Between the Lines

Perspectives on race, culture, and community.

Anita Blake and the Magic Negro

Vampires traditionally represent the racial other. What do humans represent?

This blog is excerpted from a longer essay on this topic published in the just-released anthology Ardeur, edited by Laurell Hamilton. For more racial analysis of news and popular culture, join the | Between The Lines |  Facebook page and follow Mikhail on Twitter.

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Move over Buffy Summers. If you're on top of the latest vampire gossip, you already know that Anita Blake is the hottest vampire hunter in town.  Be careful, Bella Cullen. If Anita Blake gets on the case, you might wind up dead...or in bed. One really can't predict such things with Anita.  But I digress. This piece isn't about sexuality. It's about race. In a previous post I argued that vampires have historically represented a variety of different marginalized groups, particularly immigrants and racial minorities.  This essay focuses on the racial status of the series' human characters.

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To those uninitiated into the series, Anita Blake is white. Sort of.  Her mother's family emigrated from Mexico, but she was raised by her father's German family after her mother died, and for all practical purposes, she comes across as a typical (in a racial/ethnic sense) white woman. Also noteworthy, in a city that is over 51% African American according to the 2000 Census[1], so are all her friends and lovers -- human or otherwise (she has many of both) .

There are, to be sure, a handful of non-White characters, including her mentor Manny Rodriguez[2], but other than Manny, none have prominent roles and only Luther, the human bartender who works the day shift at Dead Dave's[3], is ever essential to the plot. As such, Luther can be seen as the series' symbolic representation of the racial other, in general, and blackness, in particular.  Indeed, unlike other non-white characters, Hamilton takes some extra effort to establish Luther's blackness. Luther is not merely black; he is "a very dark black man, nearly purplish black, like mahogany" (Guilty Pleasures, 120).

Although human, there is something vaguely magical about Luther. He is fat, but his fat is "rock solid, almost a kind of muscle" (120), and despite being overweight, chain-smoking, and on the up side of 50, he is apparently never sick. Luther represents a literary and film device known as the "magic negro[4]", a supporting, usually mystical fictional character who, by use of special insight or powers, helps white people figure things out. This is Luther's role. He is Anita's informant, the person who somehow seems to know some bit of information that Anita happens to need. He seems to be a good guy, and he seems to like Anita. Indeed, Luther's collegial (and plutonic) relationship with Anita could be viewed as a representation of racial harmony. Film critics and race scholars see it differently. As Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley pointed out in The Black Commentator, magic negro characters[5] may be "likable, valuable or redemptive, but they are without interior lives. For the most part, they materialize only to rescue the better-drawn white characters."

Why would any character, especially a black character behave in this way? Certainly one would think that this person would have better things to do than constantly serve as a white person's savior. The racial dynamics are paramount. Time columnist Christopher Farley argues that because of writers' fundamental ignorance of African American life and culture, Black characters get magical powers instead of life histories and love interests (Hicks). Cultural critic Ariel Dorfman thinks that the [magic negro] character is put there to give the illusion that there is cultural crossover, to satisfy that need [for healthy race relations] without actually addressing the issue" (Kempley).

Hamilton's depiction of Luther thus offers the final window into how the Anita Blake novels represent contemporary race relations. White Americans have mostly rejected the explicit racism and anti-Semitism found in Dracula and have mainly turned away from the anti-miscegenation attitudes personified by Robert Neville in I am Legend. It's probably not a stretch to say that the majority of white Americans, like their black counterparts, honestly want a racially just, egalitarian society. No doubt Hamilton falls squarely in this camp. What the character of Luther reminds us, however, is that white good intentions are insufficient, that true racial justice also requires racial intimacy, a deep knowledge and familiarity with those who are not part of the racial in-group[6]. Without such familiarity, there is no real recognition and, therefore, no real opportunity to interact as equals. One some level, Hamilton gets it, for Anita's prejudices against vampires waned as she got to know some of them intimately. Telling it is that, in our current racial fabric, many of us[7], like Anita, seem to have greater familiarity with vampires than with some of our human neighbors.

[1] It is also worth noting that, like many U.S. cities, St. Louis was historically segregated, with North St. Louis being primarily African American and South St. Louis City primarily white. It is not evident from the books' description whether the Vampire District is located in the North or South.

[2] These include Yasmeen, a master vampire (Circus of the Damned), Vivian, a wereleopard (Burnt Offerings, Narcissus in Chains), and Rashida, a werewolf (Circus of the Damned), and Jamison Clarke, a fellow animator at Animators, Inc (Guilty Pleasures, The Laughing Corpse)

[3] A bar in the district owned by a vampire and ex-cop by the same name.

[4] The word negro, usually considered archaic and offensive, is used intentionally to indicate that the term is a contemporary version of "Sambo" and other outdated stereotypes (Marvin). The term "Magical African American Friends" is also sometimes used.

[5] Among the many recent examples cited by critics are John Coffey in The Green Mile, Bagger Vance in The Legend of Bagger Vance, and Morgan Freeman's portrayal of God in Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty

[6] It is important to note that this emphasis on recognition and valuing of cultural differences is a drastic departure from the ideology of most white conservatives who tend to locate racial justice in color-blindness, a way of interacting with non-Whites as though race had no meaning.

[7] I am speaking here as a part of the white racial majority

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the department of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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