Commonplace


Just Teach One

Rethinking Gothic Literature and the Literary Canon through The Black Vampyre

Rochelle Raineri Zuck
Associate Professor of English
Iowa State University

I included this year’s Just Teach One offering, Uriah Derick D’Arcy’s The Black Vampyre (1819), on the syllabus for my 200-level survey of American literature to 1865 this fall.  It was my first semester teaching at a new university, and I was learning the rhythms of a new institution and the needs and interests of a new audience. I found it very productive to have a text that the students and I were both reading basically for the first time because it contributed to the sense of the course as a shared project.  In what follows, I will briefly survey how I incorporated this text into the reading list, the writing assignment that I designed to allow the students to put this text in dialog with others from the course, and what kinds of conversations this text fostered, both in class discussions and in students’ written work.

This survey course was arranged in a loosely chronological fashion, and students read The Black Vampyre after Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” and before a pair of excerpts from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia and David Walker’s Appeal.  As I was planning the course, I also imagined that students might find connections between The Black Vampyre and several other works on the syllabus,including Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative, Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, and excerpts from Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

For their second written assignment, students were asked to compare and contrast The Black Vampyre with one of the other texts listed on our syllabus and consider the place of this text in the canon of early American literature.  The goals of this assignment were for students to demonstrate their understanding of course materials; to hone their close reading and analytical writing skills by crafting a comparative argument involving two texts; and to consider issues of canon formation and what constitutes “American literature.”  

In their written work and class discussions, students highlighted the gothic features of The Black Vampyre including the work’s foreboding and isolated settings (Caribbean plantation, cemetery, subterranean passage), the violence and gore associated with slavery and with vampirism, the figure of Euphemia who acts as a kind of damsel in distress, and the vampires themselves.  We talked about how a number of works of American literature, including those by Douglass, Jacobs, Melville and Stowe, drew on gothic elements to communicate something of the horrors of slavery and substituted the isolated plantation house for the gothic castles often featured in gothic works set in Europe and the United Kingdom.  Discussing The Black Vampyre alongside Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” was particularly fruitful, with students contrasting what they saw as a “classic” example of gothic literature with an earlier text that blended familiar gothic elements with questions of race, slavery, and economics in the Atlantic world, as well as violence that at times seemed almost comic or surreal.

Some also drew attention to how the representations of black masculinity in The Black Vampyre compared with those of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, and Melville’s Benito Cereno.  They noted how unusual it seemed for a text of the era to celebrate the physical beauty and sexual attractiveness of an African or African American man as seen through the eyes of a white woman. Yet, several students also pointed to the ways in which the text employs racial stereotypes and does not challenge the practice of chattel slavery as forcefully as other nineteenth-century works like Walker’s Appeal or Douglass’s Narrative.

A final point students made was that this text paired well with Benito Cereno in that both represented enslaved people rising up against their oppressors, yet both texts end with a reinscription of slave power and a “return” of sorts to the status quo.

Students were asked in the conclusions of their comparative essays to take up the following question: based on the comparative work you have done, should The Black Vampyre be included in a survey course on early American literature.  They were then asked to explain their answer.  I found this to be one of the most productive parts of the conversation because it prompted students to think about what the goals of such a course are (or should be), what constitutes “American literature” and who gets to decide its parameters, and what a neglected text such as The Black Vampyre has to offer us that a more familiar text like those mentioned above cannot.  One of the most interesting facets of the debate came down to the question of literary quality.  Several students proposed that this text should not be included because The Black Vampyre was not as well crafted or widely read as some others on our syllabus and thus should not be included in a course in which students could only read a relatively small selection. Others seemed to appreciate the fact that this text was an early example of American Gothicism, written at a time in which some of the generic conventions were not as fully developed and there was more experimentation.  Finally, after reading a number of carefully crafted poems, sermons, and political tracts in the early weeks of the semester, some students suggested that a text like this was valuable because it was a window into what nineteenth-century Americans might have read (and written) for fun.

As for my own assessment of the text, I would definitely return to it if I was teaching a class on gothic literature and might consider using it again for the survey, in part because it pairs well with a variety of canonical texts and dates from a period—the opening decades of the nineteenth century—that is often somewhat underrepresented in literature surveys.

Vampires, Body Horror, Food, and Mrs. Personne

Lisa West
Drake University

I taught “The Black Vampyre” in a senior capstone seminar on “More Witches”; the capstone consisted primarily of seniors who had taken my “Salem Witch Trials” class and wanted to spend more time on “witches,” witchcraft, and accusations of witchcraft in more contemporary contexts. This was the only pre-1830 text we read and the only one on vampires rather than witches.  Other texts included two young adult novels (A Break with Charity and These Witches Don’t Burn), Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and other Sabrina adaptations, and some critical texts on affect and new materialism, including work by Stacy Alaimo and Jane Bennett.

The initial response by most was how the text exposed their association of vampires with whiteness. They felt that the cultural association of vampires was profoundly connected with whiteness – and not only with whiteness but with a particularly eerie or nonhuman sort of whiteness (lack of blood, undead, etc.).  As a result, they were fascinated by the intent to write about a “black” vampire and the possibility of using the vampire motif as a way to criticize slavery and/or racial categorizations. One student commented how the early pages seem a checklist of what they consider vampire traits – “grace and agility,” an iris of “flame colour,” connection with moonlight, a sort of lack of affect (16) – but combined with a body whose blackness is stressed, from the “jet black”  limbs to the “dead black” complexion or the use of “ebony” as an epithet.  Students felt the opening pages showed potential for a radical rethinking of otherness in slavery, with the childlike but superhuman body (which the reader does not yet understand to be a vampire) contrasted with the dumbfounded Personne who cannot believe his acts of violence fail to make the other disappear – or even reveal itself as “human.”  (Students also felt that the text did not fulfill the possibilities of linking slavery to vampirism and were confused about the ultimate message – if any – about slavery, slave revolt, racial politics, or related issues.)

Perhaps the most interesting conversations revolved around Mrs. Personne.  As the only female character, she stood out, especially since we had been reading about witches, which tend to place women in the center of discussion.  We had a lot of discussion about her role (peripheral or central?).  Students noted her appetite – and that the text did not judge her for her turning with glee to her husbands’ graves after becoming a vampire NOR for having had multiple husbands (another form of metaphoric vampirism – either in her multiple marriages or the deaths of multiple partners?) prior to her transformation.  Appetite and consent were constant issues.  What was she forced to do and what did she want to do according to the narrative? One student pointed out that the descriptions of her husband and child as food are presented from her point of view – whether because as a woman her framework was entirely domestic or because she herself always had an appetite. The narrator enters her world when it comments how (“poor woman!”) her “husband had been… served up like a broiled and peppered chicken” and her son “precociously sucked, like an unripe orange” (19).  (I am reminded of Ichabod Crane here.).  The domestic connection with Mrs. Personne continues: she is the one who seizes the restorative potion, which in her hands  becomes a drink or cordial in a “phial” that she stealthily places in her “ridicule”  or handbag (37), whereas the concoction in the goblet held by the vampire himself in the graveyard was blood-water-dirt combined, something foreign and mysterious and far from domestic.  The potions, references to food, etc. linked with class reading on Alaimo’s trans-corporeality and a sense of the way bodies and environments leak into each other. They also led us to other moments of “body horror,” and the way certain moments are pleasurably horrific, like the description of Personne’s body as “one continual sore and blister” (18), whereas others are uncomfortably violent (like the initial scene and the massacre near the end). And all these are contrasted with the lack of graphic encounters with violence on slave bodies. 

Another student felt that Zembo was the central character and seems to have a connection to the narrative voice.  Students saw Zembo as a betrayer, telling the army how to kill the vampires after, as one student noted, the vampires had accepted him as one of them.  Zembo also creates or recreates the colonial white family – with himself at the center – which seems to erase the events as easily as the potions do. There is more to do with his role and the notion of dual allegiance, loyalty, etc.  Lastly, I should note that my students found the text hilarious at moments – especially the body horror and food moments.  While they could grasp the significance of questions of blackness, colonial presence, and power, they were more drawn to the absurd – and were interested in figuring out tone.  Was this supposed to be funny? they often asked.  They also queried each other about certain passages that they thought were intended to be funny – or to have clever allusions – that they could not discern. Their interest in tone generated engaged discussion and careful reading.

I definitely would be interested in teaching this text again – but in a different context.  I think the text would work well with texts like Edgar Huntly where I feel sometimes I have to nudge my students not to read narrative at face value – or with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” I also think the text could be powerful to teach with the Makandal account from Just Teach One and with other texts that represent slavery and especially revolt or dissent.

The Black Vampyre and the Natural World

Julia Dauer
University of Virginia

I taught The Black Vampyre in “American Natures to 1900,” an upper level seminar cross-listed in English and American Studies.  The class considers literary representations of American nature in relationship to settler colonialism, slavery, resistance, revolution, and the ideology of the nation.  We arrived at The Black Vampyre immediately after reading Leonora Sansay’s Secret History, so we had laid some groundwork thinking about the Haitian Revolution and the relationship between Haiti and the U.S.  We’d also been talking about (1) the role of comparisons to the nonhuman in producing or disrupting racial categories and (2) the question of who or what has power over plants, animals, landscapes, and natural forces.  The text worked well in this context.  It begins with a series of rapid comparisons between an enslaved child and various nonhuman and supernatural entities and involves a sustained inquiry into who or what –enslaved people, plantation owners, vampires, religious practice – controls water, fire, and soil. 

Because The Black Vampyre is so outrageous, I was unsure whether students would make it through to the end – much less remember plot details or specific representational strategies from the text.  When class began, only about half of my students could explain who Anthony Gibbons is.  We spent ten minutes or so at the beginning of class “doing plot.”  As a group, we pieced together a plot summery, asked and answered content questions, and got on the same page.  From there, we were able to have a fruitful conversation, focused primarily on the status of “the human” in the text and the question of who or what has power over the natural world.  

My students were surprised by the style of this text, which involves abrupt shifts in tone, sly plays with a popular audience, casual violence, and big, absurd moments like the explosion of Mr. Personne.  Especially compared to some of the texts we’d read at this point in our syllabus – John Marrant’s A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, some of J. Hector St. John de Crèvecouer’s Letters from an American Farmer, Sansay – the fast action and uneven tone were a big adjustment.  This text stood out on my syllabus as evidence that popular writing in the nineteenth century could take all kinds of forms; I think it would teach very differently alongside a city mystery or gothic text of any sort, and this kind of pairing might make the tone of The Black Vampyre more navigable for students.  If and when I teach it again, I’ll do much more to frame the question of tone –how can we describe it, what might its impacts be – before we start reading. 

Several of my students came back to The Black Vampyre over the course of the semester, thinking and writing about how its representations of enslaved people and supernatural forces might work with or against colonial, abolitionist, or revolutionary agendas.  I think more students would have written essays about the text if we’d taken our conversation in class more slowly.  I taught this text all in one day, and it was too fast.  I plan to include The Black Vampyre when I teach this course again, and to teach it over 2 or 3 days.  I’d like to do a first day on the idea of a nonhuman child, really giving more space to the opening pages and the structures of family, enslavement, and refusal that begin the text.  A second day could focus on the text in relationship to the idea of an underground – I’m thinking of Lara Langer Cohen’s work on nineteenth-century undergrounds as I plan a discussion of the text’s graveyards and caves and the covert organizing of the African Prince.

The Black Vampyre

Molly Farrell (Farrell.73@osu.edu)
Ohio State University
January 2020

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.

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. 

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.

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