- Fanged FutureA review of Jerry Rafiki Jenkins, The Paradox of Blackness in African American Vampire Fiction
At the mention of the word "vampire," a waxen figure of European origin leaps to mind. However, Jerry Rafiki Jenkins insists in The Paradox of Blackness in African American Vampire Fiction that vampire myths have an under-explored heritage in Africa and African diasporic cultures, and that recent African American vampirology offers a subaltern approach to the genre rather than merely a sub-generic borrowing of Dracula-derived tropes. A figure conjured to navigate the horrors of colonial violence and enslavement through the nineteenth century, the black vampire re-emerges in 1970s vampire films such as Ganja and Hess and Blacula. These works inform the black vampire fiction to come and the resurrection of seemingly white vampire mythology such as the Dracula film adaptations of 1979 and 1992 (4). Yet studies of vampire mythology ignore or minimize the influence of the black vampire (6). In Paradox, Jenkins fills this lacuna by offering a detailed analysis of five black vampire fiction novels. He argues that in their articulation of race and sexuality through the "paradox of mortality," these texts counter monolithic notions of blackness. In particular, they diverge from conservative religious visions of black unity and insist on
an antinormative project that not only queers the traditional vampire narrative, the black literary imagination, and their guises of universality, but it also … has the potential to denormalize our disdain of hybridity, our boundaries of power, and our obsession with utopias.(8)
Jenkins provides insightful, original, and often compelling readings of works that have been excluded from the canon of vampire fiction largely due to their racial concerns, although the book would have benefited from a more rigorous engagement with scholarly work that complicates categories of race and sexuality. His book is part of an important new series from Ohio University Press; New Suns: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Speculative (edited by Susana M. Morris and Kinitra D. Brooks) promises to recognize the significance of African American speculative culture in varied media.
Central to Jenkins's exploration of the implicit ideologies in the five novels is Steven Cave's taxonomy of four immortality narratives that cultures adapt to grapple with the "morality paradox": the fact that we must die but cannot concretely imagine death (Jenkins 11). Cave's taxonomy includes the "staying alive" narrative, the resurrection narrative, the soul narrative, and the legacy narrative. For Jenkins, most black vampire novels reject soul and legacy narratives in favor of resurrection and staying alive narratives. The latter insist on the corporeality of the black body, and must therefore navigate black earthly experience, black appearance and its meaning, and black physical pain, along with the hope for an earthly freedom from this pain. While the vampire's status as corporeal undead points to the conception that black identity is defined by the appearance of blackness, Jenkins argues that the novels he explores complicate this notion and instead ask "whether there is more to being black than having a black body" (16). His readings imply that race is ascriptive rather than an inherent part of the body. At times he acknowledges the intractable, structural process of racialization "in a society where economic forms are racialized, and pain is colored black" (27). However, Jenkins returns to a hope of transcending race through the imaginary of black vampire hybridity.
In these moments of transcendence, his analysis risks becoming ahistorical. The immortal status of the vampires Jenkins analyzes allows them to stand outside of time, forming a "post-racial" horizon. Yet the paths to this post-historical status do not dismantle the structures of domination that persistently reinscribe race. The periodization of racialized capitalism is particularly relevant to the gothic mode, as Stephen Shapiro argues in his analysis of Dracula and other Victorian gothic tropes. Historical moments of crisis and rupture reveal the uncanniness of commodity fetishism: the condition in which workers are separated from any possibility of life outside capitalism and are fully alienated from their bodies, which become "units of labor-power...