The M(N)STRY: Butler’s Kindred — Possession, Objectification and Whose Gaze Controls Black Futurity

51svc6qifblRecently I received a copy of Octavia Butler’s Kindred graphic novel, which was adapted by Damien Duffy and John Jennings. Reading the story in graphic novel form gave me a chance to see aspects of the book that I didn’t pay as much attention to as before. One was the mechanism by which Dana traveled back in time. On her second trip back to the past, Rufus mentions to Dana that he had seen her in the water right before she came traveled back to the past to rescue him. Rufus tells Dana that he saw her with his eyes closed and that he had stepped into a “hole” in the river where he saw her in a room full of books. He also heard both Dana and Kevin before the second time Dana came back. Rufus, although problematic, has inklings of visionary insight, but does he because of his connection to his future legacy in Dana (Rufus only has black descendants as he only had children with Alice) or because he was at the edge of imagining a different society but the slaveholding, racist, sexist, generally oppressive society around him impeded that?

Also, Rufus asked Dana who controlled her ability to go back in time and Dana refused to answer the question but silently feared that it was Rufus who did. That the power of his gaze/awareness of her and his dependency on her knowledge of the future and her ability to save him from himself from his own destruction kept pulling her back. But Butler never addresses who fully controls the time travel apparatus of the book and I feel that is on purpose. Dana, as a character of color and a writer, is essentially a researcher looking up her family history. Much like Rasheedah Phillips’ The Telescoping Effect, which I reviewed last week, this is a character from a future time returning and investigating the gaze of the past that has created her as she is now. In Kindred, Dana is not only revealing the hidden parts of the past to herself and immersing herself in it, but is also confronting it head on in ways that goes against the social norms of that time and analyzing the complexities of her past and herself in ways that Rufus and others around him lack the ability, self-awareness, maturity and/or diligence to do.

Think of Jim Crow laws, like “reckless eyeballing,” where black men were not allowed to stare directly at white women for fear of prison punishment or lynching mobs. To directly confront the gaze of whiteness and white supremacy was and is dangerous for black people. For Dana, being able to return the gaze forces a sense of intimacy between her and Rufus, her ancestor and a slave master. Dana does not fetishize and objectify Rufus how Rufus does her and Alice. She sees him for who he is, his potential and his flaws, and thus she can see that in herself. Dana gains a deeper self-consciousness and self-empathy, Rufus never gets to that point although he is trying, but he kept wanting Dana to do the work for him (I take Rufus’ wanting Dana to read to him instead of taking the effort to learn to read for himself and Dana having to tell him to free his own children as how Rufus is dependent on Dana to do the work of future-building for him).

Artwork by Jermaine Rogers

Speaking of the gaze, I am reminded of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which I saw last week. Watching the film, I immediately saw it as a high-tech, 21st century example of what blackface minstrelsy was for white people in the 19th century. The wanting to experience blackness without having the work of being black. As Paul Mooney said, “everybody wanna be a nigga, but nobody wanna be a nigger.” The ability to surveil, dissect, invade and control our bodies and we are not permitted to do so back, but also the lack of self-interiority, self–investigation and self-awareness of racism and white supremacy. In the similar vein as Du Bois’ double consciousness, the white gaze is implanted into us and controls our mobility. In the film, older white people use young black people’s bodies to further their own lives and continue their future, in a similar way Rufus uses Dana to keep saving him.

As Dana is a writer, the character Chris in Get Out, who is a photographer, uses his camera to slowly confront and reveal the insidious racism around him. Both Dana and Chris, when fully immersed in the racist worlds, whether of the past or in segregated, privileged enclaves, that they are forced to confront the  detachment and potential erasure of that experience (i.e. when we are told that we are imagining it or to get over our history). Like Dana in her inability to change the past, her assimilating to life as an enslaved black person, and her need for existence, which partly implicates her in Alice’s endurance of abuse from Rufus and later suicide, Chris at first comes to accept the microaggressions around him to survive his environment and does not trust his instincts that he is in danger because of his attachment to Rose, but both he and Dana are able to eventually weaponize their increasing knowledge and awareness of the racist social culture around them to fight back and save themselves.

To be in possession of a future possibility for ourselves requires an uncomfortable and dangerous confrontation with parasitical pasts and presents that seek to dehumanize, possess, and objectify us. We have to fight to save our futures before it is sucked dry and used for another’s salvation, another’s pleasure and another’s vision.

Further Reading:

How Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter taught us not to look away

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