The roundtable gathers specialists dedicated to thinking through the Afro‐Gothic as a conceptual approach to black aesthetics and as a theoretical framework. In the spirit of camaraderie and intellectual curiosity, contributors consider meanings of the Afro‐Gothic from various disciplines and diasporic perspectives. The participants discuss the ways in which horror, haunting, the uncanny, the monstrous, and the fantastic are manifest in black aesthetics and, in doing so, they conceptualize Afro‐Gothic, indicate how its tenets manifest in each of their work, and indicate directions for future study.
One of the most exciting aspects of curating this special issue on Afro-Gothic has been the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the wealth of work being done in this emerging field. This project has attracted rich and thoughtful contributions and generated stimulating conversations. Needless to say, we're very inspired by how it all has taken shape. We anticipated this roundtable at the outset, as we thought it important to gather specialists who could help all of us think through the concept. While certainly not new, the attempt to use the term Afro-Gothic in casual conversation will fail often enough for us to essay some explication. Thus we've approached this roundtable as an opportunity to ask questions generated by this compilation process and to sit with some of the issues raised by our interlocutors and contributors, as well as an occasion to speak generally about the ways in which horror, haunting, the uncanny, the monstrous, and the fantastic are manifest in contemporary black aesthetics. Our panelists brought heaps of expertise and good humor to the assembly; we were humbled by their intelligence and grateful for their camaraderie. The following conversation took place online over Zoom on January 7, 2022; it has been edited for length and clarity.
Tashima Thomas: Can we start with introductions?
Lea Anderson: I'm a freelance writer and horror scholar. My work centers around the Afro-Gothic; the eco-gothic and black feminine monstrosity are my two main focuses. I'm a columnist for Fangoria, and I write about a framework that I developed called “the Swallowing,” which includes all different manifestations of monstrous figures—so there's an entry on cannibalism, one on black vampires, and one on frogs. [Laughter.] Which is probably the one that people are most surprised by.
Leila Taylor: I'm a writer, graphic designer, and creative director for Brooklyn Public Library. I'm the author of Darkly: Black History and America's Gothic Soul (2019). My work deals with the Gothic in black culture and history, horror in film and literature, and pretty much anything spooky and esoteric. I've written about the cultural, artistic, and symbolic significance of the color black; Detroit as an urban gothic space; and homeownership and the American dream in horror movies. I wrote a piece on W. E. B. Du Bois and his data infographics for the comic Bitter Root. I'm working on a second book that is about architecture, homes, and horror.
John Jennings: I'm a professor of media and cultural studies; my background is also in graphic design. I'm originally from the South, so I grew up in one of the most gothic spaces ever—Mississippi. My mother was a huge horror and science fiction fan, so I got it honestly. I've always been really interested in Gothic fiction; the first thing I probably ever read as a kid was Edgar Allan Poe. Of course, growing up in Mississippi, the idea of the southern Gothic just permeates the space, and I think it's always traveled with me. I was the first African American man to win the Bram Stoker award for my adaptation of Octavia Butler's Kindred (1979). Recently, I received the Hugo Award for my adaptation of Parable of the Sower (Octavia Butler, 1993). Currently, I'm working on a bunch of different projects—one is a critical history of Marvel's black superheroes with Simon and Schuster called My Superhero Is Black. I'm also working on a miniseries creating a new black superhero for Marvel. I'm doing some work with the Smithsonian, and I was on the steering committee for the Met's Afrofuturist Period Room, “Before Yesterday We Could Fly.” I teach courses on comics and contemporary culture, Afrofuturism and aesthetics, the visual culture of horror, and specifically on black superheroes and politics.
Paul Miller: I'm a writer, artist, musician, and a music producer based in New York City. I've written five books and am working on my sixth, called “Digital Fictions: The Future of Storytelling.” It's about how algorithms have shaped contemporary narratives through computational processes. Currently, I'm an artist in residence at Yale in the quantum physics department looking at the overlap between quantum processes and the arts. I'm generating a group of artworks, musical compositions, and a coffee table book with Yale University Press. I'm mostly into science, which can lead you down a lot of different paths. I also work with National Geographic, and probably the most well-known project I did was to go to the Antarctic for six weeks with a backpack. There I did a series of what I call “acoustic portraits” of ice that were exhibited in a number of museums like the Metropolitan Museum, and so on.
Sybil Cooksey: Maybe we'll start with Leila, because I love how, in Darkly, you do the work of unpacking the history of the Gothic, while thinking about—but then also against—genre. And maybe this is a version of the question, Why Gothic? Why now? I've noticed that it is really something that people are feeling and wrestling with. So what's going on, Leila, what's in the ether?
LT: When I started this project, one of the things that surprised me was how often I was asked to define “Gothic,” and the answer is always more complicated than it seems. It depends on where you are and what century you're from. Horace Walpole wrote The Castle of Otranto (which is considered the first Gothic novel) in 1764, and that pretty much set the foundation for what we think of as Gothic now. We associate the Gothic with the spooky European castle, the decrepit Victorian mansion. With Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley. It's a very Anglo-Saxon perspective. Culturally we associate it with a certain kind of look and feel in horror, architecture, literature, and art—a Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro, 2015) aesthetic within a very Eurocentric point of view. That said, I think people are starting to break down the definition of what the Gothic is and think about what it means, not just how it looks. Most people are used to looking at the Gothic in a purely stylistic way as opposed to the meaning and psychology behind it. To me, the Gothic is all about the materiality of affect, it's about the aesthetics of fear and the romanticization of melancholy. It's taking all of those “negative” feelings, those dark and creepy things that scare us, and metabolizing them into art.
Once you start getting rid of the surface area, different people start seeing themselves and their own culture and their own language and their own practices—they start to see the gothic-ness in them. So I think the definition of Gothic is expanding a lot beyond the traditional Eurocentric or British point of view. It's a sensibility that can be applied to anyone. Every culture has its ghost stories, its own cultural traumas to work through somehow. My whole thing is, I want to know what is the Middle Eastern Gothic? When I saw A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014), I thought it was absolutely beautiful. Just gorgeous. In Mexico there is a culture of the Day of the Dead that we've kind of known, but I think people forgot. And then there are folktales from Japan and the phenomenon of Korean horror. What does Indigenous American Gothic look like? So much of the Gothic that we think of now comes from Egypt and Egyptology, but that gets brushed aside. What about the symbology of ancient Egypt, or hoodoo practices here in America? You start to see Gothic traits and sensibilities everywhere. I think now people are seeing all of the references in their own cultures and are claiming it as their own and saying, “Yeah, this is actually Gothic.” It's not just an old Victorian house on a hill. It's not just the moors or whatever. It's not just white women in nightgowns running from a ruined castle. So I think the definition of the Gothic has loosened up, and it's not as limiting as it was before.
PM: So one of the things that crossed my mind as I was listening is that I always want to go back to the early foundations of the way people think about horror or the uncanny. On the one hand, you have somebody like Sigmund Freud—who is a very problematic figure—and the German term unheimlich, which means unhomely or a place of familiarity that is unfamiliar. And then, on the other hand, the Goths were an eastern Germanic tribe that caused havoc for the Romans. And eventually the Vandals, the Goths, and Ostrogoths led to the downfall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD. So I feel that sometimes we misapply labels. It intrigues me that we in America love labels and are so playful with them. Yet once those labels stick, it's really hard to deprogram people from them. Right now the new boogeyman is Critical Race Theory; for white Americans it is a spooky thing that the right wing has been using to enable everything from voter suppression to the radical restructuring of America's educational system. I'd love to see if there's some kind of intersection with these kinds of issues. Race and fear have always created this ambiguous space.
LA: I can definitely speak to that. One of my favorite things Toni Morrison ever said or wrote comes from her 1993 Nobel lecture when she says that language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. That fear that we're talking about, that Paul I think is gesturing toward, about America's commitment to labels and language in that very structural way, is born of Enlightenment thinking; it comes out of the structuralism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Which coincides directly with the foundations and development of the Gothic as we understand it and conceive of it now. So Enlightenment thinking's big conundrum was how at odds it was with slavery as an institution—they fundamentally do not work together. If you're romanticizing human rights and at the same time enslaving people, then that's hypocrisy. At the same time that modern Western society as we know it now is being conceived of, the Gothic is being created—the monster is being created at the same time too. Because they looked at us and saw monsters and called us monsters, they created that monster. Speaking to Critical Race Theory, the moral hysteria about white children is not a new fight; this has been an ongoing fight for centuries. A piece that I just wrote for Fangoria is partly about this—that this is fear of the future. It's the sentiment that Leila ends Darkly with, this fear of black futures. The chapter, if I remember right, is called “Fear of a Black Planet.”
JJ: I think the first time I came across the space of the Gothic was when people started referring to my work as such, specifically the horror pieces I'd been doing—these twisted cyborg images that lent themselves to different interpretations—science experiments gone bad, to a certain degree. It was this interstitial point between Afrofuturism and something that could be considered Gothic. I was thinking about the new interest in Afrofuturism and black speculative culture and how, at first, everybody was pushing everything under the umbrella of “Afrofuturism”; you know, anything with magic, or speculation, or black people and leprechauns, or whatever, was considered Afrofuturist. But I don't think that's true. What that did was ignore other tropes and other types of storytelling. Looking at something like Kindred, for instance, which I don't see as Afrofuturist at all: it has tropes of the Gothic because of the finding of a secret or mysterious artifact, in this case the family Bible that Dana finds; mysterious time travel; a weird, twisted romantic quadrangle, or triangle. There is also the doppelgänger, which is a huge part of the Gothic, when she finds herself in the past in Alice. There's body horror in the beginning of it—her arm is fused into a wall, for God's sake! So it actually feels more like a Gothic space to me.
LT: I always thought of Kindred as horror because there is a ghostliness and that slippage in time. The back-and-forth between past and future is a very Gothic trope—the ghostliness of time.
JJ: My friend Stanford Carpenter and I came up with this term, ethnogothic. And I had been thinking about black gothic, the Afro-gothic. But he's a cultural anthropologist, so he's thinking about artifacts. What's interesting to me is that the artifact we're dealing with, the technology we're dealing with, is actually race, or blackness itself. If you look at some of Keith Obadike's early work when he sells his blackness on eBay, you know that piece? He refers to it as an “heirloom,” right? [Laughter.] Like an inherited heirloom that I have to deal with, and I'm going to sell it—it's an artifact. So it's these artifacts and arti-fictions, if you will, that the Gothic attempts to deal with.
We're always dealing with revivals and things of that nature—feeling like we're in the same space again. Like, it's 2022, and it feels like we're in the 1950s. The Gothic involves the idea of being trapped in interstitial spaces or crossroads and—as Paul was saying—the weirdness of it. Except the haunted house we're dealing with, of course, is America. America is a big haunted house made up of all of these ghosts, goblins, and things we don't want to deal with. When I talk to my students about horror, the ethnogothic, the Afro-gothic, and the Afrofuture, I always use Erykah Badu's song “Bag Lady” as a reference. The narrative of the song is she sees a bag lady trying to get on the bus, but she is struggling with too many bags. Badu is singing, “Let it go, let it go, let it go”—you need to let those ghosts and goblins and trauma out of your bags. Name those ghosts and goblins, and then they can go somewhere else, and then maybe you can get on that bus to the Afrofuture. Overall I just don't like the idea of a big umbrella that puts everything speculative in nature under one term, because it actually disrupts the intention. And also, so much of the Gothic and horror is about affect, so what is the affect that you're dealing with in the story you tell?
SC: I want to jump in on the question of genre and affect because it has come up a lot in the process of putting together this issue. I feel like in our conversations around Afro-Gothic, there are two definite strains. There are people who are working with the genre, that is, the Gothic—big G—and they think about blackness in relation to it. They highlight how the Gothic as a genre is always about these unprocessed anxieties about difference, otherness. But there are also those who understand the gothic—with a little g–nature of black life. It's a gothic that's more about affect, and ambience, and not necessarily in lockstep with the familiar conventions of a known genre.
LT: I think you're exactly right in terms of the big G / little g. The term is so loaded with historical connotations. Depending on who you're talking with, someone might immediately think of architecture; for someone who is a specialist in British political movements, the term means something very different; if you're talking to someone who's really into Mary Shelley, it means something else. I think the big G Gothic is so plastic and flexible that it really depends on the era and your perspective. I like the idea of the little g gothic that's used to describe the uncanniness, that sixth sense, or eerie unknown that permeates language, life, and culture. I think that little g gothic is a great way to talk about those things because the big G tends to overwhelm the little g.
PM: When I hear the term Gothic, I think of ’80s arthouse music—Bauhaus, the Cure—you know, art rock kids dressed in black. There are funny ways of updating that with hip-hop. In the ’90s, RZA from Wu-Tang and a couple of other people did project bands that were a kind of Goth hip-hop. . . horrorcore, Prince Paul and his crew.
SC: Leila has this brilliant thing in her book where she talks about being a big fan of Siouxsie and the Banshees growing up and thinking, oh, this is so Goth. Then after hearing their cover of “Strange Fruit,” she goes to find Billie Holiday's version and is just blown away. Like there's just something about it. So she goes on to explain that Siouxsie's version is Goth and Billie Holiday's is gothic. I think this difference between Goth and gothic sort of crystallizes it for me in ways that speak to what Paul is talking about.
LT: The Billie Holiday, the original, version of that song comes from the anguish, dread, and terror of real trauma, generational trauma. In addition to the very real danger of a black woman singing about white supremacy publicly in America, in 1939. It was a risk for her to sing that song. She was worried it would ruin her career. It comes from a place of honesty and pain that you can hear in her voice. It's biographical. Lyrically that contrast between the pastoral and the grotesque? That's gothic. With the cover it becomes stylized, it drains all the bite out of it. You lose the -ic when it becomes Goth. Billie's version gives me shivers to this day. And so does Nina Simone's version. The Siouxsie version, or the Annie Lennox version, for that matter, doesn't do that.
TT: This relates to our formulation of Afro-Gothic as originating in an everyday lived black experience. Even when you think about the European Gothic, a lot of that was based on black experiences. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was really not about the Industrial Revolution. It was about her reading of escaped slave narratives from Haiti. In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving is referencing Nat Turner's rebellion. As Lea mentioned regarding the simultaneous rise of the Enlightenment with the height of slavery, it also coincides with the rise of the Gothic. The first appearance of the Flying Dutchman, the idea of the ghost ship, comes in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. On the Flying Dutchman they never tell you what the cargo is! You just know they are destined to float upon the sea interminably and never be able to make land. So I'm not arguing for a Eurocentric Gothic that's colored black; I am actually thinking about the everyday lived black experience as the original gothic. Which goes right back to what we were just talking about with Billie Holiday's version of “Strange Fruit.” I imagine Afro-Gothic as the original gothic. We don't have to make up monsters; they're already present every day.
LT: So much of Edgar Allan Poe's work is about the repercussions of the slave trade—being terrified of black people, the fear of black retaliation. It's a real foundational part of American culture to this day.
PM: Same with H. P. Lovecraft.
SC: I'm thinking about Lea's exquisite writing on horror and the monstrous and in particular her trope of “the Swallowing.” When I first heard you sort of unfurl this concept, it was in relation to Mati Diop's Atlantics (2019), where the ocean, which is coded as feminine, is swallowing the migrants. Yet there is also the fear of the monstrous feminine in these young black girls coming into sexual subjectivity (fig. 2). Like, it's very clear to me from your writing that the monstrous is us.
LA: Yeah, the Swallowing refers to the occasion in horror where the monster—the object of fear—appears in the form of a devouring Other. This framework connects to Leila's work. I think there's a sentence in Darkly, Leila, where you walk right up to the line where I'm starting from, which is about negative space, really: what is left out, what is negative, what is removed from the narrative is still speaking and still present. That is where even in the most abstract readings, like a particular reading of the ocean as the Swallowing and the ocean being coded as feminine, which is ingrained, already well established, it becomes clear that this is really about how we aestheticize the void. It's not incidental that the void, which is the most distilled image of horror, is a black hole. This is certainly evident in psychoanalysis—since Paul was bringing up Freud and psychoanalysis, which I try to stay away from, because I think it's overrepresented in horror—this anxiety about womanhood and femininity and being devoured or swallowed by a black void.
LT: About that “negative space,” melancholy is unfocused, unending mourning. Instead of going through the stages of mourning a loss, with melancholy there is no lost object, no defined beginning, middle, or end. What do you do with the magnitude of loss that was the slave trade? How do you mourn something you never had, that you lost before you were even born? The dedication in Toni Morrison's Beloved is to “Sixty million and more.” That's that melancholic state of being black in America. There's this blank space in time and place, before and after the Middle Passage. There's this liminality to the black experience, neither here nor there, neither this nor that, person or product, American or other. I think that's where the power is, in that negative in-between space (fig. 3).
JJ: Going back for a moment to this notion of blackness being the original gothic; during the first week of my class on horror we talk about real black horror, so we discuss lynching narratives. There's a graphic novel called Elegy for Mary Turner: An Illustrated Account (Rachel Marie-Crane Williams, 2021) that is chilling and amazing. In the first lecture I bring up a book called I Am Alphonso Jones that I did with Stacey Robinson and Tony Medina, which was heralded as the first Black Lives Matter–inspired novel. It's about a young man who is killed at fifteen years old, and he haunts New York City. He is on a ghost train, and it's full of ancestors—Amadou Diallo; Henry Dumas, who was murdered by a cop as he was coming from a Sun Ra practice in Harlem. So he's like the patron saint of Afro-surrealism. Of course, the first time we actually thought about Afro-surrealism in our country was probably when Amiri Baraka used it to describe Dumas's work. Anyway, there was a New York Times piece about our book and other books about dead black boys. And so it's like, in this particular period of history there was a subgenre of children's literature that was about black boys killed by cops.
Throughout history there has been a subgenre of lynching poetry and lynching songs—like “Strange Fruit,” of course, but Paul Laurence Dunbar's “Haunted Oak” also comes to mind. And of course, Richard Wright's poem “Between the World and Me,” which people forget is essentially a ghost story. It reminds me of that Twilight Zone episode “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which I believe is a story by Ambrose Bierce, where a man's being hung, and the rope breaks, and he gets all the way home only to realize that he's actually dead. It's the same kind of feeling as when you read Wright's poem. There's a subsection of literature that blurs something that's so fantastically horrible, like the lynching of Mary Turner, and insanely surreal, like these particular pieces.
The other thing I want to mention in terms of the Gothic is that the poet Kevin Young came up with this really fascinating idea of the shadow book, a book that haunts the existence of another book. Like Ralph Ellison's second novel, for example, or the third and fourth entries to Parable of the Sower that never got written. So “Parable of the Trickster” haunts Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. There are also books that have been erased on purpose or books that have been destroyed. So the memory of that artifact haunts the system of books that will never be. As a designer I'm really interested in fictionalized artifacts, the idea of a diegetic prototype. We did a show where we made fake book covers and objects for the books that were proposed inside of other books. Like, in Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist a book called Theoretical Elevators is referenced in the text. But it doesn't really exist, so we created a book cover for it. So we made these phantom objects. Basically, giving form to these phantoms is something I like to do in my own work.
PM: I just want to riff on that for a second. Here we are in 2022—we're in the middle of a biological pandemic, but we're also in the middle of an ideological pandemic and the fear of MRNA vaccines. All of these things are very resonant with Octavia Butler. What's intriguing about our current crazy biotech moment and the massive social experiment we're involved in right now—whether it's the crisis of democracy or how people are not able to tell the difference between objects that are living and objects that are put in the middle of, for lack of a better word, an ideological spectrum of being. You've got to remember that African Americans were not considered human beings. It's in the constitution. So this crisis of the inanimate versus the animate seems to be at the heart of horror. Again, this notion of the uncanny. I keep going back to Freud, even though I have deeply mixed feelings about him.
There is a weird crisis of language right now. I think so many of the novels and books that we're all talking about–even if you look at Philip K. Dick and his book about the crisis of human beings, if you look at Blade Runner and the replicants, there's still a slave narrative going on there. And the whole idea of debt structuring and sharecropping—that's basically your credit card at this point. So there's a tremendous amount of this in the everyday. I'm just trying to figure out how we get an exit strategy from the trap of language when using these terms. I'll always be an advocate for coming up with new terms and new language to describe these rapidly changing situations.
LA: In relation to the creation of new language and having different ways to think about the Gothic that departs from the Western conception of it—and I don't really agree with treating the Gothic as a genre, because genre is mostly for marketing. The Gothic strikes me as more of a sensibility in a variety of traditions. Again, I think that I'm citing Leila almost verbatim here. The “New Black Gothic” is language that was coined by Sheri-Marie Harrison. She wrote an essay in 2018 where she describes the new black Gothic as a tool, essentially, for “representing black life on its own terrorized terms.”1 So it's important to understand how the gothic is an intrinsic part of black life because we have been rendered monstrous—again, going back to what Paul was saying about how we were not human and, legally, have not been considered human in this country. But beyond that there's language formation for the Gothic itself, and more important, language for different methodologies of the Gothic.
Something that is foundational to how I approach it is Jack Halberstam's thesis from the early ’90s about gothic horror as a technology, a tool of world-building. In order to define the human, in order to define the civilized, you have to first define what is not human and what is not civilized. So the monster creates the human, both ideologically and materially. Creating language for reconceiving how we think of monstrosity and how we conceive of the relational dynamics that this country has been built on is crucial. And I think that John has really done this with a term like sankoferation, which is a narrative structure in Afro-Gothic texts where time is cyclical rather than linear, in contrast to structures like the hero's journey. I'm thinking about how it's kind of addled a lot people's brains—again speaking to the pandemic of ideology that Paul was referring to. When people think that they're the heroes and the good guys bumbling about on their journey, and the good guys will always win and they will always be redeemed—that is not real life. Real life is closer to what we've been describing and the gothicness of being haunted and stuck in these time loops.
JJ: There are these spaces around time and the Gothic that are really interesting to me. A lot of it is about these nexuses of interstitial crossroads or liminal spaces that are simultaneously the past, the present, and the future. Liminality, I think, is part of the Gothic and the unseemliness around it. I feel like Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991) has a gothic feel to it. Particularly because the spirit of a child that is unborn is haunting the present.
LA: 100 percent! The brilliant thing about Daughters of the Dust is that it's a future ghost—not a ghost from the past! It's amazing.
JJ: A ghost of the future.
Even John Akomfrah's The Last Angel of History (1995), where you have a time-traveling archeologist that is sending messages from the past into the future, starts off with this idea of a secret black technology that's called the blues. I'm like, what?! [Laughter.] So I think this idea of technologies and how we think about them is actually really resonant here. I also really like the idea of the utilities of horror, the utilities of the Gothic.
LT: I like the idea of a haunting being productive, useful, a tool to use to reimagine the future. That's what ghosts are supposed to do, right? They can serve to warn us or guide us and scare us into action. Besides, we're all potential ghosts.
There's a sort of digital body horror that involves either encompassing someone else's identity or taking on someone else's body. I'm thinking of things like digital blackface and the idea of using someone else's physicality or visual representation as your own. And then I'm thinking of possession, of how we can so easily—digitally now—take over someone else's quote-unquote “body” or have our own identity taken over by someone else. There's a strain of horror in that.
LA: Body snatching! And also possession narratives.
JJ: There is a whole section of my class on “wearing the other.” These days I'm calling it “xenotransvestism.”
SC: These words!
JJ: You know where I get it from? Have you ever seen the movie Tremors (Ron Underwood, 1990)? The character Walter Chang says, “You're gonna regret if you don't name it.” Because he was calling them “graboids.”
LA: Everything you need to know comes from horror movies.
JJ: So week 8 is called “Resnatching the Body, Rethinking Race.” The summary is “The black body is both hated and desired, despised and lusted for. What if you could wear someone else's skin and not worry about the baggage of how society really sees you? What if you could slip from one skin suit into the other? The organ of the skin is a physical boundary of the inside/outside; terror comes from the breaching of either. What dark fleshly desires manifest themselves when you long to be in the flesh of the Other?” We talk about The Skeleton Key (Ian Softley, 2005); we talk about Spell (Mark Tonderai, 2020), which is about these older black people trying to take over younger bodies; Lovecraft Country's “Strange Case” episode, with the passing potion; the comic book The Invisibles, where these rich, white corporate dudes are using voodoo to take over black bodies and use them and kill them.
LA: Ohhh, that's like Bad Hair (Justin Simien, 2020).
JJ: Yep, Bad Hair is like that too. Jessabelle (Kevin Greutert, 2014) and Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017), of course. The Soul Collector (Harold Holscher, 2019), which is a South African story, actually ends up being like that. Steven Barnes just did a piece with Charles Johnson for a graphic novel that we're working on called The Eightfold Path. In there is a story called “The Best Barbecue in Hatton Country,” which is about these racist white folk who can be immortal, but they can only use black bodies. And they're cannibals. It's crazy.
LA: I generally approach that through the lens of cannibalism, using Vincent Woodard's work The Delectable Negro and the idea of homoerotic and homosocial cannibalism. I think Atlantics does it too. The ghostly figures represented are not really named in the context of the film, but in my research I've discovered that they're a syncretic monster called the farurab, which is a djinn that is specific to Senegal and the surrounding areas. They are boyfriend spirits—spirits who seduce young girls into sexual desire. They are presented as monstrous because it's a patriarchal culture. The way Mati Diop repurposes them to make it a coming-of-age story about Ada finding her own agency is very cool (fig. 4).
SC: Have you seen Sakho & Mangane (created by Jean Luc Herbulot, 2019)? It starts off as a sort of mismatched-partner detective series set in Dakar, but then it opens up onto the supernatural. It's awesome. I believe there's an episode that deals with the djinns you're talking about.
What you were just saying about the monstrous has me thinking about an earlier strain of the conversation about blackness and the inhuman or nonhuman and perhaps the posthuman, because I just finished teaching this course about the vexed relationship between blackness and the human, and my students just really dove into all this literature on how black people don't exist neatly, or I should say, properly within categories. They were super curious about the ontological contours of what we might call monster-being, the possibilities in that. And again, we were stumbling over how to articulate this in language that we don't really love or hasn't been invented yet.
LA: Well, Leila calls it social zombification—it's like her version of Orlando Patterson's social death. It's kind of perfectly in keeping with Frank Wilderson and some tenets of Afro-pessimism, the idea that, within the popular cultural imagination, our subjecthood or our personhood has been rendered moot. And there's this conflict with what we know to be true because we are all actually alive, and we all actually have interiorities and humanity. But in terms of the structures of power that we all are forced to live under, that's not always materially true and depends on the space you're in. That is, I think, one of the things that makes the gothic so much a part of black life. It's why Afro-Gothic exists, regardless of whether we have language for it or not. It would continue to exist and always has.
LT: I'm fascinated by the positive aspect of monsterization and the ghostliness of the dead or the zombie presence—they're in an omnipresent state. They see what no one else can see. They can be in spaces where no one else can be. The monster under the bed, the ghosts haunting a house, they see everything. They know more about us than we do about them. They can see in the dark. There's a power in having that extra knowledge of the dead and of the other side. That's what that veil is—it's being in that space where you see both sides of the world and both sides of society. It's the space that black people are forced to inhabit. We can't be in one or the other and survive—we have to dwell in both of these spaces. That's double-consciousness. And I think there's something about the idea of—and this is gonna sound weird—the beneficial aspects of invisibility, of monstrosity, of specter-ness. It's that idea of being able to see all aspects of the past and even predict the future a little bit. So there is something of a survival technique in being seen as nothingness.
LA: I definitely want to jump in there because this is the main thing I think about. I think of how monstrosity has been constructed as a state of hyperhumanity. One of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's theses in Monster Theory is about fear of the monster actually being a type of desire. Speaking again to body-snatcher narratives and white desire for the black body as rooted in how they perceive us as being free, even as they refuse that freedom. That psychology—which is really a pathology—is about seeking union with us, whether through cannibalism, actually and metaphorically, or sexually, or in terms of cultural appropriation, actual blackface, narrative blackface, and digital blackface. All of these gestures are attempts to seek union with what they perceive as death, which is also freedom. It's also their attempt to seek unity with god or the divine. But it can be none of those things because we're actually human.
JJ: It's phantasmagoria. Projecting.
PM: What's intriguing in this idea of that consciousness, the sense of duality, and the mirroring of the real is how we might reconstruct it from the viewpoint of mythopoesis. The monstrous has generally been viewed from the viewpoint of the id. The monster is something uncontainable at the edge of human control. It disrupts, and by disrupting creates an entirely new place where there's a deep uncertainty, and that uncertainty feeds the horror and the fear.
SC: So I want to end up on the question of aesthetics. There are a couple of ways that we've been thinking about Afro-Gothic aesthetics in the issue. For my essay, for example, I've been spending time thinking about Arthur Jafa's theory on black aesthetics. He's got this notion of the abject sublime—that what's magnificent about blackness and what's miserable about it are inextricably yoked together. So in his artwork you always find these juxtapositions of ecstasy and horror, triumph and terror, the exotic and the abject, of virtuosity and, like, gratuitous violence. The way that AJ cuts and curates images has a really macabre or gothic sensibility to it.
Another way I've been thinking about Afro-Gothic aesthetics is via Kobena Mercer, whose formulations anchor the introduction. He has this sort of stunning thing to say about how the structure of dub music creates a space for “contemplative commemoration.” It's about the “drop,” where multiple tracks drop out of the music and only one lonely track—usually the bass—is left. So the actual structure of the music accommodates this loss and mourning—this haunting by the part that's now absent. And I sort of fell down a hole thinking about this and revisiting the era of hauntology in electronic music from the UK. Do y'all remember that? It was always playing with this sort of uncanny ghost in the machine. A more recent and just crushingly beautiful example of this is Flying Lotus's album Until the Quiet Comes. That whole album is a haunting. The production, the vocals are haunting. And there's a track about Candyman, where Thom Yorke is singing, “Say my name, Say my name.” So you got your gothic right there. I love how this album is all about wrapping atmospheres around you—“ambient music”—and it had me considering all the different resonances of “illbient.” It's like a palpably spooky feeling all around you, when you feel that the atmosphere is off in some serious way.
So I wanted to ask y'all to speak to how the Afro-Gothic shows up in or as aesthetics. How does this mash-up of horror and romance, pain and pleasure—or melancholy, loss, haunting, mourning—manifest in black aesthetic structures or experiments?
LA: I'm with you on music. I'm thinking about Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, who is a composer and sound designer, who did the sound for Candyman (Nia DaCosta, 2021). He was interviewed recently about his method for creating the sounds for the film, which is entirely built out of sounds collected on set during production—clips of actors speaking and practicing and equipment going up and going down. The score is built out of this ghost of the production, and it layers that haunting further into the film. I also think that romance is integral to horror, and they cocreate each other simultaneously—there's no way to extract one from the other. That's evident in pretty much every black horror film that's been made: Blacula (William Crane, 1972), obviously. Ganja & Hess (Bill Gunn, 1973) is the most romantic film. I am actively writing about romance in Atlantics.
PM: Well, as one of the inventors of illbient, I have a lot to say about this. [Laughter.] One thing that I wanted to mention is polytempo—i.e., many times existing in one space. We were also talking earlier about African rhythms and time travel and the idea of simultaneity. If you have a George Clinton sample from 1980, a James Brown drum solo from 1965, mixed with keyboards, the next thing you know you have Wu-Tang Clan or Dr. Dre. To me that kind of simultaneity is a psychoanalytic tool for existing in multiple contexts at the same time. Again, it's a very specific trope for the African American existence in the American milieu—being both in and out of time. And as we know in late capitalism, time is an extremely scarce resource, even though one could argue that it's one of the most infinite resources. In terms of African American culture, as we move further into the twenty-first century, we look at a song, especially one made of samples or fragments, it's always in terms of polyrhythm and polytempo. Those are the two critical components. From my own perspective as a producer, I'm always intrigued with layering.
TT: I was thinking about Drexciya, which I discuss in my essay for this issue, about the Flint water crisis. I cite the conclusion of the Jim Jarmusch film Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), where Tilda Swinton's character says, “This place will rise again.” And Tom Hiddleston's character asks, “Will it?” She responds, “Yes, there's water here.” That leads me to Drexciya and the graphic novels of Drexciya, which give us a kind of visual soundtrack as a counterpart to the sonic landscape that Drexciya gave us. Ultimately, I am thinking about the underwater commons as a place of reinvention.
LA: On the topic of romance and the eco-critical and the eco-gothic, this is only going to become more of a preoccupation. The Anthropocene gothic is just the state we are in. I think the way through it is to shift how we conceive romance and what we choose to romanticize. One of the more radical ideas I find in black horror films has to do with embracing the fact that the earth does not end with us. It will go on—which very much speaks to that scene in Only Lovers Left Alive. A version of the earth will continue to exist regardless of whether it will be an environment hospitable to us. I don't know if locating a kind of romance in that horror will see us through, but it might be what pushes us to a place where we can conceive of changing the path we're on. It has to do with people shifting how we relate to each other, how we relate to the natural world, and how we relate the human to the nonhuman. Our survival literally depends upon it.
LT: It's interesting what we define as romantic. It makes me think about Detroit and how we romanticize ruin porn. Yet I'm torn by so many people's understandings of Detroit as a gothic ruin and that somehow it's a glimpse into the Anthropocene, of what the planet or what the city would be like if humans weren't there. I love those images. Photos of spaces we recognize stuck in time where nature has taken over. It's an uncanny feeling; it's like looking into the future. But we can't separate the romanticism of the ruin with the reality of the economic, political, and social injustices that made those things possible. And it ignores the whole population living and thriving in these places. But people get stuck in this big G Gothic romanticism because it's sexier and it's easier.
LA: It's a romanticism for the past, getting stuck in nostalgia.
LT: Detroit is called the Renaissance City. Our high school mascot was the Phoenix. It burns and rises again, over and over. Musician M. Lamar calls this “deathlessness.” I love that. He talks about a Negro zombie apocalypse. This idea that the dead are singing, and if they're singing, they aren't quite dead and can wake up.
SC: That revenant. It's like that black thing that keeps coming back. You can't kill it.
LA: Instead of monsterizing it, we can see possibility in that.
SC: We have to see possibility in that.
LT: Yeah, we have to.
LA: That to me is the biggest difference between Afro-Gothic modes of thought and the Gothic as conceived by the European West. English Gothic in particular is defined by that romanticizing of a past that is dead and gone and keeps you stuck in a loop. The film The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001), where people are stuck in a cycle and unable to let go of the baggage, is a good example of that. The overwhelming majority of Afro-Gothic doesn't necessarily wallow in that “stuckness.” It's about the escape, reorganizing linearity so that we can achieve progress.
LT: The Gothic has been described as medieval revivalism over and over again. But for black people, that makes no sense. That place does not exist in our experience. It would be a nightmare to relive the past over and over.
LA: Right! That is our nightmare, that is our horror.
LT: I like the idea of our romanticism being much more future focused. That's what I like about Afrofuturism, Afro-Gothic, or Ethno-Gothic; they bring these things together.
TT: So, we're out of time! But would anyone like to make closing comments?
PM: One of the inspiring things about this conversation is that we are at the beginning of the twenty-first century, which is going to be further defined by biotech and the way that colonialism shaped our perception of the body. I see a tension in the future around context and content for how the Afro-diasporic imagination shaped late capital. I'm very interested in potentiality and how the arts overlap with technology. Hopefully, conversations like this can show people that another world is possible. This has been super refreshing. Thanks for inviting me; you guys have made my day.
LT: First of all, my mind is blown over and over again with all of these discussions that I'm just trying to absorb. What I find so wonderful about all of this is that whatever Afro-Gothic is, the conversation keeps getting bigger and bigger. I'm continually impressed, overwhelmed, and excited by everything that comes out about Afro-Gothic. This has really become an entire field of study that just keeps getting deeper and more complex!
LA: I echo everyone's sentiments. I 100 percent agree—it is my most oft-repeated phrase that this is an entire field of study—the study of everything. Because I work on monstrosity, I know it affects everything that has ever existed. It's such a thrill and honor to get to engage with all of you from different disciplinary backgrounds. I feel so invigorated after this. Thank you so much for including me.
JJ: Thank you for inviting me: it validates so much of what I do as an artist. Sometimes you're tinkering away in your little laboratory and thinking, “This kind of makes sense to me.” But when you see other people—all of you—working on these same topics from different standpoints, it's really empowering. So I really appreciate that.