The first book discussion at The Shadows Took Shape exhibition was focused on Kindred by Octavia E. Butler. Leading the discussion were Philadelphia native, Rasheedah Phillips, an attorney, writer and the founder of The Afrofuturist Affair and Mississippi native, John Jennings, a designer, curator, illustrator, cartoonist, graphic novelist and University of Buffalo professor. Their discussion focused on the story, characters, themes and subject matter of Butler’s 1979, time traveling, speculative slave narrative, Kindred.
Rasheedah introduced us to her thoughts on the book, talking about the mechanisms, agency and significance of time travel in Kindred. She spoke of how she considered the immaterial methods that pulled the protagonist Dana, from her reality and into the antebellum past, was like an act of abduction (kidnapping) and that the question of who controlled this life changing act (Dana or Rufus) was also significant, in both examples, alluding to the realities of the slave trade and the slave plantation system. She elaborated on the idea that Octavia Butler challenged and subverted the well-known “Grandfather Paradox” trope in science fiction. Rasheedah described how the paradox, which in its most base definition, negates the possibility of time travel and is often predicated as a way to prevent a future evil, is actually turned on its heels by Butler, because of the fact that Dana has to continuously save the life of her ancestor, in order for him to commit the evil act that will preserve her own existence. She spoke about how this technique actually returned agency to Dana, giving her a semblance of choice, as harsh as it may have seemed, of whether to live or die.
John then turned to his thoughts on Kindred, as not so much a science fiction text, but more an “ethno-gothic” story. He combined ideas of the American South as a “haunted space” in reference especially to the Black experience. He spoke of the symbolic reading of the Black body as a text, especially in reference to Dana, a modern Black woman who finds herself mis-read as a slave by her ancestors, and who eventually has to re-write her body text in order to survive in the past. This form of “stereotyping” of Dana by her ancestors, he describes as a continuous proliferation of an idea, which occurs through writing and publishing. He elaborates with the example of a palimpsest, where he speaks of the “KUNTOBY” process. In this example, he refers to the scene in the television series, Roots, where Kunta Kinte – the “African”, is literally beaten or re-written, into becoming Toby – the slave, by the overseer and the whip. This form of Black “body horror”, in this “gothic space” becomes the “ethno-gothic”.
The discussion also included wonderful commentary, questions and observances from participants in the audience, who came with books and notes in hand and enlightening thoughts in mind.
In the following clip, we see some of the artwork to the upcoming Kindred, graphic novel of which John Jennings is the artist.