Dana Franklin is a young woman of the year 1976 who is drawn back in time against her will to the year 1815. Instead of her home in California, she finds herself in Maryland in the home of her distant ancestor, Rufus Weyland. Rufus is white; she is black. He is the child of the landowner, and she is a slave in his household.
As Dana is drawn back repeatedly, always when Rufus is in a life-threatening situation, she tries to piece together why this is happening. Her knowledge of a future time when people of her color will be free gives her some strength to endure and to help her fellow slaves, but like them she is plunged into the terror of what slavery means for both body and soul. Like them, she must decide: do I do all I can to please my master, in hopes of good treatment? Or do I run away and brave the dogs, the patrollers, and the bull whip? Do I sell my soul to the man who owns my body? Despite her mistreatment, she feels a strange kinship with the man she saves repeatedly so that he can father her ancestor.
In her efforts to free herself, Dana struggles to hold on to her humanity in an inhuman situation, but she finds that she is driven to acts she deplores in order to survive. This is the lesson of Kindred: we are all kin to one another, and such terrible injustice destroys the humanity of both master and slave.