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Black Women’s Identity in Fighting the Supernatural

Black Women’s Identity in Fighting the Supernatural
© Photograph by Zan D. Kazuya

In her article, ‘The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators’, Gloria Jean Watkins posits the existence of an oppositional gaze possessed by black women in the realm of film theory. This theory is in contrast to the film theory of the white male gaze, which aggressively penetrates the image of the passive white female upon the screen. Gloria Jean Watkins insists that black women have much to offer film theory for they occupy a unique position, neither possessing the penetrative power of the phallic gaze nor the passivity allowed the construction of white womanhood, their gaze may exist as oppositional to both constructions (hooks 57). Yet, I suggest that this oppositional gaze has the ability to go far beyond the realm of film. Black women writers, popularized in their literary Renaissance of the 1970s and 1980s, have occupied this oppositional gaze within the written format.

The writers that most pique my critical interests, Tananarive Priscilla Due and Leslie Esdaile Banks, continue this tradition of the oppositional gaze within speculative horror fiction. Speculative fiction operates as a catchall term for science fiction and fantasy fiction that includes such themes as horror, supernatural, apocalyptic, and dystopian/utopian fiction. These texts privilege the reclamation of the black woman’s body. The black female body in these books demonstrates a power that allows for personal explorations of pleasure and pain and the possibilities for socio-political change within the black community. Octavia Estelle Butler insists that “science fiction is not about the problems of the world, but also about solving the problems of the world (Pough ix). These women are staring back at the genre of vampire fiction through the medium of print. They are talking back and changing their own reality with the agency of words in a surreal world.

In this piece, I wish to further Gwendolyn Pough’s exploration articulated in the groundbreaking issue of Femspec Journal focused on black women’s speculative writing. I posit that Leslie Esdaile Banks and Tananarive Priscilla Due “rewrite, re-visit and re-envision history in ways that connect them to black women’s legacies of struggle” (Pough and Hood). Leslie Esdaile Banks has created a speculative world of vampires, slayers, shifters, angels and demons in her twelve-volume ‘Vampire Huntress Legend’ series. The novels centre on the protagonist Damali Richards Rivera, a spoken word artist and Millenium Neteru (Banks’ term for the divinely chosen vampire hunter) and her boyfriend/lover/vampire antagonist/divine partner Carlos Rivera. Tananarive Priscilla Due pushes the boundaries of Christianity, blood cults, and goddess worship in her African Immortals series. The trilogy examines the adventures of Jessica Jacobs-Wolde and her husband, the Immortal, David Wolde, and their daughter, the goddess-like, Fana.

Gwendolyn Pough believes that “Black women have been writing speculative visions of the world for some time. Black women have in a sense always had to speculate and envision other ways of being, other ways the world can be” (Pough 165). I contend that Tananarive Priscilla Due and Leslie Esdaile Banks rewrite and revamp history by focusing on black women’s bodies as sites of reality-changing power and that their characters occupy multiple positions as complexly constructed lovers, and as both protector and protected. Speculative fiction allows Leslie Esdaile Banks and Tananarive Priscilla Due to explore the complexities of their female protagonists in a lengthy format, a series of written novels. Ultimately, these authors employ the oppositional gaze in order to articulate the complexities of black women by constructing their characters in fantastical speculative worlds.

The journeys of Damali Richards and Jessica Jacobs-Wolde privilege the idea that their personal growth as individual women and work as community leaders stand as an example of the struggle to achieve balance. Both women serve their communities without sacrificing their own agency and individual worth. Leslie Esdaile Banks and Tananarive Priscilla Due illustrate how the growth of the personal self-aids the political, for it is only when their characters come into their own as women, sisters, daughters, wives, mothers, and lovers that make up the multi-faceted identities that they truly begin to aid the community at large. This is a direct assault on the stereotypical, harmful, and reductionist stereotype of the strong black woman who sacrifices their personal self and their vulnerability for the gain of the black community (Morgan).

What remains dynamic about this literature is that these women are re-writing the often fossilized genre of vampire fiction, a genre that revels in that which is dead, rotten, and abject (Hutchings). Yet, this reimagining of the vampire lore makes a specific sort of sense. The realm of horror often blurs the binaries that define Western culture, those between living/dead, good/evil, natural/supernatural, normal/abnormal sexual desire, and masculine/feminine (Creed; Clover). No figure of horror embodies this blurring of the lines like the vampire. The vampire is a living corpse who subsists off of the religiously loaded elixir of blood whose desirability factor ameliorates the socially taboo act of necrophilia. Black women writers of the horror fiction genre seize the opportunity to continue to act as shifting signifiers who worry the lines Western society has used to contain their images (Wall; Boyce-Davies).

Tananarive Priscilla Due rewrites the vampire in her construction of Jessica Jacobs-Wolde, who is an immortal with special blood, that is, the living blood of Jesus Christ, which prevents her from dying. Her husband, David Wolde, one of the original Immortals, converted Jessica. Though he does not feed on the blood of others, he is certainly constructed as feeding upon their very humanity as he continuously kills the innocent to protect his secrets. There has been a long-standing edict against the sharing of the living blood with women, a ban her husband David specifically disobeys (‘Due My Soul to Keep’). The Community of Immortals keeps the secret of Christ’s blood to themselves, sharing it with a privileged few, who are all male. The discovery of Jessica and Fana’s existence sends the Seekers on a murderous mission to find them (Due to The Living Blood). In ‘The Living Blood’, Jessica lives in hiding with her physician sister, Alexis, in Botswana and her toddler daughter, Fana. Jessica’s experience in Botswana centres on the shifting and often conflicting roles of mother, sister and wife [in absentia] and how she must deal with the growing supernatural realities in her life. Fana, conceived by two immortals, is different and Jessica realizes she is not equipped to deal with her daughter’s growing powers even as her gender continues to separate her from the colony of men who control the living blood. In the midst of this life chaos, Jessica transforms her forced exile into an exploration of her own agency as she realizes the magnitude of the gift of life she has acquired. For her and her sister begin to secretly use the power of the living blood to heal sick children of rural Botswana (Due The Living Blood).

Leslie Esdaile Banks, like Tananarive Priscilla Due, revives the rich genre of vampire horror fiction while exploring the themes of black women’s wish to aid their larger communities. Damali Richards Rivera is a spoken-word artist who raps her poetry over a fusion of rock and hip-hop. She is also the Millennium Neteru: a chosen Vampire huntress with special weapons and powers guided by her earthly Mother-seer, Marlene Stone, and a cosmic council of former Neteru Queens. Damali Richards Rivera is supported in her quest against vampires and other supernatural beings, by her background band who are also her chosen guardians, outfitted with special powers to enhance their fighting in the protection of the Neteru (Banks The Awakening).

All of Damali Richards Rivera’s special powers are used to protect and cleanse first her immediate community and, later, the world at large from the blight and infection of demonic and vampiric evil that permeates society. Though the Neteru exists to save the world, Damali Richards Rivera better mobilizes her powers as she understands herself, her beliefs, and her place in the world. She is a general at war with the evil of the world, fighting against Vampire Master Fallon Nuit, a corrupted vampiric Neteru, the head of the Vampire Council, Cain, Lilith, and eventually Lucifer himself (Banks The Damned).

The vampire has long been associated with different manifestations of human sexuality. The sexuality of the original vampire, Dracula, displays a sexuality that possesses a certain sense of the uncanny. It is a sexuality that is alien yet eerily familiar, “it initially looks strange but quite often presents a distorted image of human tendencies and behaviour” (Stevenson 142). One of the most interesting facets of vampirism is the astonishing ability to eat and reproduce through the action of the bite. In the bite, there is a conflation of blood and semen. Critic John Allen Stevenson examines the active privileging of blood in the Dracula story: “it is food, it is semen, it is a rather ghastly parody of the Eucharist, the blood of Christ that guarantees life eternal” (Stevenson 144).

Still, the most interesting characteristic of the primary vampire myth is Dracula’s ability to examine the peculiarities of human sexuality by complicating the sexual constructions of women and racial others. Blood continues to be privileged in the vampire myth as a noted racial signifier of otherness.

It is Dracula’s foreign blood as a pure vampire “whose very strangeness renders him monstrous, and more dangerous, he is an imperialist whose invasion seeks a specifically sexual conquest; he is a man who will take other men’s women away and make them his own” (Stevenson 144).

John Allen Stevenson’s reading of ‘Dracula’ proves most interesting, for he reads the plot as a sexual potency competition by a group of males defending their women from conquest by a foreign other. For John Allen Stevenson reads ‘Dracula’s bite as not only a sexual seduction but also as an act of physical “deracination” that “re-creates them as members of his own kind” (Stevenson 144). Their conversion to vampires through ‘Dracula’s bite creates a new racial identity that produces new loyalties apart from those of the original groups. For it is “that loss of women’s loyalty that the good, brave men cannot abide” (Stevenson 144).

The patriarchal fighting over the sexual and racial identity of the women in ‘Dracula’ also subsumes women’s ownership of their sexual selves. John Allen Stevenson notes that ‘Dracula’ has a “hostile history” regarding female sexuality because there is a focus on men’s release of and control over the women’s desires. Yet, John Allen Stevenson reads ‘Dracula’s treatment of women as much more complicated. Their conversion into vampires breaks through the tired virgin versus whore dichotomy that defines Western womanhood. They become something entirely different even as their conversion is instigated by a foreign male figure.

Tananarive Priscilla Due and Leslie Esdaile Banks recognize the complicated constructions of racialized and gendered sexuality that intersect in the vampire myth and capitalize on the potentials of these intersections to create and expand a reimagining of black female sexuality. There certainly exists a dearth of black females defining and naming their own sexualities.

Black female sexuality has rarely been treated with nuance; there has been a history of either extreme exaggeration as an excuse for the hegemonic horrors perpetrated since slavery or a punishing silence supported by the black middle class (Hammonds). Critic Hortense Spillers speaks of the black woman as “the beached whales of the sexual universe, unvoiced, misseen, not doing awaiting their verb” (Spillers 74). Evelynn M. Hammonds’ ‘Black (W)holes and the Geometry of Black Female Sexuality’ remains one of the most groundbreaking articles analyzing black female sexuality.

In the article, Evelynn M. Hammonds historicizes and contextualizes black female sexuality all while calling for more explicit yet nuanced expressions of black female sexuality in its myriad forms. I contend that Leslie Esdaile Banks and Tananarive Priscilla Due reinterpret the vampire myth to explicitly and enthusiastically enter the contemporary conversations surrounding black female sexuality initiated by Evelynn M. Hammonds’ article. Leslie Esdaile Banks and Tananarive Priscilla Due render black female sexuality visible by engaging in what Evelynn M. Hammonds terms the “politics of articulation.”

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