As is to be expected in a novel about slavery, race is a key motif. Indeed, Butler stresses the wearisome constancy of race as a motif in Dana’s life, and in the life of other African-Americans on the Weylin plantation. In Maryland, the color of Dana’s skin is the key fact about her. Her intelligence, her youth, her independence, her personality—these qualities certainly change the experience she has and give her a different life than, say, Alice’s. But in the eyes of both black and white characters, her race defines her. It is what dooms her to servitude at the Weylins’. It is also what links her to the best and strongest people around her, as Carrie suggests when she rubs Dana’s cheek to show her that her skin color doesn’t come off. Race defines Butler’s white characters too. Over and over, we see that white skin excuses all ills.
Kindred is a bloody novel, filled with whippings, rape, hangings, dog attacks, and various other brutalities. Butler crams her novel with violent episodes not to shock or titillate but to bring to life the omnipresent terror that African-Americans lived with in the 1800s. The threat of violence informs all of her characters’ decisions and shapes their personalities. The white characters believe it is their right, and even their duty, to inflict bodily harm, and they are coarsened as a result of this belief. The black characters know that any spark of rebelliousness, independence, or cleverness may be rewarded with a whipping, or worse. They are often cowed by this knowledge. Butler argues that violence warps everyone, victim and perpetrator alike.
Butler’s novel toggles back and forth between Dana’s homes. Most obviously, Dana’s homes are her house in California and the Weylin plantation in Maryland. However, the idea of home also applies to the two time periods in which she lives. By the end of the novel, Dana is more at home at the Weylin plantation in the 1800s than she is in her own house in the 1970s. Butler suggests that with time, any place, and any historical era, can come to feel like home. Even those situations that are initially strange and hateful can eventually seem ordinary and even comfortable. The ability to adapt to new homes, as Dana does, can aid in survival. It is not an entirely desirable ability, though. Butler argues that it is the ability to adapt to anything, to feel at home in any mode, that can make whole societies accept shockingly immoral behavior.
The motif of time travel gives structure to each section of Kindred. Episodes open with Dana’s travels backward in time to 1800s Maryland and close with her travels forward in time to 1970s California. Butler does not linger over the fantastical aspects of time travel, or its mechanics. Instead of exploring exactly how Dana’s temporal leaps work, Butler focuses on the results of those leaps. Indeed, as the novel progresses, the otherworldly nature of time travel ceases to be surprising. For us and for Dana, time travel becomes expected, even ordinary. This shift reflects how shockingly easy it is for modern-day people to accept slavery. Just as Dana quickly gets used to the initially bewildering sensation of time travel, she quickly gets used to the initially unthinkable institution of slavery. Butler also stresses Dana’s inability to control her travels. Just as Dana cannot control her fate in Maryland, she cannot control the frequency or duration of her journeys back in time.