Instructors’ Teaching Experience

I typically begin the semester with a few short readings and then go directly into Kindred. I find that students are intrigued by the premise and enjoy speaking (sometimes yelling) about the characters. While it's not challenging by any means, the text does force them to talk about uncomfortable subjects—violence, slavery, race, sexual assault, suicide—and offers a good introduction to ground rules for further controversial subjects. After teaching it for the third time, I am VERY bored, but they respond so well to it that I find myself continuing to use it. I find that they trust me more easily and they learn how to communicate with one another more effectively. On the last day, I pair it with the introduction to The New Jim Crow and/or the documentary 13th. A warning: it does not lend itself easily to close reading (in my opinion), but assignments based on characterization or historical context work very well. The middle sections can be slightly boring, so make sure to do some more hands-on exercises. [C. Simmons]

Classroom Strategies

Pre-Reading Activity

Have students do some research on 1815 and 1976–the two historical settings of the novel. They can research important events, race relations, roles of women, standards of etiquette. Then they can share their findings with the class.

Genre Discussion & Character Tracking

I have spent some time with students discussing genre and the way that Octavia Butler blends certain genres and forms. I introduce them to the idea of a slave narrative, having them read an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’s narrative. Then I talk about the genres of neo-slave narratives, as well as science fiction and fantasy. Here is a PowerPoint I have used for the discussion of neo-slave narratives: Office presentation icon Kindred – Slave Narrative

I also have them track the main characters’ reactions to the events and discuss how these characters do or do not change. This usually opens up a fruitful discussion of the characters’ subject position (including their race) and how events do/do not affect them accordingly. [Stephanie Grossnickle-Batterton,]

Sample Lesson Plans

Day 1

After giving them some beginning discussion questions (1-3), they fill out a T-Chart in groups: on one side, list characteristics, and on the other, list textual evidence. Then I write the character names on the board and we fill out descriptions, making sure to point to textual moments where we learn these characteristics. Keep these charts and hand them back to them when we refill out the chart later in the book.

Discussion questions:

  1. Why does Butler start with this prologue? What do we already learn about Dana and Kevin from it?
  2. Why is it significant that this text takes place in 1976, features slavery and is told from the perspective of a woman of color? How does the historical context help us to understand Dana a bit more?
    1. Draw attention to the Civil Rights Movement and Second Wave Feminism
  3. Discussion about the N-word. Why does Butler use it? What does it mean when Dana refers to herself in such language (48)?
  4. What makes Dana unfit for the past? What qualities will make it even more difficult to fit in here?
  5. Why does Butler focus so much on clothing and gender? What is the relationship between these two? How might it reflect on class?

Quotes to examine:

"I don't know…limbo and held me in it" (18).

"I frowned at him impatiently…with an unusual spelling" (27).

"I had seen people…were reacting very much alike" (36).

"His environment had left its unlikeable…someone much worse" (32).

Day 2

Fishbowl with the following themes and questions:

  1. Literacy
    1. What is the role of literacy and/or education in the text?
    2. How do the Weylins view it in comparison to Dana and Kevin?
    3. How does Dana's own literacy work for her and against her?
    4. Both Weylin and Alice are opposed to educating the enslaved workers. Why is that?
  2. Kevin and Dana/Sexism and Racism
    1. How do the dynamics of Dana and Kevin's relationship shift when they travel together to 1819?
    2. What have we learned about Kevin that we didn't already know? (in terms of personality)
    3. How do their experiences on the Weylin plantation differ?
    4. Point to a scene that demonstrates their different experiences or perspectives. Discuss how that affects them.
  3. The Weylins
    1. This chapter gives us a closer look at both of Rufus' parents; how are their parenting styles different?
    2. Which is more harmful, in your opinion?
    3. Who poses a bigger threat to Dana?
    4. Do you think they are simply products of their time, or is there something else at work here?
  4. Dana
    1. How, if at all, has Dana changed since going back?
    2. What about Dana makes her unprepared for the past?
    3. Why does Mrs. Weylin hate Dana? Or, how would you describe her feelings towards Dana?
    4. Why does Dana take the risk of teaching Carrie and Nigel?

Scenes to consider:

  1. Pretend slave trade (99)
    1. How are Kevin and Dana's reactions different?
    2. Why does Butler make this distinction?
    3. When Kevin says, "we're in the middle of history, " what does he mean?

Concepts to consider:

  1. Nature and Nurture
  2. The sexuality of female slaves (96)

Day 3 (Usually I split this class in half and talk about their writing assignment); Assign them to come up with discussion questions for the next class and use their own questions to build your lesson plan.

Quickwrite with 3 potential prompts; they pick one and you discuss all of them:

  1. Alice calls Dana a "doctor-n*****" and then a "white-n*****." What does Alice mean? What is Butler saying about race or stereotypes of identity?
  2. Look at 166-68 (when Dana tells Alice that Rufus wants her). How does Dana handle that situation? Why does she do what Rufus commands? Why does Alice respond the way she does? Could this have been handled better?
  3. Why does Weylin send Kevin a letter? How does "fairness" play into this? Is he fair?

Concepts to discuss:

  1. Colorism (111)
  2. Property (112)
  3. Uncle Tom (145)
  4. If Dana's mission (outlined on 68) is successful or not
  5. Rufus and Nigel's relationship

Day 4

  1. Bring back T-charts and discuss character evolution
  2. Detailed discussion of Kevin and whether or not he's awful (which he is)
  3. Discuss the two halves of the same whole comment about Alice and Dana (228)
  4. Relationship between Joe and Rufus
  5. Their discussion questions.

Day 5

  1. Quickwrite
    1. Why does Dana lose her arm? Why does she have to kill Rufus?
    2. Why does she have to carry evidence of the assault back with her to the present? Why does Butler do this?
    3. What does the loss of her arm indicate about the effects of slavery?
  2. Discussion of ending—they tend to have strong opinions. It might segue well into the other texts (New Jim Crow and 13th) without you having to do any heavy lifting.
    1. NJC
      1. What is Alexander's overall thesis/argument?
      2. What are the Jim Crow laws?
      3. What is the war on drugs? Why is it so problematic?
      4. According to Michelle Alexander, why is it a problem that we view those "caught up in the criminal justice system" as victims of poverty, racial segregation, unequal educational opportunities and the presumed realities of the drug market?
    2. 13th
      1. Use questions from other sheet
      2. What is the relationship between Alexander and DuVernay's arguments?
      3. What statistics shocked you?
  3. Discuss why the text is called kindred.
  4. End with: How do the echoes of slavery affect us today?

At the end of Kindred, Dana loses her arm. Students will make all kinds of arguments about why this happens and what it represents. One of the more common readings is that "slavery leaves its mark." This segues perfectly into the introduction to The New Jim Crow (I teach PDF icon the book's introduction) and the prison industrial complex/carceral capitalism. 13th, which is available on Netflix and YouTube, goes into more detail on the same issues and offers really interesting statistics/facts that they find super surprising. Attached is the File question sheet I assign with the documentary.

Discussion Questions

Here is a document I have used for small group discussion as we are about halfway through the novel: Microsoft Office document icon Kindred through Fire. [Stephanie Grossnickle-Batterton,]

The Author and Her Craft

  • How does the title Kindred tell the story of Dana? How does it relate to the other characters? To our society as a whole?
  • What was Butler’s motivation in writing Kindred?
  • How does the prologue set up the story? Why does Butler use such a device? What tone does the first sentence of the Prologue set for your reading of the novel?
  • When Dana is first cast back into the past, what is she doing? What is the date? What does the author suggest by her use of this situation and date specifically? What is significant about the date of Dana’s return to the present for the last time?
  • Dana is unable to choose when she is sent to the past but Kevin has control over his travels. What significance does this have in the novel?
  • Dana and Kevin discuss how they cannot change history. Why, then, does Butler send Dana back in time, the driving narrative force of the novel? In terms of not altering history, could Dana have chosen not to save Rufus?
  • Many novels and films that delve into time travel share the narrative belief that characters should not change anything in the past so as not to disrupt the future. Does this hold true of Kindred? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think the author found it necessary to use a modern narrator to tell the story instead of having it all set in the past?
  • Kevin stays in the past for a much longer time than Dana ever does. Why does the author structure their experiences this way?
  • Butler has been quoted as saying she wrote Kindred so that readers could feel history as well as learn about the facts of it. How has she succeeded?
  • As she returns from the past for the last time, Dana loses an arm. What is the significance of such a graphic physical loss?
  • Why does the author have Dana go back and forth in time as opposed to just being thrust back to the plantation for the duration of the book?
  • Why is Kindred written in Dana’s voice (first person)?

Characters & Motivation

  • What sources of conflict have there been between Dana and her husband Kevin before Dana goes to the past? How do these conflicts affect them during their time in the past?
  • How do the characters in Kindred assume the roles assigned them? How do they resist?
  • What role does Rufus’s mother have in the formation of his character, and is Rufus strongly influenced by her?
  • Dana travels back in time to the plantation coming from a lifetime of being a free person in the modern world. She thus often finds herself acting in a cautionary or mothering way with the slaves. How does Dana try to resist this behavior and does she succeed?
  • How do the different plantation slaves react to their own circumstances and to Dana’s?
  • What are the similarities between Dana and Alice? Why is Dana able to survive while Alice is not?
  • Dana is cast back to antebellum Maryland to save the life of young Rufus, a slave owner’s son. As she repeatedly does so, staying longer and longer in the past and getting to know Rufus as he grows into a man, how does she influence him and his attitudes toward slavery?
  • What are your own reactions to Rufus and his actions as he grows into a man?
  • Butler is expert at creating characters that are complex and about whom readers might feel ambivalent. Which characters do you think most fit this description?
  • What are the similarities between Dana’s relationship with Rufus and her relationship with Kevin?
  • How do Dana and Kevin experience their time in the past differently? For example, when they witness a group of slave children acting out the scene of a slave auction, how do each of them react?
  • How have their respective experiences altered their relationship with each other—in the past and the present?
  • How do you think Dana’s future in the present will be affected by her experiences in the past? How about her relationship with Kevin?

Issues & Themes

  • Stereotypes are often addressed in Butler’s novels, including Kindred. In Kindred, how does the author, with her various characterizations, reveal the origins of stereotypes? How does she deflate them?
  • Elements of power being wielded over others is evident throughout Kindred, even among the slaves. What are some examples?
  • What is the difference between a house slave and a field slave? How does Dana understand and react to the distinctions? Are there any contemporary parallels?
  • What feelings are elicited in the different characters by Dana’s presence and her relationship to Rufus?
  • In each chapter of Kindred, Dana learns and experiences different things about the antebellum South and slavery. What are these different revelations?
  • Abusive behavior occurs throughout the book and is assumed by the police investigating Dana’s injury. In what ways does this novel address or illuminate issues of domestic violence?
  • Issues of difference are often addressed in Kindred. How does the author present various dichotomies such as black and white, master and slave? What other such differences does she challenge the reader to consider, and how?
  • In many of her science fiction novels, Butler deals with the otherness and alienness of individuals who find themselves in a foreign environment. How is this theme represented in Kindred?
  • When Dana returns with Kevin to the present day, she says that she “never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.” How does this reflect current attitudes about race and ethnicity?
  • Communication (or lack thereof) is a theme that runs throughout the novel. Consider Carrie, who is unable to speak, but can still “talk.” How do the different characters communicate with each other, especially over time?
  • In the same vein, there are many references in the novel to writing, from Kevin and Dana’s mutual efforts to be published writers in the present to the letters Dana writes to Kevin in the past, which Rufus hides. How is the act of writing by women held under the control of men in Kindred?
  • Butler addresses the complex issue of slavery on many levels, raising important questions. Consider these questions for yourself: How does physical slavery occur? How do people become mentally enslaved? What affect does slavery in our past have on our contemporary society?
  • What are the benefits of learning about our individual and collective past—even if the process is difficult or painful?
  • In her contemporary life, Dana is a temporary worker. Why do you think the author makes that the protagonist’s work? How does it serve as an analogy to her life on a slave plantation?
  • Dana states that “Rufus’s time was a sharper, stronger reality.” What does she mean?

Speculative Questions

  • How would the novel have worked if the narration had been written from a different character’s point of view?
  • The “modern” setting of the book is 1976. What symbolism or story elements might be lost or gained if it were set in 2003? What hasn’t changed?
  • If you were a slave on this plantation, what would be the most difficult thing for you to tolerate? What would you do to survive? Do you think Dana made the right decisions?
  • How would the story be different if Kevin were black?
  • In Kindred, how do the psychological affects of slavery and slave ownership on men differ from the affects on women? Do these injuries have any contemporary parallels

Additional Resources

A lesson plan for holding a mock election, designed to help students engage with characterization: File Election Lesson Plan

Major writing assignment: File Kindred FanFiction [C. Simmons]