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Thank you, Octavia Butler, for “Kindred”

Your novel Kindred shows us how inter-connected we are, despite the distance imposed by history and racism.  By time-traveling between antebellum south and 1976 California, the protagonist, Dana, not only demonstrates the horrors of slavery but continued struggles in contemporary America. Of even greater importance, the novel provides a window on the inner lives of slaves – their joys, loves, and triumphs; their losses, griefs and pain. Even Rufus, a character it would be very easy to simply hate, stirs our compassion as we watch him grow from a small boy to a slave-owner.

I teach this book often. As a novel, it offers a way to discuss racism, violence and history that students find non-threatening and compelling. Yet, it requires them to think more deeply about slavery – its effects on whites as well as blacks. It requires them to think about themselves as potential slaves or slave masters (to think of themselves as Dana or Rufus or Kevin): How would they react if they suddenly found themselves in the south in 1820? Would they resist the slave system?  Would they run away to the north or to Canada? Would they be benevolent masters? How would they balance their 21st century sensibilities with the exigencies of life during “the peculiar institution”?

In the end, Kindred requires all of us to come to terms with our painful national history and the ways in which that history informs the present. But is more than that. It is an example to the expansiveness of the human imagination. It defies easy categorization: science fiction, history, slave narrative, or all of the above? And it is one of the first (and still one of the few) science fiction books that was written by an African American woman. It opened a new genre for black women to engage, re-imagine and create.

I once met Octavia Butler.  I had the great fortune to be her guide through a day of events at the University of Southern California. She was a tall, imposing woman and, as a fan, I was nervous about meeting her. Her brilliance and stature intimidated me. But as I escorted her around campus, she was very warm though not wildly talkative.  For a woman who made her living with words, she was not one to use them in idle chit-chat. But she did talk about her work, and encouraged me (a young writer), to pursue writing. Butler died just a couple of years after I met her. I am thankful that I had that one day with her. And that I was able to tell her, in person, how much her work meant to me. Thank you again, Ms. Butler, for your life and your work.

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