On Thursday, October 6, 2022, the Effron Center for the Study of America hosted Anschutz Distinguished Fellow Susana Morris for the Fall 2022 Anschutz Lecture in American Studies in East Pyne Hall. Morris delivered a talk on “The Spirit of ’76: Slavery, Empire, and the Anthropocene in Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred.”
Morris is associate professor of literature, media, and communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and author of Close Kin and Distant Relatives: The Paradox of Respectability in Black Women’s Literature (UVA 2014). She is currently at work on a cultural biography of Octavia Butler.
Morris’ lecture contextualized Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred with Butler’s experiences growing up, the contemporaneous American Bicentennial, and broader connections to today’s world. In it, young African-American writer Dana time travels between her home in 1976, where she is married to a white man named Kevin, and a slave plantation in antebellum Maryland, where her ancestors live. Butler wrote the novel to help younger generations of African Americans grapple with the slave experience of their ancestors and learn to view them as survivors and heroes instead of cowards.
I found Morris’ retelling of Butler’s encounters with her friend at Pasadena City College and her mother particularly impactful. The “deeply rooted shame, anger, and mistrust” coming-of-age African Americans felt about their elders created a sharp divide between them and earlier generations of Black people. Morris pulled an anecdote from Butler’s interviews, where her mother took a white woman’s beration with her head down and Butler told her “I would never do what you just did.”
Within Morris’ retelling, I identified my own experience—growing up, I was embarrassed by my mother’s broken English as she struggled to communicate with frustrated service workers. I’ve been angered by my parents’ denial of white privilege and systematic racism as they instead chose to believe in the bootstrap narrative to achieve the American Dream. I shared the perspective Butler’s friend had, that if my elders had more backbone and pride, Asian Americans could be farther along in the United States.
Morris observed that it was this anger and shame that Butler “sympathized, but fervently disagreed” with within her contemporaries that motivated the writing of Kindred. Rather than blame her Black ancestors and elders, Butler believed her ancestors were “immeasurably strong” for bearing struggle, trauma, and oppression that she could not have survived. She hoped to share her revelation with other young African Americans.
Again, I draw similarities to my own experience of recognizing the hardship and toil my parents lived when they immigrated, empty-handed, to the United States. I doubt I could have done the same, leaving my family and friends to learn a new language in a new country and build a life better than the one I had left behind. Morris’ lecture incited a deeper look into myself and my family’s history, urging me to release my own pride in order to be proud of my parents.
Morris further commented that as a “speculative fiction” novel, Kindred transgresses normative thinking and rejects narrow, restricted paths by using time travel to depict a modern woman’s experience in a slave society. I was reminded of the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), which uses travel through time and space to highlight notable issues specific to Asian Americans. The characters’ split of consciousness within the multiverse is analogous to the complex immigrant experience of being hyphenated citizens — we belong to multiple places, languages, and communities all at once. The movie also challenges Asian exclusion by transcending physical, temporal, and imaginative boundaries to explore alternate versions of the characters. Science fiction’s detachment from reality allows both the film and Kindred to design new narratives in a normative world and draw creative parallels between history and the present.
Ultimately, I was interested to see Butler’s personal experiences and perspective on race relations manifest in Kindred. She writes to add a depth of understanding and empathy to the struggles of enslaved African Americans that historical texts cannot. As Morris highlighted Kindred’s themes of generational history and trauma, racial power and white privilege, and family, I found that they are broadly visible in Asian American literature, history, and lives as well. While Butler told her story through her writing, I found parts of my story in hers.