Imagine seeing the journey of the Black Atlantic through the memories of a centuries-old vampiric human. A DC IT specialist working at an HIV organization Justin Kena is privileged with this information when he falls for one named Dante. As he falls in love, he learns of the ancient indigenous Yoruba group, the Razadi, who are vampiric and witnesses to pre-, during, and post-slavery times in Rashid Darden‘s Birth of a Dark Nation.
Birth of a Dark Nation flips the script on traditional vampire tales from its shifting narration to its inclusion of slave narration and cultural rituals to non-Western views of the vampire to it as a same-gender loving story that confronts those who say it is a recent Western phenomenon. Darden’s previous work, Lazarus, Covenant, and Epiphany has centered on black LGBT experiences, and now he has taken that and extended it to black speculative fiction.
The story begins with a Razadi receiving orders from an elder to watch over Justin because he is considered the “key,” similar to Neo in the Matrix or any messiah-like character. Later, we are introduced to Dante, a street hustler, who Justin randomly notices and to whom he has an instant attraction. When Dante finally reveals who he is to Justin, Justin begins his transformation from the computer guy at a dead-end job to part of the Razadi family and leader in his community.
Besides, Dante and Justin’s romance, Darden references quite a bit of vampire and supernatural lore from around the world, including allusions to the Egyptian deity Sekhmet, Orisha and possession, and the Arabic Djinn. The novel has similarities to Octavia Butler’s Fledgeling, a kind of symbiosis between humans and vampires (although the humans do not know because they are usually hypnotized, but the Razadi try to be civil about it), vampirism and queer identity, and the genetic and cultural benefits and drawbacks of mutations (and viruses). Justin works at an HIV organization and the Razadi can smell HIV in a human, but the novel overall comments on our one-dimensional view of viruses; vampirism (as well as sexual contact and seduction) reveals our fear of the virus. Viruses are the invading others that we do not realize are already on the inside, domesticated and could revert at any moment or subtly be changing us for good or bad, kind of like the Razadi themselves and how they came to be, and Justin’s incorporation into the Razadi. Questions come to mind like, is blackness or whiteness a cultural virus (Pablo Picasso once called African art a virus, Kodwo Eshun wrote about cultural viruses/contagions, Steve Goodman as well); are genetic mutations and variations the result of viruses; is our “humanness” the result of viruses, etc? Is the Razadi’s mission to spread the seed similar to the idea of a virus, playing with the idea of Africa as a virus?
Justin aids the Razadi, who are also known as daywalkers because they can be out in sunlight, investigate and fight a group of nightwalkers who have taken a Razadi brother hostage for scientific experiments. The nightwalkers are also known for capturing the Razadi in West Africa during the Translatlantic Slave Trade. That is the other strong part of the novel, the memories Dante transmits into Justin’s mind (again virus theme as well as the Jedi-like hypnosis ability) of the travels and “reincarnations” of the Razadi throughout history. Relating it to another Butler novel, Kindred, is Justin’s body a kind of time and memory machine carrying the traditions (blood) of the Razadi forward? The reader learns of the wars between indigenous groups in the Oyo Empire, their relationships to slave captors, and slave insurrections on boats and in the Americas. They are not all positive either, all the situations are complicated and filled with tensions between people who are assumed to be alike because they look alike. Additionally, since my father is from Dominica and both of my parents are Caribbean, I greatly enjoyed mentions of Caribbean carnival, Caribbean heritage and that the first landing point of the Razadi was in Dominica, where the reader will learn a brief history of Dominica and its Carib natives.
Since this is only volume one, in sequels, I would like to see a stronger presence for black women in the story. Yes, there are women of the past, like the Razadi’s mother Abeo, an enslaved black woman Rebekah and a brief inclusion of Marie Laveau, but I want to see others in the contemporary world they now live. Dante mentions that he also had a sister who was pregnant with the child of a man from another Yoruba group. Maybe the next volume can include them finding the sister, other sisters, the child and other descendants. But other than that, Darden’s novel packs a lot of information, history and social commentary into a contemporary urban vampire novel about two men finding soul mates in each other.