Depiction of Disability in Slavery in Octavia Butler's Kindred
Most people hear the word “disability” and what immediately comes to mind is, mobility, visual or hearing impairments. Even so, disabilities may be physical, mental or unseen; disabilities can result from various causes. The American’s with Disabilities Act of 1990 defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual; a record of such impairment; or being regarded as having an impairment.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, disability is “the condition of being disabled.” However, disability is a highly misused title in today’s society. Everyone has some sort of disability; something that makes them stand out; a way of not being “able.” Essentially, when one thinks of the word “disability,” he or she thinks of a physical condition pertaining to the body. People that are labeled as having a physical disability are believed to have a deformity of limbs, paralysis or other physical abnormalities. Douglas Bayton states in his article, Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History, “By the mid-nineteenth century, non-white races were routinely connected to people with disabilities, both of whom were depicted as evolutionary laggards or throwbacks. As a consequence, the concept of disability, intertwined with the concept of race” (Bayton 35). In Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred, the story of Dana, a middle-aged African American woman, living in the 1970s, who travels back in time to the nineteenth century, is told. Butler, not only uses the color of her skin, but also the neglecting of the woman’s body, to narrate the story of antebellum slavery in the south. Kindred illustrates the misuse of the body through disabilities and how slavery supports types of disabilities importance on the body Dana, the main character in the novel, is abled, yet disabled from her experiences of the past. Dana is the narrator and the heroine of the novel. She is young, African American, and just moved to San Francisco with her husband Kevin. Dana repeatedly finds herself brought back to the antebellum South of the nineteenth century, where she finds it difficult to establish a new identity and battles with her conscience, all while trying to maintain her freedom.
Dana’s ticket to survival is her ancestor, Rufus. Because he is her ticket to survival, Dana must ensure his survival. Due to her skin color, Dana is forced into working as a slave on the plantation. Her tasks include taking care of others, cooking, and cleaning. Although Dana only experiences working in the field like a typical slave one time, she is still introduced to the pain one working in the field would experience. However, whenever Dana is in any life threatening situation, she is brought back to the present time, 1976. Butler begins the novel with Dana in the hospital, stating, “I lost my arm my last trip home. My left arm” (Butler 9). As the prologue continues, Dana begins to explain the scene as she states, “I was almost comfortable except for the strange throbbing of my arm. Of where my arm had been. I moved my head, tried to look at the empty place … the stump” (Butler 10). Each time Dana returns to her present life in 1976 she experiences a new and more excruciating pain that she received from the past. She comes back wet, muddy and with a sore and bruised back. Dana’s second trip back, she is bruised and cut up from almost being raped by a patroller. The next time she visits the nineteenth century, she is without Kevin, and her back is cut and slashed up from the whipping she received from the master, Tom Weylin. While going home the fourth time, Dana ends up hurting her back when she fell on the ground and Kevin fell on top of her to ensure his return to present the time. Dana’s fifth and final trip home proved to be the worst. She returned with her left arm stuck inside of her living room wall.
All of these occurrences leave Dana with some sort of physical disability. However, Dana also experiences a great deal of emotional disabilities as the novel progresses. Dana has to come to terms with the fact that she is being dragged back into a time of slavery to “save” her ancestor, Rufus. If Dana fails to save Rufus, her mother’s family will not survive. She explains: “There had to be some kind of reason for the link he and I seemed to have. Not that I really thought a blood relationship could explain the way I had twice been drawn to him. It wouldn’t. But then, neither would anything else. What we had was something new, something that didn’t even have a name. Some matching strangeness in us that may or may not have come from our being related. Still, now I had a special reason for being glad I had been able to save him. After all…after all, what would have happened to me, to my mother’s family, if I hadn’t saved him.” (Butler 29) Dana knowing that the life of her family is dependent on her actions causes her stress and emotional pain. She is also dealing with the emotional and physical stress making she stays alive. In addition, Dana is met with emotional pain when she has to live without Kevin back in the future for some time and the not know of his well-being. Dana’s instances and negative encounters in the past are always going to stick with her, causing her to have a lot of emotional pain throughout the rest of her life.
Beyond Dana, Butler also portrays the body through a mute character and rape victims. Carrie is an African American slave who is also mute. It is often assumed that she is deaf; however, that is open for interpretation. Carrie works for the Weylin’s and offers a different point of view to the slave world because she is mute. On the other hand, Butler shows how the body was mistreated during the nineteenth century through rape victims. In the beginning of the novel, Dana is nearly raped by a patroller while running from Alice’s home, but she, luckily, is able you get away. She states, “One of the patrollers- the one who had hit Alice’s mother, probably. He reached out and ripped my blouse open. Buttons flew everywhere, but I didn’t move. I understood what the man was going to do. He was going to display some stupidity of his own” (Butler 43). Rufus is frequently evil and violent as well, such as, he rapes women and to lessen his guilt he forces his victims to fake their passion for him. Rufus rapes Alice because he claims that “loves” her and it’s the only way he believes that he can have her and Weylin rapes a few of the slaves. At one point in the novel, Dana explains how she feels when she sneaks off to see Kevin. She states, “I felt almost as though I really was doing something shameful, happily playing whore for my supposed owner. I went away feeling uncomfortable, vaguely ashamed” (Butler 97). Dana is explaining how she feels as if she’s getting raped by her own husband because it is technically “breaking” the rules. Dana’s experiences of slavery as the novel progresses signify the significance of the body and disability. Butler states’ “I was trying to get people to feel slavery. I was trying to get across the kind of emotional and psychological stones that slavery threw at people’ (Butler). Slavery has prompted people to become emotionally, psychologically, and physically disabled. In the article, Slavery as a Sexual Atrocity, by Patricia Gay, she states, “when African Americans speak directly to their experience of slavery, the dominant culture tends to take a pseudo-victim stance, asking why blacks insist on living in the past” (Gay 8). African Americans express the mental effects of slavery on their culture sometimes through poetry. In a modern form, Tupac Shakur poetry is used to illustrate the evolution of a mind troubled by slavery, for his life was a tragic reminder of the unconscious thought that took place during slavery that of which still interferes with African American thoughts today. Shakur states:
There was no mercy on the streets, I couldn’t rest
I’m barely standing, about to go to pieces, screaming peace
And though my soul was deleted, I couldn’t see it
I had my mind full of demons trying to break free
They planted seeds and they hatched, sparking the flame
inside my brain like a match, such a dirty game
No memories, just a misery
Painting a picture of my enemies killing me, in my sleep
Will I survive until the morning, to see the sun
Please Lord forgive me for my sins, cause here I come.
Here Shakur portrays the mindset of a slave. He shows how slavery takes over a person’s mind, body, and soul, and how survival is never known. He parallels the slave world to his own life, showing how mentally damaged these people became due to slavery. Butler uses the symbols of body and disability to exemplify the harsh circumstances of the south during the nineteenth century. She shows that the body is like a “toy” just being thrown around and not really cared for. She does so through displaying Dana as the victim. The body shows the sufferings of slavery through the whip marks and disability is displayed through slaves because of the color of their skin. Butler uses Dana’s arm at the end of the novel as to physically represent body and disability. Dana states, “The wall of my living room. I was back home- in my own house, in my own time. But I was still caught somehow, joined to the wall as though my arm were growing out of it- or growing into it” (Butler 261). Dana’s final disability to her body is the loss of her arm, she is left with not only a physical disability, but also a reminder of the emotional and mental pain that came along with working as a slave during the nineteenth century, and the stress that came along with trying to save her ancestors.
However, the novel Kindred could be understood as if slavery does not mistreat the body or make one become emotionally wounded. In Robert Crossley’s Critical Essay, he explains, “Butler does not attempt to explain what she describes so graphically at the end of the sixth chapter:
How could Dana’s arm, from the elbow down, be physically joined to the plaster of her living room wall?” (Crossley 266-267). Crossley represents Kindred on not being clear and sensible; it just deals with the facts and not with the physical and mental disabilities that are the effects of slavery. In her defense, Butler states, “I couldn’t really let her come all the way back. I couldn’t let her return to what she was, I couldn’t let her come back whole and that, I think, really symbolizes her not coming back whole. Antebellum slavery didn’t leave people quite whole” (Crossley 267). Here Butler does admit that she needs to leave Dana with a piece of her past; however, she takes into no consideration of the trauma it may cause Dana to encounter. Butler is trying to show her audience the struggles of being a slave during the nineteenth century, yet her point of view is not that of an actual slave. If Kindred were written by a real slave, the novel would be more detailed on the emotional and mental aspect of being a slave, rather than just the common knowledge of slavery.
The neglect of the body and how it is displayed as a disability among slaves is common in Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred. Butler shows the physical, emotional, and mental disabilities that adhere to slavery through Dana. Dana is whipped, beaten, and ultimately loses her arm, making her physically disabled throughout the novel. Rape is also a reoccurring theme of physical disability throughout the novel. Dana deals with the emotional and psychological disabilities by trying to survive by keeping her ancestors alive, as well. The body shows the suffering of slavery throughout the novel and is illustrated through slaves because of their skin color. However, as declared by Robert Crossley, the novel can be received as if slavery does not mistreat the body or make one grow to be emotionally disabled. Butler talks more about this subject matter by giving supporting details of slavery in the south in the nineteenth century, rather than an actual slave’s feelings. Disability and the representation of the body has twisted together through race. Disabilities come in many forms; whether it is physical, mental, emotional, or psychological everyone has a feature that classifies them as not ‘able.’
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