Excerpts from Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul by Leila Taylor

The proliferation of Afrogoth Facebook groups and Tumblr feeds, provide spaces for goth diaspora visibility in which corsets and vampiric paleness are replaced with African-ish “tribal” jewelry, sculptural braids, beads and patterns of white dots on Black faces, proving it is possible to represent gothicness without representing colonialism. Then I came across a photo of a black girl in a shirt that read SO GOTH I WAS BORN BLACK. After the initial “I see what you did there” chuckle, it occurred to me that this was a rather complex concept for a novelty t-shirt. What is the equivalency between “goth-ness” and “Blackness?” What is it about the gothic, beyond the color black, that is Black? Is Blackness inherently gothic?

Most subcultures have a uniform, a style, a language, a posture, something that unifies people together and identifies the “us” versus the “them” — a prescribed and understood visage that signifies I am one of you. But clothes can change, make-up can be removed, poses can drop. One can feel goth and not look the part. I like a crisp, white button-down shirt, or a chambray dress now and then. I wear little makeup and prefer a single statement ring rather than one on each finger. Aside from usually wearing black, the only thing that would identify me as a “goth” is if I told you I was. However, what I am immediately and unequivocally seen as is Black. I can’t take off my Blackness and change into something else, and if Rachel Dolezal thinks she can do the reverse, she is mistaken.

When I was accused by Black kids of acting white, or when I was asked by my college classmates to act as “Black” as possible, they were critiques of varying constructs of Blackness, neither of which were me. The specificity of the goth aesthetic is clear, Blackness is not. Ellison calls this tension the “blackness of blackness,”one unifying theory of Black culture clashing with subjectivity. Blackness is already objectified and marginalized, but with the addition of a qualifier (Black + goth) the otherness is doubled. It pushes the margins off of the page. It’s being Blacker than Black and what is more black than goth? If you’ll allow me the This is Spinal Tap reference, there’s none. None more black.

Goth (or punk or any other subculture outside of the mainstream) exists both inside and outside of society. Goth kids wouldn’t be weird if there weren’t any normal kids to compare them to. Blackness is the same —it wouldn’t exist without non-Blackness to compare it to. Both goth and Blackness are performative identities with foundations in transgression, a familiarity with death and aestheticized mourning, and a keen awareness of the darker side of human nature. Poet and scholar Fred Moten wrote that “black performance and black radicalism” are inseparable, that Blackness comes with a built-in resistance to objectification, and that this is “the ‘essence’ of black performance and indeed the ‘essence’ of blackness itself.” Otherness is Blackness. As Sacha Jenkins from the band the 1865 says, “When you’re Black you’re punk rock all the time.”

Saidiya Hartman writes that “the most universal definition of the slave is a stranger,” and being a stranger in a strange land is a classic way to create a sense of vulnerability, and the fear of the foreign is part of the vocabulary of horror.

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Horror has always been used to illuminate cultural anxieties and gives a voice to our collective fears. So, what to make of the gothic in America, a place which by the very nature of its founding is predisposed to a culture of anxiety? The dread of knowing the enemy at the gate is understandable, but in America the enemy has already passed through it, and has been brought inside. The call is coming from inside the house.

Through tales of horror and hauntings, by digging into graves and walking into the deep darkness, the gothic takes historic trauma and metabolizes into art. Like historical ectoplasm, the past oozes from orifices in literature, music, film, and art. The gothic aestheticizes the atrocity, giving us a method to process the pain and confront the fear, on our own terms, in our own way. So, what does Black trauma look like? What does it sound like? If, as the t-shirt suggests, “goth-ness” is quantifiable by “Blackness,” is the American gothic ontologically Black?i

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Candyman

There is no established literary genre of north-east or Midwest Gothic, but there could be. Every county has its own macabre genius loci, every city its seedy underbelly. When I lived in Ohio, conspiracy theorists believed that the logo for the consumer goods company, Proctor & Gamble (one of Cincinnati’s largest employers), contained Satanic symbology in its design and there were rumors that one neighborhood had a disproportionately large number of people in the witness protection program. Every place has the potential for horror.

The movie that most closely resembled the place where I grew up, Detroit, was Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992), the story of a graduate student researching the urban legend of a murderous boogey-man in the Cabrini–Green housing projects in Chicago. Unlike the suburban sprawl in Poltergeist or the quaint town of Amityville, the Candyman lurked in the graffiti-covered, dank hallways of high-rise public housing. Instead of the winding, dark secret tunnels in medieval dungeons or the creaking floorboards of a decrepit Victorian house, the architecture of dread in Candyman is that of urban neglect: the lights burnt out in a dismal hallway, the incessant drip, drip, drip of a leaky pipe, or a broken elevator with no way down from the twentieth floor but an isolated stairway.

The legend goes that Daniel Robitaille, born the son of a slave, grew up to be an artist. His talent allowed him into polite society, where he fell in love with a white woman and got her pregnant. But when her father found out he set a lynch mob out to get him. They cut off his hand with a rusty saw, and smeared his body in honey, after which he was stung to death by a swarm of bees. A century later, the Cabrini-Green project would be built on the site where they burned his body, and if you say “Candyman” five times in the mirror, he will crawl out of your bathroom cabinet and gut you with his hook.

Candyman is influenced by true events. In the 1980s, the Grace Abbott Homes were one of the most violent projects in Chicago, with one to three murders occurring a week. On 22 April 1987, fifty-two-year-old Ruth Mae McCoy made a call to 911:

McCoy: Yeah, they throwed the cabinet down.

Dispatcher: From where?

McCoy: I’m in the projects, I’m on the other side. You can reach — can reach my bathroom, they want to come through the bathroom.

Dispatcher: All right ma’am, at what address?

McCoy: 1440 W. 13th St.—apartment 1109. The elevator’s working.ii

Due to an anomaly in the design of the building, some of the apartments in Grace Abbott Homes were connected to each other through a pipe chase, a space in the wall that provided easy access to plumbing fixtures for maintenance. It also provided easy access for thieves. Since the bathroom cabinets were accessible from the other side, all someone had to do was take the cabinet out and crawl through. The police arrived, but when no one answered the door and attempts to get the key from the superintendent failed, they gave up and left. A concerned friend called the next day and the police came again, but wary of a lawsuit, the building’s security guards would not let them break down the door. The day after her friend insisted that the building drill McCoy’s lock, and when they finally entered, three days after her call to the police, she was found dead from four gunshot wounds.

There are multiple layers of horror within this story, only one of which is the terrifying prospect of an intruder crawling through your bathroom cabinet. There is the reluctance of the employees to act out of fear of reprisal from the management, and the lazy indifference of the police officers amounting to a despicable devaluing of the life of this poor, Black woman. The least amount of effort possible was made to help her, and if it was not for the persistence of her friend it might have been weeks before she was found. But what disturbs me the most is the 911 call in which she felt the need to specify that the elevator was working. She must have known that perhaps saving her life might not be worth the effort if it involved climbing eleven flights of stairs. The moral of her story is, if the Candyman won’t get you, poverty, systemic racism, indifferent law enforcement, and underfunded public services will.

Blackness is already objectified and marginalized, but with the addition of a qualifier (Black + goth) the otherness is doubled. It pushes the margins off of the page. It’s being Blacker than Black and what is more black than goth?

Blackness in America has not only never been comfortable, but is a constant source of discomfort. Blackness is often used as a metaphor for any number of social ills: poverty, crime, violence, drug use, promiscuity, broken families, ignorance… to be Black is to be the fear, to be the thing that goes bump in the night hiding under the bed. It is one thing to use literature and film to process social anxieties, but what do you do when you are the social anxiety? What do you do when the villagers with torches and pitchforks are coming after you?

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The conversion from personhood to commodity was just the first step of the process of monsterization. What Frank B. Wilderson calls “social death,” is a process of social zombification. The Black body (not Black person, but body) is susceptible to violence without reason, degradation without ramification, and available for exploitation. The monster is despised and feared by the very nature of its monstrosity. The monster is dangerous and threatening and therefore can be tortured, killed, or maimed with impunity. It may sound like I’m equating monstrousness with Blackness. I’m not. What I am saying is that the process of dehumanization is a process of monster-making. But monsters have power.

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Being the monster allows for a unique ability to see in the dark. The other has the clarity and awareness that fear obscures. To be the thing that strikes fear in the hearts of men is to know more than they do, to know them more than they know themselves. It’s dangerous, and to be sure, the villagers will always be at the ready with their torches, but the monster lives where you are afraid to go, it watches you while you sleep, hides in the shadows where you can’t see, it poisons the master’s tea when they’re not looking. The monster knows what you did last summer. America has gotten away with murder for four hundred years, and it’s been sleeping with one eye open ever since.

If you started at my house walking east down my old street, past the Barry Gordy mansion, after about a mile you’d reach a one-hundred-year-old, two-story Tudor. During one particularly brutal Michigan winter in 2015, a pipe burst in the upper floors, flooding the house from the top to the basement, water cascading out of the windows and freezing into a massive solid waterfall. In effect, it turned the house into a giant popsicle, earning it the nickname, “The Boston Cooler,” after a local treat of Vernors ginger ale and ice cream. The image is both shocking and beautiful. Each window is obscured and there are no photographs of the interior, so this bizarre spectacle is made even more mysterious by our being denied access to the heart of the chaos, but one can imagine pots and pans, armchairs, books, sweaters and table lamps frozen in space like bits of fruit floating in Jell-O. The house was purchased for $70,000 in 2011, but the owner was unable to keep up with the property taxes. So it was foreclosed, put up for auction, and padlocked without his knowledge, with all of his belongings still inside: furniture, tools, clothes, computers… It is an uncanny image; houses are not supposed to freeze into blocks of ice. The living room is not supposed to have thick, long icicles dripping down from the ceiling, the toilet is not supposed to be encased in ice. Nature and neglect turned what used to be a home into a sideshow attraction, a mutation of what security is supposed to look like. Obscure economic structures and environmental forces infiltrate spaces of comfort and stability, transforming a home into an object of terror like an eco-horror home invasion. My heart breaks for the owner, a pastor who lost everything he had, but I can’t stop looking at the photos.

We know how the gothic dresses, its color, its sound and its sentiment, but if the gothic sensibility was an object it would be the extreme conspicuous futility of the ruin. Time and the elements create a specific kind of decay. It’s not the decisive human design of vandalism or real-estate razing, but the relentless pull of physics and the chaos of the weather. The Livingstone House was a beautifully monstrous example of this. Neglect bent and twisted the building into organic forms, with shapes that are unpredictable and unfathomable, evoking a titillating slippage between the natural and the constructed that is both frightening and captivating.

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The ruin has no value other than as a spectacle, a metaphor representing our fear of the abandonment of civilization and our powerlessness over nature. The modern ruin speaks to both the pleasure and the anxiety of bearing witness to the limits of a post-industrial economy and the satisfaction of watching nature’s comeuppance. The ruin exists in a temporal liminality “[permitting] the viewer to see the intact object and its disappearance at the same time.”iii Like a zombie, the ruin is both alive and dead. Like a ghost, the ruin is here, yet not.

The fascination with the decay of the constructed environment and the proliferation of “ruin porn” (photographs fetishizing urban blight) shifts the aesthetics of disrepair and abandonment from the visual language of economic decline and into the realm of romanticism and entertainment, and there is a bitter irony in the commodification of the devalued.

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I have an uneasy relationship with ruin porn. There is a guilty pleasure in these images (hence the “porn” connotation), but having grown up in Detroit, it’s uncomfortable seeing my hometown perceived as sociological experiment, an art project, or a bargain-basement real-estate deal. There is a dissonance between my fascination with these images and the circumstances of their making. The ability to delight in the ruin is a privileged position. The spectacle of annihilation is only pleasurable when you’re not the one being annihilated and the aesthetics of decay can fall into the trap of romanticizing poverty. It’s easy to gape at the remains, but these images are the result of economic decline, political corruption, systemic racism, violence, and apathy.

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The role of the gothic is to pull back the curtains on the idyllic and show the dark, the mystery, and the reality, and that includes the fallacy of the one-true American.

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America has always been goth — from field hollers to the Sunken Place, the role of the Black gothic has served as the shadow over the shining city on the hill. The Black gothic rips the mask off of the thief and the villain who would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling kids. Every time the veil is lifted, when the zombies get woke, when the skeletons come out of the closet, when the ghosts start complaining, is when America gets goth.


Footnotes

 

i. While it is extremely tempting, I’m reluctant to use the term “hauntology” when talking about the gothic, a topic which regularly refers to the hauntings of “real” ghosts not metaphoric ones. Gothicists have strong feelings about Derrida’s portmanteau, like the way my father (an architect) hates when people call someone the “architect” of something other than buildings, like calling someone the “architect of economic policy.”

Based on a True Story

ii. Bogira, Steve (September 7, 1987) “They Came in Through the Bathroom Mirror: A Murder in the Projects,” Chicago Reader.

This Spooky Thing Called Slavery

iii. Adams, Julia and Schönle, Andreas (2010) Ruins of Modernity, Durham: DUP

Leila Taylor is a writer and designer whose work is focused on the gothic in contemporary culture, horror, and the aesthetics of romanticised melancholy. She has essays published in Horror Studies and The New Urban Gothic, and has given talks at the International Gothic Association and the Morbid Anatomy Museum. She lives in Brooklyn where she is Creative Director for Brooklyn Public Library. This is her first book.

Image: Ol’ Slumpy in black and white, Kate Sumbler, Creative Commons

Darkly is published by Repeater Books. Author bio and cover image courtesy of the same.