JUNE 23, 2018
TOWARD THE END of Jesmyn Ward’s 2017 novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, one of the narrators, a black teenager named Jojo, comes across “a great live oak […] full with ghosts.” “[W]ith their eyes,” the ghosts speak their violent deaths to him in unpunctuated prose:
He raped me and suffocated me until I died I put my hands up and he shot me eight times […] they came in my cell in the middle of the night and they hung me they found out I could read and they dragged me out to the barn and gouged my eyes before they beat me still.
This litany of brutal torture and death spans the history of black life in America. The ghosts’ attire, “rags and breeches, T-shirts and tignons, fedoras and hoodies,” brings together in a single Gothic image the brutality of slavery and Jim Crow–era lynchings and the more contemporary and familiar violence that claimed the lives of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown. In the logic of the novel, Ward’s ghosts are “stuck” and unable to “cross the water,” the final transition in the Yoruba cosmology that also makes its way into Louisiana Voodoo culture. They are confined to the terrestrial realm, searching for “keyholes” of human misery and need through which they can slip into the lives of the living and amplify their suffering, while approximating a sort of half-life for themselves.
Ward’s award-winning novels are among a number of works, literary and otherwise, that rework Gothic traditions for the 21st century. As my graduate student Cynthia Snider has observed in my class on contemporary fiction and book prizes, Ward engages specifically the Southern Gothic tradition. In American literature, there is a long tradition of using Gothic tropes to reveal how ideologies of American exceptionalism rely on repressing the nation’s history of slavery, racism, and patriarchy. Such tropes are, as numerous critics have noted, central to the work of Toni Morrison.
But 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 has appeared not only in literature, but in an array of popular forms. On the May 5, 2018, episode of Saturday Night Live, while he was simultaneously hosting and serving (in the role of his alter ego Childish Gambino) as musical guest, Donald Glover released the controversial music video for “This Is America.” Within the video’s first few frames Gambino, clad in what looks like Confederate army trousers, pulls out a pistol, and in the clumsy exaggerated elegance of a pose borrowed from Jim Crow minstrel show advertisements, shoots a man in the back of his head. The video takes place in a cavernous empty warehouse and — in addition to the shooting I just described — features another shooting in which Gambino mows down a church choir with an automatic rifle; police violence; the lively choreography of a number of viral dance moves; and numerous other things the internet devoted itself to analyzing in the days after its release.
For the most part, analyses focus on cataloging how much there is to see in the video’s chaotic tableau and on annotating the important things we may not have seen or properly understood. The consensus seems to be that the choreographed dancing is meant to distract from what is happening in the background — police violence, riots, mass shootings, and even one of the horsemen who, according to Revelations 6:2, is supposed to herald the Apocalypse. As Aida Amoako puts it in The Atlantic, the video “is a denunciation of the distractions that keep many Americans from noticing how the world around them is falling apart.” If the world is Gambino’s warehouse, we stay grinning and dancing and mugging for our phones with the glee of children while chaos and violence lick at our heels.
But the video does more than denounce our social-mediated distraction and apathy. What is one to do, for example, with Gambino’s costume, his minstrel-like poses, and his exaggerated facial gestures? One gets the sense that the video is not only deeply invested in the violent history of black life in the United States, but also that Gambino is himself performing in blackface. This is not too much of a stretch when one considers the issues of colorism that, according to Tad Friend’s New Yorker profile of Glover, inflects Glover’s relationship with his darker-skinned brother, Stephen:
Growing up, Donald was light-skinned and sunny, and his friends were the white kids at his school for the performing arts; Stephen was darker-skinned and stoic, and his friends were the bused-in black kids at his school, which was not for the performing arts […] Many of the show’s rawer moments are underpinned by real-life affronts that Stephen sustained […] Glover said, “My consciousness began to change when I hung out with Steve as an adult, because he’s scarier to white people. It made me super-black.”
In the last sentence, Glover points to the performative nature of race, which he in turn subverts in “This Is America” by appearing to wear part of a Confederate uniform. The satire is bizarre, but if we understand Gambino’s costume as a convoluted minstrelsy of sorts, we can begin to see how protests against the video’s depiction of what looks like black-on-black violence as gratuitous and irresponsible may actually be missing something. With his pants and opening posture, Glover gives a nod not only to centuries of cultural appropriation of blackness and black culture, but also establishes the parodic, historical, and aesthetic contexts that are central for understanding the present that the video depicts. As with Ward’s tarrying ghosts, the exploitative and violent ways black bodies have been used in the service of white supremacy across history continue to linger in the present.
The mise-en-scène staged by Glover and his frequent collaborator Hiro Murai thus finds common cause with other works that deploy Gothic tropes to make sense of black life in relation to the present day neoliberal manifestations of white supremacy and the institutions it requires to maintain its violent dominance — institutions such as the police, the judicial system, and the NRA. Among the things that viewers have found confusing about the video is the presence of numerous large, 1980s model cars. Why are they there? I’d like to suggest that the answer to that question is a lynchpin for the video’s political commentary, an answer that requires thinking of the music video’s relationship to the literary Gothic revival contemporary black writers are staging.
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.
Beyond works of fiction, “This Is America” also finds clarifying company in Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out, in Glover’s own television show Atlanta, and in various sketches from the episode of SNL that Glover hosted. Think, for example, of the dark corn field of “A Kanye Place,” or the rainy creepiness of the “Raz P. Berry” sketches. Together, the black Gothic revival not only works through what it means to be black in a nation still structured by violent white supremacy, but also dramatizes how black artists like Glover, Peele, Ward, and even Kanye must negotiate their celebrity while also remaining cognizant of the ways their race binds them to the vulnerabilities of a racialized second-class of citizenship.
One thing that distinguishes the contemporary black Gothic is its dark humor. Atlanta is classified as a sitcom and Get Out was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy, yet both focus on forms of black danger and violence that lurk in the most mundane circumstances. The humor of Atlanta and Get Out is not comedic, as Jordan Peele has pointed out in an interview in which he noted that there aren’t any jokes in Get Out, but that the humor functions as a form of tension relief. Atlanta does something similar. Take, for example, the second episode of the first season, in particular the scene in which Earn is detained in a jail and sees a mentally disturbed man drink toilet water. The scene maintains as much humor as it can while portraying black men detained by the police, right up until the man spits the toilet water in an officer’s face. At this point the scene pivots: the man is beaten at length, while the other detainees work hard to ignore what is happening. As these examples suggest, the laughter of the new black Gothic is always proximate to the ways in which daily black life can suddenly descend into horror. This shit is not supposed to be funny, but we laugh uncomfortably anyway. The juxtaposition of choreographed dancing and violence in “This Is America” creates a similar effect.
Get Out has given us disturbing yet enduring metaphors, like the sunken place, that describe the marginalized position of black people within a system of white supremacy that actively silences them “no matter how hard [they] scream,” while also appropriating their culture and bodies for its own power, profit, and survival. The film is a touchstone for Atlanta, much as Childish Gambino’s music is a touchstone for Get Out. That Glover and Peele are in conversation with each other is undeniable. Get Out opens with the soulful yet haunting groove of Gambino’s quadruple-platinum record “Redbone.” In this way, the film implores its black audience to “stay woke” even as it reassures them that its main character, Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya, is indeed woke and will be able to find his way out of the film’s web of psychological terror.
Similarly, it is probably not coincidental that Chris and his girlfriend, Rose, hit a deer with their car on the way to visit her parents for the first time, and in the fourth episode of the second season of Atlanta, Earn and his girlfriend, Van, played by Zazie Beetz, almost hit a wild boar while driving to a German festival called Fastnacht. In both cases, the accident foreshadows discomfiting and at times horrifying relationship turmoil that unfolds against the backdrop of racial disparities, and in strange and threatening locations: in Get Out, the clearly Gothic estate of Rose’s parents; in Atlanta, an eerie German town north of Atlanta. These similarities and creative overlaps suggest a shared aesthetic that both artists use to explore contemporary black life.
While Glover’s performance hosting SNL might seem unrelated to this project, Glover in fact brought the new black Gothic to the sketch comedy show, where it functioned as an introduction or primer of sorts for “This Is America.” Watching the show, one thing I couldn’t shake was how obscure and random it seemed to parody Oran “Juice” Jones’s one-hit wonder “The Rain.” In fact, however, this parody of a briefly popular song begins to answer the question of the cars in “This Is America.” “The Rain” was released in 1986, the same year as the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. This Act enacted mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses that disproportionally affected African Americans, exploding the US penal population, according to Michelle Alexander, “from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase.”
The result, in the terms of Alexander’s well-known argument, is a new racial caste system that stigmatizes and confines a racial group through law and custom. The Raz P. Berry sketch, which reworks the Gothic overtones of the original song and video — the theme of a man stalking an unfaithful lover, his threats of violence, the dark urban setting — helps us to see why “This Is America” recalls the mid-1980s. In the SNL sketch, the joke is that every attempted act of revenge by the man against his lover results in self-harm. “This Is America” tells a much larger — and darker and less funny — joke about the forces driving violence within the black community.
There are more layers to “This Is America” and the new black Gothic than mass incarceration and the new Jim Crow. Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles is portrayed on Atlanta as being immensely uncomfortable with his newfound fame. The title of season two’s final episode, “Crabs in a Barrel,” references the precarity of black success and the anxiety of being pulled back down into the barrel with the rest. In this episode, Uncle Willie’s golden gun reappears to demonstrate how the season has come full circle. The anxiety we experience for Uncle Willie, as a black man on probation who has police at his door and marijuana and illegal firearms in the house in the season’s opener, is the same we experience for Earn at an airport security checkpoint with Alfred, who is also on probation, and that same illegal firearm forgotten in his backpack in the season’s finale.
Just as Willie makes his escape by releasing his pet alligator, Earn escapes airport security by putting the gun in a bag that belongs to Clark County, the rapper who is headlining the European tour on which Paper Boi has secured a spot. In the end, when Clark County eventually boards the plane, he tells Earn and Alfred that his (white) manager won’t be making the flight because he was detained by the police for possession of a weapon. Earn’s distraction backfires — but with a crucial irony. The crabs-in-a-barrel logic suggests that Clark County’s trouble with the law will elevate Alfred to his rightful spot as tour headliner and will redeem Earn’s poor performance as his manager. But Earn does not factor in that Clark County’s having a white manager means that the black rapper has a fall guy who will receive a much more lenient sentence for any charge. Earn and Paper Boi’s smooth escape from a gun charge is, at this moment, stripped of triumph or even relief. In this respect, it’s a perfect metonym for the show as a whole.
The scene at the end of “This Is America” where a terrified-looking Gambino is being chased by a mostly white mob is reminiscent of Get Out’s sunken place, in which black people’s autonomous consciousnesses are sequestered so their bodies can be appropriated for the use of white people. At its simplest, the sunken place is a metaphor for the sometimes-forced appropriation of black people’s bodies, labor, and culture for capitalistic endeavors like slavery or the record industry. The final pursuit of Gambino similarly dramatizes the precarious position of the black man in America, who is almost always already criminalized in the aid of white supremacy’s need to violently appropriate black labor and black bodies.
Critics of the video who point out its problematically masculine focus are exactly right — near the end of the song, Gambino repeats, “Black man, get your money,” while Young Thug’s outro begins, “You just a black man in this world” — although it’s worth noting that Atlanta at least makes some strides toward encompassing black women in its diagnosis of contemporary black life through the character of Van. Consider the episode, for instance, in which she desperately boils her daughter’s diaper to try and extract urine to foil a mandatory drug test at work. She fails the test and ultimately loses her job. Another unifying feature of the new black Gothic then, along with humor that is not comedic and a preoccupation with the domestic legacies of the War on Drugs, is a sense of inescapability and the eschewal of hope for the future. These contemporary black Gothic texts bring into sharp focus the near-constant vulnerability of black life.
We see the presence of this vulnerability at the end of Sing, Unburied, Sing when the toddler Kayla faces the tree of ghosts and tells them to “[g]o home.” They “shudder, but they do not leave” at her command. As if recognizing their need for comfort, she “raises one arm in the air, palm up, like she is trying to soothe […] but the ghosts don’t still, don’t rise, don’t ascend and disappear. They stay.” Kayla’s next effort in comforting or ushering the ghosts home is to begin singing “a song of mismatches, half garble words” that her brother, Jojo, cannot understand, though the melody is familiar. As she sings, the ghosts “smile with something like relief, something like remembrance, something like ease.” While they seem soothed by her song, they are not encouraged away from their perch. They remain there in the trees, still saying “home,” even as Kayla, Jojo, and their grandfather walk away from them and the novel ends.
In its resolution, Sing, Unburied, Sing does not offer safe passage home for the ghosts of the past who have suffered racial violence across centuries. In this way, Ward’s new black Gothic does not offer correctives or hope for a brighter future, nor does it exorcise the ghosts from past brutality. It instead lays bare the realities of our time and their roots in systems that depend on the criminalization and disenfranchisement of black people.
It’s not too difficult to think of “This Is America” as a parallel of sorts to Kayla’s song. Like Ward’s transhistorical ghosts, Gambino’s minstrel poses, the video’s images of police brutality, and its tableaus of riot and chaos cumulatively demonstrate how the past is an actor demanding recognition in the present. Knowing this makes one, rightly, hopeless, and the works I have been discussing don’t shy away from this hopelessness. But it doesn’t only make one hopeless, insofar as it also provides varied contexts for recognizing how white supremacy and systemic racism continue to organize American life. The new black Gothic aesthetic thus functions in popular black art as a tool for representing black life on its own terrorized terms.
Sheri-Marie Harrison is an associate professor of English at the University of Missouri. Her book Difficult Subjects: Negotiating Sovereignty in Postcolonial Jamaican Literaturewas published by the Ohio State University Press in fall 2014.