Tethered To Our Past

Octavia Butler's celebrated novel of slavery and time travel provides fresh issues for Loyola College's annual MLK convocation.

January 19, 2004|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

It was one of those moments that can haunt a writer: Way back in the 1960s, at Pasadena City College, Octavia Butler was listening to classmates talk about the times when one student vented his frustration that blacks hadn't managed to "come as far as a race as we should have."

"He remarked, `I wish I could kill all those old black people who have been holding us back for so long. But I can't, because I would have to start with my own parents,'" the award-winning novelist recalls. "He said this at a time when people were saying extreme things ... it was the '60s, after all ... but I realized that he had missed a few things."

The problem wasn't that her classmate didn't know his own history, but that he didn't feel it, she later told an interviewer.

What if a 20th-century African-American were transplanted into the antebellum South? Would he or she cope any better than blacks of that time? How would that person manage ... even survive? What if such a time traveler were to meet ancestors that were white as well as black?

As a published science fiction writer, Butler explored these questions in her vivid and suspenseful time-travel novel, Kindred.

It is the story of Dana Franklin, a young black woman who is mysteriously pulled six times from her life in California in 1976 into the 19th-century world of slavery on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Although she cannot control or explain these sudden journeys, the young writer discovers they are connected to the well-being of one of her forefathers, a white slaveholder named Rufus Weylin. Whenever his life is in jeopardy, she is summoned from the future to rescue him. To let him die would be to forfeit her own family line.

The more time she spends in the past, the more Dana learns about its physical hardships and psychological complexities. The 1970s feminist must also accept the fact that she has no more rights than any female slave.

"Dana does come to realize fairly quickly that the First Amendment `didn't do that well' in the slave South," Butler says. "As a matter of fact, there are all sorts of times when it doesn't do that well."

On Wednesday, the Seattle-based author will speak about researching and writing Kindred - and the issues it raises - at Loyola College's annual Martin Luther King Jr. convocation. The lecture will be held at 7 p.m. at McGuire Hall on the North Charles Street campus.

Her appearance will preview the national tour she begins next month to promote a new 25th anniversary edition of Kindred.

The book has become a celebrated mainstay of college courses in women's studies and black literature and culture; some colleges require it as mandatory freshman reading. Public and private reading groups have also embraced it: Last spring, the city of Rochester, N.Y., chose Kindred for its "If All of Rochester Read the Same Book ... " program, an event that involved thousands of readers in workshops and lectures about the book's provocative topics.

Martha Wharton, assistant vice president for academic affairs and diversity at Loyola, recently used it in a diversity reading group at the college.

One of the most compelling aspects of Kindred, she says, is its portrayal of the different relationships - legal, social and familial - between blacks and whites.

Dana Franklin is married to a white man, a "kindred spirit," who also is a writer. Theirs is very much a modern marriage of equals. When Kevin Franklin inadvertently returns to the past with his wife, however, the equation changes. Not only is their marriage illegal, but he can still live independently as an educated white man while she must pretend to be his slave and downplay her literacy.

"The book asks `What sort of relationship do we have with our past that might be very difficult? That relationship may be troubled by abuse, or violence, or even love ... It may be really much more complex than we standing in the 21st century can understand," Wharton says. " ... We might be asking ourselves whether we should judge people of the past and their behaviors as harshly as we sometimes do."

Classroom discussions about Kindred reinforce the author's reasons for writing it.

"I've had teachers tell me, `Some students say Dana should just kill Rufus [her white slaveholding ancestor] or, `Why doesn't she fight back more?' I wrote the book to help people go emotionally into the situation ... because they don't understand the culture and its reality. If you have the whole culture against you, legally and physically, you're kind of locked in. It's easy to think you would fight, but who would you fight? It would amount to fighting just about everybody."

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