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New Black Gothic



In the LA Review of Books, Sheri-Marie Harrison has a piece entitled “New Black Gothic” that explores the recent revival of Gothic themes by African American writers, musicians, and filmmakers. Harrison examines Jordan Peele’s groundbreaking 2017 film Get Out, Donald Glover’s surreal music video “This Is America,” and Jesmyn Ward’s critically acclaimed novel Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017). As Harrison explains, these works illustrate how “Gothic violence remains a part of everyday black life.” Here’s an excerpt:

Unlike in, say, Morrison’s Beloved, the spectral reappearance of America’s violent history in recent fiction is neither about recovery nor representation. Ward’s ghost tree does not recover the lost stories of the voiceless. For Ward, there is no buried trauma that must be converted into language for its victims to move on. Instead, racial violence has never gone away. It is indeed, as the ghosts are, at home with us. Ward’s ghosts speak to an ever-present and visible lineage of violence that accumulates rather than dissipates with the passage of time. Gothic violence remains a part of everyday black life …

This black Gothic revival includes tropes of darkness, madness, ghosts, and isolation that combine to create unease and evoke fear and terror. In this regard, “This Is America’s” cavernous warehouse evokes the gloomy Gothic castles of the 18th-century Gothic novel, or the dilapidated plantations of 20th-century Southern Gothic. This aesthetic tradition has seen a resurgence in recent years through novels like those of Ward and James Hannaham, whose Delicious Foods depicts a form of modern-day slavery on a Southern factory farm worked by drug addicts who have been transported there from their precarious urban lives. These novels work to document and make sense of the social forces that constrain and marginalize black life. Exploring these same questions, “This Is America” participates in and is informed by this much larger aesthetic conversation, employing Gothic tropes to embed contemporary developments such as mandatory minimum sentencing and the War on Drugs in a longer history of slavery and Jim Crow. Indeed, as Michelle Alexander suggests, these policies and initiatives have come to constitute a new Jim Crow.

Image: Still from Get Out (2017), dir. Jordan Peele.