Molly Farrell (Farrell.firstname.lastname@example.org)
Ohio State University
I taught The Black Vampyre within the context of an undergraduate upper-level special topics in Women in Literature course of about 30 students, mostly English majors, entitled “Gender and Empire.” The course is designed to require students to put literature from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries in dialogue with contemporary cultural and political issues surrounding the interconnections between intimacy, sexuality, racism, and colonialism. I always start this particular course by reading Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, introducing students to the late seventeenth-century context by asking why Morrison chose to set at this historical moment; I assigned Black Vampyre toward the end of a unit in which we explored how texts enter the archive and how editors shape canonicity and, by extension, our sense of our collective past. Students had been following up A Mercy with Henry Neville’s Isle of Pines; Coosaponakeesa’s “Memorials,” and speeches by Cherokee women collected in Transatlantic Feminisms; and Mary Prince’s narrative. I solicited their feedback for this blog post, asking them to discuss in small groups their experiences reading and discussing the text, and then to share these orally with the larger group.
The two comments the groups most often proposed for inclusion in this response were, first, that The Black Vampyre was “confusing” and “difficult to parse through” in a way that was “stressful,” because they were very concerned that they were misinterpreting it when they began discussion. Perhaps related to this, the second most frequent comment was that the text “would try to do something and then back away,” especially in relation to the poems and other materials at the end that seemed “dumb” and “poorly written.” Students also elaborated on their reaction to the structure by stating that it was “a hard story because it seems like the author wants to say something but they always back away before they get too far,” and that it was “interesting that there’s multiple parts” that all “kind of relate” but create something “different” when “put together.”
Another repeated theme within the students reactions revolved around the disappointingly predictable gender politics of the story, and relatedly, the uncertain authorship. Students felt that its lack of a female protagonist didn’t fit within our “Gender and Empire” theme because the plot focused on male characters’ actions; and the white woman character “picking up a vial off the ground was her one big act.” Some groups posited that this would fit better within a course on economics and literature: “We could relate it easily to the idea of empire and how the story comments on that; but not too much on gender except for that scene where [the white female character] objectifies and sexualizes the vampire.” One group related this simultaneous horror and attraction by a white enslaver to a male, formerly enslaved, undead character to Neville’s portrayal of the Black woman Philippa in Isle of Pines. The question of uncertain authorship preoccupied many of their small group discussions; some found foregrounding that open question “valuable,” and led them to focus on the “effect on the audience” that the text was having; while others found the text “difficult to analyze” without that information being clear.
The students also reflected that there was value in reading a perspective we hadn’t yet seen in the course. Along these lines, they said that the story prompted them to think about the genre of “horror as a spectacle” that “desensitizes us to the violence going on” in the system of enslavement. We had already at that point discussed Saidiya Hartman’s work in Scenes of Subjection, and the students considered how using vampires or zombies further “contributes to us dissociating from the characters and violence.”
Why did the author write this? Why does the story start us off with a gruesome scene of an enslaver’s sadistic violence inflicted on a child; feature a mixed-race family and a scene recalling a slave revolt; and then end with a “moral” whether “brokers” and “Bank Directors” are “not all Vampyres?” (41)—and then after all this, refuse to directly address the horrors of enslavement that these economics perpetuate? I agree with my students that this is a “confusing” text, or I might say, a confused text. Like Leonora Sansay’s Secret History, which we went on to read later in the course, it foregrounds the ways that white writers interested in representing Haiti’s history of revolution and the kind of “Zombie biopolitics” of “bare labor” that Elizabeth Dillon discussed in an article helpfully published in the September 2019 issue of American Quarterly right before our class discussions can seem to have all the pieces but refuse to put them together. It is a confusing experience to attempt to come at the literary history of the Americas by beginning with Black feminist perspectives and then read a text that is not exactly willfully blind to the horrors inherent to the economic system of enslavement, but that so openly lays out the process of not seeing; or in my students words, the ways that the author is “dissociating from the characters and violence.”
In closing, the experience of teaching this might have made more sense for my students if I had taught it after they’d read Secret History, but saving that epistolary novel for a unit when we discussed it alongside two other epistolary novels—The Power of Sympathy and The Woman of Colour—ensured that the Haitian Revolution remained a key context across the course, an element students afterward mentioned appreciating, since it is a history that had not previously confronted. When teaching The Black Vampyre in the future, which I hope to do, if it’s not appearing in a course on, for example, gothic fiction, I would take care to prepare the students in advance for its “weirdness.” I am so grateful to the work of the Just Teach One editors for making this text available, and for instructors designing courses that would benefit from an exploration of intersections between the undead, sexuality, the Haitian revolution, and depictions of enslavers’ violence, my students and I would definitely recommend its inclusion.