The study of history is invaluable in gaining an understanding of the events and forces, which shaped the psyche of entire nations, cultures, and races. The past, therefore, shapes the present and is likely to continue shaping the future as well, unless past issues that negatively affect the present are changed. Indeed, it is this understanding of human psychology that has led to the psychiatric profession using techniques of regression on patients. Regression is performed in the hope that revisiting the past will allow cleansing of complexes by facilitating a change in perspective through the deployment of present day understanding. Similarly, by creating a time passage between the present and the past, Butler's Kindred regresses twentieth century America to the days of slavery in antebellum Maryland, and thereby facilitates a change in perspective and deeper appreciation of the meaning of freedom.
Butler's intent to explore the finer nuances of freedom is evident in the very fact that she chose the American bicentennial year of freedom, 1976, as the time period for situating her twentieth century African-American protagonist. In a similar vein, her choice of an Eastern shore plantation in antebellum Maryland is possibly Butler's way of pointing out that slavery and oppression of the blacks was not restricted just to the South. Further, it is not coincidental that Butler has portrayed her central character, Dana, as a modern African-American woman who is self-assertive and refuses to adhere to family or societal expectations of either her race or gender. She rejects her aunt and uncle's advice to pursue a career in the respectable but stereotypical professions of teaching or nursing. Instead, she prefers to earn a living at mindless jobs while trying to build a career as a writer. Thus, Butler's protagonist is, by herself, a symbol of freedom and all that it represents as in the right to life, liberty, and happiness. In this particular instance, she depicts Dana as expressing a wish to be "free" from social and racial strictures on respectable occupations for a black woman.
Indeed, Dana's independence is apparent in her working for a blue-collar temporary placement agency to support herself financially while she tries to write. Further, in a brilliant sleight of hand, Butler has Dana referring to the temp agency as a "slave market." Thus, through using language as a device, Butler manages to make a strong comment about the fact that slavery continues to exist in twentieth century America, albeit in a different form, manifested in economic oppression of certain social classes:
was working out of a casual labor agency - we regulars called it a slave market. You sat and sat until the dispatcher sent you out on a job.... Getting sent out meant a minimum wage - minus Uncle Sam's share - for as many hours as you were needed. You swept floors...sorted potato chips (really!), cleaned toilets.... It was nearly always mindless work, and as far as most employers were concerned, it was done by mindless people. Nonpeople rented for a few hours, a few days.... I did the work, I went home, I ate, and then I slept for a few hours. Finally, I got up and wrote." (Butler, p. 52)
In one fell swoop, just by the careful choice of words, used in a matter-of-fact tone, Butler places in perspective that modern day society, too, chooses to treat certain classes of human beings as invisible people, undeserving of recognition and respect. Notice especially the incredulous emphasis placed on the job of sorting potato chips. It's almost as if Butler is implying that even potato chips succeed in gaining more attention than the person doing the sorting. Yet, in almost the same breath the mindless person is shown to have ambition enough to rest only for a few hours, then get up, and concentrate on her craft of writing. This indicates that Butler is trying to send society a message that it needs to work towards ensuring a threshold level of well-being for all its members in order that every individual has the freedom to pursue his or her dreams.
In fact, Kindred is full of such sleight-of-hand symbolisms. Take, for example, Dana's marriage to Kevin, a white man. Their union, in spite of the misgivings of both their families, is a rich metaphor for human integration the way it should be, free of racial, color or class barriers. Similarly, it is significant that Dana, a black woman, is the one summoned to rescue her white ancestor, Rufus, every time his life is in danger. Indeed, Dana's meeting with the child, Rufus, is her first inkling of the humiliation suffered by her ancestors. For, here was a small boy advising her that she had to address him as "master," while simultaneously calling her by the deprecating term "nigger." Further, Rufus warns Dana that she must address him with respect or incur the wrath of his father, a slave owner: "You're supposed to...You'll get into trouble if you don't, if Daddy hears you." (Butler, 30)
Thus, Butler creates a situation, which allows her readers to experience along with Dana, the meaning of being enslaved as devoid of any respect and dignity. In fact, as Dana spends more time in the past, she realizes the difference between merely reading about the victimization of slaves and actually being there, as evidenced by her vivid description of the beating of Alice's father by the patrollers:
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.... I had seen people beaten on television.... I had seen the too-red blood substitute streaked across their back and heard their well-rehearsed screams. But I hadn't lain nearby...heard them pleading and praying, shamed before their families and themselves." (Butler, 36)
Yet, every time Rufus summons her from the past, Dana responds. True, she feels motivated to save her ancestor in order to preserve her own ancestral line and ensure her own birth in the future, but she is also undeniably moved by the child Rufus himself. She functions as both a guardian angel and surrogate mother to Rufus, moved by pity for a child with a brutal father and an ineffectual mother. Dana also hopes to nurture Rufus into growing up to be a more humane slaveholder. In effect, she casts herself as an agent of freedom, both in terms of liberating the child, Rufus, from the oppressive, undesirable influence of his parents as well as in the hope of gaining at least some small leeway for her ancestors who are yet to be born. Thus, Butler's plot structure revolves around a contemporary, young African-American woman who goes into bondage of her own volition, only to discover and fully appreciate what it means to be free. For, regrettably Dana fails in her efforts to reform Rufus.
One of Dana's most painful experiences is her first hand observation of the sexual slavery suffered by black women. Though Dana is successful in warding off any attempt to sexually violate her, she nevertheless experiences the humiliation of being a black woman. When Kevin travels back in time with her, they are forced to pretend that they are master and servant in a racist society where they dare not acknowledge their marital status. This leads Dana into virtually living the shame and humiliation attached to a black woman's sexuality by white supremacists: "I felt almost as though I really was doing something shameful, happily playing whore for my supposed owner. I went away feeling uncomfortable, vaguely ashamed." (Butler, p. 97)
In spite of all the pain that Dana experiences and witnesses, her journey into the past helps her realize that her ancestors did what they could to obtain their personal freedom and maintain their sense of dignity. Alice, Dana's freeborn ancestor, for instance, rejects Rufus's sexual advances and chooses to marry Isaac, an enslaved man. By doing so, she incites Rufus into raping her and mocking her, "...she got so she'd rather have a buck nigger than me." (Butler, p. 123) Although Isaac is legally powerless to defend his wife, he nevertheless displays courage in attacking Rufus and seriously wounding him. Alice and Isaac then make a bid for their freedom by trying to escape to the North, only to be captured and severely punished. Isaac is sold and Alice is forced into becoming Rufus's sexual slave.
Alice, however, never quite accepts her sexual subjugation to Rufus, attempting to run away several times until she finally resorts to the only route to freedom - suicide. Alice's desire for freedom is also evident in her naming her children, Hagar and Joseph, the Biblical names of formerly enslaved persons in the hope that, like in the Bible, "...people might be slaves for a while, but they didn't have to stay slaves." (Butler, p. 234)
Rufus's lust for Alice, along with Dana's knowledge of the commencement of…