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Writing this essay centering blackness and queerness and motherhood without making comparisons to whiteness and patriarchy and hegemony is impossible, so I invite the reader to engage with this analysis as resistance, as a way to decolonize our collective imagination of the vampiric figure. The popular image of the seductive white vampire exists throughout all forms of art and media, from the historic Dracula to the modern Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight. However, black women writers have created new sanguine myths for us, ones that are grounded in the value of the world we want to see rather than the world we currently live in.

The novels Fledgling by Octavia Butler and The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez trouble the desire of the outsider to be seen as human through the queering[1] of the black vampire and her relationships. Both novels explicitly blur the line between familial roles, having characters simultaneously inhabit the roles of parent and child. Most importantly, Shori and Gilda, the novels’ respective protagonists, show that from the margins they can wield monstrousness and queerness as weapons of empowerment.

Instead of existing on the margins of society because they are tortured and aloof, the black vampires in Butler and Gomez’s novels separate themselves from society because the dominant systems do not and cannot represent their values. Here, black women’s longevity and strength is gained through egalitarian social ties and reciprocity rather than through the violence and hoarding of power that is often the case with white vampires in mainstream stories. Both Butler and Gomez dispense with the mainstream narrative around vampire-human interactions and bloodletting, and they also leave aside the idea of vampire covens in favor of presenting the characters as families. Rather than merely melanating the face of the common vampire yet maintaining all its problematic cultural baggage, Gomez and Butler use the figure of the blood-drinking immortal to push forward into a radical imagining of a queer afrofeminist future, one where we can seek avenues for meaningful connection and know that these bonds are what keep us safe.

Through classic lore to contemporary iterations, vampires have always existed in the shadows and on the margins of society. While blackness, like vampirism, has been constructed as dangerous and tied to monstrosity, it does not also carry the same associations of “dangerous yet delicious evil—the very characteristics that vampires often embody in the West.”[2] When vampirism and blackness intersect, does the figure inhabiting both identities obtain a double monstrousness? Are they an outsider among outsiders? How does this affect their relationships with humans and other vampires?

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

Early in The Gilda Stories (TGS), Gomez questions the value of being human. Gilda—known as The Girl until she is christened by the white vampire woman who initiates her into vampiric life—asks her mother why white slaveowners cannot tell the difference between butter or pig fat on their biscuits. Her human mother responds that the white people “ain’t been here long ‘nough. They just barely human. Maybe not even. They suck up the world, don’t taste it.” Here, the Girl’s mother subverts the antebellum-era social narrative that black people are the ones who are less than human by questioning the humanity of white slaveowners. Even though Gilda and her family are not granted humanity by the sociopolitical system of the time, they consciously strive to be humane in a world where adhering to or fulfilling the terms of humanity are the true monstrous thing. Unlike many white vampires in mainstream media who view humans as a lesser species undeserving of respect or agency, Gilda’s vampiric family makes a ritual out of looking deep into the souls of the humans they drink from, seeing their needs and desires, and leaving them with a renewed sense of purpose and hope. When vampires in TGS drink from each other, they also enact this soul-looking, reaffirming and nurturing familial bonds. The characters’ freedom from humanity enables readers to imagine new ways of understanding our identities and what our relationships can look like when unbound from a hegemonic understanding of family.

Marlon Rachquel Moore borrows Shannon Winnubst’s term “mixed-race queers” to describe Gilda’s family, a supernatural iteration of the concept of queer chosen family.[3] Vampires must literally choose their family, and can carefully elect who they bring into immortality with them. Because the bond will last an eternity, it becomes even more important to choose wisely. The original Gilda, having witnessed the monstrousness of mortal society, sees the most humanity in an escaped slave girl. She knows that, as an immortal inhuman being, the Girl will have the power to carry forward her hope for the better future. When making a vampire, Gomez’s characters are making a choice about not only what kind of companionship they want but what kind of future they want.

The feminist ethics embodied in how Gomez and Butler’s vampires choose to interact with humans stands in direct opposition mainstream vampire narratives. Gilda has only the most core attributes of the prototypical vampire such as blood drinking and undeath, and none of the archetype’s socially problematic traits. Gomez chooses communion over coercion and emphasizes the importance of exchange in bloodletting.

Rather than viewing humans as food, Shori’s family in Fledgling believes that vampires and humans rely equally on each other—not only for their physical needs but also for an emotionally fulfilling existence. Shori’s family, like many of Butler’s vampires—who refer to themselves as Ina—also operate on a basis of informed consent when offering to bring humans into their society, ensuring that they have the time and space to safely consider their decision and informing them of how physically dependent they will ultimately become on the Ina’s venom. This is rare in vampire lore, where a vampire’s preternatural magnetism ensnares humans in a life they do not understand the full implications of, often making them more slave than familiar.

While the vampires in TGS do not have familiars and instead feed from random humans they find, they have ethics around drinking from humans too. The first lesson Gilda learns upon her initiation into vampiric life is that they should not drink from humans merely to satisfy their own need but that they should give something to the human in return that leaves them feeling positive and renewed.

Fledgling by Octavia E. ButlerBecause Butler’s protagonist Shori, unlike Gilda, has romantic and sexual relationships with men, Fledgling navigates the concept of building one’s family differently. Shori meets Wright when he sees her on the side of the road and stops to help, thinking that she’s an injured human child when in fact she is a vampire with amnesia. Wright’s role as “a symbolic mother” in the early parts of the novel is evident in the way he often picks Shori up and places her in his lap like a child, in his naming of her as a parent would a child.[4] While reading Fledgling, it is difficult to ignore the power dynamic between Wright, a straight white man, and Shori, who appears to be a little black girl, and how dangerous it would be if Shori were human. Wright is careful to hide Shori from his family, not only because she is a vampire, but because he is afraid of being considered a pedophile. Giselle Anatol calls this the “‘wound’ [Butler] has created in the reader’s consciousness.” Creating dissonance between Shori’s real age of fifty-three and her apparent age of eleven is one way in which Butler exposes the ways that, as a human in our society, the intersections of Shori’s identity would make her multiply vulnerable; because she is a vampire, this knowledge is upended. By creating Shori’s character as she has, Butler has done a radical thing in making someone who is usually vulnerable into the one who holds the power. We learn later in the novel that Shori’s blackness is likely what has helped her survive even, the melanin in her skin making her less vulnerable to sunlight.

In discussing the process of writing TGS, Gomez notes that upon learning about her project, people expressed concerns about her connecting blackness and lesbianism, already vulnerable identities, to something as negative as vampires. However, Gomez successfully uses the vampire’s traditional outsider status to envision the power of remaining outside an unjust social system. Gilda begins in the vulnerable position of a runaway slave and is nameless, referred to initially as “the Girl.” Following her transformation into a vampire, Gilda becomes part of a triad relationship with her creator—the original Gilda—and Bird. But she’s also their adopted child. Gomez frequently describes the original Gilda and Bird as mothers to Gilda or compares them to Gilda’s biological human mother, whether drawing that link directly or implicitly depending on where the description lands in the text. For example, when the Girl first takes the blood from the original Gilda, Gomez writes, “[Gilda] pulled the suckling girl away and closed the wound.” The choice of the word “suckling” immediately calls up associations with breastfeeding. Later in the novel, Bird takes Gilda’s blood upon their reunion after a long span of separation. Here, Gomez describes (emphasis mine):

[S]he felt the love almost as motherly affection, yet there was more. As the blood flowed from Gilda’s body into Bird’s they both understood the need—it was for completion. They had come together but never taken each other in as fully as they could, cementing their family bond.

Moore points out that “in vampire mythology, the dynamics involved with feeding on another’s body is an erotic and precarious interaction for the bitten” which often carries phallic imagery and is used for “a metaphor for sexual penetration.” But “Bird and Gilda exchange blood in a way that mimics traditional narratives of motherhood.” Just as with Gilda’s birth into vampirism when she “suckles” from the original Gilda, her exchange with Bird involves a careful slash below the breast. In TGS, Gomez’s deliberate choice to describe sharing blood as simultaneously sensual and motherly further queers the relationships in Gilda’s family even more thoroughly than is already standard in vampire lore. Relationships between the creator and created are often erotic, but Gomez also explicitly labels these relationships as one of parent/child—a “girlfriend/mother/lover bond” as Moore describes—in addition to their romantic nature. Conversely, most straight mainstream narratives are very careful not to draw attention to this possible reading. The vampire who turns a human must inhabit one role, either that of a lover or a parent but not both—and rarely anything other than those two roles. For the cases in which the vampire inhabits the role of the lover, much of the excitement and significance around drinking blood or turning a human lies in the sexual tension.

The first person Gilda decides to initiate into the immortal life is a man named Julius. He has romantic feelings for her, but she makes clear to him that she does not reciprocate his feelings. She is shaken by his deep need to be with her and speaks into his mind, “The life I offer is not for you. I feel for you as I if I had a brother I loved. Trust that no matter where you are in this world if you ever need my help, it is only for you to ask and I will be at your side.” This makes the scene in which Gilda turns Julius even more significant for the ways in which it does not adhere to the straight mainstream narrative. When Julius consents to enter into the life, we get similar mother/child/lover imagery. As he’s taking her blood from a slash under her breast—another allusion to breastfeeding—Gilda gives him his first lesson on the emotional exchange. The memory Julius chooses to share with her is his childlike love for his parents. This scene is notable in vampire fiction because it is “passionate and chaste,” and therefore carries the eroticism we associate with vampires while bringing the parent/child reading to the forefront in order to emphasize nurturance.

The last person in the novel who Gilda invites into immortality is a black woman named Ermis on the brink of death from suicide. Gilda discovers Ermis in the final chapter, which takes place in a dystopian 2050 United States. Unlike Julius, Gilda is clearly sexually attracted to Ermis, admiring the blackness and femaleness of her body as she turns her. The encounter literally gives Ermis new life while renewing Gilda’s hope for the future. She finds eternal companionship in another black woman who knows and appreciates the spirituals and values the land that humans have poisoned. Paraphrasing Kevin Quashie, Moore writes that “black women loving black women is serious, dangerous, necessary, and revolutionary business.” In this physically and morally decaying world, Ermis and Gilda rescue each other—from despair and lovelessness and from humans who, once again, see their bodies as consumable commodities. The novel ends with them traveling to meet Bird and the rest of Gilda’s family, dwelling on what Moore calls the ethics of a “black female homoerotics” which upholds self-love and solidarity with black women, black culture, and other marginalized peoples. In an environment with such little hope, Gilda has the strength to keep moving into the future because of her racially diverse chosen family and the ability to see her own blackness and womanhood reflected in the person she loves.

In contrast to Gilda’s relationships, Shori, in her relationship with Wright, must confront the burden of heteropatriarchy rooted in Wright’s behaviour. Throughout the novel, Shori coaxes Wright to expand his worldview. When he learns of Shori’s intention to invite Theodora into the family as another symbiont, Wright derisively comments, “Swing both ways do you?” He is bitter about the fact that Shori needs more symbionts, that their relationship cannot be exclusive, and lashes out by expressing biphobia and polyphobia. Shori needs more blood than is healthy for Wright to solely provide, and she has the emotional need for deep connections with other humans. But in a small domestic moment amid all the tension with the Silk family at the end of the novel, Wright proposes the idea of building their first house himself over coffee and muffins. He’s overcome his possessive jealousy and is at the point where he considers the other symbionts family and is committed enough to them to want to put the effort into building their house himself. He now sees himself in the constellation of Shori’s relationships and his willingness to invest in the family they are making together.

Tamara Jerée

Tamara Jerée

These novels highlight the importance of building up a family and maintaining relationships that share one’s values and are mutually emotionally uplifting. We see this in TGS with how the vampires are careful in choosing who they want to initiate into immortality, considering the person’s individual needs and later instructing them on the ethical way to take blood. In Fledgling, the trial between Shori and the violently racist Silk family is a literal representation of the need for safe, inclusive communities and the danger that exists for everyone when that safety is breached.

TGS and Fledgling are radical in “creating an alternate feminist universe” within vampire fiction. [5] Despite TGS not being considered to be afrofuturist by some literary scholars, it inhabits an undeniably futurist black aesthetic. In its two-hundred-year time span, which ends in the year 2050, the novel shows us the trajectory of black queer people into the future and is explicitly concerned—especially in the first and last chapters—with how we as a people get free. Fledgling posits a scientific future where blackness is a literal strength and a desirable quality that is intentionally sought. By engaging the vampiric archetype, Butler and Gomez write black queer lives into an eternal future where we can continue our coalition building, our resistance of hegemony, and the creation of chosen families.

[1] This essay uses the term queer in the more common sense to refer to people loving others of the same gender and the relationships of these people. It also uses queer in the broader academic sense to refer to the process of creating something that exists outside of and in resistance to the mainstream. [return]

[2] Morris, Susanna M. “More than Human.” The Black Scholar, vol. 46, no. 2, 2016. [return]

[3] Moore, Marlon Rachquel. “Reciprocity as Spiritual Ethos.” In the Life and in the Spirit, State University of New York Press, 2014. [return]

[4] Anatol, Giselle Liza. “‘Queering’ the Norm: Vampirism and Women’s Sexuality.” The Things That Fly in the Night: Female Vampires in Literature of the Circum-Caribbean and African Diaspora, Rutgers University Press, 2015. [return]

[5] Morris, Susanna M. “More than Human.” [return]

Tamara Jerée is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. Their short stories appear in FIYAH,  Anathema, and Fireside Magazine, and their poetry was nominated for the inaugural Ignyte Award. You can find them on Twitter @TamaraJeree or visit their website
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