Note: For this post, I will use Duffy and Jennings’ adaptation of Butler’s Kindred. I have read Butler’s novel, but it has a been a few years. The adaptation closely follows the novel.
On Tuesday, I wrote about the ways that Damian Duffy’s illustrations convey just as much emotion to the reader as Octavia Butler and John Jennings’ words in the graphic novel adaptation of Butler’s Kindred. Today, I want to look at the role of literacy in Kindred. Dana Franklin and her husband Kevin are both writers, and thus have a high level of literacy; however, their abilities to read, write, and more importantly critically interrogate the printed word and even their own surroundings do not protect them when they travel to Antebellum Maryland. It is this aspect of Kindred that I want to look at a little more closely.
The role of literacy as a liberatory tool that would lead to freedom and an escape from subjugation is a through line in African American literature. David Walker, in his Appeal, writes about meeting a man who claimed his son could write a “neat hand.” Walker points out that the son’s ability to write neatly, however, does not mean that he is educated.
In Frederick Douglass’ Narrative, he describes the way he acquired literacy by reading the letters on the boats at the dockyard and tricking white children to teach him the alphabet. Douglass’ acquisition of the printed word allowed him to write a pass that would allow him to travel away from Thomas Auld’s house and ultimately escape. In this manner, the ability to read and write led to Douglass’ freedom.
Counter to Douglass’ experience, literacy did not keep Solomon Northup from being kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana for twelve years. We do not know the extent of Northup’s ability to read and write because David Wilson served as the ghostwriter for his narrative. We do know that when Solomon wrote a letter to his friends in New York, he had to rely of a confidant to mail it. The man reneged on his promise, and Solomon had to burn the letter to protect himself. Later, he tentatively handed William Bass another letter to mail north. In each case, Solomon’s ability to read and write did not secure his freedom on its own; rather, he had to rely on whites much like Dana has to rely on Rufus in Kindred.
Dana and Kevin’s literacy do not allow them to escape the racism and oppression of Antebellum Maryland and the Weylan plantation. The first time Dana travels to the past. she and Kevin are talking about a story that Kevin has been thinking about writing as they place their book on bookshelves in their new home. Through this method, Butler foregrounds the idea that literacy does not act as the sole tool for the attainment of freedom.
After her second trip to Maryland, Dana returns to 1976 battered and bruised at the hands of a patroller. Kevin, hearing Dana’s experience, suggests that she pose as a free black, to which Dana responds that she would need free papers. The couple think about forging free papers, and Kevin pulls all of the books they have on black history; however, even though they know about free papers, they have never seen an example, so they cannot construct any for Dana when she returns to Maryland. Their knowledge of the past does not assist Dana in escaping the torment of slavery when she gets transported to back to Maryland.
During her next trip to the past, Dana begins to teach Rufus and the Weylin’s slave Nigel how to read. Nigel takes to Dana’s instruction rather quickly, but Rufus gets frustrated and throws a fit. When Tom Weylin catches Dana teaching Nigel and Carrie to read and write, he whips her, sending her back to 1976. Literacy does not assist Nigel in running away, and even though Rufus despises learning to read and write, he still maintains his position of power over those he enslaves.
Upon returning to 1976, Dana begins to read “everything [they] had on slavery,” including Gone with the Wind. Unfortunately, even the knowledge she gleaned from the books did not assist her when she actually returned to the past. She arrives to finds Issac punching Rufus because Rufus does not want him with Alice, the enslaved woman he lusts after. While nursing him back to health, Rufus says that if Dana writes a letter he will mail it to Kevin, who became stuck in the past when Dana returned to 1976 alone. Dana writes the letter, but Rufus, claiming he will mail it when he goes to town, does not. When he goes to town, he gets Alice, who had run away, and sells Issac down the river.
Dana believes that Rufus mailed the letter, and she approaches him about how long it takes to receive a reply. Rufus expresses anger at her questioning, and pushes the subject to the side. Later, after Dana gets Alice to go to Rufus so he can have his way with her, Dana writes another letter and says, “Rufus mailed another letter for me. Payment. . . ” Rufus, though, did not mail this letter either. Alice comes to Dana with papers and envelopes in her hand and shows Dana her undelivered letters. Dana runs away and gets caught. While nursing her back to health, Rufus finally mails the letters and shows her Kevin’s response.
Even though Dana has knowledge, she cannot use that knowledge to alleviate the conditions that she finds herself in in Antebellum Maryland. She must learn to navigate the Weylin Plantation and rely on others, those who maintain power over her, to keep assist her. This echos Northup’s experiences because like Northup, Dana has to have faith that Rufus will actually mail her letters to Kevin because she cannot. Ultimately, literacy does not save her; Rufus’ guilt causes him to mail the letters. In this manner, Rufus still maintains control even though his literacy skills do not come anywhere near those of Dana.
The tensions between literacy and power get tested throughout as Tom Weylin constantly accosts Dana for her ability to read and write. He tells her that just because she can do these things it does not make her smart. After she gets caught for running way, Tom whips her and says, “Educated nigger don’t mean smart nigger, do it.” This line recalls Walker’s assertion in his Appeal that just because the man’s son can write a “neat hand,” that does not mean that he is smart enough to navigate the oppressive space that he occupies and escape it. As Trudier Harris notes, Dana’s reliance on “twentieth-century book knowledge in a situation where her life could be taken on a whim” places her in a very tenuous position.Ultimately, literacy does not save Dana, her ability to resist through physical action leads to her escape; however, that escape comes with a price because she physically loses her arm and the experiences linger in her psyche.
This, of course, is not all that can be said about literacy in Kindred. As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.