Much of the novel focuses on the many ways that American slaves faced incredible emotional and physical pain throughout the history of the American slave states. Butler, led by a desire to remind Civil Rights activists not to blame slaves for accepting their abuse by offering a reminder of the extent of the trauma that slaves faced, bears visceral witness to the terrible things that slaves daily survived. Rather than using the enslaved characters as simple objects for displaying the horrors of slavery, Butler takes care to make each of her black characters nuanced and complicated human beings. By giving the awful facts of oppression and harm human faces, Butler acknowledges both the pain inflicted in the past and the pain of forgetting or minimizing what African American ancestors endured when this history is reduced to statistics and stereotypes.
By actually traveling back in time, Dana is forced to grapple with the insane violence of slavery instead of passively reading about it or pretending that it didn’t happen in order to go on with her life. Butler gives a voice to the aspects of slavery that others try to sanitize for a present day audience in the name of “moving on.” Recognizing that the trauma of slavery continues to affect the descendants of slaves in the present day, as seen in the racial discrimination that Dana faces at her job and the resistance to interracial relationships that Dana and Kevin encounter, Butler stresses the importance of understanding the past in order to come to terms with histories of trauma rather than ignoring past violence in a foolhardy attempt to erase those wrongs. In fact, Butler gives support to the old adage, “those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it” by marking the similarities between the centuries of American slavery practices and the crimes against the Jewish population in Europe during the Holocaust. The historical practices of slavery offered a model for oppression later followed by tyrants, which would continue as long as people remain ignorant to the real horror faced by oppressed groups in the past. Dana’s wounds in the past and the loss of her arm physically bring this trauma back to the present, making it clear how much trauma in the past influences the lives of those in the present.
Though the novel centers on one woman traveling back to the antebellum period, Butler makes it clear that Dana’s purpose is not to change the course of the Weylin family or their slaves. Dana is actually supposed to make sure that history happens how it did, so that Dana’s ancestor Hagar can be born. While Dana is there, she realizes that she cannot change history, but she can witness it and move past it. She does what she can to minimize the pain of those in her immediate surroundings, but the entire social history of the South cannot be changed by one person. Similarly, Kindred as a whole does not attempt to rewrite history or cast the burden of slavery in a new light, but instead testifies to the pain that slaves went through and honors the sacrifices and trauma they had to live through so that African Americans in the present could have a chance at a better life.
History and Trauma ThemeTracker
History and Trauma Quotes in Kindred
I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.
And I lost about a year of my life and much of the comfort and security I had not valued until it was gone. When the police released Kevin, he came to the hospital and stayed with me so that I would know I hadn't lost him too.
"I'm beginning to feel as though I'm humoring myself."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know. As real as the whole episode was, as real as I know it was, it's beginning to recede from me somehow. It's becoming like something I saw on television or read about—like something I got second hand."
Alice Greenwood. How would she marry this boy? Or would it be marriage? And why hadn't someone in my family mentioned that Rufus Weylin was white? If they knew. Probably, they didn't. Hagar Weylin Blake had died in 1880, long before the time of any member of my family that I had known. No doubt most information about her life had died with her.
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.
"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.
Then, somehow, I got caught up in one of Kevin's World War II books—a book of excerpts from the recollections of concentration camp survivors. Stories of beatings, starvation, filth, disease, torture, every possible degradation. As though the Germans had been trying to do in only a few years what the Americans had worked at for nearly two hundred.
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?
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.
"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."
"I wonder whether the children were allowed to stay together—maybe stay with Sarah."
"You've looked," he said. "And you've found no records. You'll probably never know."
I touched the scar Tom Weylin's boot had left on my face, touched my empty left sleeve. "I know," I repeated. "Why did I even want to come here. You'd think I would have had enough of the past."
"You probably needed to come for the same reason I did." He shrugged. "To try to understand. To touch solid evidence that those people existed.”