Struggling with History

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler. I devoured this book. It is a historical novel about a woman living in 1979 who keeps being yanked back to an antebellum Maryland plantation worked by enslaved people. Why? It’s not clear, but a member of the plantation family turns out to be one of the woman’s ancestors. The story explores how a twentieth-century black woman would fare on a slave plantation.

That on its own is an interesting premise for a story, but with Butler’s storytelling and imagination it is so much more. It explores slavery and humanizes both the enslaved and the enslavers while still exposing the absolute inhumanity of slavery itself. Her husband is white and is with her on one trip to the past. This allows Butler to explore not only the obvious injustice and brutality suffered by those enslaved, but also the effect on the enslavers of growing up in a culture and family that endorse such a violent and degrading economic system.

And now I have made the book seem depressing, and at times it is. But the best word to describe this work is human. It is the story of everyday people trying to live their lives as they struggle with the lived reality that was slavery. It honestly made me think in ways I had never considered. It exposed the ugliness and cruelty of slavery as well as how those involved did their best to simply live their lives. Most controversial issues get oversimplified. Not in this book. Butler stares directly at the problem, making the reader experience it and, hopefully, start to come to terms with what many call America’s original sin. It’s a book every American needs to and should read.

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