By Briana Whiteside
Though Derrick Bell was a law professor and Butler a sci-fi writer, the overlapping conversations on racial and class issues that occur in their works are notable. Bell’s And We Are Not Saved (1987) and Butler’s Kindred (1979) explore the conditions of racial inequality through fantasy to explore uncover and explore historical truths.
In chapter 1 of And We Are Not Saved, the protagonist Geneva Crenshaw travels back to 1787 to confront and warn the founding fathers about the contradiction that lies in the Constitution regarding black people. Unable to persuade the founders to alter the constitution and emancipate slaves, she prompts them to admit that there is in fact a contradiction but in an effort to save the nation it must remain. Before she could continue the militia has come to kill her. Geneva recalls, “the cannon fired…the cannonball broke against the light shield and splintered, leaving me and the shield intact. I knew my mission was over, and I returned to the twentieth century.”
In a similar manner, Butler’s Kindred follows the protagonist Edana (Dana) back to antebellum Maryland to save her white ancestor Rufus to ensure that the lineage that will eventually produce her survives. Dana makes several strides to change Rufus’ behavior and even goes as far as to act as a type of moral guide.
Dana, like Geneva, is unsuccessful in her attempts to completely change Rufus and the conditions of the slaves. She returns to the twentieth century by near death encounters, the first, when she saved the drowning Rufus. Dana recalls that after resuscitating him, “[she] found herself looking down the barrel of the longest rifle…heard a metallic click and froze…[her] vision had blurred…and [she] could not distinguish the gun or the face…” then Dana was back in her living room.
Both Dana and Geneva rely on their 20th century book knowledge in hopes of surviving as well as persuading the figures of the past to reconsider their ways. Butler goes a step further in the Kindred, allowing Dana to lose an arm to show that past events, more specifically, slavery never leaves people whole. Yet both texts serve as significant imaginative ways in which African American writers confront the injustices faces by black people due to institutions that were set to birth and save a nation.
• Octavia Butler
Briana Whiteside is a graduate student at the University of Alabama and a contributing writer for the Cultural Front.