Kindred uses the genre of science fiction to manipulate reality and close the emotional gap between the descendants of slavery and those who experienced it. Forcing our imaginations to stretch beyond the rigidity and comfort of this world’s version of white supremacy is an aspect of Black science fiction, both in books and onscreen, that draws me to the genre. This doesn’t apply directly to the time-travel element of Kindred, but it does when it comes to Octavia Butler’s descriptions of race relations on the plantation.
Painting whiteness as the norm and presenting white people’s actions as socially acceptable though morally wrong enforces the idea that white people are merely passive participants in a rotten system. Butler showcases the flip side of this notion and emphasizes the absurdity of our reality as members of the African diaspora. In the introduction to my copy of Kindred, Robert Crossley writes of the social interactions of the book’s characters: “Although the Black community is persistently fractured by the sudden removal of its members … that community always patches itself back together, drawing from its common suffering and anger a common strength. It is the white characters in the novel who seem odd, isolated, pathetic, alien.”
Isn’t our history the most twisted science-fiction plot of all time? A group of melanin-devoid mountain people come to our land, force us to a new continent after a grueling voyage through the Middle Passage, treat us as if we’re less than human for centuries, and create a worldwide system of anti-Blackness that would prevent us from ever fully recovering — all while doing their best to erase what actually happened and gaslighting us into believing that this is the natural order of things and we should be grateful for what we have. Take race and history out of the equation, and it becomes the story of an alien invasion gone awry. But living in a white-supremacist society is so normalized and ingrained that it’s still considered somewhat radical to speak this way. Even in 2022, people aren’t ready to fully go there.
Strangely, what inspires this line of thought is watching Margaret Weylin and Kevin outside once Kevin joins Dana in the past. Their paleness is ghostly against the winter backdrop and cool coloring of the show. (I apologize to any pale people reading this, but they looked like corpses to me.) Which prompted me to imagine the sight of such people first touching down on Africa’s Gold Coast and kidnapping large portions of the population. Terrifying. I thought about how those who were enslaved made sense of their situation — especially those generations who never set foot on African soil (like many of the people Dana encounters) — and how the torture required to “break in” a slave aids in the normalization of their position in the world. You don’t have time to ruminate on race theory and the psychology of whiteness when you’re being worked and beaten to death. This process of normalization is something Dana and Kevin are forced to acclimate to quickly in order to survive on the plantation.
This episode is Kevin’s first time shunted to the past after he holds on to Dana’s arm while she feels herself slipping away. Once again, Rufus has injured himself and summoned Dana. He has broken his leg after falling from a tree, and Dana begins to piece together the pattern of Rufus bringing her to him when he needs help. She quickly tells the backstory of being “travelers” from New York with Kevin as her master. Then Tom Weylin takes them in officially, beginning Kevin’s and Dana’s relationships with the family. The Weylins act very much like Butler described them: lacking humane emotions, hysterical, unpredictable. Dana and Kevin are quickly separated — Kevin is invited inside and Dana sent to the cookhouse with the other Black people. What’s interesting about this episode is that, though most of it is spent on the plantation, we learn more about the Weylins and Kevin than we do about Dana or the rest of the Black community. There are some poignant moments between Dana and Rufus — his dependency on Dana is apparent, and he reveals how he’s able to see her in the future as he pulls her into his present — but most of the episode builds on the white characters.
The entire book is told from Dana’s point of view. While Kevin and the Weylins are important to the story, we don’t know anything about them outside of what Dana is told and what she witnesses. Kevin’s experiences on the plantation aren’t described other than in what he says to Dana. But in this episode, we get solo scenes of Kevin with both Margaret and Tom. We see Kevin struggling to accept help from Sabina, the Black woman Tom orders to assist in giving him a warm change of clothes and gets sold by the end of the episode. He plays the piano while talking to a tranquilized Margaret as Rufus has his broken leg set in the other room. Tom and Kevin even share a meal, giving us insight into the Weylins’ money troubles and Tom’s insecurity masked behind his anger. We find out about Tom’s late wife and Margaret’s social plans. Their characters are forming and becoming more defined, while the lives of the Black characters are still shrouded in mystery.
In the cookhouse, Dana sits in silence, observing the others go about their daily lives on the plantation. There’s a brief moment with Luke when he asks about her relationship with Kevin, and she asks how to get to Olivia. Luke says he can’t risk the journey in the cold and confirms that more time has passed in the 1815 reality than in 2016. Although there were only minutes between her time-traveling sessions in her present, months have passed on the Weylin plantation. She’s called to come into the house with Kevin when the doctor arrives. They need both Kevin’s and Dana’s assistance in Rufus’s healing process (beyond setting his leg, the doctor wants to bleed the illness out). Dana isn’t quite used to the social norms of the 1800s and is chastised multiple times for speaking directly to her white counterparts and challenging their ideas. But Rufus’s attachment to her and her relationship with Kevin spares her from real punishment.
Upstairs, Rufus is held down as the doctor does whatever 19th-century medical treatments they did to heal a broken leg. Margaret is inconsolable while witnessing her child in pain, so Tom slaps her around before the doctor forces some sort of liquid sedative down her throat. Once the event is over and Rufus is resting in bed, Dana is able to have her first candid conversation with the child. It’s obvious that he’s comforted by her presence, and he eventually asks her to read to him. Without anyone else observing them, Dana, knowing that she’s somehow connected to this boy, allows Rufus to see her with her guard down. She answers his questions honestly — even telling him that Kevin is her friend, not her master. Rufus, though definitely a product of his environment, is curious and trusting of this Black stranger with a funny accent and autonomy. He tells her that if his dad catches her reading, she’ll be treated the same as if she’d stolen something, and she says, “Well, your daddy doesn’t tell me what to do,” establishing a base level of demanded respect that will continue throughout their relationship.
Shortly after Dana begins reading, Margaret enters the room, having slowly regained full consciousness. She hovers over her child, disgusted with his gravitation toward Dana, and continuously interrupts the reading to dote on him. Rufus grows irritated with her incessant questions and snaps, screaming at his mother in a way you can tell he learned from his father before demanding that Dana continue reading. The foundation of the man he’s destined to become is visible even at this young age. The scene establishes the complicated relationship between Margaret and Dana — Margaret is threatened by her child’s dependency on another woman and staunchly enforces white supremacy regardless of her own marginalized position in the household.
At the end of the day, Kevin and Dana retire to a guest bedroom and debrief in their moment alone, trying to piece together the mechanics of time travel. Since Dana cannot control when they will be taken back to the present, they have no choice but to stick it out until they can find her mother. Margaret comes by their room and thanks Kevin before passively ordering Dana to the slave quarters despite Kevin’s insistence that she stay. Separated again, Kevin lies in the comfort of his bed (with his phone and headphones, which somehow work during this time) while Dana sleeps on the ground elsewhere, succumbing to her new reality.
• I have a few qualms with the Black characters in the series thus far. I can’t speak for the upcoming episodes, but there’s been so much focus on the white character’s that I’m starting to get a bit bored. In Butler’s writing, the Black people on the plantation have a complex and nuanced society separate from their captors, which makes the book more compelling. By now, I expected to have learned more about Sarah, the cook, Hagar, Tom, or even Carrie, the mute young girl who leads Dana to the cookhouse.
• Another thing that bothers me about the Black characters is their accents. Or lack of accents. When Luke, the little Black boy with Rufus, explained to Tom what happened in perfect English without a lick of a Southern accent, I was perplexed. Tom barely has an accent himself. It’s extremely unrealistic and aids my feeling that the Black characters have been designated to the background for the time being. This could be a metaphor for how separated the two communities are, but Butler’s version of Kindred is specifically about the intrinsically symbiotic relationship between the enslaved and the enslavers … from the point of view of the enslaved. I want to see more of that and less of Kevin and his white guilt.
• The nosy neighbor woman is another deviation from the book that I’m very curious about. In the book, no one really noticed what was going on with Dana and Kevin. This woman is definitely the type to stay all in their business (especially now that her cat is involved), and I’m interested to see just how involved she gets.