Paradoxes

Something you see often enough in science fiction (putting aside whether Kindred actually is science fiction, or fantasy, or whatever) is time travel and its attendant paradox. Actually there are a number of flavors of temporal paradox, but the one I’m thinking of is the one in which, when going back in time, you might change things that would change your present and thus potentially impact you and your ability to go back in time to begin with.

If Dana goes back in time and changes enough about Rufus’s life, he might not turn out to be her progenitor, which in turn would prevent her from going back in time to make those changes. This is familiar territory for Marty McFly.

On page 51, Butler brings up another paradox as Dana and Kevin talk about her return from her second visit to Rufus. Recall that their theory is that, as a threat of Rufus’s death is what calls her to him, the threat of imminent death to her is what brings her back home. Dana says:

For instance, I would have used your knife against that patroller last night if I’d had it. I would have killed him. That would have ended the immediate danger to me and I probably wouldn’t have come home.

In short, in order to remain alive in order to attempt to return home, she may have to do something that will prevent the thing that enables her to return home. It’s a paradox.

A little later, on page 68 in my edition, Dana reflects on the man Rufus is likely to become:

As I hurried up the steps and into the house, I thought of Rufus and his father, of Rufus becoming his father. It would happen some day in at least one way. Someday Rufus would own the plantation. Someday, he would be the slaveholder, responsible in his own right for what happened to the people who lived in those half-hidden cabins. The boy was literally growing up as I watched — growing up because I watched and because I helped to keep him safe. I was the worst possible guardian for him — a black to watch over him in a society that considered blacks subhuman, a woman to watch over him in a society that considered women perennial children. I would have all I could do to look after myself. But I would help him as best I could. And I would try to keep friendship with him, maybe plant a few ideas in his mind that would help both me and the people who would be his slaves in the years to come. I might even be making things easier for Alice.

It’s horrifying, isn’t it? Dana not only must fight to stay free and alive in an environment inimical to that imperative but also bears the burden of trying to make things better for those who will both follow her (as time traveler) and produce her (as ancestors). She must be extraordinarily careful lest she change the past in a way that negates her future present (this stuff is hard to write about intelligibly). And she must grapple with how difficult it is to be the guardian of a child raised in a society that enslaves Black people and infantilizes women. It’s sort of an ethical double-bind wrapped within a temporal paradox.

I read this passage after listening to an episode of a podcast titled Hear to Slay, by Roxane Gay and Tressie McMillan Cottom. They label it “the Black feminist podcast of your dreams,” and it is very well worth listening to — fun, incisive, serious, and informative all at once. I’m a few episodes behind and today was listening to the February 1 episode entitled “It’s Our Country Too,” in which they chat with country music artist Rissi Palmer about country music and Black country music. They talk some about why Black women often do hard, extra labor, and in short, it’s so that others who follow can have it easier. Palmer came back to country music on her own terms in spite of getting screwed by the industry. At about the 30-minute mark of the episode, she says “I keep fighting, and I keep caring about it, because, while I’ve figured out a way to have a career and a life and be happy outside of it, people that look like me, and anybody else, if that’s what they want, they should be able to have it.” This seems to me to be directly related to what Dana’s doing in Kindred. Of course she is trying to survive, but she thinks too (and foremost) of Rufus’s safety and upbringing, of those generations between Rufus and the Dana of 1976, and of her husband Kevin (a white man). She is serving, to borrow a relevant phrase from Hurston, as the mule of the world, carrying the burdens of others.

Like many people in marginalized groups, Butler is carrying the burden herself, describing awful, painful details of enslavement in order to tell a story about the past and the legacy of being Black in America. Activists and other Black people who speak on social justice take on this burden not to improve their situations but to improve the situations of current and future others. This too strikes me as a sort of near-paradox: In order to put a stop to the horror and the damage it causes, people are made to immerse themselves in the horror and suffer the damage it causes.

10 thoughts on “Paradoxes

  1. Dennis March 2, 2021 / 1:50 pm

    I don’t see Dana’s predicament so much a paradox as it is a dilemma: whether she chooses to help Rufus and contribute to the system of slavery or not to help which would not even be a paradox. If she doesn’t help him and he doesn’t produce her ancestor, she doesn’t exist to help him.
    But as a savior to Rufus Dana becomes complicit with the institutions of the time. She is helping to create the man who would become his father in temperament and action. I think that this a major theme in Butler’s work: That the institutions that revolved around slavery have rippling effects well beyond the historical location of the southern plantation. It’s premises are seen in the northern slave free states, but also through history. It ripples beyond the call for reparations. It affects our abilities to think rationally, just as Dana seems drawn to Rufus knowing his faults, hoping to make some changes that don’t seem to stick very well.
    I can’t help but wonder if there is a critique of capitalism that runs through this book and the Parable series. The corruption attendant to the pure pursuit of property without regards to the consequences inevitably leads to the horrors depicted against the slaves.

    • Paul Debraski March 8, 2021 / 11:44 am

      The thing that Dana will never know is how her behavior affected Rufus. In the whole thing of messing up the future, does her kindness make him a kinder person towards Black people or is her action futile? Is history actually written already? It hurts your head.

      • Dennis March 10, 2021 / 12:06 am

        Absolutely. I see a lot of her trying to understand what effects she has over Rufus. One of the things I see as a theme of this book is: how the concept of property, especially of individuals, is corrupting. Our image of Rufus’ father is one of intense desire to increase wealth. The obvious means for southerners was to employ (=:-0) slaves. From the vantage point of the present, the north has different means to increase wealth that doesn’t involve SLAVERY, but likely involves some forms of slavery. Kevin’s life in the north suggests something of the sort.
        The question of whether or not her kindness make him kinder towards Black people really is a question of whether the kindness of anyone makes them kinder. I’ve personally seen instances of Black or First Nations people who have served that remain in their ‘place’ irrespective of their kindness toward their ‘betters’. The film Roma is a good example. Their place is seen as proper and in line with the natural order of things and not as one group controlling the lives of another.
        Dana’s motivation is certainly to create a kinder Rufus, but the institutions of the time will not allow it. It is a message more for our time, where we might have better perspective, that we need to heed.

  2. Daryl L. L. Houston March 4, 2021 / 7:25 pm

    Yeah, it’s possible I’ve shifted into more like “double-bind” territory than paradox territory.

    I didn’t pick up on any big themes about capitalism in Kindred (wasn’t specifically looking for one, though), but I definitely think we’ll see some of that in Parable of the Sower.

    • Jeff Anderson March 5, 2021 / 12:19 pm

      As a totally minor reply, I’d say there’s no such thing as a story about US slavery that isn’t also about capitalism. In his Atlantic days, Ta-Nehisi Coates used to return pretty regularly to the stat that in 1860, the greatest per capita concentration of millionaires in the country was not in Boston or Chicago or New York, but in the Mississippi Valley.

      • Paul Debraski March 8, 2021 / 11:46 am

        Wow, I never knew that. It makes a lot of sense and certainly explains a lot about the way the country developed. I’m bringing Hamilton into this as it’s the simplest reference point, but you can see how influence the Southern landowners would be with their money (and the fact that they didn’t have to pay workers).

  3. Paul Debraski March 8, 2021 / 11:49 am

    Daryl, that podcast sounds amazing, I’m going to have to check it out.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston March 8, 2021 / 11:07 pm

      I really get a lot out of it. It’s on a platform called Lumity, which requires a subscription, but the cost is minimal for the value I get out of it. Gay and Cottom also each have ventures on Substack that are worthwhile.

  4. Paul Debraski March 8, 2021 / 11:52 am

    There’s a story by César Aira which is all about carrying the burden yourself for the people coming after you. In “Acts of Charity” a priest goes on a missionary mission and realizes that he can’t help the people around him if he is worrying about himself–how he will live and get food, etc. So he decides to build a house so that the next person after him will want for nothing. But the person who comes after him sees what he has done and wants to do the same for the person after him, so he spruces up the place without enjoying all the things he has. Of course this is all at the expense of the locals who only grow poorer as this opulent house gets built.

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