How Zombies Inform our Understanding of Racism


Introduction

Since the appropriation of the Haitian zonbi into American popular culture, zombie narratives have reflected worries and tensions in American society. In this essay, we will use Critical Discourse Analysis to unpack the notion of American zombies. Focusing our analysis on popular zombie narratives of the mid-20th century, we find that shifts in the construction of these stories from White Zombie to The Walking Dead reflect the development and popularization of critical race theory and new ideologies concerning agency. Comparing zombie narratives from the 1930s to the 1950s to their more contemporary counterparts of the 2000s to now, we uncover evidence of how acute relationships between zombies and the masters who control them have been traded in for full-scale depictions of viral hordes and contagion. This shift from explicit and concrete control mechanisms to largely implicit and hard-to-pinpoint sources of systemic power, mirrors transformations in our public consciousness concerning racism in the U.S. over the last century. Across multiple forms of today’s media, we observe greater recognition of the interpersonal and covert manifestations of structural and institutional racism. While racism has long been understood by oppressed and marginalized peoples in the U.S. as a complex and structurally supported reinforcing element of White supremacy, we are only now, within the last few decades, enjoying more widespread public discussion acknowledging this fact in greater earnest.

Early Zombies - 1930s to 1950s

White Zombie

Between the 1930s and 1950s, zombie media largely depicted zombies as creatures controlled by evil masters. Zombification was a manageable, avoidable danger, and the public expected these narratives to end in victory against zombification. Similarly, contemporary racial optimists viewed our “race problem” as acutely vanquishable. Known as the first American zombie film, White Zombie was released in 1932, and tells the story of “evil voodoo master” Murder Legendre who controls an entire workforce of zombies at his mill. After he is knocked unconscious, without him, the zombies have no direction, and end up walking off a cliff’s edge. When Legendre is finally killed, the female lead, whom he earlier put into a zombie state, awakens to her normal self. Both of these scenes illustrate how the limited autonomy for zombies could be measured by naming exactly who controlled them.1 These early American zombies had no autonomy because of clearly defined masters who conjured them into existence. Furthermore, the state of being a zombie within this early period is just that - a state that is induced and reversible. In order to turn the female lead into a zombie, Legendre tricks her into drinking a potion. Later, when Legendre dies, she is able to turn back into a normal living human. This illustrates how defeating zombie-ness is relatively easily achieved within this earlier period by killing the master.

Explicit Racism in the U.S. - 1930s to 1950s

Paralleling the development of the zombie narrative in American popular culture is a different development in our public consciousness regarding the longstanding mistreatment and racialized oppression of Native Americans, African Americans, and others across the U.S. In the years following the release of White Zombie, U.S. policies sanctioned the wartime internment of Japanese Americans, and ignored voting rights and other abuses exacted across the country on African Americans, for example, while explicitly protecting racial segregation. The implementation of these Jim Crow laws directly reflected White desire to control non-Whites in the American public sphere. As with the emergence of the American zombie as an appropriation from its deliberately obscured origins in the enslavement of Africans who would later become Haitians, the power dynamics of racism were clear and present legacies of slavery and colonial Manifest Destiny. There were masters, those with power, and the disenfranchised were a powerless labor force, zombified within the racist gaze. African Americans, in particular, were denied the rights of full citizens and full humans, and experienced malicious campaigns of harassment, refusal of service at polls and businesses, death threats, and murder.

Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951)

By the same token, autonomy over one’s body was also affected by racism during the time of White Zombie’s release. Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman living in Maryland during the 1940s, and it is from her body that the famously immortal HeLa cells were extracted without consent, acknowledgement, or compensation. Having developed cervical cancer, she sought help from the local segregated hospital at which African Americans were often subject to illegal or intentionally confusing experimentation by White doctors. Henrietta Lacks experienced no exception. Her cancerous cells, removed for study, were found to be immortal, living and multiplying indefinitely unlike any other cells studied previously.

The scientific discovery of what became known as HeLa cells continues to allow researchers to conduct numerous studies on human cells without ever troubling a human body. While this development was undeniably important, the dismissal of Black body autonomy was clear when, without her or her family’s knowledge, Henrietta Lacks’ cells were taken and sold in mass quantities to laboratories all over the world. This went uncontested for years until the family was made aware of the use of Henrietta Lacks’ cells.2 The doctors and scientists, who personally worked with Henrietta Lacks, and later, with her cells, practiced explicit racism by participating in the racist practices of the hospital and also by failing to acknowledge her human rights. Because racism was explicitly and widely practiced, mainstream public understandings of racism particularly drew attention to the actions of racist individuals. Here, we specifically include the story of Henrietta Lacks, because we identify it as a clear violation of autonomy that constitutes a real life example of zombification concurrent with the earlier period of American zombie history. The continued used of her HeLa cells in the present day underscores entrenched legacies of racism that structured hospitals and other everyday institutions into bona fide instruments of racialized (not to mention, gendered) inequality.

Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement

Moreover, like the early zombie film narratives of the period, the divide between Whites and African Americans was racially and otherwise explicit. It was possible to be a white person and not have to worry about being adversely affected by or contributing to racism. By being the more empowered members of society, Whites had the privilege of not having to engage directly in interpersonal racism while continuing to benefit from institutionalized, explicit racial (and color) hierarchy. Examples of intentional racism, such as White Only signs or pickaninnies, were visibly prevalent in all aspects of life.

At the same time, some Whites were involved in anti-racism work alongside African Americans, believing that by getting rid of Jim Crow laws and other explicit forms of racism, racism would be eradicated. Since racism was so visibly and behaviorally defined, mainstream public understanding was that it could be corralled, and large flare-ups could be extinguished. Approaching the nascent civil rights movement in the 1950s, a growing coalition movement organized for an end to government-sanctioned segregation and discrimination. What we find greatly fascinating is that the corresponding anxieties and motivations of White America were grossly reflected in zombie narratives of the time, like White Zombie, in the on-screen justifications of a vilified “master” and a contained and controllable zombie labor force.

Contemporary Zombies - 2000s to Now

By contrast, today’s zombies narratives like those of the television series The Walking Dead (2010) and the film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) center upon the imagining of a larger, more elusive force at work behind a zombie outbreak that is no longer controllable or even able to be defeated. Beyond the simple master featured in earlier zombie media, the increasingly dystopic narratives of today affect both zombies and the living. Most notably, a kind of overarching contagion features in these modern narratives. Sometimes, the origin of the contagion is unclear in both circumstance and time, representing a kind of chaos, and the difficulty of charting a clear history or future within the dystopic circumstances.

These newer films and television shows have evolved toward apocalypse, where human characters must adopt a survival-focused lifestyle. We observe in these renewed zombie narratives, a reflection of the growing study and understanding of race, racism, and racial ideology in U.S. society. In the 1970s, Critical Legal Studies led to the development of Critical Race Theory, which conceived of racism as an institutional power imbalance. Our increasing understanding in academia, and in the public sphere, more and more is that racism is not the sum total of all the racists and their actions added together, but the result of power structures built into society over centuries of White supremacy, White colonialism, and White privilege. Historical developments in U.S. academic and public conceptions of race and racism vividly reinforce our observations. Protests began to target the courts, the government, and the education system at-large for the racist ways African Americans and other American citizens were and continue to be treated.

The Walking Dead

Discussions regarding the inequities of the more prominent institutions of the U.S. continue to dominate our cultural consciousness. This is reflected in the on-screen storytelling of contemporary zombie narratives by today’s generation of screenwriters, directors, and producers. To illustrate, in the dystopic storyworld of the popular television series The Walking Dead, released in 2010 on the American Movie Classics (AMC) cable network, all of the human population is intrinsically affected and infected by a zombie contagion.3 People become zombies either by being bitten or by simply dying, but to become a zombie is inevitable. Once dead, a person’s unavoidable zombification begins.4 There is no cure. Everyone will ultimately die, hence, everyone must become a zombie. The totalizing effect of this scenario presents an important philosophical conundrum that parallels with the actual paradoxes of racism in our society; in the end, only zombies will be left. From our analytical perspective, this begs the question: Is there any way to fully eradicate racism?

The rabid, cannibalistic zombies of The Walking Dead differ immensely from those of earlier films such as White Zombie, wherein the undead were explicitly conjured and controlled by others in a manner that bore more similarities to the Haitian lore and religious cultural practice that preceded it. Contemporary zombies are often not directly controlled by a certain person or group. In these newer storyworlds, total triumph over zombification is impossible; we can only work towards some semblance of temporary control and safety, without ever actually achieving this ideal.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Similarly, in the 2016 film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, set in Victorian England, the origin of zombification is explained vaguely as a disease that came from “the colonies,” supposedly referring to areas of South Asia and Africa which Britain had colonized by the early 19th century. Using the lens of Critical Discourse Analysis, we see that such a discursive practice groups all of these colonized nations into one amorphous entity, united by being viewed as “other” and inferior under the British imperialist gaze. It is implied that “the colonies” are foul, dangerous places from which contagion originates, which further implies that the people of these places are intrinsically polluted and threatening. Furthermore, most zombies pictured in the film (with the exception of Wickham’s army at St. Lazarus church), emerge as part of random, unorganized, viral outbreaks. Though the onslaught of zombies to Pemberley estate is temporarily stemmed by the setting off of explosive charges along the final Hingham Bridge connecting the countryside to London’s urban environs, it is only a matter of time before the zombies make it to this last un-zombified patch of England. In fact, the movie ends with the surprise appearance of Wickham and his zombie horde rushing upon the wedding of Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Systemic Racism in the U.S.

Analyzed side by side, television series The Walking Dead and the film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are primary examples of how contemporary zombie narratives harbor opportunities for critical reflection upon the institutionalization of numerous social norms in American society. In these fictive worlds, there are no masters puppeteering zombies or controlling the spread of contagion. The bodily autonomy of key survivors is certainly limited by the circumstances, though the source of the contagion is never revealed. Rather, the fates of all living and un-living creatures are intertwined under this larger, invisible and immaterial power.

To analogize, we now largely understand racism as the tool of worldwide systems to which we are all subjected by differing degrees and ways. In some sense, by being born into this system, aspects of our life chances have been predetermined. Though there is amazing and important work being done to combat and eradicate racism, it is not as simple as stopping “evil masters” and their explicit discrimination. If anything, the covert nature of racist actions and policies makes it a challenge at times to even identify the underlying source of harm. Like the eradication of the contemporary zombie contagion, coded, ingrained systems of power are much harder to dismantle and destroy completely. Within American public consciousness, there remains a buoyant sense of optimism, alongside the sobering realization of how extensive and complex our work to eradicate racism needs to be.

Conclusion

Existing literature on zombie narratives argues that they are reflections of various anxieties White America has and continues to harbor toward not only African Americans, but also immigrants, autonomous women, and others. As empty vessels, zombies are themselves a tabula rasa, and (super)natural analogs of these racialized anxieties within a fictive storyworld.5 In our analysis, we argue that cross-examination of zombie stories from the 1930s to the 1950s, and the 2000s to today, shows that zombie stories correlate with shifts in our mainstream and popular understandings of racism then and now. The power play between zombies and humans is eerily similar to that between marginalized peoples and Whites in the U.S. If we have learned anything from these zombie stories, it is that each and every small victory against evil is meaningful.

  1. White Zombie.” IMDb. Accessed April 26, 2016.

  2. Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishers, 2010

  3. The Walking Dead.” IMDb. Accessed April 26, 2016.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Kordas, Ann, “New South, New Immigrants, New Women, New Zombies: The Historical Development of the Zombie in American Popular Culture,” in Race, Oppression and the Zombie: Essays on Cross-Cultural Appropriations of the Caribbean Tradition (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2011), pg. #30.