Literacy symbolizes power in Kindred, but it is not a guarantee of power. Both Dana and Kevin are educated, highly literate people, and their literacy does earn them a certain freedom and power in Rufus’s world. Dana is given household privileges because she can read. Margaret, especially, abuses her power because she is covering up her illiteracy. Rufus relies on Dana to write letters to creditors for him, and he even lets her teach his son to read. When Rufus wants to exert power over Dana, he cons her into giving up her pen, into writing letters that will never be mailed, and even into burning her map. Even with these implements, however, Dana would have had little power. Her literacy cannot save her from beatings. Slaves like Sarah and Carrie prefer complacency and ignorance to freedom and knowledge mainly because they fear physical violence.
Labor—the work one does—symbolizes power both in Rufus’s time and in Dana’s. Dana is a wage slave, paid by the hour to do menial jobs, before she marries Kevin and becomes a writer. As a writer, though, she not only has more money, but also more freedom to express her views. The slaves in the antebellum South had little power in relation to their masters, but within the system of slavery, slaves determined power based on types of labor. House servants wielded far more power than field workers. To be sent to the fields was like a demotion in power.
Clothing is also a symbol of power in Rufus’s time. Dana’s modern clothing creates a stir among the slaves not only because it is strange, but also because it is her own. Slaves were essentially dependent upon masters for clothing, and the fact that no one offers Dana clothing shows hat masters like the Weylins did not care whether their slaves were adequately clothed or not. They dispensed clothing as gifts, as when Rufus gives Carrie’s and Nigel’s baby a set of clothes and a blanket. They took away clothing, as happens when Dana is whipped, to signify humiliation and a lack of power. Significantly, when Dana puts on the gown Alice makes for her, her power dims. She becomes more and more mired in the slavery mindset.
Violence pervades the action of Kindred in the form of whippings, rapes, mutilation, shootings, and stabbings. A master produces a whip, that symbol of pain and fear, and slaves think twice about disobeying. Violence as a means of control is a motif in the novel, appearing as a reminder that violence has been used through time to control and annihilate others. Dana compares the fear she feels at being a black woman walking alone at night in Rufus’s time to the fear she feels walking on a street alone in her own time; in fact, she decides that white patrollers constitute a far more deadly threat to her than, for example, a homeless person in Los Angeles. Dana also compares the violence toward slaves, as well as their oppression, to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews in World War II. Each time Dana mentions such episodes of violence in history, she better understands that violence is not only a physical means of control, but it is also a mental means of control.