of male privilege when Kevin, and later Rufus, expect her to write for their purposes instead of her own. Furthermore, Dana feels guilty at how much she hates her small episodes of living in slavery, knowing that she has been far more privileged than any of the slaves born on the Weylin estate simply because she knows that African Americans will achieve freedom in the future. Dana thus holds on to some vestiges of privilege through her education and her healthy self-esteem even when she is surrounded by the harmful and dehumanizing system of slavery.
However, freedom in the “present” is still marked by racial and sexual discrimination. Butler recognizes that freedom, privilege, slavery, and oppression are all measured on sliding scales based on factors of race, gender, ability, and more. There is not a simple binary between free and not free or privileged and not privileged, as Dana is “free” in the present and has some markers of privilege, yet is still oppressed as a woman of color. The future is not perfect, and is still marked by racial discrimination and the systems of white and male privilege that made life unbearable for Dana in the past. Significant strides have been made, but there is still work to be done to ensure that every member of American society is truly free and that systematic privilege based on race or gender does not dehumanize or distort relationships between people.
Freedom and Privilege ThemeTracker
Freedom and Privilege Quotes in Kindred
I had seen people beaten on television and in the movies. I had seen the too-red blood substitute streaked across their backs and heard their well-rehearsed screams. But I hadn't lain nearby and smelled their sweat or heard them pleading and praying, shamed before their families and themselves. I was probably less prepared for the reality than the child crying not far from me. In fact, she and I were reacting very much alike.
I was working out of a casual labor agency—we regulars called it a slave market. Actually, it was just the opposite of slavery. The people who ran it couldn't have cared less whether or not you showed up to do the work they offered.
“Why you try to talk like white folks?” Nigel asked me. “I don't,” I said, surprised. “I mean, this is really the way I talk.” “More like white folks than some white folks.”
A place like this would endanger him in a way I didn't want to talk to him about. If he was stranded here for years, some part of this place would rub off on him. No large part, I knew. But if he survived here, it would be because he managed to tolerate the life here.
"This could be a great time to live in," Kevin said once. "I keep thinking what an experience it would be to stay in it—go West and watch the building of the country, see how much of the Old West mythology is true."
"West," I said bitterly. "That's where they're doing it to the Indians instead of the blacks!"
He looked at me strangely. He had been doing that a lot lately.
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.
Nothing in my education or knowledge of the future had helped me to escape. Yet in a few years an illiterate runaway named Harriet Tubman would make nineteen trips into this country and lead three hundred fugitives to freedom. What had I done wrong? Why was I still slave to a man who had repaid me for saving his life by nearly killing me? Why had I taken yet another beating. And why ... why was I so frightened now—frightened sick at the thought that sooner or later, I would have to run again?
"Daddy's the only man I know," he said softly, "who cares as much about giving his word to a black as to a white."
"Does that bother you?"
"No! It's one of the few things about him I can respect."
"It's one of the few things about him you should copy."
I felt as though I were losing my place here in my own time. Rufus's time was a sharper, stronger reality. The work was harder, the smells and tastes were stronger, the danger was greater, the pain was worse ... Rufus's time demanded things of me that had never been demanded before, and it could easily kill me if I did not meet its demands. That was a stark, powerful reality that the gentle conveniences and luxuries of this house, of now, could not touch.
South African whites had always struck me as people who would have been happier living in the nineteenth century, or the eighteenth. In fact, they were living in the past as far as their race relations went. They lived in ease and comfort supported by huge numbers of blacks whom they kept in poverty and held in contempt. Tom Weylin would have felt right at home.
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.
Sarah had cornered me once and said, "What you let her talk to you like that for? She can't get away with it with nobody else."
I didn't know. Guilt, maybe. In spite of everything, my life was easier than hers. Maybe I tried to make up for that by taking her abuse…
"If you go on talking to me the way you do, I won't care what he does to you."
She looked at me for a long time without saying anything. Finally, she smiled. "You'll care. And you'll help me. Else, you'd have to see yourself for the white nigger you are, and you couldn't stand that."
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 ate a little, then went away to the library where I could be alone, where I would write. Sometimes I wrote things because I couldn't say them, couldn't sort out my feelings about them, couldn't keep them bottled up inside me. It was a kind of writing I always destroyed afterward. It was for no one else. Not even Kevin.