In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan released The Moynihan Report, officially titled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (1965). This extensive report identifies the “crisis” of the “Black Family”, or the fatherless matriarchy that characterized many Black families in the United States. For a variety of reasons, there is some truth to this generalization—my mother was raised by a single mother, and my brother and I have never known our maternal grandfather.
The Moynihan Report praises the white vertical family for its remarkable stability, citing low divorce rates and strong patriarchal heads. He contrasts these statistics with those of the matriarchal Black Family, which saw consistently higher rates of separation, matriarchal heads, and children outside of wedlock. The report was wildly popular, and for many years, Black families have been led to believe that they are missing something, that they should be striving towards nuclear wholeness. Jewel Gomez’s The Gilda Stories is a novel that reimagines the Black Family through vampiric allegory. By intertwining the socio-political history of the past two-hundred years, as well as the near future, with the immortal life of Gilda, a Black vampire, the book proposes anticapitalist constructions of family that not only validates the Black Family, but identifies its revolutionary potential.
At the beginning of The Gilda Stories, Gilda has escaped the plantation where she was born, and her mother is dead. Within the first chapter, Gilda, referred to earlier in the novel as simply “the Girl,” meets the original Gilda, a kindly white vampire who runs a nearby brothel. Gilda is immediately taken in as a part of the brothel’s “family”, and while she remains haunted by sweet memories of her mother’s touch, this rapid matriarchal turnover makes clear that The Gilda Stories is interested in redefining relational dynamics and expanding the definition of kinship beyond that of the nuclear family.
The developing history of the vampire narrative is inseparable from ever-changing attitudes regarding emergent and unfamiliar sexualities. The vampire model interprets vampiric hunger as twofold, sexual desire that manifests in a hunger and necessity for blood. While most vampires require blood to live and routine feedings are a necessary part of their lifestyle, blood alone is not enough—their spiritual hunger must also be addressed. In The Gilda Stories, the vampires’ spiritual hunger, while sexual in nature, stems from a desire for connection with one another and with the human world. Soren, a worldly and experienced elder vampire who embodies the shared values of Gilda’s adopted vampire family advises, “[Gilda] and all of his children toward an enduring power that [does] not feed on death”, and as a result, Gilda learns to survive, “by sharing the blood and by maintaining the vital connections to life”. In the novel, a vampire feeds on life when they participate in an “exchange” with their human victims, drawing a harmless amount of their blood while telepathically providing them “what’s needed–energy, dreams, ideas”. When a vampire chooses to feed on life, drawing blood becomes an act of listening and responding to the desires of the human world. In contrast, feeding on death severs this connection to the human world, as it requires the vampire to disregard the humanity of their meal and take without giving.
By reforming vampiric processes of feeding and reproduction to embody exchange rather than extraction, Gomez invents a vampire that utilizes blood as a means of connection. The ideas of exchange and community are central to the vampires’ ritual of “sharing the blood”, or feeding together. While this phrase is used in reference to the vampires’ social eating, “sharing the blood” is an apt blanket expression for vampires’ overarching philosophy regarding feeding, copulating, and their relationship to the human world. The consumption and exchanging of blood in these vampiric rituals are a means of cultivating and maintaining connection between beings. When Gilda lays with Bird, her companion and mentor, they engage in a naked ritual that is half-sex and half-mutual bloodsucking.
As Gilda attempts to parse the new feeling associated with this hybrid act, she reflects that her “desire was not unlike their need for the blood, but she had already had her share. It was not unlike lust but less single-minded. She felt the love almost as motherly affection, yet there was more”. Although Gilda’s stomach is full, she remains hungry for another kind of nourishment that initially eludes her. Cycling through the potential source of her feelings, Gilda compares her emotional appetite to both “lust” and “motherly affection,” but criticizes these forms of care for their limitations of scope and intensity. As Gilda and Bird give and receive motherly care from each other, sex becomes an act of mutual motherhood between the two. With Gilda’s background as an escaped slave and Bird hailing from a Lakota tribe, the disenfranchisement of Gilda’s and Bird’s cultures mirror the social death they experience as vampires. While vampirism prevents Gilda and Bird from engaging fully with the mortal world, they are able to find belonging in one another, and satisfaction in this connection.
Incestuous vampirism is an act of world-breaking, as it questions the very efficacy of vertical social structure. Gomez’s notion of “sharing the blood” responds directly to proverbs like “blood is thicker than water” that do the rhetorical work of promoting a vertical family system, as she gives the horizontal family—that which is chosen and nonhierarchical—the same anatomical validation. As blood is shared in the novel, interpersonal ties strengthen and change, and the vampires are able to create horizontal blood-relations with one another. Rather than engaging with the discourse of biological versus chosen family, Gomez constructs a world in which chosen family members can become biological.
While other vampire narratives characterize the condition of vampirism as cannibalizing disease, The Gilda Stories reimagines the vampire coven as a self-contained utopia of love, free from the subjugation of traditional gender roles. For instance, the intimate exchange of blood in The Gilda Stories fights notions of dominant and submissive gender by allowing vampires to engage in acts of mutual penetration. This relational confusion is innate to the vampire species, as their non-genital means of penetration destabilize the roles of victim and predator associated with the act of genital penetration. Although Gilda takes a male sexual partner in Julian, a New York City thespian whom she converts to join her vampire family, their sex is non-genital, implying that “sharing the blood” is not a homosexual alternative to genital penetration, but a vampiric replacement for all sex. Gomez appears disinterested in debating the validity of queerness or sex as a means of power. Rather, she offers a depiction of sex without corruption and penetration without dominance, set against the contextual background of a world waiting to catch up.
The horizontal, chosen family works outside of the law—in The Gilda Stories, love is never codified by a wedding, same sex and interracial relationships play out beyond the reach of history, and one can have limitless mothers. The horizontal family, at its root, challenges the political, legal, and social order of the Western world. While Moynihan is concerned with the horizontal family’s social and political invalidity within American democracy, Gomez invalidates the system of democracy itself.
Part of the speculation of The Gilda Stories occurs in its final two chapters, which take place in 2020 and 2050 respectively, far in the future of the book’s 1991 publication. Having run out of lived history, Gomez must make a prediction as to what happens next, and projects the implosion of the capitalist world within the next sixty years. With the implicit critique of Western capitalism embodied by Gomez’s vampires suddenly foregrounded, it becomes clear that Gomez has given up on capitalism entirely, and is already onto the next life.
This apocalyptic conclusion suggests that the world must end to begin again. Clues to this conclusion are scattered throughout the narrative: in each chronological vignette of Gilda’s life she finds home, and later, makes the decision to leave it behind. In a sense, Gilda’s character is a stand-in for the wary anti-capitalist revolutionary. Despite her investment in Blackness and lifelong commitment to community-building, two hundred years pass before Gilda finally realizes that home is meant to be left and rebuilt over and over again.
Amidst a collapsing capitalist infrastructure, true, lasting power is radical in nature. While The Gilda Stories comprehends fully the anti-Black systems in place, the novel marries radical Black feminism and vampire sexuality to refute and condemn the inherent isolation of Blackness. The perpetual unity of Gilda’s vampire family urges socially dead individuals to pursue life outside of hostile structures of oppression: At the novel’s end, the world as it was previously known is over, but Gilda and her vampire family have survived. As they stand at the dawn of a new, unfathomable reality, social death becomes a kind of rebirth. As Gilda says, “there will be stories and dancing again.” To some, the horizontal family may appear to be the consolation prize for the Black family’s botched adherence to the white capitalist ideal. However, within the female locus and Black feminist scholarship, the horizontal family serves the crucial function of garnering unity among oppressed peoples, particularly women, all while having its sights set on an optimistic political future.
Like Gilda and Bird, I’ve found family amidst friends, as many people have. This is not a new concept—queer communities have been embracing the concept of chosen family for centuries. Blood relation, after all, does not guarantee acceptance or even love. The revolutionary aspect of The Gilda Stories comes with its faith in the horizontal family’s political potential and its complete lack of faith in all things nuclear.
Until we embrace our communities with the warmth of a mother, treat our lovers as equals, and take one another as our siblings, we will not truly know how to love at all. As we continue to worship the hierarchical family, we worship the dilution of love with power and spite. When Spillers sides with Moynihan to lament the weakness of the Black Family, she is not carrying the revolutionary thinking of Afropessimism far enough. For social death to become rebirth, water must be as thick as blood.