Tag Archives: Octavia E. Butler

Degrees of Servitude

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom is a fantastic book, containing all the elements of great storytelling: richly rendered characters, compelling plot, and a completely satisfying conclusion.  Grissom tells her story with honesty, passion, and conviction and we are carried away on her energy, living in the world she has created and feeling the pains, sorrows, and joys of her characters. Set in late 18th century turning into 19th century Virginia on a slave-owning plantation, Grissom gets her historical elements just right, painting a vibrant picture of a brand-new country and the harsh realities of the indentured servants and black slaves upon whose backs the country ‘s economy grew.

Testament to Grissom’s gift of writing is in how I finished the book in one day (it was so gripping, I could not put it down) and in how I keep on thinking about her characters even now, days after I’ve finished reading the book. I cared so much about all of the characters and about the lives they were trying to figure out for themselves.  Grissom is too good a writer to paint her characters as simplistic representations of good and evil; there are a few thoroughly rotten characters but the main characters are complex in their motivations and genuine in their aspirations to make sense of the world in which they live. I felt pain for all of them, and hung onto hope that by the end of the novel, some basic justice would be served and goodness rewarded.  I won’t give the ending away but the finale is moving, realistic, grievous, and yet open-ended enough to allow hope to survive.

Lavinia, the main narrator, is an Irish girl, an indentured servant to a Virginia plantation  sent to serve in the Kitchen House along with the more favored of the Black slaves.  Belle is one of the slaves, child of a white owner and black slave. Lavinia, Belle, Mama Mae, Beattie, Fanny, Ben, and other slaves, true flesh and blood characters as sketched by Grissom, are all property of the Captain.  Their futures depend on his attention, his whims, and his care, and rise and fall accordingly. And like the slaves, the Captain’s own family suffers or prospers depending upon the his attention; they are property as well, and although better tended, still disempowered. How the slaves and the family members seek to find power, define themselves, and maintain promise in their futures is the backbone of this book.  The heart and soul of the novel is its depiction of the damages inflicted  by the system of slavery — its ruthless and arbitrary wielding of power  — and by the economic, legal, and political inequalities of the time that cut across color lines, imprisoning women in their place, servants in their positions, and slaves in their quarters.

The Kitchen House reminded me of Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, in which a black woman from twentieth century California is transported back to antebellum Maryland and slavery.  Both novels depict the terrible toll taken on human beings forced into positions of complete and utter disempowerment, subject to the whims and lusts of owners, the cruelties of overseers, and with no prospects for freedom.  Both novels also explore the impact slavery had on the whites: they benefited from the system and yet they were soul-branded and heart-twisted by the inescapable horror of it.  Slavery sought to make one race the beasts of burden of another but succeeded in dehumanizing both.

I recommend The Kitchen House as a great read, enthralling, moving, and unforgettable.

Ancestral Burdens

I was enthralled by Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred. It is a great book. Butler was a science fiction writer, unusual for a black woman, and she was the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant.  Kindred is not really science fiction, although it uses the device of time travel to set up the plot and keep it moving. Butler herself said Kindred was more “grim fantasy” than science fiction, the “grim” being the exploration of slavery in ante bellum South.

Dana is a black woman from 1976 California who is transported one day back to 1819 Maryland, to the plantation of her ancestors. Dana is called back again and again over a period of over three weeks in modern time but over thirty years in nineteenth century time.  She is brought back to save the life of the white boy, then man, who will become her great, great, great, great grandfather, and she is only able to escape back to the present when she herself faces imminent death.  As she must play and be a slave while in Maryland, there are plenty of horrifying opportunities for her to be scared for her life, as well as scared for the lives of all the slaves around her. Her white husband is also transported back at one point, and left behind for what to him are five years of deprivation and violence.  He fears for his own life when he is accused of being a plotter of slave uprisings and rebellion, but that is not enough to send him back to the present: he needs Dana.

This book is brilliant — painfully so — in illustrating the inhumanity and cruelty of slavery.  Dana is forced into a personal experience with slavery and she realizes that all her reading on the subject, all her views on what it must have been like, are inadequate to the horrifying reality of what it is really like to have no rights, no freedom, no claim to anything, not even your own body or your own children, or your own mind.  Dana calls it Hell and it is.  And there is no escape from Hell.  Dana learns that education for slaves was not allowed and in most slave states it was crime to be caught teaching a black slave to read or write because with such tools of education, they might more easily escape. Not only was education denied to thwart escape, but when runaways were caught, they were made an example of with beatings, dog attacks, body mutilation, and being sold further and further south, from where escape was truly impossible.

Dana is subjected to one beating, and then another. The beatings leave her in pain but even worse, in the realization that physical and mental punishments  result in the loss of herself.  She sees that she can be broken, made submissive, and be assimilated into a society where to be Black is to be nothing at all. She understands the full magnitude — the bravery and the strength — of the slaves who did fight back, through violence or through escape, slaves like Frederick Douglas, growing up just down the road, or Harriet Tubman.  She also understands the survival mechanisms of those who give up trying to run away.  They remain under their white master: “they seemed to like him, hold him in contempt, and fear him all at the same time…..slavery of any kind fostered strange relationships.”

Dana’s relationship with Rufus, the boy who grows into a slave holder, is strange and horrible.  Rufus is a violent, impetuous, and erratic man whom she must keep alive until the child who will be the progenitor of her own family is born.  I felt so angry — really really angry — when reading about the duplicitous, deceitful, selfish, and vicious Rufus.  I cannot say I understood what it was like to be under the control of someone who can do anything  and get away with it, someone who can toy with your life and the lives of everyone important to you, manipulate and violate and humiliate and you can do nothing, but in my anger I did feel murderous desire to just get rid of him.  As Dana herself admits, she can feel the desire to murder but can she actually do the deed? Faced with a threat to ourselves or to our family, can we actually fight back? Again and again, Dana says she will fight to the death if beaten again but she is powerless, and she is beaten again. That realization — that there is nothing she can do — is the horrifying the nightmare of her transportation.

The book begins with Dana back in the present but missing one arm, an arm that has been left behind, torn from her and left in the past. I found that image very chilling and very perfect.  Chilling because when my sister died, the only analogy that I found to explain how I felt — and how I continue to feel — is that is was as if I had lost an arm, and I would always know that arm was missing but I would have to learn to live without my arm.  I think about my sister every day, I miss her every day, but I have had to live on, without her.  I find the image of the lost arm perfect because Dana has lost a piece of who she is — by becoming a slave, she was forced to lose her own identity as her own self — and even when she recovers, she will never recover the bit of her soul that was torn from her.

To think that there were whole populations and generation after generation, who had part of their souls torn away from them, who had their humanity denied to them, and their hearts truly broken again and again — and I am not just talking about slavery in the South but about genocide and enslavement on every scale, everywhere it has occurred and is occurring: how to mourn for the agony of those people?  I believe the way to mourn is to recognize the soul in every person you meet. To respect every person, to show compassion and not judgment, to offer kindness, help when necessary, and empathy always. Plato wrote, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”  Some battles and some burdens are harder than others, and Butler has shown us that slavery was a very hard burden indeed.  We are thankful that Dana makes it out and sorrowful for all those who didn’t.