Friday, June 09, 2006

I am not a slave

I'm not a slave.'

Words spoken by a black nanny to the white boy in her charge.

Atlantic Center Mall

Brooklyn, NY
June 8, 2006

One of the books featured in my dissertation is Octavia Butler’s Kindred. It has a simple, but yet very troubling premise: a black woman in 1976 Los Angeles is inexplicably pulled back into 19th century Maryland and has in order to ensure the well-being of, Rufus, the young scion of a plantation. Readers of speculative fiction do not have trouble suspending disbelief and following Butler’s protagonist, Dana Franklin, back and forth between the 19th and 20th centuries. What often irks some people about Kindred is that there are those like myself who do not believe that this relationship is not entirely fictive and is in fact one of the troubling legacies of slavery.

“Slavery is over.” I am often reminded—or even better yet—“It is ideas like this that keep people black people from moving forward.”

The refusal by some to acknowledge that the hierarchical system at play in the United States was ratified during the centuries of trans-Atlantic slavery is precisely the reason why I think that situations like the one faced by Dana Franklin actually manifest in twenty-first century America. I know that people do not physically travel back to the 19th century, but many white and black Americans must nonetheless still replay some of the defining dramas of slavery. Case in point, the scene outlined in this post’s epigraph. Part of me felt like saying “I told you so” to some of my detractors—but the more powerful sentiment was a journey back to the poignancy of Butler’s text and its continued relevance. The black nanny and the young white boy most likely never got a chance to read Butler’s work or meet her in person before she passed away earlier this year, but she managed to capture a piece of their life together—a slice of the tension that exists between them and history.

Rufus: "You're not a slave are you?"

Dana: "No"

(Kindred, 29 - 30)

And speaking of history, did I mention that this scene took place in the Atlantic center mall.

C’est finis.

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