Kindred Online: The Living History Experience

by Zemí Yukiyú Atabey

on the original work: “Kindred,” by Octavia Butler

This project aims to adapt and, to a certain degree, reinvent Octavia Butler’s 1979 classic “Kindred” in which her protagonist Dana – a black woman writer living in present day Los Angeles – is dragged back in time to the antebellum plantation in Maryland on which her ancestors were enslaved. As a work of science fiction it is not merely the mechanism of time travel that estranges the work from reality and alienates the audience in the familiar. Butler’s description of life for the American slave was incredibly accurate and chilling, even with her admission that the violence had been scaled back from the level she encountered in her research for the novel. The book has been praised as the most descriptive depiction of slavery and especially the lives of black women under slavery and the complicated relationships that existed between black women and white male masters. This was, at the time, a disruption. The push by the growing discipline of African American studies and African American history/literature departments to teach a broader view of American development to include the narrative of trauma and suffering that African Americans had endured throughout the entire course.

“Kindred” was, as a novel featuring a strong female lead is posited significantly as the product of a socio-cultural and political shift that had been developing for twenty years. The Combahee River Collective formed in 1974 and published their statement in ‘77, describing for the first time the concept of interlocking oppression – what we now call “intersectional” and throw around with growing abandon – from their perspectives as black, queer, “third-world” women. I chose this moment as a touchstone to describe a turning point – the founding members of the CRC were all involved with the Civil Rights movement and with NOW and later with the NBFO but eventually became disillusioned with the patriarchial, white-centric, and heteronormative hegemony in every single-identity organization. The CRC posited in their statement that when black women were free, all people would be free – because eliminating the structures oppressing black women would require eliminating all structures of oppression. It is in this context, with this manifesto at this point in time when momentum behind the organization and Black Feminism was a cultural presence that “Kindred” can be understood as an act of “radical history,” it’s vivid descriptions and grim horror meant to shame the reader into acknowledging the humanity of the slaves who suffered and to see in Dana – and in Black women – the strength of a free, educated, independent woman who is nonetheless forced into slavery but keeps fighting for survival.

on the alternate version

I am viewing the original text as a piece of revolutionary, “radical history,” text with the intent to shift the American gestalt. Thinking in a revolutionary manner, it is not productive to critique that methodology – it fit at the time. The current context has shifted: racism is still racism, but the beast has taken new shape.

In conceiving of a piece that would be interactive, it allowed me to narrow my focus as to what could possibly produce in an audience something akin to the experience that “Kindred” produced in me when I read it – and what historically it produced as a cultural “happening” after its publication. The primary themes I wanted of course to pull out were those of the human reality of history, the physical reality (the visceral, the painful, the traumatic) in the historic, and the immense degree to which we are all entangled with our past. In a way, “Kindred” also brings the audience face to face with the ugly truth of our shared history as a nation. I wanted something that would do the same, and that would have a profound effect on the psyche.

My concept for Kindred Online is taken partially from the 2012 anime “Sword Art Online.” In it, 10,000 players buy a new, full-immersion “deep dive” game and log on the moment it opens. They all play for a few hours and then try to log out, only to find there’s no exit button. Drawn to the town square, they’re confronted by the “Game Master,” Sword Art Online’s programmer. Having always found video games lacking any true drama, he has decided that the only way to leave is to win – or to die. And unlike every other game they’ve other played, in Sword Art Online death is permanent. It is a simple, elegant mechanism that is explained in seconds and allows an epic story to emerge in the tension it creates. I wanted to essentially steal that brilliantly efficient technology and find a way to apply it to “Kindred,” but with an added element of contemporary American culture to “localize” the release.

The cultural moment we’re in with at-home, self-service genetic testing is fascinating – and not from a Big Brother, conspiracy theory perspective. There is a deep need to “know who you are” and “where you came from.” To “have a story.” To be “different.” Unique. Everybody wants to be something. Some people never knew their ancestry; some had theirs stolen; some lost track. But for companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe, I have to believe that the majority of their clientele just has to be of the kind of “I don’t want to just be white.”

That’s a baseless assumption that I have nothing but anecdotal research to back up, but it bears little consequence to the proposed plan: Kindred Online would function as a revolutionary piece of human historical fiction in which the user/player would have the experience of going back and forth in time to a point in the formation of their current karmic chain or origin/locus of interlocking oppression depending on the entering alignment value of the player.

The system would build a profile using three methods: a DNA sample, an all-access analysis of the user’s data, and research through an extensive database using any and all records connected to the user. This data would be used to determine the player’s base alignment and generate a world for them.

I plan to build on this concept further but as its proposed I believe that this is an interesting “take” on Butler’s work as I – while abandoning the original spirit – am drawing from it instead an emotional inspiration as an individual, which I believe is the most vital aspect of the current socio-cultural context. Our collective individualism is at such peak levels that the performative behaviors of taking your own picture and posting it on your own profile for everyone to see is the minimum bar for entry into polite society.

Individualism is one of the ways in which this project – this alternate “Kindred” – will connect with the “now,” especially through that sharp individualism represented through the Ancestry DNA et al home kits. Gaming culture as well, though, presents another way in which the individual is brought to feel uniquely qualified and different yet connected through shared experience. There is an entire ethics of games which “Sword Art Online” goes into quite well, and that same theoretical approach could benefit my work. Subversion, however, is at the heart of this project. When Butler published “Kindred” in 1979 subversion took a different form. Now, subversion has been transactionalized and commodified. In the theoretical – as I obviously lack the technology to do anything but speculate on Kindred Online – this “game” would force people to confront their own dark histories as part of the transaction – as the commodity itself: the trauma of reliving the violent past would be the “value object” of the capitalist equation.

While Octavia Butler’s intent in writing Kindred can only be extrapolated from interviews and the text itself, it is obvious that writing such a novel at the time when she did could be taken as a clear critique of not (just) America’s slave past but of its continued legacy and the effects it had (and still has) in U.S. society. The justification for proposing this alternate universe, virtual reality “reboot” of “Kindred,” – as if in another universe a version of me that had access to different technology and means read the book and was driven to take action in seeking virtual reparations – is, while a wild fantasy, born from a similar desire as the original novel. The object of Kindred Online will be to bring the user/player/audience into a direct confrontation with the violent, oppressive past: their ancestors’ roles in it, the role of people who looked like them in it, and the role of those who look differently. The story will never be simple or linear – it will never be a straightforward tale of trauma or revenge porn but, as is Dana’s experience in “Kindred,” will be messy and complicated by myriad factors – the historical context has not changed, but the context of the audience has and so the medium is what shifts.

theoretical framework and project work plan

There are multiple modes of literary and critical theory thinking that bear discussion in this work. A Black Feminist critique is the most obvious, and along the way by deconstructing a broader feminist or a postcolonial critique at some point Foucault will invariably come up for some reason and either Derrida or Lacan and almost definitely Marx will as well. All of this feels right – discussing Octavia Butler’s “Kindred” in terms of its merits as “SF” is at odds with the interlocking nature of Butler’s identity as a writer and “Kindred” as a novel. It has to be unpacked as “Black fiction” before anything further – race and genre are both social constructs, but the former is much more of a significant factor in the lived experiences of people than the latter.

The modes of critical thinking that I wanted to apply to this project were meant to deal with the issue of intersectionality but not through the medium of interdisciplinarity: that’s why in the end I shifted my thinking of the proposed “final product” as an experiment in critical pedagogy – if one of dubious ethics. Using both the theory and praxis of Paulo Freire from the work he started in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” I will design the Kindred Online system to function as a sort of fully-immersive VR educational game – to teach people to think critically about systemic racism and oppression, through being forced to live through the “dark ages” of their own ancestry. The “Great America” that people want to get back, so to speak.

As the project is completely theoretical and exists, for me, in an alternate universe built by an alternate universe iteration of me, I want to build a full product pitch: both for “insiders” who would know the genuine aim of the product, and a developed marketing strategy for getting players to willingly sign up – for a presentation, I would like to ideally pitch the product to the class as the board of directors for a Black Mirror, Illuminati-style secret cabal that green-lights evil villain shit like this on the regular (in the alternate universe in which this project would actually happen. It’d be a skit.) As entertaining as that would be as a final “proof of concept,” the final aim should be for insight – as such, although no actual pedagogical experiment can occur (for ethical and practical reasons) I would still like to put my reflections on the project and the group’s response to some productive use as a paper in theoretical pedagogy.