Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Kendra Young showed me Black girls could be heroes, too
Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on The WB on March 10th, 1997. Here, HG contributor DW McKinney reflects on the importance of Kendra Young, the first Black vampire slayer, and how the series let Kendra down.
When I was a teenager, there was one television hour that I wouldn’t sacrifice for anyone. The moment Buffy the Vampire Slayer came on The WB, I begged my family not to disturb me, then secluded myself in my downstairs bedroom. I experienced unquantifiable joy when I watched Buffy. I rocked out to the theme song by Nerf Herder. I buried my face in a pillow to stifle loud exaltations. When Buffy fought a vampire in a cemetery, I executed roundhouse kicks around the room.
The show sparked ecstatic feelings in me. As my favorite slayer Faith (played by Eliza Dushku) loved to say, I was five-by-five, but in a way that was near euphoric. That elation shifted in Season 2 as I watched Buffy battle a mysterious Black teenager who matched her blow for blow. They paused mid-fight, adopting stances like two characters in Mortal Kombat.
“Who are you?” The attacker asked in a drawling accent.
“Who am I?” Buffy replied. “You attacked me! Who the hell are you?”
“I am Kendra. The vampire slayer.”
A Black slayer! My screams were so loud that my sister shouted for me to “keep it down in there” from her neighboring room. Kendra’s presence injected adrenaline into my body, and I danced at the mere thought of her. My allegiance to the blonde superheroine slipped as a new possibility presented itself.
Black girls could be slayers. We could be heroes.
Kristy Swanson’s performance as Buffy Summers in the 1992 movie laid the foundation for my devotion to the cheerleader-turned-heroine. Joss Whedon later created the television series, which debuted in 1997 with Sarah Michelle Geller as the titular slayer. The series fueled my obsessive interests in all things supernatural and captivated me with its storylines, neologisms, and a brooding David Boreanaz.
Buffy molded the supernatural around real-life issues like friendship, loneliness, bullying, and sexual freedom. The show also depicted life absent of magic and the paranormal. Death wasn’t always a demon and our loved ones couldn’t always be saved with a spell book.
I loved that Buffy defied preconceptions. She was more than a Final Girl or a ditzy blonde. She was a teen who found love, who was fashionable, made mistakes, and maintained a social life while saving the world from the Hellmouth. Buffy portrayed vulnerability and burgeoning girlhood (later, womanhood). She struggled to honor her duty while struggling with her identity and desiring the freedom of a normal life. Whenever the Scooby Gang gathered together, it forced us to question what we were willing to sacrifice for the greater good.
For all the kickass grrrl power of the show, the Buffy-verse lacked diversity. My parents dislike for the blanket whiteness in Buffy was venomous. My father often made it his mission to interrupt me while I watched the show and laughed when I begged him to stop bothering me. He’d call me upstairs right after the opening credits ended and order me to make him a sandwich or fetch a glass of water. Sometimes, right when I returned to my room, he’d call me back upstairs for one more thing.
“You like this Buffy show, huh? My father often stared at me gleefully when he noticed me handing him his snacks with restrained anger. “Why? She’s white. There are no Black people on that show, are there?
To my father’s amusement, I could never think of a Black person on Buffy who wasn’t an extra. Each time my father goaded me, I was forced to acknowledge that I never really saw myself represented on the show either. I had seen versions of myself in shows like Living Single and Martin, but I hadn’t considered the importance of representation in shows that did not have an all-Black cast.
Buffy’s death—“for a minute”—in the Season 1 finale activated the next slayer in line. When Kendra Young (Bianca Lawson) graced the screen, she was an answer to my father’s questions and satisfied the parts of my identity yearning to be depicted on television.
When Buffy first premiered, I was a dorky 12-year-old outcast struggling to be seen by my siblings and all the cool kids at school. I was teased and bullied, and I desperately wanted to be someone else. I sought acceptance and, at first, the show offered me a little bit in the form of meek computer whiz Willow. But when Kendra eventually arrived in Sunnydale, it offered me more.
Kendra defied the Black best friend, magical negro, and funny sidekick tropes that Black actors and actresses are often relegated to. She had an integral role that affected narrative development. She was intelligent, focused, and more knowledgeable than Buffy about demonic history and the Big Bads in their universe. In some ways, she also had more physical capabilities. Kendra was emotionally complex and challenged how Buffy viewed her own identity as a slayer.
Black girls like me needed to see themselves on screen fighting against the oppressive evil forces that tried to destroy the world and kill the people we loved. Kendra was a somewhat tangible avatar that allowed me to process the real issues going on in my life. She demonstrated that I could fight my own battles. I didn’t need to be saved. I was my own savior.
Whedon and the other show writers committed a disservice to Kendra’s character. When Buffy mocked Kendra’s Jamaican accent (albeit a terrible one), her comments were barbs that cut into my Black skin. I suffered secondhand shame from Kendra’s mistreatment and felt disrespected by a show I loved.
I naively believed this new Black protagonist would be permanently incorporated in the series’ storylines. Kendra’s presence mattered so much to me, I didn’t want her to disappear. She became my hope for the betterment I wanted in my own life. However, once she formed a sisterhood with Buffy, she suffered a cheap, quick death after appearing in only three episodes.
Kendra’s death shocked me silent for the rest of that episode. I held a grudge against Buffy afterward, but I still watched it because I loved the Scooby Gang and nurtured hope that I would see more Black representation in future seasons. Kendra laid the foundation for subsequent Black characters like high school principal Robin Wood and, in flashbacks, his mother and slayer Nikki Wood. Then there was Potential Slayer Rona and Sineya, the First Slayer, though she was reduced to a primitive being bereft of speech and personhood. Each of these characters made me happy in a way that would not have been possible if not for the initial Black girl magic of Kendra.
It’s impossible for me to honor the awesome slayage that was Buffy the Vampire Slayer without also paying homage to Kendra Young. I look forward to the show’s reboot, which seeks to continue, and not recast, the titular slayer’s storyline with a Black woman as the main slayer. At its core, Buffy deals with potential: potential slayers, our potential to change the world, our potential to empower ourselves. And with this reboot, there is the potential to have more of our stories told.