I could feel the knife in my hand, still slippery with perspiration. A Slave was a slave. Anything could be done to her. And Rufus was Rufus—erratic, alternately generous and vicious. I could accept him as my ancestor, my younger brother, my friend, but not as my master, and not as my lover . . .
. . .
I pulled the knife free of him somehow, raised it, and brought it down again into his back.
This time he only grunted. He collapsed across me, somehow still alive, still holding my arm.
. . .
Something harder and stronger than Rufus's hand clamped down on my arm, squeezing it, stiffening it, pressing into it—painlessly, at first—melting into it, meshing with it as though somehow my arm were being absorbed into something. Something cold and nonliving.
Something . . . paint, plaster, wood—a wall. The wall of my living room. I was back home—in my own house, in my own time. But I was still caught somehow, joined to the wall as though my arm were growing out of it—or growing into it. . . . I looked at the spot where flesh joined with plaster, stared at it uncomprehending. I was the exact spot Rufus's finger had grasped.
I pulled my arm toward me, pulled hard.
And suddenly, there was an avalanche of pain, red impossible agony! And I screamed and screamed.
Houses are unsettling hybrid structures. A house is, in all its figurings, always thing, domain, and meaning—home, dwelling, and property; shelter, lodging, and equity; roof, protection, and aspiration—oikos, that is, house, household, and home. A house is a juridical-economic-moral entity that, as property, has material (as asset), political (as dominium), and symbolic (as shelter) value. Houses, as such, refer to the three main axes of modern thought: the economic, the juridical, and the ethical, which are, as one would expect, the registers of the modern subject. It is, in fact, impossible to exaggerate the significance of individual (private) property in representations of modernity. No wonder, in Kindred, Octavia Butler chose to signal the end of Dana's incomprehensible task—her travels to antebellum Maryland to save her white ancestor, Rufus, whenever his life was in danger—with her losing part of her arm (at the "exact spot Rufus's fingers had grasped") stuck in the wall of her house. A "red impossible agony" marked the end of her forced journeys, reminding Dana that whenever summoned by Rufus she could either kill him or let him die. Since her charge was to keep him alive, the only choice she ever had was never hers to make. Having made the choice, she finally realized that, as his descendant, she had a debt to Rufus, expressed as the obligation to keep him alive. Failing to meet this obligation, killing him or letting him die, tantamount to refusing the debt, and with it the relationship, as it did, would result in punishment of the worst kind for Dana.
Failing to pay a mortgage, the notorious subprime loan, charged interest rates far in excess of those offered to "prime borrowers," "high-risk borrowers," like Dana, also owe a debt that exceeds the legitimacy of both the law (contract) and morality (obligation). References to law and morality, expectedly, prevail in condemnations of those served with "subprime" loans, who are construed as intellectually (illiterate) and morally (greedy) unfit if measured against any existing descriptors of the modern economic subject: the (liberal) rational self-interested, the (historical-materialist) productive-creative laborer, and the (neoliberal) obligation-bound debtor/creditor. The "immanent risk of foreclosure" and ultimately loss of home for millions in the United States overwhelmingly affected Black and Latino/a borrowers and communities. Lacking property and stocks passed down through generations and burdened by greater reliance on consumer credit, Black and Latino/a borrowers were less able to weather the sudden decline in home values. Foregrounding their predicament, the incomprehensible task of affording the consequences of not-paying what the lenders knew were unpayable debts allows questions that challenge the assumption that the failure to meet an obligation should necessarily lead to punishment when the lender's profits are secured by betting and spreading the...