Review of The Paradox of Blackness in African American Vampire Fiction
Misha Grifka Wander
Jerry Rafiki Jenkins. The Paradox of Blackness in African American Vampire Fiction. The Ohio State UP, 2019. New Suns: Race, Gender, and Sexuality In The Speculative. Paperback. 234 pg. $29.95. ISBN 9780814214015.
Picture a vampire in your head. Whether your image is more Nosferatu or more Edward Cullen, more than likely one of its most notable traits is the stark whiteness of its skin. Although humans come in a great variety of colors, depictions of vampires rarely reflect that. In The Paradox of Blackness In African American Vampire Fiction, Jerry Rafiki Jenkins uses stories of Black vampires to investigate how the seldom paired traits of “vampire” and “black” expose American society’s assumptions about what it means to be Black.
Jenkins focuses on a specific work of African American vampire fiction in each of the five chapters, covering The Gilda Stories (Jewelle Gomez, 1991), My Soul To Keep (Tananarive Due, 1997), Dark Corner (Brandon Massey, 2004), Fledgling (Octavia Butler, 2005), and Image of Emeralds and Chocolate (K. Murry Johnson, 2012). Through the lens of the novel in question, each chapter also focuses on a particular aspect of Black life and experience, from masculinity to religion to sexuality.
In the introduction, Jenkins efficiently counters the idea that the vampire myth is a European one, sourcing vampire myths from across Africa and the Caribbean, and writing, “to treat the vampire as the sole property of whites is to ignore the history of this creature, a history which predates the word ‘vampire’ and the biological notion of race” (5). Rather, Jenkins writes, the vampire is a tool, used to express the fears and anxieties of its originating culture, especially those about death and immortality. This thesis is well-accepted in speculative fiction studies, but to my knowledge, has seldom been used to examine questions of Black racial construction. Jenkins poses the main question of the book as, “Is there more to being black than having a black body, and what might the answers to that question mean for African Americans in the 21st century?” (10).
In the following chapters, Jenkins uses the vampire novel to illustrate ways in which various parties have attempted to define Blackness in line with requirements other than the simple fact of having a Black body. The nature of vampirism allows the novels’ authors to use tools to assert their characters’ racial “authenticity” in ways that would not be possible for human characters, such as establishing their characters’ participation in American slavery, lives in historical Africa, and connections with famous abolitionists and civil rights activists. Simultaneously, the characters question the assumptions of other characters about what is necessary to be deemed Black, or Black enough. Gilda from The Gilda Stories frequently says, “a row of cotton is a row of cotton,” indicating that oppression is oppression no matter how you slice it, and this sentiment is echoed across Jenkins’ book. The oppression that women, queer people, and other marginalized groups experience does not make them less Black, but rather is part and parcel of the oppression Black people face in America.
Jenkins uses analysis of the novel and real-world events and theories in equal measure, alternating between characters’ narration and explanations of their own racial beliefs, and real political figures and movements such as Afrocentrist Molefi Kete Asanti and political scientist Francis Fukuyama. Jenkins uses the fictional vampires to counter real arguments, demonstrating for instance how the unquestionable Blackness of Marquis in Image of Emeralds and Chocolate or Dawit in My Soul To Keep are not at war with their homosexuality or atheism, and therefore neither homosexuality nor atheism can dilute one’s Blackness, as has been argued by various Afrocentrists, Black conservatives, and Church members (whom Jenkins cites).
Though each chapter focuses on a specific topic, the chapters as a whole build toward answering the question Jenkins poses in the introduction: is there more to being Black than having a Black body? Each chapter answers no in its own way, but the final chapter, on Octavia Butler’s Fledgling and transhumanism, goes a step further. Shori, the main character of Fledgling, is the first Black Ina, a race of nonhuman vampires who have no melanin in their skin. Shori is a hybrid of human and Ina, the first Ina to possess melanin and therefore the first to be able to withstand the sun’s rays. Jenkins argues that Butler, through the figure of Shori, is demonstrating that all humans have melanin, and therefore all humans belong on a spectrum of Blackness. There is no such thing as a non-Black human, just humans with more or less melanin. Jenkins ends the volume with the statement:
By linking humanity’s fate to the fate of black people, the new-black vampire novel offers us a future in which blackness no longer defines one part of the human species, as it does in the post-black vampire novel and most of the Western world, but the entire species […] The road to that future, as Butler suggests in Fledgling, begins with accepting the fact that nonblack people are not born notblack; rather, we make them not black (180).
This triumphantly transhumanist ending confirms the ambitious scope of Jenkins’ work—reconfiguring our understanding of Blackness to include all of humanity.
This brings me to my one critique of this otherwise brilliant book. “All humans are black” is a statement Jenkins supports elegantly throughout the book, but one that struggles in regular conversation. Jenkins does not address what that conclusion does for the cause of any real humans, Black or otherwise. One might argue that he never promises to, which is true, but when working with a politically laden topic, one might ask for a few signposts as to the political utility of such an argument.
That said, I highly recommend this book. Academic books are rarely called page-turners, but this one might qualify, for Jenkins’s skill at building his argument propels each chapter. Jenkins glosses the basics of both race theory and vampire theory, so those lacking expertise in either will not be lost, but doesn’t dwell on it enough to bore more experienced readers. I recommend this book for scholarly and general audiences interested in speculative fiction and race, vampires, and the battle over Black authenticity in America.
Misha Grifka Wander is a PhD student at the Ohio State University. Their research focuses on media, speculative fiction, gender, and ecocriticism.