There is a long tradition of black vampires that dates back centuries. These stories subvert the vampire mythos traditionally dominated by white males of high social status. The vampire narrative, preoccupied with domination, submission, power and exploitation, is the perfect conduit for investigating racial politics over 200 years of literary and cultural history. Here are three groundbreaking stories that explore these policies.
About 200 years before the last television adaptation of Interview with the Vampire, the first dark vampire story was published.
The Black Vampyre: A Legend of St Domingo was written under the pseudonym Uriah Derick D’Arcy. It is considered “the first black vampire story, the first comic vampire story, the first story to include a mulatto vampire, the first vampire story by an American author, and perhaps the first anti-slavery short story”.
The story is told by Anthony Gibbons who remembers his descendants being transported on a slave ship. They are sold as slaves but only one boy survives, only to be killed by his captor, Mr. Nobody.
The story continues
No one throws the boy’s body overboard, but he washes up on shore and is revived by the moonlight. Nobody tries to kill him again but the boy fights back and escapes, killing Nobody’s son. Several years later, he returns to kill Nobody and marry his wife. The story’s narrator, Gibbons, is their common descendant. He may also have inherited the vampire’s terrible cravings.
The story sought to shock and challenge the prevailing ideas and mores of contemporary readers. He makes multiple references to the “mixing” of blood, as Gibbons is both half-breed and part-vampire – born of the union between a black vampire and the white widow of the master he slew.
The exchange of blood involved in vampires feeding on humans and in the creation of new vampires (by a human drinking the blood of a vampire) was used to reflect on contemporary racist ideas that emphasized the importance of racial purity. The Black Vampyre exposes the racial biases at the heart of these investigations by using the vampire to express the horror of the transatlantic slave trade.
Later in the century, The Blood of the Vampire by Victorian writer Florence Marryat introduced readers to Harriet Brandt, a psychic vampire born to a white “mad scientist” and a Creole slave. The novel was published the same year as Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
As Dracula sails from Transylvania to England, Harriet sails from Jamaica to England. Unlike Dracula, Harriet is frightened and confused by her powers. She also drains people of energy rather than blood. She is unaware of her diet, unlike Dracula who chooses his victims.
Marryat’s book, like The Black Vampyre, deals with eugenics and legacy. Eugenicists believe in the racist and scientifically flawed idea that desired traits can be selected through breeding to eliminate social ills and create a perfect society.
These ideas were gaining ground in the 19th century, and in the book Harriet is accused by the mother of one of her accidental victims of being cursed with “vampire blood” and “black blood” – this is her genetics which is to blame.
Monstrosity in literature has often been used to explore the ways in which marginalized people are excluded from society. For example, the 1994 adaptation of Interview with the Vampire has been read as using vampirism as a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic. Victorian readers would have mapped racist views of people of color on vampire traits.
However, Marryat portrays the vampire as a sympathetic figure, showing how upset and confused she is by his powers, challenging the preconceptions of Victorian audiences.
Octavia E Butler’s Fledgling follows Shori, a girl who appears to be an African-American child but is actually a 53-year-old Ina – a species of vampire who has seemingly always co-existed with humans.
In typical vampire fashion, the Ina need to feed on human blood to survive, but instead of killing their victims, the venom they produce greatly extends human lifespans. Thus, the relationship between vampires and humans is symbiotic rather than parasitic.
Shori doesn’t remember her life before the story begins. This means that she also does not remember why she is different. As the story unfolds, she gradually and violently realizes that society is hostile to her. The Ina are a kind of white-skinned vampire. Shori learns that she is black because she was experimented and mutated in the quest to help the Ina survive the sun – vampires are killed by sunlight.
It’s a metaphor for erasing black stories. It is also an allegory for the “forgetting” of colonizing powers, the slave trade, eugenics and the historical horrors of science where black people were used for experimentation.
Butler uses speciesism (the idea of treating one species as inherently more important than another) as a way to talk about racism allegorically. Shori’s black skin is a sought-after evolutionary advantage, which could protect her species from the sun, which goes against racist constructs of white superiority. Like D’Arcy and Marryat, Butler successfully uses the physicality and blood of the vampire to explore and dismantle historical and “biological” justifications for racial prejudice.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Joan Passey does not work for, consult, own stock, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond her academic appointment.