When I was three or four years old, I convinced my parents to buy me a Sleeping Beauty princess ensemble at Disney World. Consisting of a gown, gloves, heels, a wand and tiara, as well as a long blonde wig, the whole purchase summed out to be approximately $75. Granted, Disney does overprice things, but in my opinion at the time, this was a worthwhile purchase. I wore the whole getup for two months. Nonstop. I took it off to shower, and to sleep (in my Sleeping Beauty pajamas). Being a princess, as it turns out, is a lot harder when you’re trying to keep up with your mom at the grocery store than when you’re sitting in a tower all day. Nevertheless, at the end of two months, I gave up pretending I was royalty, and just went back to being me.
Significantly more ominous is the presentation of pretending in Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Through the inter-weaving of two parallel storylines in drastically different eras, Butler creates a multi-faceted and dynamic timeline for the relationship between Dana, a black woman, and Kevin, a white man. In 1815, Butler explains that to fit into a narrative of the Antebellum South, the two become “observers watching a show” (98). Kevin assumes the role of a white slave-owner, while Dana conversely takes on the role of a slave, of Kevin’s “personal property” (81). However, the narrative is complicated when the once-clear masquerade begins to twist their perceptions of reality.
Kevin is thrust into the world of the antebellum South as a man who loves and is married to a black woman; the role he must play-act requires him to discard his mindset. Butler cautions us about the power of pretend: when one fakes it long enough, it becomes real. The culture and ideology of the South “would rub off on him,” simply by merit of extended exposure (77). We see this concept repeated throughout the novel. Butler reminds the reader that in childhood, “the master’s children [are] on nearly equal terms with the slaves. But maturity is supposed to put both in their places” (83). Social constructs are just that – constructed. Carefully built up from childhood, the exaggerated power dynamics of 1815 Maryland severely polarize the Wyelins and their slaves – but manage to begin to twist the dynamic of Dana and Kevin as well. As a white man in the 1970s, Kevin is more privileged than Dana. As a white, slave-holding man in 1815, Kevin is immeasurably more privileged than Dana. The very act of him pretending to have “bought [Dana]… because [she] could read…and be of use otherwise” (79) distances him and complicates his romantic relationship with her.
The disparity of Dana’s and Kevin’s circumstances in 1815 reaches its climax when they observe a crowd of slave children pretending to host a slave market and selling each other. While Dana understands the severity of “the games they play” preparing the children “for their future…[which] will come whether they understand it or not” (99), Kevin brushes off their actions as harmless child’s play. His repeated minimizing of this fundamental wrong in the consequent dialogue frustrates Dana. She lives the role of a slave: she sees the whippings, the brutality, the systematic physical and emotional abuse that her ancestors endure because of the Wyelins. Butler underscores Dana’s understanding of the dangers of acting: to see children acting out their future before they assume it is to see her and Kevin, once “observers” and “actors,” finally “forget that [they] are acting” (98).