Afro-Gothic Reprise!


Sybil Newton Cooksey and Tashima Thomas, guest-editors of Afro-Gothic, an issue of liquid blackness (volume 6, issue 2), share a list of influences and interests.

1. Tricky (Adrian Thaws), Hell is Round the Corner (2019).

It took nearly two years to get Afro-Gothic published. One of our touchstones throughout the long process was Tricky–it would not be an exaggeration to say that his work haunted this endeavor. When it began in 2020, we were both reading his (auto)biography, Hell is Round the Corner. The “auto” in parentheses here draws attention to the author’s practice of bringing other voices into the telling of a story, their versions tangling and twisting about his own. The resulting narrative is a tapestry of collective memory. Bookended by two suicides–that of his mother when he was four years old, and then of his daughter when she was 24–Hell maps a living in the midst of death that reinforces Afro-Gothic’s rootedness in everyday black experience. Tricky’s grief around his mother’s death would famously catalyze the eponymous homage and award-winning album Maxinquaye (1995), which, with its ghostly vocals and atmospheric production, undoubtedly merits an Afro-Gothic entry of its own. Yet for someone with a chorus of ghosts providing the soundtrack for this life story, Tricky doesn’t dwell on the macabre. “I don’t have a fear of death,” he asserts in the chapter “Speaking in Tongues.” “I’m not scared of stuff like that, because if you don’t accept death, then you never accept life.”[1] Life, or what he terms “just fumbling along,” has made him an accidental philosopher, an artist-pugilist whose GPS (Gothic Positioning System) enables him to navigate a brutalist landscape in which some fresh hell is always just round the corner.[2]

2. Rungano Nyoni, I am Not a Witch (2017).

We came across I am Not a Witch early on in our process of formulating Afro-Gothic, as we had the pleasure of seeing this film and Rungano Nyoni in conversation with Garrett Bradley, Tina Campt and Simone Leigh in 2020. The Zambian-born Welsh Nyoni is a bold and impressive artist. We were wholly compelled not only by her thinking on the subject of black women’s experimental filmmaking, but also by her framing of the film, which she described as “an African feminist fairy tale.”

At the outset of this fantastic allegorical work, a nine-year-old girl is discovered alone on the outskirts of a remote village in Zambia. Because no ordinary person should survive in such circumstances, the inhabitants decide that she must be a witch. Faced with the “choice” of accepting the label and living tethered to the skeptical community by a long white ribbon or cutting ties with the locals and therefore risk being transformed into a goat (and surely killed), the astute young girl opts for the former. The subsequent dark-humorous narrative tracks the existential absurdity of her life as a kept “witch.” We cannot help but be energized by the spirited way in which Nyoni tackles the topics that unfurl within this film–gendered violence, everyday magic, and the fear of the “monstrous” or uncanny feminine–and how they dovetail with our formulations of Afro-Gothic. I am Not a Witch is also disturbingly beautiful; its carefully composed and dramatically colored images organize dark romantic tableaux to mesmerizing effect.

3. Okwui Okpokwasili, Bronx Gothic (2014).

Okpokwasili is such an extraordinary artist, and one of our favorite performers and thinkers. Bronx Gothic is a devastating tour de force in which she pushes her body and her emotions to the limit. While watching we are made immediately aware of how dangerous is this work she has undertaken. There is no illusion of safety here for the audience, either. The intimate staging of the performance demands that we share her trembling breath, the shaking of her body, its eventual exhaustion. Okpokwasili’s frenzied motion infuses the venue’s atmosphere with a discomfort that is physical and existential; as would-be spectators we find ourselves in stiflingly close quarters–could this sweat, this anguish, be my own? “The Gothic,” Okpokwasili says, “is about these hidden spaces, these doors you best not open, the wings that you don’t go into, that hold secrets or spirits,” as she stages this encounter that thrusts us into the dark and unknown of black girls’ interior lives. Though not strictly autobiographical, she does conjure aspects of her own childhood in the Bronx, and the work’s central conceit–the exchange of ingenuous notes between two 11-year-old girls–is based in real life. By turns hilarious and horrendous, the performance forces us to bear witness to their fraught coming of age, imbibe their dreams and despair, feel their pleasures and pains. As the show hurtles toward its tumultuous end, the subject confusion of the two main characters, the mingling of the abominable and the everyday, and the uncertain boundary between the alive and the dead accentuates the sublime beauty-and-terror of Okpokwasili’s black-girl gothic.

4. Ibrahim Mahama, Parliament of Ghosts (2019).

In Parliament, Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama assembles a graveyard of the ruins of the British empire in Ghana, one railway train seat at a time. In what becomes a gathering of ghosts arranged like the Houses of Parliament, Mahama assembles the material remnants of colonial rule: scrap metals, salvaged wooden cupboards, lockers, books, jute sacks, maps, logbooks, and other long abandoned relics of the British railway system. But it’s the photographs of disembodied arms that impress us as Afro-Gothic: they succinctly depict the dangers and dehumanizations of the railway workers who migrate from their villages in northern Ghana, where Mahama is from, to the capital for work. They tattoo their forearms with their names and next-of-kin contacts. In the event they should suffer death in a gruesome accident or under the murderous conditions imposed by their precarious circumstances, the information would allow their bodies to be identified and returned to their families. Each photograph is cropped to reveal only an arm against the background of a map, the taut skin a palimpsest of British colonial rule written on flesh in blood. The ominously fragmented body part conscripted into Her Majesty’s service calls to mind the macabre history of the now semi-defunct railway system that was once a gleaming symbol of modernity. It is a modernity, as Mahama illustrates, that was built on the precarity of black life, the reduction of the black body, and the ever-presence of death.

5. The Afterlife of the Remains of Katricia Dotson (1985-?).

When 11 people, including five children, were killed in the 1985 bombing of the MOVE compound by the Philadelphia Police Department, one of the missing and declared-dead residents was 14-year-old Katricia Dotson. Her death, however, is only the beginning of this horror story. During the woefully botched cleanup of the site, the burnt bones of the deceased were mangled and commingled. Despite repeated attempts by her family to recover her remains for burial, Katricia’s bones were held in a lab at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology for decades, even occasionally trotted out of boxes and displayed to awed students or donors. The story eerily echoes the history of the use of the enslaved and indigenous as clinical material and the practice of graverobbing to secure cadavers for dissection, and calls to mind the number of unburied bones still housed in the basements of institutions, medical colleges, and museums. Although this case ostensibly ended in 2021 with the return of the disputed bones to MOVE and the dispatch of some belatedly discovered sinews to the Dotson family, these developments came too tardy for some. In a final gothic twist, Katricia’s mother, who had been incarcerated at the time of her death, died of COVID-19 in June 2021 before she could be reunited with her daughter’s remains.

6. Firelei Báez, To Breathe Full and Free (2021).

What happens when an “uncanny rise up” is architectural rather than fleshy? Firelei Báez’s installation, To breathe full and free: a declaration, a re-visioning, a correction (19º36’16.9”N 72º13’07.0’’W, 42º21’48.762’’N 71º1’59.628’’W, 36° 22′ 0.1848” N94° 12′ 8.64” W), is a re-creation of the Haitian palace Sans-Souci (1813). Once considered a jewel of architectural achievement, the palace’s glory was short-lived–it crumbled in the earthquake of 1842. The artwork’s title’s coordinates pinpoint the original location of Sans-Souci, along with its installation sites in Boston and Arkansas. Although Sans-Souci remains in a state of ruin, tucked away along the northern shore of Haiti, Báez reimagines the palace as emerging from a watery grave, covered with vévés – African religious symbols of healing and resistance– and crowned with undulating blue tarps.

To breathe is a conjuring; it is the “intrepid decrepit” whose resurfacing signals that the time has come for a reckoning with colonial histories. The serrated architectural façade manifests the twinned violences of perpetual militarism and devilish debt structures imposed by a racial capitalism that plunged the country into poverty and malign neglect. Báez’s installation invokes the “revenant motion” of the ocean, immersing viewers in its ultramarine blues, baptizing us in its “black watery fantastic.” There’s also something of Horace Walpole’s, The Castle of Otranto (1764), often referred to as the first Gothic novel, that reverberates in Sans-Souci’s supernatural architecture–but, as Báez reminds us, the horrors of the haunted Haitian castle are of an entirely different sort.

7. Tiya Miles, Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era (2015).

One of the first people we contacted at the inception of this project was Tiya Miles. Her book on dark tourism spoke to us of the Afro-Gothic nature of this practice of leisurely lingering in the afterlives of plantations in the US South. Tales is a promenade through these haunted spaces, which are often attended by a congregation of black “haints” summoned to entertain the horror-hungry tourists. Miles logs her real-time experiences on ghost tours at the Sorrel-Weed House in Savannah, the Ormond Plantation and Myrtles Plantation in Louisiana, and the Madame LaLaurie House in New Orleans. Throughout the book, she puts forth the many ways in which this industry rides the backs of black ghosts like Molly, Chloe, and Cleo–enslaved women, now dead and working overtime–as tour guides pour on the “spooky,” feeding their audiences’ appetites for “stories of violence against black women – sexual violence, physical violence, and ideological violence.”[3] Perhaps most symbolic of the intersection of insatiable appetite for trauma porn and interminable loop of black suffering, is the cocktail, “Chloe’s Bloody Mary,” named for a murdered slave woman, that is served up at the plantation’s Carriage House Restaurant. The ghost tours lead Miles to question, “What ‘product’ was being bought and sold here, enjoyed and consumed, in the contemporary commercial phenomenon of southern ghost tourism?”[4]

8. Gangsta Boo, “Meet the Devil” (2015).

Ryan Waller, who curated the volume’s playlist, is an avid fan of Memphis horrorcore rap, and his enthusiasm for the genre was infectious. We therefore wanted to note the recent passing of Lola Chantrelle Mitchell (Gangsta Boo) and make mention of her Gothic-tinged “Meet the Devil.” Although Mitchell was a pioneering member of the by-then legendary group, Three 6 Mafia, this track from the 2015 album Candy, Diamonds & Pills marked her audacious emergence as a solo artist, dogged by rumors as to why she parted ways with her longtime collaborators. 

I ain’t gotta hang with DJ Paul to be reppin’ that triple six. (Mafia!)
I’m a pioneer up in this bitch
You betta recognize who you be fuckin’ with. (Mafia!)
With much respect, got the check, got the tech if somebody got a problem with me
I was born in it, I’m a die in it
If you want me then you better try and come and get me. Bitch!
Losin’ sleep, that’s neva
Always countin’ chedda
Nosy motherfuckers wishing that they life was betta
Girl, you do not know me
You ain’t on my level Keep on talkin’ shit and I’m gone make you meet the devil

Gangsta prowess meets Gothic bravura in these taunting lyrics–in the video for the song she takes out a hit on the hip hop gossip columnist who has been badmouthing her. At the end of the video the hapless victim learns too late what we’ve known all along: the devil he’s about to meet is Gangsta Boo herself.

[1] Tricky, 194.

[2] Tricky, 181.

[3] Tiya Miles. Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, (2015), 93.

[4] Miles, 26.

About the Journal

liquid blackness seeks to carve out a place for aesthetic theory and the most radical agenda of Black studies to come together in productive ways, with the goal of attending to the aesthetic work of blackness and the political work of form. In this way, the journal develops innovative approaches to address points of convergence between the exigencies of Black life and the many slippery ways in which blackness is encountered in contemporary sonic and visual culture.

The journal showcases a variety of scholarly modes, including audio-visual work and experimental and traditional essays. It aims to explore who can do theory (scholars, artists, activists, individuals, and ensembles), how theory can be done (in image, writing, archiving, curating, social activism), and what a Black aesthetic object is (“high”/“low” art, sound and image, practice and praxis).

Articles are published under a Creative Commons license (BY-NC-ND) and are open immediately upon publication. Authors are not charged any fees for publication and retain copyright and full publishing rights without restrictions in their articles. Readers may use the full text of articles as described in the license.

Journal editors: Alessandra Raengo and Lauren Cramer


TOP FIVE is a new blog feature where authors, editors, guest editors, and other interesting people associated with Duke University Press are invited to share a list of influences and interests. Check back next month for a new edition.

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