91 What Cannot be Escaped in Death: Racism and Immortality
The Black Vampyre presents conflicting messages on immortality and the supernatural. Black immortality, such as the strange survival of the enslaved boy in the beginning of the story, is depicted as frightening, while the immortality of white people is seen as significantly more benevolent.
When Mr. Personne decides that the boy is useless to him, he tries, repeatedly, to drown the young African captive in the ocean. He views his actions as positive and merciful, describing his first murder attempt as “charitably knock[ing] out his brains” (D’Arcy 16). Mr. Personne does not value black life, and even sees the boy’s death as an act of charity. Accordingly, he is shocked to discover the boy isn’t so easily done away with.
After the boy returns from the ocean for the third time, Mr. Personne notes that the boy is:
…surrounded, as he seemed, by a sphere of magic lustre. He now walked up to the Frenchman, with his arms a-kimbo, and looking remarkably fierce. Mr. PERSONNE’S particular hairs stood up on end…but being ashamed that a little negro of ten years old, should put him in bodily fear, he knocked him down. The Guinea-man rose again, without bending a joint; as fast as Mr. PERSONNE could upset him, he recovered his altitude; just like one of those small toys, fabricated from pith, tipt with lead, called witches and hobgoblins by the rising generation! (D’Arcy 17).
At this point, the boy is depicted as other-worldly, as the moonlight around him is described as a “magic lustre.” This imagery reminds me of halos—as seen above Christian religious figures—yet it seems to increase Mr. Personne’s unrest. It distinguishes the boy not as saintly in this context, but reveals him as an undead, supernatural being, which Mr. Personne begins to suspect at the end of the quote.
This realization terrifies Mr. Personne, who thinks that the boy appears “remarkably fierce” in his current, undead state. Mr. Personne admits to being “ashamed that a little negro ten years old, should put him in bodily fear,” which further belittles the once-enslaved boy and distinguishes him as “other” and lesser than his white aggressors. Mr. Personne has an obvious and dramatic fear-response upon discovering the boy’s immortality and responds by using physical force to overpower and demean him.
Additionally, the text’s depiction of this boy does him no favors. This boy, now established as immortal, is described as daunting and inhuman. After being knocked down, he is observed rising “without bending a joint,” an image that is unsettling and horror movie-esque. He is also described as “recovering his altitude.” Specifically, the use of the word “altitude” constructs him as a large, formidable figure despite being a little boy in actuality. D’Arcy uses immortality to create a sense of unease around this boy, as reflected in the other characters, who are terrified of him.
Mr. Personne’s wife, Mrs. Dubois, is reacted to very differently when she is converted into a vampyre. Contrasting the sinister, unfortunate events surrounding the boy’s conversion, Mrs. Dubois’ plays out like cheesy romance story.
With this delightful prospect of immortality before her, she began to examine the graves, for subject to a satisfy her furious appetite. When she had selected one to her mind, a new marvel arrested her attention. Her first husband got up out his coffin, and with all the grace so natural to his countrymen, made her a low bow in the last fashion, and opened his arms to receive her! (D’Arcy 27).
The tone of this quote is a stark contrast to the former. In undeath, Mrs. Dubois gets reunited with her long-death husband, while the boy gets assaulted for his similar conversion. Mrs. Dubois’ immortality is described as a “delighted prospect,” while our undead protagonist is anything but and only affords him further hardship in the moment. No effort is expended to make this vampire pair seem more frightful. Mr. Personne is said to still bear “all the grace so natural to his countrymen.” Despite being a vampire, Mr. Personne is no less charming or physically graceful than he was alive—even after being in that state for many years. Meanwhile, the black vampire’s movement is greatly affected by his undeath immediately, moving creepily an in an inhuman manner, like a small toy.
Even in death, the black boy is depicted negatively compared to the white characters in the text. D’Arcy manipulates immortality to reveal the persistence of the fear and disgust with which black people were generally viewed by their white counterparts in the 1800’s. Most of the slave narratives we’ve read actively endeavor to undermine this dynamic, but I struggle to discern what D’Arcy tried to do with it. Either way, The Black Vampyre continues the same message explored in similar texts.