How deep are the roots of slavery in Kindred and Sing, Unburied, Sing? Part 3

The literary blurred lines of an interracial relationship

Interracial relationships have frequently been depicted in forms of literature and film such as the ground-breaking Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner by Stanley Kramer and, more recently, Jordan Peele’s Get Out. These relationships have always varied in their presentation, but, due to the societal basis of slavery, Butler and Ward’s fictional relationships depict the fine line of slavery within an interracial relationship.

Whilst Dana and Kevin’s relationship is a loving one, a certain power struggle exists. When Kevin proposes he says, ‘I’d let you type all my manuscripts’ and shows clear annoyance and anger when Dana is reluctant. This is an interesting detail for Butler to choose to include, as, due to lack of relevance to the plot, it is clearly significant for another reason. She is depicting an imbalance in the relationship and presents the assumption from the white male that the black female will do what he says and be happy to do so. Butler takes this further as she draws comparisons to Rufus as he asks Dana to write letters for him as well, blurring the lines between slave master and husband.

One of Dana’s initial time travelling escapades ends with her in a violent situation when a white guard nearly rapes her. Butler distorts Dana’s transition from 18th century to 19th century as she opens her eyes and sees ‘a blurred face above [her] – the face of a man – and [she] panicked’. It takes her a few seconds to realise the man above her is no longer the attacker, but her husband. This highlights the similarities between the two white faces and the possibility of Kevin as the threat, reminding us that this was the expected relationship between a white man and black woman.

Damien Duffy and John Jennings take this idea further in their graphic adaptation of Kindred with the comparison of the two men in their illustrations.

The two images are screenshots taken from Damien Duffy and John Jennings 2017 graphic novel adaptation of Kindred.

Looking at these images we can see distinct similarities. Both men are white with similar hairstyles and rolled up sleeves. The positions of their bodies on top of Dana’s with the angle looking in from the right side along with their comparable features allows us to see the men as the same. It questions our interpretation of their relationship and the grounds in which it is based. Equally it draws attention to their respective ancestors and the class divide in the 18th century society, blurring the lines of their interracial relationship.

The secondary interracial relationship in Kindred is between Alice and Rufus, which is based on slavery and force. Guy Mark Foster writes that ‘My point is that critical analyses of the novel that center the historical narrative of interracial rape, represented by Rufus and Alice’s forced relations, do so at the expense of marginalizing the narrative of consensual interracial desire, represented by Dana and Kevin’s marriage’. Yet, due to the constant similarities and parallels, I believe Butler’s intention was to marginalise interracial desire and draw attention to the fundamental societal issues.

Not only is Kevin compared to the white patriarchal figures, but Dana and Alice are constantly described as sisters with their similar appearance and personality. Equally, they are both favoured by Rufus and given leeway in their behaviour. Rufus even concludes their interchangeability when Alice dies and he attempts to bed Dana instead. The distorted lines between characters work together to blur the interracial relationships and shape the aesthetic in a more traditional way. It depicts slavery as deeply rooted within the societal norms and an inescapable thing that manifests itself in all aspects of modern American life.

In less explicit terms, Jesmyn Ward highlights a level of oppression and slavery in Leonie and Michael’s relationship. On one level, the African American Leonie is emotionally enslaved to her white partner, to an extent that is reminiscent of master – slave. When it’s her son’s birthday, the phone rings. Even though she is holding her son’s cake and he’s about to blow out the candles, she exclaims that it, ‘Might be Michael’ and runs off with the cake in hand. Ward has painted Leonie as a character who would drop anything for her partner, he is constantly on her mind, above anything else, including her duty as a mother. After her mother’s death, when her father is left caring for her two children, she leaves with Michael, with no regard for how her family are coping without her mother. She follows Michael round like he is her master as Ward depicts the hold a white man can still have over a black woman.

Equally, I found the incident with the policeman on their way back from Parchman to hold a similar level of significance with regard to white/black relationships. Nicole Dib writes that, ‘she, as the black woman, had to literally consume the risk that she, her white friend, and her white male partner all took’. In a situation in which a group of three were responsible, Leonie must physically consume the evidence as an act of duty towards her white counterparts. She ends up violently sick and severely affected by her actions whilst Michael and Misty remain unscathed. Not only does this incident represent a blurring of the boundaries in interracial relationships, but also illustrates the cultural lag. African Americans are behind white people in terms of societal rights and police treatment due to the inheritance they have gained from the time of slavery.

Jesmyn Ward and Octavia Butler have both seemingly worked with the established aesthetic tradition of slavery within literature to employ its relevance in society today. The use of modern-day slavery in both exaggerated and realistic terms has formed a stable sense of the injustice faced by African Americans in contemporary America. The references to the Middle Passage and works by Frederick Douglas both serve to highlight the lack of progress and the necessity to inform through the use of literature.

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