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Representations of Race and Ethnicity in Octavia E. Butler's ‘Kindred’ and Colson Whitehead's ‘The Underground Railroad’

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Octavia E. Butler and Colson Whitehead represent race and ethnicity in ‘Kindred’ and ‘The Underground Railroad’ respectively in a number of different ways. Published in 1979 and initially set in 1976 California during the antebellum period, ‘Kindred’ contains elements pertaining to time travel and revolves around narratives in regards to slaves. Whereas ‘The Underground Railroad’, published in 2016, tracks the story of two slaves during the time period of the civil war and the slave trade.

From a contextual standpoint, the 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of second wave feminism and new wave science fiction in which ‘Kindred’ can be depicted as playing a pivotal part in this upside especially considering social and political themes. The emergence of female science fiction writers helped to push boundaries in a male dominated field in which pre-conceived notions about gender and sexuality were dispelled in the process. Not only did Butler gain recognition as a reputable science fiction writer, but also as an African-American writer of the highest degree.

Whilst Whitehead’s blending of literary and genre fiction is evident in previous works, ‘The Underground Railroad’ is a work of alternate history and his experience in the aforementioned incorporation of various genres bodes well for the portrayal of a network of secret routes and safe houses utilized by African-American slaves to escape into free states and Canada with the help of abolitionists and allies who showcased understanding towards the slaves’ reasonable grounds for doing so accordingly.

In the opening parts of ‘Kindred’, being black is represented as an unfortunate situation thus dangerous and difficult as Dana gets her first taste of the oppressor in the form of patrollers who harass and beat up her kind: “A patroller is […] was a white man, usually young, often poor, sometimes drunk. He was a member of a group of such men organized to keep blacks in line” (Butler, 2018). Dana breaks it down to Kevin how the white man is conveyed as a clumsy and self-destructive subjugator who repeatedly uses projection to enslave despite the fact that his duties entail otherwise, whilst the black person’s plight is a by-product of the white man exercising his authority.

Dana battles with an identity crisis as she continues to time-travel. She attempts to mask the way she actually speaks to which others confront her about it in the process: “Why you try to talk like white folks?” (Butler, 2018). This signifies the common misconception within the black community of an educated black person being perceived as white due to the fact that they are solely different in terms of language and discourse. This not only leads to a black struggle within herself, but it also causes her to feel alienated and labelled as an outcast amongst her fellow people. In essence, the battle goes both ways and she can’t win.

On the contrary, Kevin epitomises a white vision of history when he says: “This could be a great time to live in” (Butler, 2018) and that he would love to: “Go West and watch the building of the country, see how much of the mythology is true” (Butler, 2018). This exhibits his sentimentalised view regarding human progress which is reinforced by the mere fact he is white. And, therefore, at a sense of safety during the 19th century. This also displays his naivety and ignorance due to the nuance of implicit, structural racism. Dana, however, says that she: “Can’t maintain the distance. I’m drawn all the way into eighteen nineteen, and I don’t know what to do” (Butler, 2018). The fact that she does not have the capacity to assume the eradication of racial prejudices in a rationally designed future encompasses science fiction’s delicate handling of race.

Critics such as Ania Loomba state in Colonialism/Postcolonialism that: “Colonialism can be defined as the conquest and control of other people’s lands and goods […] These flows of profits and people involved settlement and plantations as in the Americas, ‘trade’ as in India, and enormous global shifts of populations. Both the colonized and colonizer moved” (Loomba, 2005).

This can allude to the time-related movements in ‘Kindred’, the main basis through which race and ethnicity is represented. For instance, the dynamic between the oppressors - Tom and Rufus Weylin - and the oppressed - Dana Franklin - from a fundamental point of view. Tom holds Dana at gunpoint and whips her whereas Rufus abuses and attempts to rape her which ultimately contributes to his demise. Loomba’s apt assessment can also apply to the multiple facets revolving around colonialism and its subsequent impact on a world scale.

Loomba goes on to further connect the abovementioned factors with postcolonialism whereby she says: “To begin with, the prefix ‘post’ complicates matters because it implies an ‘aftermath’ in two senses – temporal, as in coming after, and ideological, as in supplanting […] if the inequities of colonial rule have not been erased, it is perhaps premature to proclaim the demise of colonialism” (Loomba, 2005).

This goes in accordance with the parallels drawn between early 19th century America and 1970’s America in which both time periods can be seen as the ‘aftermath’ of how being African-American is represented in the novel in two senses. In this case, the former era being the temporal stage of blackness whilst the latter era is the ideological – in other words, the supplanting phase of blackness.

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On the other hand, Whitehead tells us how the vicious cycle of slavery and systematic racism encapsulates ‘The Underground Railroad’ in the first few chapters with: “Stolen bodies, working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood” (Whitehead, 2017). This exemplifies the harsh reality of being black during the time period of the civil war and the slave trade.

Furthermore, the parallel between the stolen bodies and stolen land provides the reader with an aura of cynicism. The engine which is reminiscent of a broken record coupled with the personified boiler not only presents sinister imagery, but also gives off the idea of blacks being trapped in an endless loop.

Moreover, Whitehead continues to detail what being an African-American slave entails, including having a crab in a bucket mentality: “Sometimes a useful delusion is better than the useless truth” (Whitehead, 2017). This predicament showcases how black folks end up adopting an irrational way of reasoning as they attempt to make the best out of a bad situation. Contextually, race and ethnicity are represented as being caught up in a web of entanglement eventually leading to bondage with deception. Essentially, they convince themselves that slavery is just living in fool’s paradise until they actually believe it.

Additionally, the false virtue of abolitionists and allies is raised further by Whitehead: “Yet when his classmates put their blades to a colored cadaver, they did more for the cause of the colored advancement than the most high-minded abolitionist. In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal” (Whitehead, 2017). The use of blacks for medical experimentation signifies how the white man’s intentions aren’t inherently pure and ultimately their sense of superiority is innate. It is only when the black man ceases to exist which is the final form then they are really and truly the same in the eyes of humanity.

This begs the question of the concept of equality and whether blacks, in this case, are in actual fact viewed the same as others in mankind. This idea ties in with Toni Morrison’s public lecture series entitled ‘A Humanist View’ in which she argues: “Anthropology is the study of the coloured peoples of the world; they don’t study anybody else […] Urban studies is the study of black people, and the approach, vigorously held to in these studies: Blacks as wards of the state, never as its pioneers. It does take two to hold a chain: the chained, and the chainer. And it takes two to make anthropology: the student and the studied” (Morrison, 1975). The use of blacks for experimentation in ‘The Underground Railroad’ shares connotations with anthropology and this interplay just goes to show how African-Americans in this context are not only utilised as a tool of oppression, but black folks are also exploited as a race in their entirety.

Morrison goes on to further say: “More important, accurate scholarship and free, dedicated artists would reveal a singularly important thing: that racism was and is not only a mark, a public mark of ignorance; it was and is a monumental fraud. Racism was never, ever the issue. Profit and money always were” (Morrison, 1975). This links back to the core principle of colonialism whereby black folks are dehumanised for monetary gain as well as the after effects of post-colonialism which constitute purely becoming a statistic in the grand scheme of things.

In ‘Contemporary Women’s Fiction and the Fantastic’, Lucie Armitt responds to the major theme of time travel in ‘Kindred’ and its effects on Dana: “In the process [of travelling back in time] Dana comes face to face with a mirror image of her own relationship with Kevin, projected backwards into a new chronotope that has a significant material effect upon both her own subjectivity and personal relationship” (Armitt, 2000).

This echoes how race and ethnicity is represented in the novel as a parallelism between Kevin Franklin and Dana in the sense that the latter’s blackness makes Kevin endear to her almost similar to the way comradeship is the foundation of black folks’ relationship. In this case, however, the white man is empathetic despite the fact that he doesn’t fully resonate and it reflects on Dana’s own association with temporal and spatial shifts and how she reacts to them.

Another critic, Sherryl Vint also analyses how slavery and time travel mirror the representation of Dana’s race and ethnicity: “Dana envisions herself as a disembodied subject…deludes herself that the experience of slavery is safely contained in the past…begins to recognize that her subjectivity is not something that she can separate from bodily experience…past that can affect her body affects this self…able to take action about the past instead of passively waiting for it to capture her” (Vint, 2007). This symbolises how Dana being constantly transported back to antebellum South not only influences her relationship with time and space, but also her identity in reference to her mind, soul and body.

To summarise, Butler uses time travel to explore the brutality of slavery as a result of blackness as well as address the historical legacy of slave narratives which ultimately have an effect on how contemporary American culture view race and ethnicity. As opposed to Whitehead who highlights the system and schemes as delusions in which black folks are left without models for what they will become and the lack of real hope for the African-American community as a whole.

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Representations of Race and Ethnicity in Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Kindred’ and Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad’. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 21, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/representations-of-race-and-ethnicity-in-octavia-e-butlers-kindred-and-colson-whiteheads-the-underground-railroad/
“Representations of Race and Ethnicity in Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Kindred’ and Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad’.” Edubirdie, 15 Dec. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/representations-of-race-and-ethnicity-in-octavia-e-butlers-kindred-and-colson-whiteheads-the-underground-railroad/
Representations of Race and Ethnicity in Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Kindred’ and Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad’. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/representations-of-race-and-ethnicity-in-octavia-e-butlers-kindred-and-colson-whiteheads-the-underground-railroad/> [Accessed 21 Feb. 2024].
Representations of Race and Ethnicity in Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Kindred’ and Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 15 [cited 2024 Feb 21]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/representations-of-race-and-ethnicity-in-octavia-e-butlers-kindred-and-colson-whiteheads-the-underground-railroad/
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