The book is the first-person account of a young African-American woman writer, Dana, who finds herself being shunted in time between her Los Angeles, California home in 1976 and a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation. There she meets her ancestors: a proud black freewoman and a white planter who has forced her into slaveryand concubinage. As Dana's stays in the past become longer, the young woman becomes intimately entangled with the plantation community. She makes hard choices to survive slavery and to ensure her return to her own time.
Kindred explores the dynamics and dilemmas of antebellum slavery from the sensibility of a late 20th-century black woman, who is aware of its legacy in contemporary American society. Through the two interracial couples who form the emotional core of the story, the novel also explores the intersection of power, gender, and race issues, and speculates on the prospects of future egalitarianism.
While most of Butler's work is classified as science fiction, Kindred is considered to cross disciplinary boundaries. It has been classified also as literature or African-American literature. Butler has categorized the work as "a kind of grim fantasy."