Vampirism and Fears of Mixture

Nicholas E. Miller
Valdosta State University

I taught The Black Vampyre as one of the first assigned texts in an upper-level nineteenth-century American literature course titled “Mixture and Miscegenation.” The class was mostly populated with junior and senior English majors, although a handful of students from African American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies programs were also enrolled in the course. This course had two primary aims: first, to introduce students to American literature through the lens of critical mixed-race studies; and second, to have students engage in public-facing research on understudied texts. I eventually settled on a Wikipedia project for the semester that required students to work in groups to craft (or flesh out) Wikipedia articles, and made the decision to assign Jerome B. Holgate’s A Sojourn in the City of Amalgamation, Lydia Maria Child’s “The Quadroons,” Walt Whitman’s The Half-Breed,  and Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood as part of this project. Yet I was still looking for a fifth text when the call to teach The Black Vampyre came out. I have long wanted to participate in the Just Teach One (JTO) program, and my Wikipedia plans lent themselves nicely to introducing this unfamiliar text in class.

The Black Vampyre also made perfect sense for a class on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century anxieties about mixture. Whereas Duncan Faherty and Ed White emphasize how the text speaks productively to economic anxieties of the period in their call for participants (and in their introduction to the text), I chose to experiment with it in a course on mixture and miscegenation in hopes that it would allow me to introduce the vampire as an important cultural figure for thinking about racial and sexual purity—two concerns that would surface throughout the semester. More specifically, I introduced these ideas via Donna Haraway, who describes the vampire as “a figure that both promises and threatens racial and sexual mixing, the vampire feeds off the normalized human, and the monster finds such contaminated food to be nutritious. The vampire also insists on the nightmare of racial violence behind the fantasy of purity in the rituals of kinship.” My decision to do so turned out to be deeply formative (and fun!) for the students; in addition, foregrounding the text early on inadvertently led to some surprising connections between The Black Vampyre and Of One Blood, the final text we read for the course.

I found that my students were eager and willing to play with a text that did not have a long or extensive critical history, and they seemed to enjoy knowing as much (or more!) about the text than I did. In an end-of-semester reflection, several students mentioned how this assignment made them feel like their expertise and ability to generate knowledge was valued. They felt “trusted” as we tried to make sense of the narrative together. This was particularly true for the group that chose to work on The Black Vampyre for their Wikipedia project. Those students spent part of the semester looking at the text’s influences (particularly John Polidori’s The Vampyre), pondering questions about religion and/or medicine (through the references to obeah), learning about histories of the Haitian Revolution, and contemplating the text’s decision to render the idea of mixture threatening via the monstrous (or the supernatural). Through the clear references to Haiti in the text, they also sought out connections between racialized fears of vampirism and those tied to the region via zombies and vodoun. At the time of writing, their article about The Black Vampyre was still available on Wikipedia to be read or edited by the public.

I thoroughly enjoyed teaching The Black Vampyre this semester, and I actually plan to include it in my lower-level survey course on early American literature next semester as well. I expect, however, to dedicate more than a single class period to the text this next time around. While the length of the text makes it a reasonable assignment for a single class period, I think that my students would have benefitted from some additional time to engage with the various contexts that inform The Black Vampyre. The students who worked on this text all semester as part of the Wikipedia project got to dive into those contexts, but the rest of the class was only given an abbreviated introduction to some of the ideas that circulate in the text. And I am grateful to Faherty and White for providing such a thorough and accessible introduction to the text, which made it approachable for my undergraduate students.