Macabre. Morbid. Melancholy. These words might come to mind when one thinks of gothic culture. But the gothic is also whimsical and fanciful, and those attributes are almost always associated with whiteness. In Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul, which is part history, part memoir, and part critique of American culture, author Leila Taylor (pronounced LEE-lah) debunks that myth.
Steeped in the underbelly of American historical narratives and the melancholia that makes its way into popular culture, Darkly explores the American gothic and analyzes the ways gothic culture relates to American history and race – from slavery to the killing of Michael Brown, from New Orleans to post-Motown Detroit. By pulling back the curtain on America’s horrific founding, on white supremacy, and on extrajudicial and state-sanctioned killings of Black people, Taylor exposes the guilty conscience in a country that “got away with murder.” She shows how American culture and gothic culture are intertwined, and poses the question of whether American gothic is ontologically Black.
Taylor, born in Detroit, is now the Creative Director for Brooklyn Public Library. She is well situated to take on this topic, as she has the rare distinction of being both goth and Black, a self-described AfroGothicist. I caught up with Taylor by phone about her research, the 1992 Chicago-based horror movie Candyman, and what it means to be both goth and Black in America.
You say you started this project with the intent of researching the Black goth scene and what it was like to be a part of a subculture perceived as being White. Take me back to the moment you started researching and writing this book. What was happening in your life that might have swayed your decision to begin this work?
I remember going to an event at this organization called Morbid Anatomy Museum. And it was a lecture on Ouija boards or ectoplasm or something kind of strange and dark and spooky, and I had been going to these for a while. I remember I looked around the room afterwards while drinking wine and mingling, and I realized that I was the only Black person there. I started thinking about all of the other things that I do, and I’m always the only one in the room or at the most one of two in the room. There’s this idea that there are these categories of activities that White people do and Black people do, and that Black people don’t do this. They don’t go camping, and they don’t go swimming, and they don’t go to Burning Man or steampunk fairs. And I was like, I don’t know if that’s actually true. So that’s what started it, is this idea that there’s Black people stuff and that there’s White people stuff.
And there’s this phrase that keeps getting thrown around a lot – “What kind of White nonsense is that?” Like White people are allowed nonsense, but somehow Black people, because of the need for vigilance caused by the very justified paranoia that can’t afford distraction, or because there’s this sense of gravitas or this sense of pride that we’re supposed to keep with us, aren’t allowed strangeness or bizarreness, which isn’t necessarily true. When you look at Sun Ra or George Clinton or Prince, there have been weird Black people forever. I decided to look at the subculture that was closest to what I was involved with at least as a youth, which was the goth scene, because that was extraordinarily White. And then I found these articles that goth is only for White people and a lot of animosity online towards Black goth people.
But what I discovered is that Black goths are pretty much the same as White goths or Japanese goths or Mexican goths because we all pretty much dress the same and like the same kind of music and do the same kind of stuff. But the difference with being a Black goth in America is that they are a Black person in America. Then I became much more interested in the inherent gothic qualities of blackness in America.
In the book, you move so seamlessly between history, cultural examination, and your personal narrative that I wonder where your experience and personal knowledge of the gothic ends and the book research begins. I’d love for you to share what your research uncovered for you. Was there anything that you found surprising?
Edgar Allan Poe has been a bit of a disappointment. And he’s just this sort of patron saint of the gothic in America, but he was a White man during slavery. And we have these problematic heroes, and we just sort of don’t question them at all. And he’s not like H.P. Lovecraft, who was incredibly xenophobic. But then in doing some of this research it was kind of like, “Oh yeah. His family had a slave. They owned a slave.” And then deep-diving into his writing, the more I started to take a critical look at Edgar Allan Poe, I found there is a lot of guilt and fear of Black people, and the results and ramifications of slavery are inherent in a lot of his stuff. Edgar Allan Poe likes hiding bodies in walls and under floorboards. I like the idea that the victims are in the floorboards living with us, living there in the house with us.
And the other surprising thing is that I didn’t intend to write about myself as much as I ended up doing. That was never really the intent, but as I kept going it became harder for me to talk about these broader issues without talking about myself.
I am from Detroit as well, so I connected with the part of your personal narrative in which you were from Detroit but perhaps felt as if you were not of Detroit – at least the part of Detroit in which a Black girl had to listen to R&B music and straighten her hair. I also connected with your look at Devil’s Night and abandoned homes as the city began to contract with the decline of the auto industry. What does Detroit teach America about gothic culture?
The one thing that gothic and horror teach us is that we’re not in as much control as we think we are. We don’t always have it together. There’s something always hiding in the shadows that’s going to catch us at some point. The one thing that I felt in Detroit is that the city isn’t always in control. It isn’t always neat and tidy and predictable the way we want it to be. As much as people want to hide it out in the suburbs, where they want to repress it and pretend that everything is nice and pristine and perfect all the time, it’s not perfect. And it’s got to come out somewhere, and it comes out in the culture. It came out in ‘67 during the rebellion, and it came out on Devil’s Night. The undercurrent of anxieties and anger or frustration that we have as a culture can’t be repressed for too long. It’s got to come out.
One of the most chilling moments in the book was your examination of a story that happened here in Chicago. Several times I have seen the 1992 horror movie Candyman, which is set in the Cabrini-Green housing projects, but I’d never heard the story of Ruth Mae McCoy, who lived and died in Grace Abbott Homes, and whose story influenced the creation of Candyman. The horror in her real-life story – calling the police because intruders were breaking into her apartment through her bathroom medicine cabinet, not being protected by the police, being shot to death, and her body not being discovered until days later and only because of a persistent friend – for me, outstrips the horror of the film. I wonder if you can talk a bit about what your reaction was upon discovering the circumstances that caused her demise. Did it change or deepen your understanding of the film?
I started looking at Candyman because I wanted to look at horror stories that were contemporary but were also urban because we’re used to suburban horror stories like Poltergeist or Amityville Horror. So I wanted to look at horror stories that were based in cities. When I found the article about McCoy the thing that was so horrifying to me was that it wasn’t just the police. There was this systemic apathy. The fact that the maintenance people in the building could have opened her door but they didn’t because they were afraid of management. They were afraid that they would get in trouble for breaking the law. There were several layers of failure that happened from the fear of management to this apathy of the police. And the thing that I found so heartbreaking about her story is in that 911 call. She’s on the 11th floor and she tells the dispatcher on the phone that the elevator is working. The fact that she felt the need to say that the elevator is working is because she’s afraid that if it wasn’t working they might not come up to save her.
I sensed there was a part of you that wanted to connect with other Black goths, and I felt it was most evident in your depiction of M. Lamar. I see that you were recently in conversation with M. Lamar. Has this book served as a way to continue and establish a connection with Black goths? Perhaps as a conversation piece, or as a magnet or rallying cry for Black goths to say, “Here I am!”
What has been really interesting is hearing other people talk about their experiences and connecting in that way. A lot of young women come up to me and thank me. They say, you know, I had the same experience growing up and I was the only one in the room. That’s been really rewarding – hearing other people say that they feel seen. That’s what I’ve been hearing a lot – is people saying that they feel seen, which feels really good.
Where will your writing and research lead you next?
I’m working on a horror story, historical fiction, inspired by the house of Marie Delphine LaLaurie in New Orleans, who was a woman of high society who did really horrific things to her slaves, was caught, and fled. American Horror Story’s “Coven” season features her. Kathy Bates plays her. But the thing that I’m more interested in is the haunted house aspect of it – that house and the house next to it. So it’s going to be a horror story, but it’s going to be a classic gothic horror story.
Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul
By Leila Taylor
Published November 12, 2019