Sunday, December 17, 2017

#SciFiSunday: Black Feminism In Octavia Butler's Kindred

Science fiction has the ability to stretch ones imagination far beyond the logical and comprehensible. The fantastic element of the genre alludes to a creativity that forces an audience to suspend reality while simultaneously reflecting on the real, social world through the allegories played out in the genre. Additionally, it predicts our future and argues the existence of concurrent spaces. But what happens when science fiction moves backwards instead of forwards? How are we then to prognosticate our futures when we’re stuck in the past?

Octavia Butler’s 1979 classic Kindred took a radical angle on conceptualizing science fiction. The skeleton of the story being framed in the antebellum South before the Civil War[1] spins the reader into a time passed. One can imagine that Butler would like her audience to grasp the concept of the past in order to better understand the present and the future. Further, it is her main character, a black woman in her mid-twenties named Dana Franklin who mystery is called back to this time in history sporadically only to find out that she is to exist by saving the life of an ancestor, a young white slave owner named Rufus Weylin. Her life as a black woman living in the 1970’s is conceptually transformed by living the experiences of a slave in Maryland in the 1800’s.

Almost all African Americans have a general idea and subjective connection to the history of African enslavement in North America. Anger, fear, frustration, and transformation are critical cues to the development of African American identity in relationship to slavery’s long and brutal history. Butler’s protagonist Dana was placed in a precarious position where her educated, progressive identity as a woman of the 1970’s was severely compromised by her very real position as a black woman in the 1800’s. Does she play the role of a slave or does she take the risk of incorporating change through her present identity to intentionally benefit her ancestor and other slaves around her? The richness and complexity of the novel sees her character taking on both roles.

The web of layers found within Dana is a positive framework for a Black feminist reading of Kindred. Dana’s identity zeroes in on Black feminism’s core tenets that forces Black women’s lives out of obscurity and the idea that race, class, and gender operate simultaneously and should be critically examined to eradicate the silencing and subjugation of Black women in America and throughout the diaspora. I will briefly explain the history and intellectual work of Black feminist thought as it relates to Butler’s main character Dana Franklin in Kindred using examples of how race, class, and gender operate and overlap in the novel. Butler’s use of the character is a display of a fictional narrative that places a Black woman’s identity at the center. Although an identity is forced on her, another identity that is transformative as well as oppositional to the status quo can emerge.

Black feminist thought and praxis is based on “a multifaceted African-American women’s intellectual tradition”[2] that continues to operate on micro and macro levels from the voices of Black women and the oppression they face within their everyday social lives to public policy that gives Black women the education, access, and ultimately the freedom from the constraints of a sexist and racist ideology.[3] Patricia Hill-Collins in her book, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment begins with explaining the struggle for validity and the concerns of Black women that have continuously been silenced, ignored, and passed over.[4] “Maintaining the invisibility of Black women and our ideas not only in the United States, but in Africa, the Caribbean, South America, Europe, and other places where Black women now live, has been critical in maintaining social inequalities. Black women engaged in reclaiming and constructing Black women’s knowledges [sic] often point to the politics of suppression that effect their projects.”[5] The direct effect of the invisibility and oppression of Black women has been inscribed in social inequalities that deal with race, class, and gender. These three elements tend to hit women of color harder and more uniquely than other groups.[6] 

Black women and work in America has historically been seen as “the drudgery...and the grinding poverty of ‘free’ wage labor in the rural South”[7] to 20th century cities where Black women's work was often equated with low wage jobs.[8] Race discrimination ties into the lack of opportunities for the advancement of class, seen through “past practices such as denying literacy to slaves.”[9] Collins sites racial segregation as a determining factor in Black women’s lives that denies them access to better living conditions, jobs, and education.[10] Even the discussion of race is a negated topic because it challenges color blind rhetoric made by those uninformed by their own  non-subjugated group experience.[11] Black women’s discussions on race are unique in the sense that they can neither exclude themes of gender nor class within their discourse and places emphasis on how Black women’s identities are formulated for and not defined by them.

Stereotypes that combine being black and female are wrought with pernicious images. Collins attests that what Black women are thought of originated during slavery to reflect “the interests of a group of people”[12] who prospered from the enslavement of Africans by allowing “racist and sexist ideologies [to] permeate the social structure to such a degree that they become hegemonic, namely, seen as natural, normal, and inevitable.”[13] The popular misconceptions of Black women as nothing but lascivious, servile, ignorant and downtrodden young mothers, or overweight, masculine hotheads “function as a highly effective system of social control designed to keep African-American women in an assigned, subordinate place.”[14] These images operate to devalue and disengage the intellectual potential of Black women. As we find in Kindred, a Black female character in contrast to these "factual" generalizations puts into question the politics of difference and humanity as considered in regards to race as well as gender.

Black feminist thought lays the groundwork for an active response from women of color to strive for emancipation from all race, class, and gender inequalities. Dana Franklin’s presence in Maryland in the 1800's is an exercise in that emancipatory process through the minor adjustments she makes to understand the time she’s in but the major changes she attempts to interject with the other characters she interacts with by asserting her identity as a 20th century black woman. The examples of how race, class, and gender mold Black feminist thought are in direct correlation with the experiences Dana has in Kindred.

Dana’s war against racism and position as a person of African descent during the time slavery was prevalent throughout Kindred. In the section titled “The Fall,” an enslaved boy named Nigel realizes that Dana is an educated black woman who he thinks is a free person from a northern state. He then asks her how to read. They both meet the challenge with apprehension because of the dangers of being black and educated during the time. The passage reads:

Hours later in the cookhouse, Nigel asked me to teach him to read…”You know what’s going to happen to both of us if we get caught?” I asked him. “You scared?” he asked. “Yes. But that doesn’t matter. I’ll teach you. I just wanted to be sure you knew what you were getting into.” He turned away from me, lifted his shirt in the back so that I could see his scars. Then faced me again. “I know,” he said.[15]

Blacks as well as whites during this time understood that literacy was crucial to having a better life and opportunities. Collins notes, “Past practices such as denying literacy to slaves and regulating Black women to underfunded, segregated Southern schools worked to ensure that a quality education for Black women remained the exception rather than the rule.”[16] This was a common practice for all Black people to deny them positions of power and authority.[17] Without proper subjugation due to literacy, slave masters could no longer control their slaves and they feared revolt. Dana went against the rules to adhere to the young boy’s request because she believed in the power of literacy. It’s mentioned that Nigel hoped to one day flee to Pennsylvania[18] and with that, Dana knew that teaching him to read was the best thing to do for the thirteen year old who dreamed of attaining freedom. In Dana’s mind, freedom equated to education and if she were to effect change, she could do it with a skill she has already acquired.

Dana’s identity as a woman in her time travel to the past plays such an interwoven role in her racial category that makes it clear that Black women can never separate the two oppressive forces. The master of the plantation, Tom put Dana in the servant position of caregiver and nurturer to his son, Rufus.[19] The more dreadful aspect of being a Black woman during this time was the alarming rate of sexual assault as a means of justified oppression. When Dana is caught by a patrolman, she faced the danger of such a crime:

I guess you’ll do as well as your sister,” he said. “I came back for her, but you’re just like her.” That told me who he probably was. One of the patrollers…He reached out and ripped my blouse open…I understood what the man was going to do…He tore loose my bra and I prepared to move…Then suddenly for no reason that I could see, he reared above me, fist drawn back to hit me again.[20]

Dana’s resistance in this situation allowed her to stave off further physical and psychological damage, but the patrollers actions over her was commonplace. Bell hooks in Ain’t I Woman: black women and feminism points out that, “those women who did not willingly respond to the sexual overture of masters and overseers were brutalized and punished. Any show of resistance on the part of enslaved females increased the determination of white owners eager to demonstrate their power.”[21] Dana never once willingly accepted his position of power. She fought back and in good time was taken back to 1976.[22]

It is important to note that considering class during the time period Dana was placed in had a lot to do with the amount of education one obtained. The incredulousness found in each character Dana encountered in 1800’s Maryland upon realizing a black woman was articulate and could read was unheard of. It made her different, dangerous, yet somehow made characters adjust to her as opposed to Dana completely adjusting to the times. In a sense, it helped shake the foundations of the dehumanizing conditions of slaves. Her identity was compromised in the sense that she was able to experience a piece of history only people from the 1970’s could read about. She says, “And I began to realize why Kevin and I had fitted so easily into this time. We weren’t really in. We were observers watching a show. We were watching history happen around us. And we were actors. While we waited to go home, we humored the people around us by pretending to be like them. But we were poor actors. We never really got into our roles. We never forgot that we were acting.”[23]

Black feminists often display how race and gender work together and highlight how that oppression is acted out. The two turning points in Kindred as Dana utilizes her identity with her race, class, and gender mark a resistance and activism through practices classified as those of a Black feminist although she never called herself one. Dana may have considered herself an observer, but she was also an agent for change. Not just of her own destiny and legacy, but for the lives of black and white people during that time. Science fiction is the perfect vehicle in which to relay such an astounding remix of history. Combining both fiction and non-fiction to show how the fight for liberation is never ending and never out of fashion.


[1] Writers & Books, “A Conversation with Octavia Butler,” Writers & Books, (accessed April 8, 2010).
[2] Patricia Hill-Collins, “The Politics of Black Feminist Thought,” Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York, New York & London, Great Britain: Routledge, 2000), 3.
[3] Hill-Collins explains that “Black feminist thought’s contributions [are] to empowering African-American women. Empowerment remains an illusive construct and developing a Black feminist politics of empowerment requires specifying the domains of power that constrain Black women, as well as how such domination can be resisted.”(19)
[4] Ibid., 3.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Hill-Collins asserts, “The convergence of race, class, and gender oppression characteristic of U.S. slavery shaped all subsequent relationships that women of African descent had within Black American families and communities, with employers, and among one another. Further, “The large numbers of young Black women in inner cities and impoverished rural areas who continue to leave school before attaining full literacy represent the continued efficacy of the political dimension of Black women’s oppression.”(4)
[7] Ibid., 4.
[8] Ibid. “Survival for most African-American women has been such an all-consuming activity that most have had few opportunities to do intellectual work as it has been traditionally defined.”(4)
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 23.
[11] Ibid. “Overlaying these persisting inequalities is a rhetoric of color blindness designed to render these social inequalities invisible. In a context where many believe that to talk of race fosters racism, equality allegedly lies in treating everyone the same.”(23)
[12] Ibid., 5.
[13] Ibid. “The mammies, jezebels, and breeder women of slavery to the smiling Aunt Jemimas on pancake mix boxes, ubiquitous Black prostitutes, and ever-present welfare mothers of contemporary popular culture, negative stereotypes applied to African-American women have been fundamental to Black women’s oppression.”(5)
[14] Ibid.
[15] Octavia Butler, Kindred. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1979. 98.
[16] Hill-Collins, Black Feminist Thought, 4. From Leith Mullings’ Own Our Own Terms: Race, Class, and Gender in the Lives of African American Women (New York, New York: Routledge, 1997).
[17] Ibid., 4.
[18] Butler, Kindred, 98.
[19] Ibid., 91.
[20] Ibid., 42-43.
[21] Bell hooks, “Sexism and the Black Female Slave Experience,” Ain’t I A Woman: black women and feminism (Boston, Massachusetts: South End Press, 1981), 26.
[22] Butler, Kindred, 43.
[23] Ibid., 98.
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