Looking for Racism in ‘I Am Legend’
Now for a topic that’s neither divisive nor prone to eliciting irrational anger and awkward discomfort: Racism in our favorite novels!
Namely, Richard Matheson’s classic, I Am Legend.
There are two camps when it comes to discussing the issue of race in Matheson’s book. The first says, “Man, it’s just a badass vampire book. Can’t it just be a vampire book?”
The second camp says, “Fuck no! Matheson’s a filthy racist and Robert Neville is just some macho white archetype!”
I Am Legend is totally about race, just not in the way that some might think. This novel clearly isn’t just about vampires and it’s not a racist metaphor about the white man’s last stand against the non-white invaders.
The opposite is true, actually, because I Am Legend is Matheson’s condemnation of a white power structure that facilitated racial subjugation in America in the first place.
Robert Neville is an average, casually – but not completely – racist white American.
Despite Neville’s infamous “But would you let your sister marry one?” inner monologue and his habit of calling the vampires “black bastards,” he’s not really racist at heart. Seriously.
Sure, Neville is a template for the broad-shouldered American male of the Fifties, vaguely fearful of the black minority who were starting to engage in the Civil Rights Movement.
While Neville holds mainstream racist views of his time, let’s not overlook the progressive stance of the “Sister” monologue. In it, Neville – and by extension Matheson – take an objective view of the black American’s plight. (Economic and political disenfranchisement, kneejerk hatred, social stratification, etc.)
Matheson didn’t conclude Neville’s monologue with “But would you let your sister marry one?” to negate the otherwise progressive principles in Neville’s thoughts. No, Matheson put the racist stamp on it to show Neville is indeed aware of black America’s plight, but his ingrained racism stops him from doing anything about it, even though…
The vampires didn’t cause their problems, America (and Russia) did. And the white power structure may have created Neville’s racism as well.
Matheson’s pseudo-scientific explanation for the vamps tells us that the vampiric germ is spread by large dust storms that begin right after – you guessed it – America wins a nuclear war, presumably over the Soviet Union.
Two white superpowers, in effect, create the conditions that foster the rise of this disenfranchised minority, the vampires. It wasn’t the Kenyans or Dominicans launching nuclear missiles, after all.
Neville, as the representative of old white America, dislikes the vampires even though it is the very system he’s so loyal to that facilitated their lot.
However, let’s not demonize Neville too much. Remember that toward the end of the novel – spoiler alert for anyone hasn’t read it yet: HE IS THE LEGEND – when the ‘living’ vampires create a new society and start brutally exterminating the ‘dead’ vampires, Neville is horrified by the cruelty.
Because despite the racism he internalized in the old system, Neville is still, above all, a human capable of empathy. It isn’t the average white, casually racist man causing the world’s problems, it’s the system that created him.
Had Matheson intended for Neville to remain a stalwart bigot, he wouldn’t have literally had Neville weeping while watching those vampires die.
Neville is less David Duke and more of the reformed Edward Norton in American History X, minus the fantastic abs, of course.
Neville becomes the hated minority of the new vampire society, proving his “Sister” monologue right.
The ‘living’ vampires create a new society and, naturally, they decide Neville can’t be a part of it.
Neville is their perceived scourge. He’s a crime wave. He’s a murderer. To them, he’s an uncivilized Other. Why?
Because of all the reasons Neville states in the “Sister” monologue. He’s segregated from vampire society, relegated to his home, and God forbid he ventures into the ‘wrong neighborhood’ after dark.
Neville has no voice in this new society. When he defends himself against the angry mob that comes to flush him out of ‘their’ town, he’s sentenced to death without trial, without his persecutors ever taking his plight or rationale into consideration.
Now let’s reexamine part of the “Sister” monologue, only with Neville in mind.
“Why then, this unkind prejudice, this thoughtless bias? Why cannot the vampire live where he chooses? Why must he seek out hiding places where none can find him out? Why do you wish him destroyed? Ah, see, you have turned the poor guileless innocent into a haunted animal. He has no means of support, no measures for proper education, he has not the voting franchise. No wonder he is compelled to seek out a predatory nocturnal existence.
Robert Neville grunted a surly grunt. Sure, sure, he thought, but would you let your sister marry one?”
The last line is hammered home when the female vampire-in-disguise, Ruth, falls in love with Neville. But would the vampires let one of their sisters marry someone from this hated minority? Of course not.
Ruth loves him in secret, barred from having a relationship with Neville due to her bigoted society’s social taboos.
So when discussing this classic novel and its racial implications, let’s give Matheson a little more credit. This isn’t just a vampire story, nor is it a bigoted allegory about a changing racial dynamic in 1950s America.
When you look closer, it’s a bit more nuanced than that.
So, uh, we’re cool, right?
Mack Moyer is currently hiding from Carl Weathers. Help him raise enough cash to skip town by purchasing his novel and other stories here.
This is an intelligent, fair reading of the novel. One could always argue for other interpretations, but this is a well-considered take on Matheson’s work.
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“Carl Weathers might hit me” is the best tag for a post. It should be a trending hashtag.
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Maybe ‘I Am Legend’ can be read as an allegory about race, but this article’s purple prose strained for too much effect and completely put me off.
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