We took the crushing news pretty hard. The TV adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred didn’t get a fair chance when it was cancelled a month and half after all eight episodes were uploaded in December 2022 to stream on Hulu. With the blessing of Butler’s estate, playwright and showrunner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins made bold choices—some of which might make Butler purists gasp—to modernize and expand upon Butler’s classic while staying true to her message. Such a shame that we won’t see the fruits of Jacobs-Jenkins and his crew’s screenwriting labor pay off.
Since the novel’s publication in 1979, more slavery history scholarship, The 1619 Project for example, has emerged than was available before. Bearing this in mind with the screen alterations made to the story, we thought these titles from Beacon’s catalog would be useful for understanding the historical references included.
As the title of this post indicates, these books are to be read after marathon-watching the series. So, if spoilers make you break out in hives—and there will be plenty—stop scrolling, go watch it, and then come back.
Dana and Kevin’s relationship underwent a stark update. They’re not married as they are in the novel but just getting to know each other. They meet for the first time at Olamina’s, the restaurant where Kevin waits tables—the name is a nod to Butler’s Parable books—then again after Dana swipes right on a dating app. Will they trauma bond through their visits to antebellum Maryland? Or will Kevin decide he’s had enough of doing the time warp again and again with Dana? Unless Jacobs-Jenkins finds another network, we won’t know, because the series ended on a cliffhanger, leaving Kevin stranded on the plantation.
An interracial Tindr swipe may be considered as common as charging your smartphone today, but that would not have been possible without the Loving v. Virginia decision. Remember that in the novel Dana and Kevin were able to marry because interracial marriage was legalized just nine years prior. And even then, their union sussed out the racial biases of their families. Legal scholar Sheryll Cashin’s Loving outlines the history of this defiance to white supremacy and offers a hopeful treatise on the future of race relations in the US, challenging the notion that trickle-down progressive politics is our only hope for a more inclusive society.
Jacobs-Jenkins was intentional about setting the present-day events in Kindred in 2016 as opposed to 1976. Listen closely to the television in the background during the scenes between Dana’s nosy neighbors, Carlo and Hermione. They’re watching the presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, which sets the stage for the race politics Dana and Kevin straddle in both timelines. Carlo and Hermione’s concern for Dana’s safety—they’ve heard her screams between time travels—is thinly veiled contempt for her presence in the neighborhood. Their hostility toward her escalates, visit by visit, until they call the police for domestic disturbance. And we all know what happens when officers show up at a Black person’s home. The kettlebell Karens next door are a textbook example of colorblind racism, which sociologist Crystal M. Fleming covers in How to Be Less Stupid About Race. Performative political correctness in the front, racist stewing in the back.
Sabina is one of several new characters created for the series. Enslaved on the Weylin plantation, she shuffles on swollen, deformed feet and provides period-appropriate attire for Dana and Kevin. This is the only time we see her. To pay for a doctor’s visit to treat the broken leg of his son, Rufus, Thomas Weylin trades Sabina to Dr. West so he can experiment on her. Her foot ailment piques the doctor’s “medical curiosity.”
Her fate is reminiscent of Anarcha’s, an enslaved Black woman who underwent painful surgical procedures without anesthesia at the hands of J. Marion Sims, dubiously dubbed the father of modern gynecology. Poet Dominique Christina reimagines her story in the National Poetry Series-winning collection Anarcha Speaks. One can only imagine what tortures await Sabina at Dr. West’s practice.
Sarah the cook bristles with revenge against the Weylins. Thomas sold her sons to buy the furniture, china plates, and other fancy fixings his new wife, Margaret, demanded upon moving in with him. And look at how he summarily trades his second-in-command Luke, who grew up with him, during a trip to town with his son Rufus and Kevin. Black lives clearly did not matter to slaveowners, as the slave trade reduced them to commodities. Historian Daina Ramey Berry’s The Price for Their Pound of Flesh is a humane look at how the enslaved recalled and responded to being appraised, bartered, and sold throughout the course of their lives.
Those of us who have read Kindred and its graphic novel adaptation probably weren’t ready for the series’ ultimate twist: Dana’s mother, Olivia. There is no mother character in the novel. Jacobs-Jenkins ups the speculative ante by having Dana inherit the curse of antebellum time travel from Olivia, who in turn inherited it from her mother—a brilliant expansion on the source material and a shrewd metaphor for what psychologist Guilaine Kinouani identifies as intergenerational trauma in Living While Black. “Trauma knows no time boundary,” Kinouani writes. Subsequent generations carry the baggage of racial trauma and historical atrocities from their forebears. When that baggage goes unchecked, it can manifest as distress and dysfunction. Time travel to the horrors of slavery is indeed distress and dysfunction.
Dana’s come-to-Jesus moment with Olivia is tough for her to hear. Olivia tells Dana stop worrying about her and to find a purpose in the community of enslaved Blacks while she’s stuck in the nineteenth century. Dana decides to help Winnie, Thomas Weylin’s newest concubine and another new character created for the series, to escape the plantation. A story like Winnie’s could be found in Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise’s The Long Walk to Freedom, their collection of twelve first-person narratives that show the extraordinary and often innovative lengths runaway slaves went to for freedom.
The reason for Dana’s summons to the past eventually becomes clear to her. Rufus Weylin is her white ancestor, and the Weylin plantation is a part of her history. In the eighth and final episode, she finds his name in the family lineage handwritten in her family’s Bible. She also finds the name of Alice Greenwood, her Black ancestor who’s a child in the nineteenth century when they meet.
As a millennial in the series, Dana’s reckoning with the past will hit with different generational significance than it does for 1976 Dana. She’ll need Thomas Norman DeWolf and Sharon Leslie Morgan’s Gather at the Table to begin her healing journey. But that can happen only when the time traveling stops.
Because obviously. There would be no series without it.
About the Author
Christian Coleman is the digital marketing manager at Beacon Press and editor of Beacon Broadside. Before joining Beacon, he worked in writing, copy editing, and marketing positions at Sustainable Silicon Valley and Trikone. He graduated from Boston College and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. Follow him on Twitter at @.