While watching Kasi Lemmons’s new biopic about Harriet Tubman, I found myself thinking of the 1979 novel Kindred by Octavia Butler. Kindred is a time-travel story, set in the mid-1970s in Los Angeles. The protagonist, Dana, an African-American writer in her twenties, has fainting spells that cause her travel back in time to antebellum Maryland, where she meets her enslaved ancestors. The first time she is thrown back in time, she finds herself in a situation where a white boy, Rufus, is about to die, and it’s up to her to save him. She does, only to discover that he’s both a distant relative of hers, and the son of a slaveholder. Luckily, she figures out how to get back to present-day L.A. But then, just as suddenly, she’s back in nineteenth-century Maryland.
Every time Dana falls back in time, Rufus is older, while she stays the same age. And every time Dana falls back in time, Rufus is in trouble and Dana always saves him. To Rufus, Dana is his magical property who appears just when he needs her. To Dana, Rufus is a foolish, cruel man that she takes care of only to ensure the survival of her ancestors. All the while she feels psychically caught between worlds; she’s free in her time, but enslaved in Rufus’s. The novel ends when she is finally able to break free of Rufus.