“You don’t have to beat people to treat them brutally.”
—Kindred, Octavia Butler
For those of you who have never heard of Kindred, let me give you a short genre overview. This is a sci-fi leaning book that deals with slavery head on. It’s written by a black female author from the perspective of a similar woman. It is also a book that I hadn’t heard of until I specifically looked for authors I wouldn’t normally read. I had to dig for this gem, and I’m not exactly sure why.
Without giving too much away, Kindred takes a beloved sci-fi trope and uses it to explore territory more familiar than foreign. Every American child knows that slavery existed. But I would venture to say that very few privileged children (or adults) have felt slavery this viscerally. From my tentative attempts at listening, I imagine many marginalized people relate much more naturally to this narrative of slavery. They recognize it and its aftereffects in ways that I, as a white woman, had not. Which makes this novel even more important.
Kindred deserves an important place in our educational system. High schoolers should be reading Kindred. College students should be discussing the themes Butler brings up. This book, written in the late 70s, is still very much relevant. Full of rich characters, Kindred brings alive a sense of humanity and rights that is so easily lost in my own privileged experience. And it’s a great reminder that, whatever our situation in life, we should be reading things that seem unfamiliar at first glance. We might find that the emotions and truths are closer to us than we ever dreamed.
“Only he with the hobbled foot knows the beauty of running. Only he with the severed ear can appreciate what the sweetest music must sound like. Our ailments complete us. That we in our sinful souls can ever imagine charity- ‘She can’t go on for a moment. ‘We may not always be able to practice charity, but that in this world we can even imagine it at all! That act of daring requires the greatest challenge,”
― Gregory Maguire, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
“I am the cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me.”
–“The Cat that Walked by Himself,” Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling
I’m a sucker for all things poetic, and the rhythm of this line has been ringing in my ears for a few weeks now (though perhaps that has something to do with the child who has been repeating it to me virtually nonstop since we read the story). Regardless of the why, I’ve been murmuring Kipling’s line over and over, mulling over the beauty and simplicity of the language.
And then, as I was turning this quote over in the back of my mind, I realized: the Cat is telling a lie. Of course, this should be obvious. If all places are alike to him, why does he continue to return to the cave with the man? Perhaps, the Cat reasons, there are benefits to certain places that he cannot receive elsewhere. So he devises a game. Because–you must not forget, O Best Beloved–the Cat is the most wild of all beasts and will not stand to be kept like the Dog or the Horse or the Cow.
The Cat’s struggle is our struggle. We want the comfort and security of a place that is different from all others. Yet, we are stubbornly independent and defy our own desire by claiming, “All places are alike to me.” We want all the benefit with none of the responsibility. And so the wild Cat–the clever Cat–makes his own way. He is helpful when he wants to be, only insofar as it creates the different place the other creatures call home. But he demands his right to disappear, to abandon the family he has grafted himself into, and to return to the wild places at any time. It is quite a feline scheme–and also a very human one.
“I am the cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me,” and thus I remain independent. But that one place–that place made different and called ‘home’–I will treat with the sacredness and flippancy of the Cat, so that it is mine and under my control. Though I wonder if someday the Cat–and perhaps we too–will find that the different place cannot truly be home until we give up control and shoulder the burden along with the benefit.
We are not a menace, and we will not be silent any longer.
– Roma Guy, “When We Rise”
This past week, ABC aired a docudrama called “When We Rise” about the LGBT rights movement. It starts with the Stonewall Riots and continues through the overturn of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Whatever your political leanings, I would highly recommend the four-part series to anyone interested in the history of the gay rights movement, although it does contain some adult content. The drama is interspersed with actual footage from the time these struggles were taking place and was co-written with three activists (who are also portrayed as the main characters) at the center of it all.
The series is a moving depiction of the fight for equal rights for all Americans. While it focuses on gay, lesbian, and transgender issues, it also brings in the mistreatment of women, black people, and those who are impoverished. From the AIDS epidemic to police beating women at a peaceful protest to a black man being refused service at a bar, its true story is compelling and heartbreaking. There is nothing more essentially human than love and loss, and this series is full of both.
Throughout the movement we see disadvantaged groups slowly learning how to join hands and fight for their rights together rather than competing with each other. This is one of the most central messages of the series – that none of us can be truly free until all of us are. It is all “one struggle; one fight.” It is pointless to advocate for ourselves while leaving others behind.
Because the series covers a span of about forty years, it feels a bit disjointed at times. The change to older actors between the second and third episodes is especially odd. But that does not negate the importance of the message. If you do not have time to watch the entire series, just watch the first episode or two. And no matter who you are or what background you come from, I hope you will be able to relate to the essentially human struggle in this series.