Octavia Butler’s “Kindred” – Part Five
By Kyra Brue
Coming back to Kindred and the characters that make up the story, there is an emphasis on the relationship that the African American protagonist, Dana, has with Rufus, her slave-owning white ancestor and how he impacts her difficult journey to the past. Starting at the beginning, Dana and Rufus’ relationship is fairly simple once Dana gets over the initial shock of being catapulted into the past. She vaguely understands that she is being sent back in time in order to save her ancestor’s life, and ultimately her own existence. As a child, Rufus is similar to any young boy. He is full of curiosity, relies on his mother for comfort and guidance, and lacks responsibility.
During Dana’s first visit to the Antebellum South, she appears in the past and saves Rufus before realizing why she has been sent there to begin with. As she attempts to comfort him, Rufus’ mother physically attacks Dana and his father raises a gun in her direction, but she is transported back home before an harm befalls her. This violent event is what helps her to get back to 1976, and she eventually learns that life threatening events are the only things that will get her home, time and time again. The second time Dana goes to the past to save Rufus, she stops him from being engulfed in flames. This is when Dana learns more about where she is and why she is being propelled into the past. She realizes that she has to save Rufus in order to save herself. During her third and longer visit, she is accidentally joined by her husband Kevin. This time Rufus deals with a leg injury, Dana assists with his healing, and they eventually begin to form a bond. Dana teaches him to read, brings him food, and gives him the attention that his mother, Margaret, grows to resent.
At this point in the novel, we have begun to see how tenderly Dana treats Rufus. Many of the things that Dana does for Rufus show the nurturing relationship she has with him. In the beginning, Rufus doesn’t cause Dana too much grief. It is easy for the reader to understand that he is just a kid who doesn’t really know any better. For instance, when Rufus finds out that Dana and Kevin are married, Rufus responds by saying “n – s can’t marry white people” (Butler 60). He calls Dana the n-word, not in a blatantly racist connotation, but because in this time that is how he has been taught to refer to black people. In a conversation with Rufus shortly after, Dana states:
“Rufe, how’d you like people to call you white trash when they talk to you?” “What?” He started up angrily, forgetting his leg, then fell back. “I am not trash!” he whispered. “You damn black…” “Hush, Rufe.” I put my hand on his shoulder to quiet him. Apparently, I’d hit the nerve I’d aimed at. “I didn’t say you were trash. I said how’d you like to be called trash. I see you don’t like it. I don’t like being called n – r either.” (Butler 61)
This is Dana’s way of lecturing Rufus, the way a mother might, hoping he will understand her point. After Dana slyly refers to him as trash, Rufus seemingly understands that he shouldn’t refer to her as the n-word, but at this point in the novel it is still unclear whether he cares enough to change the way he acts towards Dana and the slaves on the plantation. Throughout her time there, Dana continues to teach Rufus about the rights and wrongs of life. However, as Rufus grows up, he begins to change.
This change in Rufus starts when he is still young, but it is subtle. Even with Dana’s life teachings, Rufus still begins to show negative changes in his demeanor, mainly due to the influence that his father, Tom Weylin, has on him. One of the most obvious changes that occurs within Rufus can be seen through the confrontation he has with his mother. While his leg is healing from his fall, Rufus frequently has outbursts of frustration, mainly due to the fact that he can’t walk after two months of being bed-ridden. On Dana’s last day with Rufus before she returns home again, Margaret begins to smother him with affection. Rufus gets annoyed with how suffocating his mother is being, so he snaps: “Don’t say nothing…Go away and stop bothering me…You’re making me sick, Mama. Get away from me,” (Butler 103-104). Once his mother leaves the room, he looks at Dana and, in reference to his outburst, says “I have to, or she won’t leave me alone. Daddy does it too” (104). This is one of the first clear instances in which the audience can see Rufus beginning to change, and this subtle change only continues to grow during the five-year gap between Dana’s eight-day trip back home and her return to Rufus’ time.
When Dana returns to the Antebellum South for the fourth time, things are much different. The first thing she sees is Rufus literally fighting for his life against a slave named Isaac. The subject of their quarrel is Alice, Dana’s great-great grandmother, who is Isaac’s new wife and Rufus’ forced “lover.” Rufus constantly says that he loves Alice, but his way of “loving” her is often done through violent rape and emotional and physical abuse. It is made apparent that his love for her is blinded by violence when Dana helps Isaac and Alice escape his wrath. After Rufus admits that he raped Alice he defends his actions by saying, “We grew up. She got so she’d rather have a buck n – r than me!” (Butler 123). At this point, the audience becomes aware that Rufus hasn’t changed for the better. He has gone from being an ignorant and disrespectful child with some positive attributes left to a rapist who doesn’t understand that his actions are not acceptable. During this trip, Dana sees the apparent shift that has occurred within Rufus during their time a part.
Rufus is now a young man. He has spent years growing into a man who unfortunately resembles his aggressive father. He goes from being an ignorant child who attempts to learn from his mistakes to an adolescent with violent tendencies. There are times when he appears to be the decent boy he once was, but then he frequently ends up doing something terrible, showcasing the changes he has gone through. For example, after helping heal the ghastly wounds from this trip’s accident, Dana asks Rufus to help her send a letter to Kevin, who was unfortunately left behind when Dana last left. Rufus agrees, and even says that he will personally send the letter to Kevin’s last known address. However, as time passes, there is no response from Kevin, and Dana begins to grow suspicious. After getting Alice to investigate, she finds that the letters were never sent to Kevin. Dana immediately feels betrayed by and frustrated with Rufus, so she tries to escape to find Kevin herself. Unfortunately, her plan fails and Dana is whipped by Tom Weylin. After the beating, Rufus shows a creepy gentle and caring side towards Dana again. “It was that destructive single-minded love of his,” ponders Dana, in reference to how Rufus loves her but barely bats an eye at watching her suffer (Butler 180). Rufus’ destructive cycle of betrayal and attempts to apologize and empathize only gets worse, especially during Dana’s final trips. Rufus’ irrational fear of losing Dana, even to her own husband leads to Rufus, in a jealous rage, holding Dana and Kevin at gunpoint after they try to head north for safety. Due to his uncontrollable madness, Rufus ends up shooting Dana, sending her back home to 1976. In the end, Rufus’ obsessive and aggressive tendencies come to a head, and we begin to see his delusional actions chipping away at Dana, changing her forever.