- Black Girls Are from the Future:Afrofuturist Feminism in Octavia E. Butler's Fledgling
Vampires are a ubiquitous presence in contemporary American culture. The recent popularity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Twilight Saga, Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, the Underworld films, and HBO's True Blood, among other works, not only reflects how saturated popular culture is with vampires but also the enduring importance of these figures. Today's vampires, whether they are bloodthirsty killers or brooding romantic heroes, are as seductive to the public imaginary as were their nineteenth-century counterparts and often represent both an enchanted escape from our understood reality and a commentary thereof. Previous manifestations of the vampire phenomenon reflected, for example, xenophobic concerns about foreign contagion or the horrors of same-sex desire, among other things. Contemporary iterations, however, often underscore some of the anxieties mainstream culture has with our current multicultural and "postracial" society by seeking to "reinstate" the supremacy of whiteness, often through such tropes as the triumph of a lily-white vampire slayer or through nostalgia for an all-powerful white man who is a vampire.
Vampire texts by people of color are often invested in significantly different cultural projects, ones that more often than not trouble normative notions of race, fantasy, and power that vampires so often represent in dominant popular discourse. To that end, this essay argues that black women's vampire fiction challenges conventional tropes in contemporary vampire lore in a way that suggests a concerted literary tradition in African American speculative fiction. Using Octavia E. Butler's Fledgling (2005a) as a representative text, I contend that the novel offers a black feminist Afrofuturist epistemology that transgressively revises the contemporary [End Page 146] vampire genre by reconfiguring the trope of the vampire from enchanted icon of whiteness to consider how race, sexuality, and intimacy can function in potentially progressive ways. Fledgling radically reimagines identity, kinship, and intimacy through nonmonogamous queer human-vampire hybrid families that have a variety of configurations, yet it also troubles any easy notions of a vampire utopia by ambivalently regarding the concepts of free will and symbiosis. Furthermore, Butler imagines that vampires are vulnerable to constraints similar to those faced by people in communities that are marginalized because race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability. Thus, I argue that the Afrofuturist feminism of the text illuminates epistemologies that do not suggest utopian panaceas but instead underscore the importance of transgressive manifestations of family and intimacy, epistemologies that ultimately present possibilities for our own decidedly unenchanted world.
The Rise of an Enchanted Icon
The vampire, commonly understood as a preternatural being that survives by consuming blood and has heightened powers of enchantment, or the ability to attract, enthrall, and even control others, has had a prominent place as an icon in human cultures across the world for several centuries. While vampires come in a variety of forms—such as the adze of West Africa, the krasue of Southeast Asia, the soucouyant of the Caribbean, and the undead of eastern European tradition—they are all connected by their powers of enchantment.1 As J. M. Tyree notes, "Classically, being under the spell of a vampire involves effacement by seduction into an exploitative relationship between an omnisexual seducer and a parade of slave lovers—male and female—who are viewed as both interchangeable parts and as natural resources or blood banks" (2009, 31). Vampires have existed as a mainstay in folklore across the world for centuries but would not become popular literary figures in the West until the nineteenth century. Works such as John Polidori's short story "The Vampyre" (1819) and J. Sheridan Le Fanu's lesbian vampire novella Carmilla (1872) consider the allures and anxieties of homoerotic desire and intimacy in homosocial friendship via an enchanting "friend-seeking" vampire (Auerbach 1997, 11).2 Dracula is perhaps the most (in)famous of all nineteenth-century vampires. Bram Stoker's 1897 novel depicts the vampire figure as the exemplification of the eastern European debauchery and excess that seemed to threaten the [End Page 147] supremacy of Western civilization. Jules Zanger asserts, "In Stoker's novel, Dracula is presented to the reader as the earthly...