Kevin as a Postmodern Literary Captive in Octavia Butler’s Kindred


When I grind glass

I think of lenses

swallow like sugar,

a preacher with glass eye,

a eunuch named Jesus,

Black Mary in his cottonfield

                 Michael S. Harper (92)


May it be so:

Let the great vessel be lifted from the ground

And the warm lips drink from it

Until the tongue begins to speak,

And spread its song.

When thirst burns the mind

may we return again to the villages

Where we shall partake in a feast

With those that are no more.

                   Mazisi Kunene (76)

Many thinkers of [the eighteenth century] supposed that if the first steps in the process of the oppression of man by man could be pinpointed, then the decay of civilization might be arrested and even reversed. They believed that if man could be shown how he got into his deplorable condition, he would make every intelligent, scientific effort to get out of it. (Becker 38)

           In Escape from Evil, Ernest Becker attempts to define the line between religious power and sociological instinct, “all power…is sacred power, because it begins in the hunger for immortality; and it ends in the absolute subjection of peoples and things which represent immortality” (49). The antecedent to all inequality is power. All oppression is maintained by man’s insecurity as he beholds himself from the limited consciousness of his own spatial-temporal reality. The neo-slave narrative wrestles within this flux of consciousness. The narrator negotiates the physical and psychological bondage of the persecutors timidity, frailty hiding behind the masks of authority. The persecutor is always principled. Rufus in Octavia Bulter’s Kindred, John in Jubilee, Nehemiah in Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose, Doak Jr. in J. California Copper’s Family, and the Garner’s in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, all have in common a higher principle that they believe those who have been born beneath them could not possibly attain. Of course, these higher principles are delusions. They are shared, consensual delusions mitigated by external bigotry and internal fear. This same fear rears it’s head in every generation in one form or another. Fear is Jewish. Fear is African. Fear is homosexual. Fear is mental illness. It is fear that rules those with an authority to decide the fate of others. Fear takes no chances because fear is secure. Fear is blind and does not judge the one in power. Fear does the judging for the one in power. As Ernest Becker states, “in a spiritual cosmology power is relatively undisguised: it comes from the pool of ancestors and spirits.” Fear is just as hereditary as any recognizable physical condition. It’s power is in its ability to rest from confrontation through societal-shared delusions of power. “Power,” writes Becker, “is the life pulse that sustains man in every epoch” (44-45). The delusion of power and it’s resolve to oppress is searched out in the text’s of the neo-slave narrative’s. Through generational memory, power is sifted as wheat, as the heroines of the these novels find closure, find freedom, and liberate their histories from the paralyzing insecurities of the dominant power-holding class.

            Resistance to fear is the central strength of the heroines from these stories. In Kindred, Dana’s resistance is shared with Kevin as he must defend himself from accusations of abuse; first in the opening of the novel at the hospital where there is no reason explanation he can give the police as to just how Dana’s arm became detached into the wall. Then, as they travel to the past, he must defend Dana within the delusional order of the antebellum south. There relationship depends of their shared resistance in the marrow of Dana’s historical past:

Dana and Kevin must pretend, in order to give validity to their close relationship, that they are master and servant rather than husband and wife. Even though Kevin opposes slavery and its ideals, he is implicated by his race. When Dana has to pretend she is Kevin’s sexual property, she realizes how easy it is for both of them to adhere to the constructions of nineteenth-century black female sexuality and identity. (Mitchell 57)

Perhaps too much validity is given to Kevin’s sexuality from critics and commentary on Kindred. He, too, shares in the experience of oppression as a man who is unable to control the lapses of time that continue to place Dana in subjection. A man is most vulnerable when the woman he loves is most vulnerable. Again, Foster claims that “even the most cursory reading of Kindred could not fail to recognize the deep anxiety that circulates in the novel around interracial sex and intimacy” (144). Intimacy should indeed be a very specific concern in Kindred. Her very core of personhood is in a state of constant risk. “Intimacy,” is an understatement. Dana “struggles valiantly for her survival upon her several returns to the past, but near the novel’s end, she wonders whether or not she is becoming acclimated to submissiveness. She begins to understand, as many slaves probably did, the difficulty of resistance” (Steinberg 468). Towards the end of the novel she almost gives in to the subjected role. Before her last trip home she is beginning to become acculturated to the era. Clearly, what Butler is saying is that it could have been any one of us.

By traveling back and forth between these two spatiotemporal locations, one where their contemporary relationship as husband and wife is compromised by being conflated with the antebellum categories of master and slave, Dana and Kevin soon learn to fill in the gaps and silences that had seemed to stifle their interpersonal communication with one another. By the end of the narrative, not only has Kevin acquired the intimate knowledge of Dana’s history that he has been lacking up to now, but he also learns the importance of developing what Joe Kincheloe and Shirley Steinberg have called ‘a progressive white identity,’ one ‘that is psychologically centered and capable of acting in opposition to racist activity. (Foster 158)

Foster is obsessed with seeing Kevin as a white male in need of a lesson, in need of initiation before he can properly fulfill the role of lover to an African American women. While it is true that Kevin unromantically told Dana that she could type his manuscripts for him, this comment is little more than benign thoughtlessness, very male, very human, and very much reflecting contemporary relationships that all lack vigor from time to time. It seems to be an absurd thing to interpret normal and typical disappointments in a relationship as evidence of a necessary racial theme. In The Hero and the Blues, Albert Murray writes that “every hero in every story is nothing if not a symbolic individual, and as such he is the Representative Man in the statistical as well as the ritualistic sense. Indeed, Kenneth Burke has suggested that the word symbolic may be equated with the word statistical! Nor can the statistician deny that his norms are intended to represent the typical” (91). Poor Kevin! A casual less-than-thoughtful comment and he is interpreted out of (con)text as the idea example for how the white male must learn love and must be ritualistically initiated into an interracial relationship. Which is to say, according to Foster, Steinberg, and Mitchell, he must go back to slavery and not be forced into it himself. Or, are these scholars lamenting in prose, and committing ritual to text? In an interview with Margaret Walker, author of Jubilee, she spoke about creative temperament and the search for liberation through conceptualization:

Regardless of the medium, whether you are a musician, a painter, a graphic artist, a plastic artist, or a sculptor, whether you are a writer or an architect, you begin the same way. Creative writing grows out of creative thinking, and nothing begins a work before the idea as a conceptualization; that is the beginning. All writers, all artists, all musicians, all people with creative talent begin with that creative thinking. They begin with conceptualization. You get an idea, and sometimes the whole process moves on mentally and unconsciously before it is given conscious artistic form, but the process begins with the idea. (Freibert 52)

As such, it is very likely Kevin will forever remain over-conceptualized, a statistical melding image for the so-called typical by the insatiable academia. Kevin is a young man in the 1970’s dating a black woman. He is already what may be undiplomatically referred to as a “progressive white.” It is no small irony that as typical as Kevin is by todays standards, he is made atypical because of it. In a sense, the academic (re)textualizing of Kevin mirrors folktales of the antebellum south. The economics of the creative critical language explicating whiteness from Kevin for his role as lover adds to and replicates the urban tale Bulter initiated regarding interracial love.

Folklorists have longrecognized that traditional items, whether stories or songs or material artifacts, are not composed of elements randomly chosen and structured, but that traditional performers create and recreate items according to more or less implicit rules. In the case of narratives, at least, it may even be possible to construct a kind of grammar which encompasses an entire body of material within a community and which defines, first, the kinds of elements that a performer may use to create (or recreate) an acceptable story, as well as the relationships which may exist among those elements. (Bruce 420).

The revisioned language of scholars like Foster, Steinberg, and Mitchell, also seek to “recreate and acceptable story.” They relive the symbol hunters Jung wrote about in Man and His Symbols regarding the compelling need to recreate sacrifice:

The ritual has a sorrow about it that is also a kind of joy, an inward acknowledgment that death also leads to a new life. Whether it is expressed In the prose epic of the Winnebago Indians, in a lament for the death of Balder in Norse sagas, in Walt Whitman’s poems of mourning for Abraham Lincoln, or in the dream ritual whereby a man returns to his youthful hopes and dears, it is the same theme – the drama of new birth through death. (113)

Kevin compels the academician’s exegetical sacrifice because he is always aready dead before the reader. He is easy intertexual prey. He does not exhibit the psychological stamina Dana maintained on her return trips home. He remained in slave-era Maryland for five years without returning, without Dana. Perhaps it is because Butler does not exhaustively concentrate on Kevin’s trials that the reader is able to dismiss his unknown tribulations as merely symbolic for Dana’s shared-experience suffering. Still, this shift-of-focus from Kevin to Dana has allowed a recreation of power-sharing among critics. Hence, the critics of slave-era society are ravishing Kevin not because he is a would-be abolitionist outside of his time, but because he is a man of his time the abolitionist role is not available to him. While in the past he acts out of conscience to help others escape from slavery. Being from the 1970’s this is expected of him and does not factor into critical reinterpretations that he is earning his place as a white man in a still less than equal world. Kevin is textually enslaved through theoretical discourse, through writing about oppression. Through language, Kevin is a postmodern literary captive. This gives remarkable credence to what Crapanzano believes is the arbitrary selectivity of contemporary language in-forming meaning.

Postmodern commentary stresses reflexivity. Commentary and its subject, criticism and its subject, metalanguage and primary language, are entangled and declared inseparable. There can, as such, be no external vantage point for commentary, criticism, indeed, reading and perception. We are caught within the play of arbitrary signs that are loosened from their referents and no longer systemically constrained by grammars of style, say, or narrative. (432)

            Being consistently on guard, waiting and watching for the nineteenth century to reassert itself, “Dana consciously creates a place for herself in and accepts her responsibility to the enslaved community. At first, Dana’s motivation to join with the community is utilitarian; her interest soon changes to one of true affection and affiliation” (Mitchell 67). However, Kevin does not have this opportunity. Scholars reach beyond reasonable racial ethics when discussing Kevin in Kindred. There is a great deal of hypocrisy as well. He, too, acquires experiences too painful to talk about. He cannot relate the things he has seen in any given order. His trauma is generally unrecognized by critics who would rather indulge in power play tactics that never rest from searching out new ways to exhaust the tired, exploit the vulnerable, and relate madness in place of mercy.

            One should argue that to better understand Butler’s neo-slave narrative, one must be familiar with her science fiction. Bloodchild and other Stories offers a wonderfully rich immersion into her humanist philosophies and experimental plots that pull the nuances out of her characters in a manner that can easily be described as Kafkaesque. Kindred differs from many other neo-slave narrative’s in that Butler remembers time more so than place. Place is ontological in Beloved, Jubilee, and Dessa Rose, but like Family, Kindred remembers Time. Butler disappoints Fredric Jamison’s claim that “time had become a nonperson and people stopped writing about it” (695).

Becker, Ernest. Escape From Evil. New York: The Free Press, 1975. Print.

Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004. Print.

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Crapanzano, Vincent. “The Postmodern Crisis: Discourse, Parody, Memory.” Cultural Anthropology. 6.4. Nov., 1991. (431-446). JSTOR. Web. 5 May. 2011.

Foster, Guy Mark. “’Do I Look like Someone You Can Come Home to from Where You May Be Going?’: Re-Mapping Interracial Anxiety in Octavia Butler’s ‘Kindred’” African American Review. 41.1. Spring 2007. (143-164). JSTOR Web. 4 Nov. 2011.

Freibert, Lucy M and Margaret Walker. “Southern Song: An Interview with Margaret Walker.” Frontiers: A Journal of Womens Studies. 9.3. 1987 (50-56). JSTOR Web. 14 Oct. 2011.

Harper, Michael S. “HISTORY AS DIABOLICAL MATERNALISM.” Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000. (92) Print.

Jamison, Frederic. “The End of Temporality.” Critical Inquiry. 29.4. Summer, 2003. (695-718). Project Muse. Web. 25 June. 2011.

Jung, Carl G. Man and His Symbols. Canada. Dell Publishing. 1968. Print.

Kunene, Mazisi. “Continuity.” The Word is Here: Poetry from Modern Africa. Ed. Keorapetse Kgositsile. New York: Anchor Books, 1973. (76). Print.

Mitchell, Angelyn. “Not Enough of the Past: Feminist Revisions of Slavery in Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Kindred’” MELUS. 26.3. Autumn 2001. (57-75). JSTOR Web. 4 Nov. 2011.

Murray, Albert. The Hero and the Blues. New York: Vintage Books, 1973. Print.

Steinberg, Marc. “Inverting History in Octavia Butler’s Postmodern Slave Narrative” African American Review. 38.3. Autumn 2004 (467-476). JSTOR Web. 12 Nov. 2011.