Contextual Overload

Siân Silyn Roberts
Department of English, Queens College

I had high hopes for The Black Vampyre, but unfortunately it wasn’t successful.  I first encountered this text years ago in a research trip at the AAS, around the time that the Broadview Secret History was published, and I remember being blown away by its lurching plot, bizarre central metaphor, its granular attention to NYC publishing and society scenes, and its potential relation to Sansay’s novel.  Unfortunately, those qualities that make this work interesting as an object of study didn’t make it particularly easy to teach, especially to undergraduates.  I will be interested to learn from other people’s experiences teaching this text, to see whether anyone had better success.  It may well be that I simply haven’t nailed down the right approach yet.   We had some success discussing the enslaved-as-vampire metaphor, but there were larger systemic issues that I didn’t anticipate (and probably should have), making this a challenging classroom experience.  

The first difficulty was the exhaustive amount of contextualizing this text needed for an undergraduate class.  Ed and Duncan do a great job in the introduction providing this information, but my undergraduates needed to be walked through it in ways that graduate students likely wouldn’t need.  We had to cover everything from Polidori to the Panic to obeah etc., which put a strain on discussion, as students didn’t feel equipped to weigh in on a text so enmeshed in its own literary, social, and political moment.  I find that students in my early American literature classes always struggle with the historicity of many of our texts – their lack of familiarity with the era makes them worried about being able to understand the material, despite all my formalist reassurances to the contrary – but Black Vampyre felt like a special case.  Itslegibility is often contingent on the degree to which one understands its many contemporary references, which make it a challenging text to discuss. 

We also found it hard to reconcile Black Vampyre’s ambivalent brand of white supremacy with the author’s disingenuous prefatory remarks.  The author’s injunction that we read BV as a “tangled skein of absurdities” and “exquisite nonsense” makes it an interesting companion piece to something like Journey to Philadelphia (which I also taught in this class), as we could discuss how early American writings often challenge probabilistic forms of fictionality.  However, BV’s racism started to feel particularly degrading in the classroom (where the majority of my students are people of color) when framed by D’arcy’s stated disavowal of his own work.  We discussed the stakes of his performative refusal to take responsibility for the story, but it also exposed my students to the raw violence of trivialized racism.  D’arcy’s suggestion that it’s all a joke and not to be taken seriously resonates distastefully with Trump-era racism, whereby hateful rhetoric is downplayed as a gag that humorless liberals don’t get.  It was certainly worth having a discussion about how racism is sensationalized in the story, and it helped us navigate a long literary history of white supremacy, but it introduced a discordancy into the discussion.  My undergraduates, understandably, were not well equipped to walk the line between confronting those literary histories and the unsavory prospect of dignifying a hateful text.  We had read Louverture’s Constitution, John Marrant’s Narrative,material from the NYT 1619 Project, and Sansay’s Secret History, so my students were fairly well prepared to consider how narratives of blackness and revolution might be coopted by a (in this case, presumably) white author.  That gave us some purchase on the cultural materials of white supremacy present in this text, but not quite enough to make its racism an edifying object of discussion.