Illuminating Slavery Through Fiction
By Jason Cotugno
Authors of fiction often write about the human condition as a way to connect with a broad range of readers. Unlike factual textbooks, fiction gives characters feeling and emotion, allowing us to see the story behind the basic details. In many cases, readers gain a new perspective on a period of time by examining a fiction novel. Although it might sound ironic, some argue fiction can educate us about part of our life by enabling us to relate and empathize. In Kindred, by Octavia Butler, the near death experiences of Rufus Weylin transport a 20th century African American woman named Dana to the ante bellum South to experience exactly what it’s like to be a slave. Through her day-to-day life on the Weylin plantation, the reader begins to understand just how complex slavery is and how it affects both the slaves and the plantation owners; thus, giving new meaning and an added sense of realism to this 19th century practice of exploitation.
On the surface, slavery was a system in which Africans were bought and sold as property. However, by reading Kindred, the reader begins to realize that the system was much more complex. In other words, both plantation owners and slaves focused on retaining their property or staying alive, respectively. Butler illustrates this throughout the text.
Seen as inferior and subhuman by whites, slaves were often only able to trust and rely on each other. When Dana is transported to the 19th century, she realizes her need to escape. However, the only way she can do this is by allowing Rufus to lead her in the right direction. As he does this, she wonders whether he is setting a trap for her. She says, “I realized suddenly how easy it would be for him to betray me—to open the door and run away or shout an alarm” (32). In addition to illustrating a lack of trust for whites, this scene also depicts the dichotomy of slaves and their owners. In other words, whites could not empathize with what the slaves endured. Moreover, they did not see slaves as anything but property; as a result, compassion for human suffering was non-existent.
The only people slaves could turn to were each other. In essence, they formed a community of sorts in which each one tried to watch out for one another while maintaining their own survival at the same time. This is evident when Sarah welcomes Dana into the cookhouse to help. She gives her work, despite the fact that Dana has few skills in household chores. Also, we see camaraderie when Alice’s mother welcomes Dana into her home. “I saw her glance over at her daughter, then touch her own face and wipe away blood from the corner of her mouth. “Wasn’t going to turn you ‘way,” she said softly” (38). The welcoming of Alice’s mother stretches beyond kindness because she is putting her whole family at risk. Furthermore, she is taking in a woman who she doesn’t even know. As a result, we can concur simply that slaves did all they could to help fellow slaves.
The text also illustrates how difficult it was for slaves to become free. According to law, a slave needed to have papers indicating they were free. Essentially, this was the only way they could avoid being sold and physically beaten. Dana writes, “Blacks here were assumed to be slaves unless they could prove they were free—unless they had their free papers. Paperless blacks were fair game for any white” (34). However, whites would often manipulate the system and ignore the rules. Rufus proves this in a conversation he has with Dana saying, “‘In town, once, I heard a man brag how he and his friends had caught a free black, tore up his papers, and sold him to a trader’” (139). These kinds of instances would only diminish a slave’s hope for freedom.
Tearing up free papers was one way to show slaves had no rights. However, other methods were used to not only remind slaves of the absence of their rights, but also to instill a great sense of fear into their white owners. In one instance, Dana encounters Tom Weylin and realizes her place in society. “At first, I stared back. Then I looked away, remembering that I was supposed to be a slave. Slaves lowered their eyes respectfully. To stare back was insolent” (66). Later on in the text, Dana once again becomes conscious of her 19th century status. After talking with Rufus, she writes, “He could get help from his neighbors, from the patrollers, probably even from whatever police officials the area had. He could do anything he wanted to me, and I had no enforceable rights. None at all” (202). Both of these examples demonstrate how white slave owners created a culture in which blacks were continually reminded of their (lack of) status.
In order for this manipulation to work, white slave owners had to make sure their property remained uneducated. Throughout Kindred, Tom Weylin is especially aware of this. In a conversation with Dana, Rufus refers to his father saying, “‘He don’t want no niggers ‘round here talking better than him, putting freedom ideas in our heads’” (74). Shortly thereafter, Kevin speaks to Dana about a conversation he had with Tom Weylin. He says, “‘Weylin was warning me that it was dangerous to keep a slave like you—educated, maybe kidnapped from a free state—as north as this’” (80). Both of these quotes demonstrate that suppressing the education of slaves was a way for slave owners to maintain their commodity.
However, this did not stop slaves from trying to learn, because they knew education was their only path towards freedom. While on the Weylin plantation, Dana makes efforts to teach both Nigel and Carrie to read and write. Although this places her and the children at risk, she realizes its necessity. During this time, Dana raises an irony of situation when she says, “In a more rational society, an ability to write would be of great help to her. But here, the only people who could read her writing would be those who might punish her for being able to write” (105). This thought seems to further illustrate how difficult it was for slaves to escape and become free.
As a result of it being so challenging to escape, slaves were often forced to remain on the plantation in servitude. While there, their choices were limited and uncompromising. This was especially true in Alice’s case. Being the object of Rufus’ affection (despite her lack of interest), Alice became trapped. At one point, Dana tells her, “’Well, it looks as though you have three choices. You can go to him as he orders; you can refuse, be whipped, and then have him take you by force; or you can run away again’” (166-67). Given these options, Alice has to choose whether to sacrifice her will, her dignity, or her life.
Nevertheless, the text also illustrates that slaves weren’t solely used for sexual satisfaction. Dana is a prime example of this. Even though she holds a close relationship with Rufus, he never tries to assault or rape her. Alice makes Dana known of this fact when she says, “‘He liked me in bed, and you out of bed’” (229). Besides further developing this particular story, this quote also shows how different slaves were used for different things. In essence, it was a matter of luck in regards to who was favored and who was not.
In addition to shedding light on the complexity of slavery, Kindred also makes the reader aware that this system had a deep effect on both slaves and their owners. Within this text, Alice and Sarah in particular are affected the most. However, they respond in much different ways to the physical and mental torture they undergo.
Sarah’s suffering comes primarily at the hand of Tom Weylin. Initially, we understand her character as a strong woman because she is in charge of many of the kitchen tasks. However, the text later reveals the inner suffering she lives with. Specifically, Butler describes Sarah as fearful and unaware of freedom. She writes, “She had done the safe thing—had accepted a life of slavery because she was afraid. [Sarah]—the frightened powerless woman who had already lost all she could stand to lose” (145). Later on, we understand exactly who she lost. “He had sold only three of her children—left her one to live for and protect” (169). By doing this, Weylin achieved his goal of instilling lifelong fear into Sarah while forcing her to stay alive to work on the plantation.
Similarly, Alice is subject to a similar form of psychological oppression; yet, her suffering comes through Rufus Weylin. First, Rufus sells Alice’s husband, Isaac, so Rufus can have her to himself. He had “gotten possession of the woman without having to bother with her husband. Now, somehow, Alice would have to accept not only the loss of her husband, but her own enslavement” (149). Any form of guilt is absent when he tells Dana, “’Sold him to a trader—fellow taking slaves overland to Mississippi’” (148). Once he is gone, Rufus forces Alice to be his lover. Clearly, this has a devastating effect on her. The text states, “She went to him. She adjusted, became a quieter more subdued person. She didn’t kill, but she seemed to die a little” (169).
Surprisingly, his manipulation of Alice does not end there. Once they bear children, he begins to use them as a way to keep Alice alive and hoping. Sarah makes Dana aware of this when she says, “’I’m tellin’ you, he uses those children just the way you use a bit on a horse. I’m tired of havin’ a bit in my mouth’” (236). His final act turns out to be fatal. Specifically, he sends their children away in an effort to chastise Alice. To justify his actions, he tells Dana, “’[I did it] to punish her, scare her. To make her see what could happen if she didn’t…if she tried to leave me’” (251). Unfortunately, this is what causes Alice to commit suicide, ironically proving his actions achieved the exact opposite of his intentions.
Sarah and Alice aren’t the only ones subject to their owners’ manipulation. Nigel too is tricked into staying on the plantation. By letting Nigel build a home for himself, Rufus was assured that he would not lose a valuable asset. The text states, “Not only did he get part of Nigel’s earnings, but he got the assurance that Nigel, his only valuable piece of property, was not likely to run away again soon” (155).
In a more general sense, slave owners often had no problem with their slaves marrying one another because children would only increase their commodity. Although the marriages weren’t legally binding, they did ensure that slaves would remain on the plantation. Butler illustrates the acceptance of marriage in the text when Nigel tells Dana about what Rufus did for him and Carrie. “‘Marse Rufe paid a free preacher from town to come and say the same words they say for white folks and free niggers’” (133).
Everything on the plantation happened acted to ensure the survival of the system. In other words, white slave owners wanted to turn slavery into a way of life for Africans to the point where they would know nothing else. By looking at one scene involving a bunch of children, we can see how they were reaching their goal. Specifically, Dana observes the slave children pretending to sell each other for various amounts of money. Watching the reenactment both disgusts and appalls Dana. When Kevin rationalizes the situation by saying they don’t understand, she responds in protest. She tells him, “‘They don’t have to understand. Even the games they play are preparing them for their future—and that future will come whether they understand it or not’” (99).
What did that future hold? In essence, the future of a slave was made up of never ending physical and emotional suffering. As people living in the 21st century, we often don’t understand just how much pain slaves had to endure. However, novels like Kindred allow us to see slaves not as a group, but as individuals with scars, bruises, and aching hearts.
The second time Rufus transports Dana, she escapes his home and witnesses a man being beaten for no reason by passing patrollers. Clearly, she describes it as something she has never seen before, adding a frightening sense of reality for the reader. She says, “I could literally smell his sweat, hear every ragged breath, every cry, every cut of the whip. I could see his body jerking, convulsing, straining against the rope as his screaming went on and on. My stomach heaved, and I had to force myself to stay where I was and keep quiet. Why didn’t they stop!” (36).
While being beaten, the patrollers forced his wife and daughter to watch, adding to his humiliation. Making family members witness beatings acted as another way of instilling fear. By seeing the physical pain he went through, his wife and daughter were learning to stay quiet and obey in order to avoid a similar fate. Butler describes the family witnessing the beating, saying, “Behind him, his child wept noisily against her mother’s leg, but the woman, like her husband, was silent. She clutched the child to her and stood, head down refusing to watch the beating” (36).
Visualizing this scene from Dana’s perspective, the reader is able to relate because Dana comes from modern times. In other words, slavery was just as distant to her as it is to us. She even says, “I had seen people beaten on television and in the movies. But I hadn’t lain nearby and smelled their sweat or heard them pleading and praying, shamed before their families and themselves” (36). A witnessing such as this one adds realism to slavery by involving human emotion. We are not simply told that slaves were beaten with whips. Rather, Butler makes each beating real and personal, causing us to gain a deeper understanding of slavery.
In addition to witnessing the beating of slaves, Dana is also victim to beatings herself. One instance occurs after Tom Weylin sees Dana reading. Infuriated, he makes sure to teach her a lesson. She recounts the event, saying, “Weylin dragged me a few feet, then pushed me hard. I never saw where the whip came from, never even saw the first blow coming. But it came—like a hot iron across my back, burning into me through my light shirt, searing my skin” (107). The vivid description of this beating makes us realize that whether you were born in the 19th century or the 21st century, a beating is a beating. She suffered in the same way one of her fellow slaves would have.
At the time of her second beating, Dana feels like she would rather die than endure another crack of the whip. However, beatings weren’t administered with the intention of killing a slave; rather, they acted as a physical punishment and reminder of what they had done wrong. Dana says, “This was only punishment, and I knew it. Nigel had borne it. Alice had borne worse. I wasn’t going to die—though as the beating went on, I wanted to” (176). By examining this scene further, we begin to understand why so many slaves tried to escape or committed suicide. Specifically, if a beating was comparable to death, why not risk your life with the chance of becoming free or simply take your life altogether? Perhaps many Africans welcomed death because it allowed them an opportunity to escape slavery without the chance of being caught.
Often times, the slave beatings were public in order to instill fear and subservience in the minds of others. In one scenario, a man is publicly whipped for talking back. The text states, “Weylin ordered the man stripped naked and tied to the trunk of a dead tree. The slave’s body jerked and strained against its ropes” (92). As humans, we naturally cringe at the sight of a fellow human being suffering. Just imagine what it was like for slaves to witness beatings like this one daily. Also, think about what it must have been like for his family to watch (if he had any). By attempting to relate to 19th century slaves, we come to understand just why this tactic was successful for white slave owners.
For female slaves, physical beatings weren’t the only thing they had to worry about. Often times, white men would choose women as sexual partners, raping and impregnating them. This had effects on a variety of levels. For one, sexual assault shattered the self-esteem and pride of African women even further. Furthermore these women were at risk because a white slave owner could tire with a woman soon and sell her when he no longer required her services. Most of all, sexual encounters between slaves and their owners often led to pregnancies. Like in Sarah’s case, a pregnancy would compel a woman to stay alive on a plantation. Moreover, depending on the owner, a slave who bore a child may be adding to the property of the plantation owner. After looking at these factors, we begin to understand that raping a slave not only provided pleasure for a slave owner, but also opened up an opportunity to increase his future wealth.
To illustrate this system, Butler uses the character of Tess. Specifically, Tess is a woman who Tom Weylin sleeps with when he pleases. Eventually, he gets tired of Tess and sends her to the overseer. At one point, Dana reflects on Tess’ situation. “Poor Tess. Weylin had tired of her as a bed mate and passed her casually to Edwards” (182). Tess only further exemplifies the way whites treated female slaves. Overseers and plantation owners would toss them around, use them, and throw them away like any nonliving thing. Unfortunately, things for Tess don’t get any better. Dana writes, “She was still working in the fields, still serving the overseer at night. She’d had no children, and that may have been why she was being sold” (222). Despite obeying her masters, Tess still was sold for a reason unbeknownst to her. Her situation simply proves that there was no hope for African slaves.
Based on Octavia Butler’s Kindred, we can come to the realization that slavery was a complex system of economics, emotions, and suffering. Through the modern day perspective of Dana, a story of historical fiction becomes a story about the human condition. Butler sums up the essence of slavery when she writes, “Slavery was a long slow process of dulling” (183). When examined further, we realize she wasn’t simply talking about the enslaved Africans, but the white slave owners and their families as well. Slaves were dulled through physical beatings and intense emotional and psychological abuse. Whites were dulled by slavery because they adapted to being inhumane creatures, unaware of their disrespect for fellow men and women. It would take a civil war and the abolition of slavery to awaken these people of their wrongdoing. However, even today, there are still people who need a wake up call.
Butler, Octavia. Kindred. Boston: Beacon Press, 1979.
© Jason Cotugno