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Black Female Body as a Living Historical Record in Octavia Butler’s ‘Kindred’

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Octavia Butler’s ‘Kindred’ traces central protagonist, Dana Franklin’s genealogy by physically ‘returning’ her to her slave past in antebellum Maryland. By deconstructing the body of the female slave Butler uses Dana’s body as the site for historical markings, so that she is literally and symbolically scarred by her ancestral past. As Michel Foucault notes, the purpose of genealogy is “to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body”, so by using Dana’s figure, Butler is able to show the literal and symbolic dismembering of the black female body in remembering the past.

In ‘Kindred’, Dana is invested in a linear and determinised version of history. In seeking to secure a linear saga of her history, Dana fails to identify with her black ancestor Alice Greenwood. She therefore becomes actively complicit in the mistreatment and rape of her female predecessor. The relationship between Alice and Dana acts as the crux within the novel as Dana encounters both obstructions and alliances in befriending a black female slave. Rufus Weylin, a white slave owner and the ‘presumptive patriarch at history’s centre’ becomes the main obstruction for Dana as it prevents her and Alice from establishing female bonds of solidarity that could resist white supremacy. Dana is familially obliged to remain loyal to Rufus as it serves her interests in obtaining a linear history. She uses pre-determined history as an alibi to justify her allowing Rufus’s constant mistreatment of Alice. Rufus converts his sexual desires for Alice into socially sanctioned rape by saying, “I didn’t want to just drag her off into the bushes […] I never wanted it to be like that. But she kept saying no”. Dana’s response to this intrusive assault on Alice’s body is void of compassion with her simply overlooking Rufus’ heinous actions. The black body then is constructed as a penetrable space it is an open vessel that permits the culpability of white male sexual violence. This then reveals Dana’s problematic identification with a fellow black ancestor and implies that she perceives Alice’s life as expendable in exchange for her own.

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Conversely, in light of the Black Power movement in the 1960s-70s, Butler grew concerned about how black nationalists were misserving generations of black communities due to them feeling ashamed of, or more strongly angry with their parents for not improving things faster. By implementing the language of slavery, the Black Power movement wanted deny that certain African American people even ‘belonged’ to the ‘same black race’, that the they now inhabited. This ethos is critiqued by Butler through Dana’s character and her relationship with the slave Sarah. On discovering that Sarah is afraid of books and the power of reading (as educated blacks were seen as a threat to their white oppressors), Dana is filled with a sense of moral superiority because she can use the Black Power movement to limit and define Sarah’s ‘blackness’. She describes Sarah as the “kind of woman who would be held in contempt during the militant sixties” for her subservience to her own enslavement. Ironically though, Dana is later referred to as ‘mammy’ which forces her to accept her own subordination as a black female slave. Dana must endure the same belittling labelling as her ancestors in order to apprehend the past.

Constant bodily suffering and breakage against Dana’s own body acts as the mechanism by which her oppressive linear history is disrupted. In traversing time periods Dana’s body relives trauma as her figure is remade into that of a female slave. Punishment for Dana comes in the form of a whip, “it came—like a hot iron across my back, burning into me through my light shirt, searing my skin”. She is beaten into submission, her back not only inscribed with flesh lacerations but it is also literally marked by her history. Butler reduces Dana’s body down to flesh and dehumanises her body to illustrate the literal distancing between the black body and its white oppressors. As Hortense Spiller notes, “before the 'body' there is the 'flesh', that zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse”. Spiller is stating that there is a difference between liberation and captivation which is juxtaposed against the ‘body’ and the ‘flesh’. Thus, the lacerations on the captive black female body by the white oppressor has reduced the black figure down to ‘flesh’. Despite Dana’s attempt to flee the normativity for black females in the antebellum period, her race prevents her from navigating and escaping the oppressive space that she occupies. She too is subject to the same corporeal tortures as her black ancestors.

The narrative shows how a linear and determinised perspective of history has ultimately led to the whitewashing of slavery in contemporary America. In the denouement, Dana revisits the former site of the Weylin plantation only to find that any evidence of slavery has vanished, “Rufus’s house was gone. As nearly as we could tell, its site was now covered by a broad field of corn. The house was dust, like Rufus”. Unlike the landscapes whitewashing of enslavement, the interjection of temporal multiplicity in Dana’s life leaves her physically marked by her history. On her final return home Dana’s body is “caught somehow, joined to the wall as though [her] arm was growing out of it”. It is at this moment that Dana realises she is missing her arm, her body is physically and historically scarred from travelling back to the past. In being a corporeal juncture in which history merges with the contemporary, Dana and her body become a vessel for remembering the past. Despite being liberated, Dana’s body, as Spillers notes is still “grounded in the originating metaphors of captivity” due to the lasting physical mutilation on her body. By physically dismembering Dana, Butler reconstructs the black female body as a living historical record. In remembering, Dana’s body restores a forgotten past.

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Black Female Body as a Living Historical Record in Octavia Butler’s ‘Kindred’. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 24, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/black-female-body-as-a-living-historical-record-in-octavia-butlers-kindred/
“Black Female Body as a Living Historical Record in Octavia Butler’s ‘Kindred’.” Edubirdie, 15 Dec. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/black-female-body-as-a-living-historical-record-in-octavia-butlers-kindred/
Black Female Body as a Living Historical Record in Octavia Butler’s ‘Kindred’. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/black-female-body-as-a-living-historical-record-in-octavia-butlers-kindred/> [Accessed 24 Feb. 2024].
Black Female Body as a Living Historical Record in Octavia Butler’s ‘Kindred’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 15 [cited 2024 Feb 24]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/black-female-body-as-a-living-historical-record-in-octavia-butlers-kindred/
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