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Dana: A Time-traveling Mythical Hero

By Fiona Poth '24



According to twentieth-century philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Octavia Butler heeds this warning and, in response, writes a historical–science fiction novel, Kindred. She forces the protagonist of this novel, Edana, “Dana” Franklin, a twenty-six-year-old Black woman living in Los Angeles during 1976, to engage with the slavery her ancestors endured and to remember slavery through her repeated time travel to the Antebellum South, Maryland in 1815. Dana is a relatable and approachable character. She is a college dropout working multiple jobs to make ends meet who dreams of being a writer. Dana’s frank and straightforward narration of her travels makes the reader experience the racism and brutality of the Antebellum South.  


By Zoë Johnson '24 

While Dana’s repeated trips to the Antebellum South serve to educate Dana about slavery, they also make this education manageable for her and for the reader. The returns to modern-day Los Angeles and the respite of her middle-class house give Dana and the reader breaks to heal mentally and physically from the violence of the nineteenth-century southern plantation. Although Dana is an average black woman in Los Angeles during the 1970s, her common twentieth-century traits transform her into a mythical hero when she time travels to the Antebellum South. Butler has her wear pants, act logically, and administer basic first aid like a doctor—all stereotypically masculine traits and tasks.  Ultimately, Dana defies her gender by becoming a hero to her ancestors and her race and the black savior of her white ancestor and her own legacy.


Most mythical heroes are men; however, Butler’s mythical hero, Dana, is a female who is “fine-boned” and “slender” (38). Butler causes Dana to be perceived as masculine in the Antebellum South by carefully selecting clothes for her in the 1970s. Dana is wearing pants when she time travels. This gender performativity, or suggestion of gender by how an individual looks or presents themselves in society, makes Dana appear to be a male in the Antebellum South.1  Pants were not commonly worn by women in the United States until World War II, when work necessitated them.  For example, on her second trip to the Antebellum South, Dana describes her clothes as a “blouse,” “pants,” and “an old pair of desert boots” (38). In the Antebellum South, Dana would have been expected to wear a “long dark dress that covered her from neck to feet” like the other female characters in Kindred (16). These clothes make the other characters in Kindred think Dana is a man when they first meet her. For example, Rufus Weylin, the son of Thomas Weylin who owns the plantation to which Dana travels, comments, “Not with you dressed like that! She [Rufus’s Mother, Margaret Weylin] thought you were a man at first, just like I did—and like Daddy did” (29). Further, when Dana, wearing pants, arrives for the third time to assist Rufus when he has fallen from a tree, Nigel, a young Black slave with Rufus, asks Dana, “How come you’re dressed like a man?” (60). Therefore, this masculine performativity in the Antebellum South allows Dana to assume the role of a mythical hero in this time when she otherwise would have been perceived as an ordinary Black woman in the 1970s. This disparity suggests the significant advances in gender identity that both Black women and women in general have experienced between these two times.  Today, women are not as strictly identified by their clothing choices or gender performativity; however, at the same time, too often individuals are judged by the clothing they wear or the gender affinity they express in public.

A mythical hero is on a quest that requires extensive travel for which he may not comprehend the purpose at the beginning. This mirrors Dana’s experiences in Kindred. After Dana’s first trip to the plantation to save Rufus, a young boy, from drowning, Dana struggles to understand why she was there and what happened to her. When she tries to process the event and explain it to her husband, Kevin, on her return from the Antebellum South, Dana becomes exasperated and says, “I don’t know what to tell you. It’s all crazy” (15). It is only after Dana’s second trip, when she speaks with Rufus and discovers that he is the son of Tom Weylin and has a friend named Alice Greenwood, a young free Black girl who lives near the Weylin Plantation with her mother, that she begins to understand why she is traveling to the Antebellum South. From a page in an old family Bible, Dana knows Hagar Weylin, her great-great grandmother, is the child of Rufus and Alice. Each time Rufus “fears death,” Dana is summoned across time and space to help him (50).  She concludes that she is there “to insure my family’s survival, my own birth” (29).  Like a mythical hero, Butler has Dana travel extensively. She travels back and forth from 1970s Los Angeles to the Antebellum South seven times and is gone for longer and longer periods of time. For example, Dana is summoned to Maryland to save Rufus from drowning, help him after a fall from a tree, and extinguish a fire he has set. Dana gains in strength and skills to survive in this environment from her experiences in the Antebellum South. Dana comments that she has “speed and agility I never knew I had” (42). Through gradual understanding of her task, extensive travel, and the development of powers and strengths she did not know that she was capable of, Butler forms Dana into a mythical hero.

Each time Dana is summoned to help Rufus when he fears death, she acts in a calm and collected manner like a stereotypical male hero. She is logical, not emotional. For example, when Rufus is drowning in the river, Dana runs down and wades into the water to save him and then administers artificial respiration even though she has just traveled across time and space and does not herself know where she is. In contrast, Rufus’s mother, Margaret Weylin, is acting helpless and emotional, “running back and forth crying on the shore” (13).  Dana’s life in Los Angeles has not allowed her to act helpless or emotional.  She did whatever she needed to do to make ends meet, including selling her own “blood” (53).  Again, when Dana traveled a second time to save Rufus when he set the drapes in his bedroom on fire, she acted decisively. She pulled the drapes down, picked them up quickly, and threw them out the window (20). This contrast in behavior emphasizes the existence of gender stereotypes and the limits that they can put on Butler’s characters and on individuals in society. This comparison across time reminds the reader that even today, two hundred years later, women are still too often assumed to be emotional or illogical and are limited by these gender stereotypes and expectations that society imposes on them. However, if women can overcome these stereotypes, they can be heroic.


As the repeated calm hero of her white male ancestor, Rufus, Dana is distorting gender and race roles.  Specifically, Dana is subverting the White Savior Complex, the concept that Whites can “civilize” people of color by forcing on them cultural norms that are better or more advanced. This practice and ideology began during colonization and continues today as a means of offering temporary help but not systematic and meaningful change to minority communities. Instead, Dana as a Black woman, is saving her White male ancestor by making trips to a primitive civilization, the Antebellum South, that is in need of change. Dana is bearing the “The White Man’s Burden” but, instead, it is the “The Black Woman’s Burden.” 2  Butler does this by having Dana practice basic 1970s first aid repeatedly to help treat Rufus in the Antebellum South. For example, when Rufus has fallen from a tree, Dana examines his leg like a doctor, a profession that is stereotypically thought of as male, and instructs Niguel to “tell his father to send a . . . a wagon for him” (60). Further, when Rufus is thought to have malaria, Dana installs netting around his bed to prevent the spread of this disease.  Because of the time travel, these ideas and concepts seem other-worldly and appear to the residents of the plantation to be special powers that Dana possesses. In this way, Butler suggests that women and individuals of color can save themselves and be their own heroes by using common knowledge. 


As with mythical heroes, Butler has Dana complete one final challenge, or battle. When Dana returns to help Rufus for the seventh and last time when he is mourning the suicide of his slave and forced-lover, Alice, Rufus attempts to rape Dana. In response, Dana stabs him twice. Although Dana believes that her duty, or quest, is to save Rufus and ensure Hagar’s birth, this final interaction reveals that, instead, it was for Dana to learn about her ancestors and to slay the prejudice in her legacy by ultimately killing Rufus. Butler sends a strong message that the individual can carry forward the good from their ancestors but also see the bad in their actions. Butler wants her readers to be the heroes of their own legacies and to make judgments and evolve like Dana.    


Dana’s average life in Los Angeles is the life that her ancestors would have wanted. She experiences a relationship with a White man based on true love and not forced physicality. She must work many jobs, but these are the jobs that she chooses, not those that others chose for her. She does not live with the threat of physical abuse. She can be a writer and express her opinions, an option that was not even available to her ancestors. In these ways, she has become a hero to her ancestors. Dana has also become a hero for herself by controlling her own destiny and her legacy. However, her trips serve as Butler’s warning that there is more to achieve and that the suffering of the past cannot be ignored, must not be forgotten, and should not be repeated.




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