Undisciplining Dracula: Fledgling and Afrofuturism
Lesson Plan Production Details
Developer: Renée Fox Contact
Peer Reviewers: Barbara Barrow, Renee Fox, Cherrie Kwok, Jessie Reeder, Oishani Sengupta, Emma Soberano
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Cluster Title: Undisciplining In and Through Contemporary Texts
Publication Date: 2024
This essay/lesson plan pairs Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula with Octavia Butler’s 2005 novel Fledgling, two vampire novels that deal with questions of race, authenticity, and futurity. The first of these is familiar to most people on this site: Dracula is a multiply narrated tale about a Transylvanian vampire who comes to England to vamp English women. Eventually he’s chased back to Eastern Europe and killed by a group of English, American, and Dutch men who don’t realize that Dracula’s vampiric blood will always linger in their offspring.
Fledgling, perhaps less familiar, is narrated by a young Black vampire (or Ina) named Shori, who has been genetically engineered by a small group of white Ina to be stronger and more resistant to sunlight than the white Ina have ever been. The novel begins in the wake of a brutal attack on Shori and her family that has left Shori alone and with amnesia. It follows her as she regains her memory, survives further attacks, rediscovers her Ina community and identity, and confronts her attackers in a brutal trial that reveals the conservatism and deep racism underpinning the way many of the “original” Ina understand their culture.
I have paired these novels in two different classes: a Vampires in Literature and Popular Culture class and a Gothic Imagination class. Although these classes have different frameworks, both trouble the hierarchical relationship between “original” and “adaptation,” as well as examine the metaphors through which gothic texts establish (and/or demolish) ideas about national identity, borders, and normativity.
This pairing is central to both classes because while Stoker’s novel is often considered the “original” vampire novel (an idea that is historically inaccurate, as well as politically problematic), Butler’s novel explicitly rearranges the canon of Western vampire fiction to place her vampires at its origin point. In doing so, Butler deliberately inverts the aesthetic relationship between Dracula and the contemporary vampire fiction tradition, demonstrating just how culturally constructed the fetishization of aesthetic originality is. Further, by situating its meditations on origins and adaptation specifically in the context of race and Black futurity, Fledgling creates a racialized framework for Dracula’s own uncertainties about the value and precarity of originality, one that invites us to consider what is hidden, lost, or afforded when a Victorian text embeds its racial politics in form and metaphor.
Metaphor and Reading Practice
As Victorianists, we don’t need Fledgling’s anti-Black racism, non-heteronormative sexualities, and disconcerting power structures to understand that Dracula is invested in similar issues of race, sex, and power – we know this already. Instead, we need Fledgling to show us that there are fundamental political differences between racism and allegories of racism, between sexual violence and metaphors for sexual violence, and between acknowledged hierarchies and implicit power differentials. This pairing aims not only to make Fledgling’s Afrofuturism and anti-racism central to reimagining a genre that has historically been mired in white racist ideologies, but also to focus students’ attention on the politics of reading practice itself: the kinds of reading that texts do and don’t enable, the assumptions about identity that shape our readings, and the potential for careless reading to reify the very prejudices we’re trying to resist.
Overview of Critical Frameworks
There are three primary critical frameworks that are key to this pairing: adaptation theory, Dracula and race, and Afrofuturism. The first introduces the unit, providing a set of terms that troubles the primacy of “originality” and allows students to recognize strategies through which Dracula and Fledgling play with questions of origins, evolutions, and authenticity. The second both acquaints students with the various racisms that Dracula has been associated with and complicates the methodological practice of defining Count Dracula in terms of specific “othered” identities. The third prompts students to think about why Butler frames a story of all-too-familiar racist and misogynistic violence in the form of vampire fiction, a genre that so often participates in rather than stands against such ideologies. It also invites them to consider what kinds of “imagining otherwise” are possible when writers create such fantasy worlds with Black voices at their centers.
I devote the greatest space to Afrofuturism, as Butler is inextricable from this critical landscape and it is essential to my efforts to undiscipline how I teach vampire fiction. As someone who primarily teaches nineteenth-century British and Irish literature, this is a body of criticism with which I have little experience, and while my work here only scratches the surface of this vast field I offer it as one path to teaching Fledgling’s significance beyond the primarily white vampire canon in which my courses place it.
The path I trace through these three frameworks follows my own pedagogical trajectory as I teach these two books in my courses, but it isn’t meant to be prescriptive. Each framework/discussion section includes multiple secondary sources, sub-topics, and reading approaches that can be plucked out, recombined, and/or routed through other novels to produce new ideas and create different connections.
Key Texts: Adaptation Theory
As the most adapted literary character of all time (not counting Santa Claus), Count Dracula presents an excellent case study in the generative possibilities of unmooring cultural phenomena from their points of origin. At the same time, both Dracula and Fledgling care deeply about the value and the potential dangers of adaptation: adaptation to other cultures, to other media, and to other evolutionary forms. I therefore pepper this unit with a variety of theories of adaptation:
- Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
- Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation (selections)
- Jorgen Bruhn, “Dialogizing Adaptation”
- Jennifer Wicke, “Vampiric Typewriting”
- Gary R. Bortolotti’s and Linda Hutcheon, “On the Origin of Adaptations: Rethinking Fidelity Discourse and ‘Success’ – Biologically”
Key Texts: Dracula and Race
These three pieces provide a progression from understanding Dracula as a racist novel to understanding the ways it mounts critiques of racist ideologies. In working through these critical analyses, I aim to guide students away from antagonistic, essentialist reading practices in which Stoker’s novel is little more than snapshot of 19th-century xenophobia and towards a more complex imagining of Dracula’s anti-racist potential.
- Stephen D. Arata, “The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization”
- Jack Halberstam, “Technologies of Monstrosity: Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (Chapter 4 of Skin Shows)
- Joseph Valente, Dracula’s Crypt: Bram Stoker, Irishness, and the Question of Blood (selections)
Key Texts: Afrofuturism
These texts work together to help answer a question I often pose at the beginning of our Fledgling discussions: if this novel is straightforwardly about racism and the stupidity and violence racism leads to, why does it need to be a vampire novel? These readings answer this question by addressing the history of Black vampires, the importance of Blackness as a vampiric survival tool in the novel, and the significance of Black characters in speculative fiction more largely.
- Jerry Rafiki Jenkins, The Paradox of Blackness in African American Vampire Fiction (selections)
- Mark Dery, “Black to the Future”
- Susana M. Morris, “Black Girls are from the Future: Afrofuturist Feminism in Fledgling”
- Octavia Butler, “We Tend to Do the Right Thing When We Get Scared” (New York Times interview)
- Octavia Butler, “Positive Obsession”
Dracula and Adaptation
Our discussion of Dracula and adaptation has three main aims, besides priming students to be attentive to the ways in which Fledgling deliberately problematizes the idea of original vampires. First, it acknowledges and makes meaningful the wide and ongoing dissemination of Draculas across time, media, and culture, creating space for students to bring their popular, non-textual experiences with Dracula into the classroom. Second, it helps students release their inclination to privilege an original text over its multiple cultural propagations: since we’ll be spending significant time close reading Stoker’s novel itself, it’s important that students understand early on that our close attention to the text of the novel doesn’t mean that the ways in which this text has been adapted aren’t equally worthy of scholarly attention. And third, it contextualizes the myriad adaptations of Dracula within and against the late 19th-century rise of new media technologies, providing a theoretical/historical framework for the novel’s own investments in mechanisms of adaptation and situating adaptations of the novel in relation to issues of adaptation in the novel.
One useful tool for opening a conversation about Dracula and adaptation is the 2012 commemorative postage stamps Ireland issued to celebrate the centenary of Bram Stoker’s death, which feature a classic image from the 1930 Tod Browning Dracula movie and arrive in a decorative envelope featuring Count Dracula trying to get into a cinema whose marquee reads “Author of Dracula: Bram Stoker, 1847-1912.”
These stamps commemorating the author of a novel aren’t at all interested in the novel itself. Instead, they disperse the novel into its myriad cinematic adaptations and give Count Dracula an embodied life of his own, one quite excited about seeing itself reflected on the big screen. Rather than honoring an author’s original nineteenth-century text, these stamps unmoor Dracula from the authorial imagination that created it, celebrating the cultural proliferation of Dracula and Dracula across mediums and national traditions.
Both Hutcheon and Bruhn provide models for thinking about the ongoing life of Dracula beyond its textual walls. Hutcheon argues that, like a translation, an adaptation is always “an engagement with the original text that makes us see that text in different ways” and “an act of both inter-cultural and inter-temporal communication” (16), while Bruhn argues that “original” and “adaptation” are “infinitely changing positions, taking turns being sources for each other in the ongoing work of the reception in the adaptational process” (73). In both cases, the “work of art” ceases to exist in singular, Benjaminian terms, instead constantly forming and reforming through adaptation’s dynamic process of communication.
Thinking of Dracula as a mobile cultural phenomenon rather than as a static work of art provides a useful entry point into “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” as students are primed to see artistic proliferation in positive rather than negative terms. Moving from adaptation studies more generally to Benjamin specifically enables us to move from thinking about Dracula as a palimpsest of adaptations to considering how the vampire figure itself attends to questions of authenticity, tradition, and reproducibility. Most students have enough cultural exposure to vampires to be able to consider vampiric reproduction in relation to the way Benjamin describes the reproduction of a work of art: “the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence” (220).
Benjamin lays a contextual foundation for students to consider Dracula as a product/reflection of the same “age of technological reproducibility” that Benjamin’s essay focuses on. By talking about photography, film, typewriting, shorthand, and other such technologies that emerged in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, and that catalyzed both the narrative form of Dracula and Benjamin’s reflections on art’s movement out of the elitist realm of privilege and into the domain of the masses, we can discuss why it’s not a coincidence that vampiric reproduction and Benjaminian reproduction seem to be so easy to discuss in the same breath. In my classes, these conversations usually take place before students have gotten very far into Dracula (sometimes before they have begun reading), so I use the novel’s brief preface to launch a discussion about the novel’s investments in authenticity, objectivity, reproduction, and mediation.
A Mass of Typewriting
As we get further into the novel we read Wicke’s “Vampiric Typewriting,” revisiting these opening conversations about originality and authenticity by addressing the more specific relationship between vampirism and technological reproduction that Wicke’s essay articulates. The epilogue to the novel admits that “hardly one authentic document remains; nothing but a mass of typewriting,” and so I both begin and end our Dracula unit by considering the text’s reflections on the impossibility of authenticity. I do this not only because the text itself begins and ends this way but also because I want us to move into our discussion of Fledgling thinking about Dracula not as a stodgy 19th-century point of origin to be dismissed, but as enabling vampire fiction’s challenges to faith in the “real,” its unsettling of linear history (literary or otherwise), and its openness to alternative and marginal voices.
Dracula and Race
My purpose in using Arata, Halberstam, and Valente to frame a conversation about Dracula and race is twofold: first, I want students to examine the expectations undergirding their impulse to read Count Dracula as a metaphor for specific forms of racial otherness, and second, I want to establish the ideological slipperiness of allegorical reading more largely. As we turn to Fledgling and its refusal to imagine racial difference as monstrous metaphor, these approaches to reading race in Dracula enable us to see how much leeway metaphors give us to overlook our own prejudices and to reinforce racist stereotypes.
In Arata’s article, every ethnic/racial marker represents a different ethnic/marker: Eastern Europe represents The East as a whole, Count Dracula represents all racialized otherness, and vampiric reproduction represents the mechanisms of colonialism. But what do we miss when we reduce a text’s specificities to political metaphors, and what kinds of assumptions must we make about the novel’s authorial and cultural perspective in order to produce such metaphors? How do we, as readers, position ourselves when we perform such a reading? What kinds of violence do we reproduce when we assume that the text’s monster represents colonized peoples: when we bind Dracula’s monstrous traits to non-Western people at large?
Reading Against Anti-Semitism
Jack Halberstam’s chapter provides a useful way of framing this problem of reading as micro[macro?]-aggression when he defines Dracula as a technology of monstrosity that produces the very ideas of otherness we try to discover in him. “An analysis of the vampire as perverse sexuality,” for instance, “runs the risk of merely stabilizing the identity of perversity, its relation to a particular set of traits” (88). Similarly, he argues that Dracula, long associated with Jewishness, resembles not a Jewish person but “the Jew of anti-Semitic discourse,” deliberately distinguishing Stoker’s descriptions of Dracula’s monstrosity from the essentializing practice of reading Dracula’s monstrous characteristics as specific racialized traits (92). In other words, to read Dracula as a Jewish monster is to read like an anti-Semite, because doing so defines Jewish people according to Dracula’s monstrous traits. I use this chapter to help my students think about the ways allegorical readings can reproduce the very ideologies such readings are meant to resist. Rather than assuming Dracula is an anti-Semitic novel about invasive Jewish monstrosity, what happens when we instead understand Dracula as a novel about anti-Semitic discourse, and about the monsters that such racist doctrines produce?
Valente’s book addresses these same questions from a slightly different angle by reading Dracula through Stoker’s mixed Irish identity: “metrocolonial” identifies Stoker’s heritage both as a native Irish victim of British colonialism and as an Anglo-Irish participant in the colonial project. Although other Irish readings of Dracula have used Stoker’s Irishness to identify Dracula either as a Catholic Irish monster or an Anglo-Irish monster, Valente’s reading (like Halberstam’s) rejects these essentializing methodologies by refusing to align Stoker with a singular Irish ideological position and by demonstrating that the greatest violences in the novel are enabled by British characters’ own essentializing impulses. We read the racialized anxiety in Dracula one way when we assume Stoker is British, another way when we assume he is Anglo-Irish, and a third way when we assume he is native Irish, but what if our assumptions about Stoker’s “blood” only lead us to reify the value of such racialized distinctions?
Valente’s primary point is that Dracula vitiates forms of thinking that see blood as the defining feature of identity. As he writes, Dracula “harbors an implicit critique of the racial ideology underpinning the [British] imperial project,” which he describes as a vested interest in the purity of one’s blood. In Dracula, he argues, it turns out that “blood doesn’t matter at all, and to think otherwise is to think like a vampire” (11). This kind of vampirically racist thinking is also at the heart of Fledgling, and borrowing this formulation from Valente creates useful bidirectionality in thinking about how these two novels spotlight the dangers of racist assumptions about blood.
Fledgling and Adaptation
I begin discussions of Fledgling by returning to adaptation theory, since Fledgling fights back against the idea that an “original” anything is the superior entity and an “adaptation” the derivative or inferior. This unit thinks particularly about evolutionary adaptation – an important plot point in Fledgling – and how our understanding of literary adaptation can benefit from an evolutionary model that privileges development over origin.
Fledgling offers us a model of adaptation that I describe as explicitly evolutionary. Shori, the novel’s narrator, embodies this quite literally: “Shori Matthews is as Ina as the rest of us. In addition, [and that in addition is important] she carries the potentially life-saving human DNA that has darkened her skin and given her something we’ve sought for generations: the ability to walk in sunlight, to stay awake and alert during the day” (272, italics mine). Shori has retained everything good about the original Ina, but has evolved – thanks to the genetic experiments of her family – into an even better Ina, far better equipped than her predecessors for the world she lives in.
Beyond Shori, though, Fledgling is deeply engaged in an evolutionary imaginary that plays with the hierarchical literary relationship between original and adaptation. Inside the diegetic world of the novel, the Ina are the original vampires, and all the vampire legends and stories we have come to know as the “originals” – like Dracula – are, in fact, nothing more than adaptations of encounters with Ina, derivatives steeped in wrong information or misunderstandings of Ina behavior. In this sense, the text presents itself as quite dismissive of adaptations: they are fluff, they are inaccurate, they are misreadings or silly human superstitions.
But, of course, the novel itself doesn’t pre-date all of these vampire legends and mythologies, and the countless references the text makes to them shows that it’s distinctly aware of itself as the latest in a long line of pop cultural vampires. Almost all of Fledgling’s back-of-the-book blurbs identify the novel as a uniquely new entrant in the world of vampire fiction. But if Fledgling is so new and original, as the blurbs insist it is, then why does the novel continually refer to other, older vampire stories (7 references in 100 pages)? Why keep them in our mind by continually referring to the very texts that it’s trying to distinguish itself from? Why do they need to be so palpably, openly, concretely part of this novel’s effort to create a new paradigm?
The answer I offer – undergirded by the Bortolotti/Hutcheon essay – is that Butler isn’t simply trying to create something new. Instead, she’s trying to theorize what evolutionary adaptation might look like on a textual and cultural level, as well as on a biological level within the plot of the novel. With all of these references to the vampire mythology that came before her, Butler suggests that her novel is accretive: that its newness, like Shori’s newness, isn’t a complete break from the old, but is the result of an evolutionary process that has taken what’s useful from its sources and added what it needs to better thrive in the cultural space it inhabits.
The Necessity of Black Vampires
Fledgling writes Shori’s biological evolution and vampire mythology’s cultural evolution together as a single project that makes a compelling case for the incontrovertible necessity of Black vampires: diegetically within the novel, in order for the Ina vampire race to survive, and extra-diegetically beyond the novel, in order for canon of vampire fiction more largely to survive. As Bortolotti and Hutcheon suggest, new cultural norms produce new adaptational directions, without which stories, and genres, can’t sustain themselves in a changing world. Butler makes a similar claim in Fledgling, although even as she demonstrates that evolution and accretion are necessary for survival, she also simultaneously makes the case that such biological and cultural adaptations aren’t only reactionary. Shori, after all, isn’t passively shaped by the world around her, she evolves because her family deliberately engineers her to be a better Ina. Fledgling makes a strong argument that adaptations can themselves produce new norms, new worlds, and new directions for the future.
Fledgling and Afrofuturism
Reading Fledgling as an Afrofuturist novel is an explicit call not only to reconsider the cultural occlusions that leave us understanding vampire fiction as a primarily white, western genre, but also to examine the unique affordances a Black vampire novel can offers to discourses of Black speculative futurity.
One way I open discussion about how and why Octavia Butler’s intervention in vampire fiction matters so much is by comparing the way Dracula and Fledgling represent race and racism. Fledgling clearly alludes to the critical tradition of reading Dracula’s otherness as a mobile, allegorical idea: “I think some of your ancestors were outed there and executed as vampires a few centuries ago. Iosif used to joke about it in a bitter way. He said that, physically, he and most Ina fit in badly wherever they go – tall, ultrapale, lean, wiry people. They usually looked like foreigners, and when times got bad they were treated as foreigners – suspected, disliked, driven out, or killed” (130).
This key idea – that Ina look like foreigners, no matter where they go, even when they live in traditional “vampire country,” and are thus treated with suspicion and subject to violence reminds us that “otherness” is an entirely open and malleable interpretive category, depending on what sort of “us” group you see the vampire’s otherness threatening. The vampire’s otherness is whatever normativity chooses to define itself through and against, and it’s always metaphorical rather than literal.
But in Fledgling, despite this claim about Ina not even fitting in in supposed “vampire country,” “otherness” isn’t a metaphor. Shori, our primary vampire and our narrator, isn’t a mobile allegory for racial difference: she’s Black and she’s mixed species, Ina with human DNA added. So how do we read race and racial dynamics in this novel if we’re not supposed to read it as metaphorical in the way that we so often do in vampire fiction? I then ask this question another way: if this novel is straightforwardly about racism and the stupidity and violence it leads to, why does it need to be a vampire novel?
The most important way to answer this question is to simply say that Butler wanted to write a vampire novel that centered Black women’s experience, because there were very few of them. Jenkins’s book offers a useful overview of Black vampires and their influential place in the vampire fiction tradition, and is an excellent resource for teaching both Fledgling and other earlier Black vampire texts like Blacula (1972), Ganja and Jess (1973), and Blade (comics (1973-) and the movie trilogy (1998-2004). Yet despite the popularity of these early Black (male) vampires, the first novel about a Black (female) vampire to be published in the US, Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories, wasn’t published until 1991. Butler addresses this question of representation herself in a 2000 New York Times when the interviewer asked her why she puts Black women at the heart of so much of her writing:
When I began writing science fiction, when I began reading, heck, I wasn't in any of this stuff I read. I certainly wasn't in the science fiction. The only black people you found were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted that they couldn't manage anything, anyway. I wrote myself in, since I'm me and I'm here and I'm writing. I can write my own stories and I can write myself in.
This interview offers the ultimate answer to why Butler chooses to tell a story of anti-Black racism in the form of vampire fiction by asking in return, why shouldn’t it be in the form of a vampire fiction? Why shouldn’t the forms of vampire fiction be remade into something other than allegories of white, heteronormative anxieties about difference? In Butler’s hands, vampire fiction instead becomes a vehicle for queer Black experiences of systemic and violent racism, for the narrative power of Black storytelling, and for establishing the Black female body as essential rather than expendable to the future of the species.
In Fledgling, Butler writes a Black woman, and a Black woman’s voice, into the canon of vampire fiction, and in doing so recreates the vampire novel as a form that actively contends with anti-Black racism and misogyny, and that imagines a future wholly remade by the power and voices of Black women.
For Butler, making Black people central to speculative fiction matters because speculative fiction has the potential to imagine futures and alternative worlds that are unlike our current power structures and social hierarchies. Dery and Morris provide valuable overviews of Butler’s essential place at the origin point of Afrofuturism, as well as key definitions of the movement as a whole. In Dery’s words, Afrofuturism is a genre of “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture – and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future” (180). Morris defines the genre even more bluntly: “not only does Afrofuturism posit that blacks will exist in the future, as opposed to being harbingers of social chaos and collapse, but in 'recovering the histories of counter-futures’ Afrofuturism insists that blacks fundamentally are the future and that Afrodiasporic cultural practices are vital to imagining the continuance of human society” (153).
In a series of rhetorical questions Butler asks at the close of her essay “Positive Obsession,” Butler makes it clear why she thinks it’s fundamental that Black people write, read, and be the main characters in speculative fiction:
What good is science fiction’s thinking about the present, the future, and the past? What good is its tendency to warn or to consider alternative ways of thinking and doing? What good is its examination of the possible effects of science and technology, or social organization and political direction? At its best, science fiction stimulates imagination and creativity. It gets reader and writer off the beaten track, off the narrow, narrow footpath of what 'everyone’ is saying, doing, thinking – whoever 'everyone’ happens to be this year. (134-35)
The essay ends with a final rhetorical question, whose answer clearly lies in the questions about the future, about technology, politics, and social organization, about alternative ways of thinking, and about widening imaginative purviews that Butler has already asked: “And what good is all this to Black people?” she asks sardonically. In other words, the kinds of progressive thinking and alternative futurity enabled by speculative fiction are especially significant and important to Black people, and for Butler, putting Black people, and Black women in particular, in the middle of these alternative new worlds is a way of “imagin[ing] otherwise,” of imagining new Black futures that aren’t bound by the violence and erasures that have marked so many Black pasts and presents (Sharpe 13).
Fledgling, unlike much speculative fiction, isn’t set in the future, or in an especially alternative universe from the one we know, but it nonetheless imagines an alternative social structure that dismisses patriarchal heteronormativity and the nuclear family in favor of non-monogamous, interspecies, interracial, intimate family groups. The novel from its very beginning sets up a contradiction between the mode of sociality that feels natural to Shori and the labels for modes of social interaction and social identity that structure the non-Ina human world: the label “jailbait” has no resonance for Shori in relation to her feelings about her white companion Wright, the world “vampire” has no apparent relationship to the pleasure she and Wright both take in her drinking his blood (12), and the word “black” seems to her like the wrong word to describe her brown skin (31). Whatever she may be, it isn’t the set of definitions associated with these labels, and her identity isn’t going to be constructed out of other people’s language or expectations. The Ina life in Fledgling offers us a vision of a social structure that jettisons the racial, sexual, agist, economic, and gendered order of most Western societies in favor of queer, symbiotic, non-monogamous, nearly post-racial forms of kinship.
However, it can’t quite manage to create a structure that jettisons all power imbalances or their attendant toxicities. In this novel, the true toxicity of unequal power plays out in the speciesist relationship between Ina and human, which Butler re-imagines as a reproduction of human racism. The Silk family’s speciesism and racism are inextricable from one another – when Shori questions one of her human attackers and he calls her a “Dirty little n-word bitch” and a “Goddamn mongrel cub,” she asks if the Silks call her that because she’s “dark skinned.” The human replies by saying, “And human ... Ina mixed with some human or maybe some human mixed with a little Ina. That’s not supposed to happen. Not ever. Couldn’t let you and you ... your kind ... your family ... breed” (173). Milo Silk repeats this insult at the Council of Judgment when he shouts that Shori isn’t Ina and has “no more business at this Council than would a clever dog!” (238). Although he doesn’t mention Shori’s skin color, calling her a dog is already entwined with the earlier racist epithets in which she’s called a bitch and a mongrel. Being Black is what superficially identifies her as being mixed species, which for the Silks means that her Blackness is what makes her less than Ina.
Her Blackness is also, of course, what far more significantly and usefully makes her more than Ina, because it lets her stay awake during the day and spend time in the sun. Wright puts his finger on the problem when he says that all this violence is probably happening “because Shori is black, and racists – probably Ina racists – don’t like the idea that a good part of the answer to [their] daytime problems is melanin” (147). As Jenkins argues in his chapter on Fledgling, the problem with Shori, for Ina like the Silks, is that her dark skin creates a visible distinction between her species identity and their species identity, even if that dark skin also makes her an objectively better Ina.
Yes, the Silks are Ina racists who want to kill the Black vampire solely because she’s Black; and yes, the Silks are Ina speciesists who want to kill the genetically modified vampire because she’s part human; but why is it important to this novel that they’re both racist and speciesist? Shori could have human DNA without being Black or be Black without having human DNA, and the violent prejudice would play out the same way. But instead the novel makes the Silks both racists and speciesists by making Blackness the visible signifier of what they see as Shori’s degraded genetic makeup.
Why is this important? Having read Jenkins’s Fledgling chapter, students are ready to see that having the Silks’ speciesist prejudice play out across the presence of Shori’s “melanin” – Jenkins is fascinated by the power of this chemical that makes Shori look different but that also makes her fundamentally better than other Ina – allows Butler to expose the incontrovertible illogic of racist ideology while simultaneously making a clear Afrofuturist case for the incontrovertible value and importance of Blackness.
It’s no accident that Blackness is synonymous with humanness, with humanity, in this novel, nor is it an accident that Black humanity will be the key to Ina survival in a changing world. Fledgling tells us not only that Black humans matter, but also that without recognizing Black humanity, there will be no livable future. At the same time it exposes the sheer irrationality of a position that elevates a superficial visual signifier above the irrefutable value of a person – it literally makes no sense to hate Shori’s Blackness for its color, when it’s her Blackness that makes her an Ina superhero.
The Silks are resistant to change and their fear that their power will decline in the face of a new, different, more powerful generation, and so they attempt to kill off this new generation before it can sideline them and start a new Ina world in which they have less value. The Silks are, in other words, a clear version of a conservative old guard that’s terrified of becoming obsolete as the world changes around them. They’re recognizable.
But they and their racist ideologies aren’t rational – there’s no way to spend an entire novel in Shori’s head as she narrates her ethical sensibility, her reasoning capacity, and how she saves countless people from dying, and not see the Silks’ melanin-based hatred of her as fundamentally nonsensical. It’s no accident that Butler writes Milo and Russell Silk as hysterical old men spouting ranting racist drivel. They are fully recognizable figures whose racism is hysterical. The logic, or illogic, of racism is itself hysterical, and it shatters against the clear, reasonable case that Shori, and the novel, both make for the unassailable value and futurity of Blackness – Black experiences, Black bodies, and Black voices.
The final stage of our discussions – built on Jenkins’s and Morris’s pieces – focuses on the fact that it isn’t the “danger” of dark skin that makes Ina indistinguishable from humans. It’s the racism that wrongly identifies dark skin – the very thing that will save Ina culture – as the seeds of its degradation. Unlike most vampire fiction, in Fledgling the vampires aren’t monstrous because they prey on, take blood from, and sexually control humans. The vampires in this novel are monstrous because they’re racists. That is to say, it’s not their natures that make them monstrous, it’s their prejudices and their ideologies of white purity.
The Ina aren’t monsters because they act like vampires; the Ina are only monstrous when they’re not acting like vampires, when they imitate the human racism that, as Katherine Dahlman reminds us (272), is an ideology embedded in the human history of slavery, not the Ina history of race-blind symbiosis. And so the Ina are actually at their most monstrous when they reproduce the racially motivated violences and social hierarchies that are endemic to our human world, and which Ina society has mostly transcended – by which I mean, the Ina are at their most monstrous when they behave like humans, rather than like Ina. As Fledgling makes very clear, it’s ultimately not the different-looking foreign monsters we need to be afraid of – it’s the humans who believe that the only valid response to the presence of difference is to burn everything down.
Assignment and Assessment
The final project for classes in which I pair Dracula and Fledgling is always a creative assignment that invites students to thoughtfully re-imagine the world, characters, plots, politics, or culture of one of the vampire or gothic texts we’ve read in the course. Along with their creative project, they write a 3-page critical reflection in which they analyze their own work using one or more of the critical frameworks described above, explaining how they see their work intervening in the politics, aesthetics, and/or cultural context of our course reading.
This is a very open assignment: students can write their own gothic story, write scene[s] from an imagined play or movie, invent a scene for one of the novels that they wish was in it but isn’t, write a character’s diary entries or letters, make a fake gothic museum exhibition, create a video game, make a short film, produce a character’s podcast, create a piece of visual art, or come to me with a creative idea for a project that I haven’t thought of. My one condition is that students must actually create something: the assignment can’t be fulfilled by compiling playlists or anthologies of material created by other people.
Whatever students choose to do, their creative approach to this assignment has to be founded in thoughtful analysis of the course’s novels and secondary materials: even the most off-the-wall project will be some sort of adaptation of the course’s reading. The critical reflection that accompanies their creative project should explain clearly how the piece engages with the vampire/gothic tradition as the class has conceived it or with specific texts that we’ve read: whatever they create must have specific connections to the class materials and should offer its own critical intervention into a text or into the gothic more largely. Their imagination can spin in whatever directions they want it to, but they need to think carefully about their project as an adaptation and explain clearly the ways that their adaptation participates in and revises the politics, social structures, gender/racial dynamics, and/or aesthetic forms of whatever text is their starting point (even if it’s a very loose starting point).
The length requirement of this project varies depending on what students decide to do. If they produce a piece of writing, I usually ask for ~7-9 double spaced pages (not including the 3-pg critical reflection). If they make some kind of video or podcast, I ask them to aim for ~5-7 minutes. If they make a piece of visual/conceptual art, I ask them to discuss what they’re thinking with me so I can offer them individual guidelines that best suit their project. No matter what they choose to do, they must include a 3-pg critical reflection with their project in order to receive a passing grade, and I weigh the thoughtfulness of their reflection more heavily than I do their creative abilities.
If the assignment is worth 50 points, I usually use the following assessment rubric:
- Basic Requirements (15 points): The project fulfills the basic requirements as laid out in the assignment description above.
- Project: Creativity, Logic, Coherence, Clarity (15 points): Be inventive in how you play with the gothic or one of the specific course novels in this project and be original in your thinking. Don't be afraid to let your imagination run free. However, whatever you create needs to have an internal logic and coherence. Your readers/viewers/players should be able to follow your narrative path/visual sensibility with ease and shouldn’t be confused by inconsistences in plot, character, or message. It goes without saying that each sentence should relate logically to the ones that come before and after it. And, as always, be attentive to the clarity of your prose and the cleanness of your grammar. If you are submitting work in visual or audiovisual mediums, please make sure that what you produce is polished and well crafted. This is your final project and I expect work that shows care and refinement. Please proofread carefully to avoid typos and grammar errors in any written work: sentence fragments, run-on sentences, nouns and verbs that don’t agree, tangled sentence structure, and other grammar mistakes will interfere with your ability to communicate your ideas clearly and will prevent you from achieving the highest marks in this category.
- Critical Reflection: Analysis, Logic, Coherence, And Clarity (20 points): Your critical reflection is a critical analysis of your own creative work, in which you clearly outline the significance and meaning of the creative choices you’ve made in relation to an original text or to the gothic more largely. Provide specific examples (quotations) both from your work and from the course reading in order to support the analytical points you’re making. Each sentence and point should relate logically to the ones that come before and after it, both in the creative and in the critical portions of this assignment. The critical reflection you write should be structured logically and coherently. It should include introductory and topic sentences that clearly spell out your thoughts, along with descriptions/explanations that relate to and develop those thoughts. Grammar errors will interfere with the clarity of your prose, so be sure to proofread carefully.
Bibliography and Further Reading/Watching
Arata, Stephen D. “The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization.” Victorian Studies, Vol. 33, No. 4, Summer 1990, pp. 621-645.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Edited/Introduction by Hannah Arendt, Translated by Harry Zohn. Shocken Books, 1968, pp. 217-252.
Bortolotti, Gary R. and Linda Hutcheon. “On the Origin of Adaptations: Rethinking Fidelity Discourse and ‘Success’ – Biologically.” New Literary History, Vol. 38, No. 3, Summer 2007, pp. 443-458.
Bruhn, Jørgen. “Dialogizing Adaptation: From one-way transport to a dialogic two-way process.” Adaptation Studies: New Challenges, New Directions. Edited by Jørgen Bruhn, Anne Gjelsvik and Eirik Frisvold Hanssen. Bloomsbury, 2013, pp. 69-88.
Butler, Octavia. Parable of the Sower. Foreword by N.K. Jemison. Grand Central Books, 2019.
Butler, Octavia, “Interview,” Democracy Now, 2005.
Butler, Octavia E. Fledgling. Grand Central Publishing, 2005.
Butler, Octavia E. “We Tend to Do the Right Thing When We Get Scared.” The New York Times, January 1, 2000, Section E, Page 21.
Butler, Octavia E. “Positive Obsession.” Bloodchild and Other Stories. Seven Stories Press, 1996, pp. 123-136.
Butler, Octavia. Kindred. Beacon Press, 1979.
Crain, William (dir.). Blacula, Power Productions, 1972.
Del Toro, Guillermo (dir.). Blade II. New Line Cinema, 2002.
Dery, Mark. “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.” Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyber Culture. Edited by Mark Dery. Duke University Press, 1994, pp. 179-222.
Gomez, Jewelle. The Gilda Stories (25th Anniversary Edition). Afterword by Alexis Pauline Gumbs. City Lights Books, 2016.
Goyer, David Hess. Blade: Trinity. New Line Cinema, 2004.
Gunn, Bill (dir.). Ganja and Hess. Kelly-Jordan Enterprises, 1973.
Halberstam, Jack. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Duke University Press, 1995.
Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. Routledge, 2006.
It’s Lit: Octavia Butler, The Grand Dame of Science Fiction. PBS Digital Studios. 2021.
Jenkins, Jerry Rafiki. The Paradox of Blackness in African American Vampire Fiction. The Ohio State University Press, 2019.
Morris, Susanna M. “Black Girls are from the Future: Afrofuturist Feminism in Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling.” Women's Studies Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 3/4, Fall/Winter 2012, pp. 146-166.
Norrington, Stephen (dir.). Blade. New Line Cinema, 1998
Parker, Kendra. Black Female Vampires in African American Women’s Novels, 1977-2011: She Bites Back. Lexington Books, 2018.
Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Edited by Glennis Byron. Broadview, 1998.
Thomas, Ebony Elizabeth. The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games. New York University Press, 2019.
Valente, Joseph. Dracula’s Crypt: Bram Stoker, Irishness, and the Question of Blood. University of Illinois Press, 2002.
Wicke, Jennifer. “Vampiric Typewriting.” ELH, Vol. 59, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 467-493.
Renée Fox is Associate Professor of Literature, Co-Director of the Dickens Project, and Co-Director of the Center for Monster Studies at UC Santa Cruz. She is the author of The Necromantics: Reanimation, the Historical Imagination, and Victorian British and Irish Literature (The Ohio State University Press, 2023), co-editor (with Mary Mullen) of the forthcoming Race, Violence, and Form: The Referent of Ireland in the Nineteenth Century (Liverpool University Press, 2025), and co-editor (with Mike Cronin and Brian O’Conchubhair) of The Routledge International Handbook of Irish Studies (Routledge 2021). Her published work has appeared in Victorian Studies, Victorian Poetry, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, Irish University Review, and New Hibernia Review, as well as in several edited volumes and critical editions.
Tile/Header Image Caption
Black Vampire. Digital photograph, 2023. iStock. Purchased rights to use image for this purpose.
Page/Lesson Plan Citation (MLA)
Renée Fox , dev. “Undisciplining Dracula: Fledgling and Afrofuturism.” Barbara Barrow, Renee Fox, Cherrie Kwok, Jessie Reeder, Oishani Sengupta, Emma Soberano, collab. peer revs.; Ryan D. Fong, les. plan clust. dev./copyed. Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom, 2024, https://undiscipliningvc.org/html/lesson_plans/contemporary_undisciplining_dracula.html.