Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Midnight, Rise of the Black Vampires by M.G. Hardie

Amber Wharton is caught in throes of change thanks to her vampire nature and puberty.  Once realising that there are things that Amber needs to learn that she can only learn from a female vampire, without consulting her, Amber's parents decide that she is going to live with her mother. Amber is at first anxious about starting a new school and leaving behind the life she carefully crafted in Beverly Hills.  As it turns out, the move to a new school gives Amber the opportunity to not only study humans but to understand what it is to be a vampire and vampire history.  The thirst calls to her and she learns about self control, as she scales tall buildings lost in thought, Amber is becoming so much more than she realises. Like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, for better or worse, Amber must come to terms with who she is and what limitations and freedom it grants her.

Midnight, Rise of the Black Vampire does not disappoint when it comes to racial inclusion. Not only is Amber an African-American vampire, the story is littered with cultural markers that never leave the reader doubting her identity.  It reads as an authentic experience, as we learn about Amber and her friends being routinely stopped by the police for having the nerve to walk the streets as people of colour in a white supremacist police state.  Everything from the music, to the language affirms Amber's identity as a person of colour.  This is a refreshing change, as more often than not, when stories include Black women, they often read like White woman painted Black for inclusion cookie points.  I found myself relating with much of Amber's lived experience.

Hardie spent a lot of time with world building.  We learned the origin story of vampires and its ties to religion, and relationship to the Christian God.  That said, there was an annoying amount of name dropping as Hardie constantly made Black historical figures vampires and interjected Amber's mother into historical scenes.  It made me feel like I was reading Forest Gump but for people of colour in that regard. What was the point of saying that Bass Reeves, Jean Baptiste Point de Sable, and Ludwig Van Beethoven were vampires for instance, when it didn't add anything to the story? To some degree, one has to suspend belief to read a story like this but Hardie took it a touch to far and it kept pulling me out of the story.

What I found odd was the constant assertion that Black vampires were the epitome of vampire society, even though millions died during the middle passage. Hardie tended to blame everything evil on humans but the challenges that his characters faced were the fault of White supremacy. Midnight, Rise of the Black Vampires floats back and forth between a PSA about how hard it is to be Black in America, even as it seeks to elevate Blackness as the ultimate form of vampirism.  Hardie continually reminds the reader that in terms of hierarchy, white vampires and even more specifically albino vampires are the lowest tier.  It made me wonder if Hardie understands that someone can be both albino and Black? The fact that albinos were specifically cast as savage, animalistic and violent serves to reify some of the negative stereotypes associated with albinism.  Attacking an already marginalized group in this fashion to assert Black superiority is indeed problematic.

At 216 pages, Midnight, Rise of the Black Vampires is a fairly short story but it took me forever to read.  I should have been able to speed through this in a day but it dragged. I quite honestly considering just putting this novel aside at several point.  I kept hoping that somewhere along the way that Hardie would include some kind of plot in his story.  Yes, I think it's important to talk about police harassment, the school to prison pipeline, poverty and even young women getting pregnant in their teen years, but none of that amounts to a plot.  At times, Midnight, Rise of the Black Vampires felt like one PSA.
Most Fridays, we went out to have a good time, but lately, our group was getting stopped by the police, stopped sometimes twice in the same night. I was frisked by Sergeant Egum. Usually, our group sat curbside, in-between three police cars while flashlight-wielding officers asked us questions, such as where we lived, where we were going, and why we were in the area. Their questions were an effective message that we didn’t belong. According to Adrian these police practices were not for anyone’s prevention, they were a tool to get young minorities used to being harassed by law enforcement. 
“These are the incidents that engineered poverty provides,” Adrian said. “Poverty is engineered so that members of the poor become the group that the public doesn’t mind taking actions against. Instead of unbought and unbossed the authorities had for sale signs.
 “Think about it, all these protests and not one law, not one policy has changed… because these laws and policies are doing what they were designed to do, which is to deliver dark faces into an industry that sustains the country. No law can force respect and the police are often an unjustifiable force that is used on young people. Fighting for citizenship is one thing, fighting for your humanity is another.” Adrian was always the quietest when we get stopped, but he was the most affected by theses stops. 
I must have been slow or something because I didn’t make the connection between the police  stops and my skin color. I thought they were just doing their job. I thought they randomly stopped everyone. As time went on, I saw how they focused on minority groups. Adrian had me thinking about all kinds of things. 
The smooth cadence with which Blacks, Latinos, and Asians moved must be a cause for suspicion. Even the officer’s shoulder camera did nothing to change their behavior. Perhaps, they were drawn to our youth. Maybe it was the size of our group. Regardless of what it was, somehow we had been labeled universally suspicious.
Tiffany said that our complexion lacked consideration. Each deadly incident with law enforcement brought protests, hashtags, sign holding, and a lot of singing. I saw people rally in the streets and run against the storm with impotent rage. The law was for your body, not everybody.
This passage represents a really powerful message but did nothing to add to the limited plot whatsoever.  Yes, growing up Black in a White supremacist world is going to be filled with incidents of oppression but they cannot just be randomly dropped in.  Hardie filled Midnight, Rise of the Black Vampires, with passages like that above.  It made me wonder if he was trying to tell a story or simply educate people on racism and this is not to say that the latter is not a good goal, it's simply not the reason someone picks up a vampire story.  There had to have been away for Hardie to integrate his important message while actually delivering on a plot that is engaging for the reader.

Even if I hadn't known the author is a Black male, the tone of the story would have screamed it at me. Hardie includes lots of examples in which he is explicit about the oppression Black males face. Again, this is something that is laudable but his protagonist is a Black female.  Where were the stories about Black women being abused by the police or the various ways in which race and gender combine to stigmatize Black women?  Sure, he is happy to include slut shaming and in fact shifted back and forth from the typical mean girl teenage trope and the various ways in which women perform gender (including fashion and hairstyle) and  it just all felt so disconnected. Young women who have sex in Hardie's world either have low self esteem, are abused or are gold diggers.  The protagonist Amber, sees herself outside of this because she does not engage in such behaviours.  It's particularly telling that though Amber takes care to put people in their place who touch her without consent, she is still thrilled with the violation.  Ummm NO.  Women who are touched without consent don't get excited about it or see it as a validation of their desirability.  Even when he detailed a clear instance of abuse like Tiffany, who had cigarette burns and welts on her leg from her mother, it was brushed aside and described as discipline.  Where is the empathy for the abuse Black women live with?

Hardie's treatment of sexuality is just as problematic as his treatment of Black women in Midnight, Rise of the Black Vampires.  Carlos who is from a very religious family, is the only gay character in the story.
For teenagers, how many people crushing on you was a sign of status, even some of the homeless people had someone to love them in the shadows. Carlos was the only one in our clique that didn’t have someone he was digging, well, someone not digital. He expressed himself as homosexual, he seemed asexual to me. He was a virtual-lifer. He spent much of his non school hours existing in virtual reality games.
Right, so even though this story is set in L.A., somehow Carlos is not only single, the author takes not that even homeless people have love.  Could Hardie possibly have been more offensive?  How exactly does one express themselves as homosexual?  I'm almost afraid to get an answer to that question.  Do I even need to get into Hardie's usage of the term homosexual? If Carlos is out, why does Amber think that he's asexual?  What is it about being a gamer that somehow erases Carlos's stated sexuality?  Given the very limited time Carlos appears in the book, perhaps it's a blessing that Hardie didn't really expand on his character and that he remains in the background like a throw away.

The treatment of Carlos is particularly problematic because he is the only GLBT character and Midnight, Rise of the Black Vampires is filled with straight people who have sex and Amber, the protagonist falling in love for the first time.  The relationship between Adrian and Amber builds slowly and is really quite sweet but in the end, we learn that vampires really cannot have a relationship with humans.

Midnight, Rise of the Black Vampires is part graphic novel and part short story.  This is yet another element that made me wonder if Hardie had any real plan for this story.  A few poorly drawn frames illustrating what I just read simply falls short as a graphic novel and it serves to make this already almost plotless story feel repetitive. It made me wonder if Hardie simply could didn't decide what he wanted this book be and so simply threw things at a wall to see what would stick.

I really wanted this book to be great.  It's so rare to have a Black woman as a protagonist in this genre. I most certainly can let go of the fact that Midnight, Rise of the Black Vampires needs to be re-edited because there are missing words, bad grammar and at times unintelligible sentences (note, this is something we rarely comment on) but when combined with a lack of cohesive plot, even as it ignores the fact that the protagonist is a Black woman to instead fixate on oppression against Black men, it all became too much to overcome.  Hardie is weighed down by an idea and the end result is that he forgets that he is supposed to be telling us a story.

Editor's note: A copy of this novel was provided by the author for a review.