:: Article

AfroGoths

By Oscar Mardell.

Leila Taylor, Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul (Repeater Books, 2019)
Steve Bergsman, I Put a Spell on You: The Bizarre Life of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (Feral House, 2019)

I

In the 43rd of his Caprichos, Francisco Goya depicts himself asleep at his desk, his back turned to a swarm of grotesque predators rising menacingly from behind him. “El sueño de la razón” reads the text at the bottom left, “produce monstruos”: “the sleep of reason produces monsters”. For many, the image has provided the definitive image of the Gothic: the repository of experience — superstition, paranoia, madness, the supernatural, etc. — which is rendered illegitimate by an exclusively rational worldview, and which returns to haunt that worldview whenever it exhausts itself; the Gothic as the nightmare of the Enlightenment project. And it’s a useful image, I think, because it enables us to view the Gothic not (just) as a historically-contingent tradition, nor as a set of stock conventions, but as a particular aesthetic — that is, as something concerned with a particular mode of feeling.

But where does reason sleep? Before what prospect do the forces of logic fall dormant? I know full well that I will die: all humans are mortal; I am a human; and I, therefore, am mortal. But to properly wrap my head around this truth is a bit more difficult. As Sigmund Freud wrote after the outbreak of World War One, “It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death, and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact present as spectators.” Of the manifold attempts to define the uncanny, this, for me, remains the most convincing: the dissonance that takes place at the outer threshold of the “I”; the splitting of the self that occurs where the subject is forced to rationalise, but finds itself unable to grasp, the fact that it, too, is object; the blur between the familiarity of “I am” and the otherliness of “it is”. The uncanny, in other words, is that grotesque swarm, the monster produced where reason sleeps; and the Gothic is our most reliable means of summoning it.

But the 43rd Capricho is also a warning, a monster (from monstrare: to warn) in its own right: the monsters produced by the sleep of reason will not be vanquished with reason’s weapons. Any methodology aspiring to objectivity inevitably fails to make sense of the uncanny, for the weird ecstasy at the far limit of subjectivity can only be known to the subject first hand (that humans are mortal is not difficult to grasp; it’s the addition of the “I” to the equation which creates complications). And it’s a warning which is seldom heeded: today, “Gothic Studies” is nothing short of an academic cottage industry, yielding countless dissertations, articles, monographs, anthologies, and textbooks each year. And it goes without saying that none of these are written in the first person. Instead, they attempt to make sense of the Gothic by treating its texts as ontological (rather than, say, hauntological) phenomena, objects in the world whose signature affect –— namely, the blind-spot of rationality — might itself be rationalised. For which reason, if they are not totally unreadable, they are seldom very enlightening. None of the traditional scholarship on Nosferatu can explain why the shadowplay in the closing scene leaves me stone cold every single time, less yet can it assuage that harrowing sensation. The important thing about the 43rd Capricho is that it is a self-portrait.

II

In Darkly, Leila Taylor offers a racially-minded revision of the Gothic canon, from Walpole to the present, with a particular focus on its American incarnations. But two things make this compendium a vital addition to the existing commentary. First is the fact that Taylor is no reductionist, and isn’t tempted, say, to dismiss the entire Gothic canon as irredeemably racist. Instead, Darkly makes a compelling and subtle argument: on the one hand, that the American Gothic is not simply a transplanting of an inherently European aesthetic, but a symptom of America’s (ongoing) legacy of racial oppression; on the other, that the American Gothic also promises a cure, a means of resisting that very oppression — that by allowing ourselves to be haunted by its texts, we can hope to terminate the legacy which produced them. Second is Taylor’s unapologetic use of the first person, her extensive reference to her subjective experience. That experience is directly related to the book’s argument: as Darkly makes clear, the legacy of racial oppression in America is something which Taylor has encountered — and continues to encounter — on a daily basis. But the inclusion of Taylor’s “I” here lends more than, say, credibility to her case (that case is already so tight, it would stand irrespective of who made it); it also ensures that Darkly, like the 43rd Capricho, is a self-portrait. By discussing how it feels for her to watch, say, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead — with its appropriations of Haitian folklore, and with the indiscriminate slaughter of the Black protagonist in its final scenes — Taylor forces us to participate in her experience. Darkly, then, to paraphrase something that Beckett once said of Joyce, is not just about the uncanny, it is uncanny.

But Darkly, as much as it is a work of criticism, is also a defence of a particular mode of subjectivity, a sort of manifesto for that cultural space called AfroGoth. One of Taylor’s most crucial points is that that being Goth “while Black” isn’t just a case of “wanting to be white” (as many have attempted to inform her), but an authentic expression of Black identity. For Taylor, being Black is inherently Goth: much of Black culture is already what Goth aspires to be — otherly, camp, macabre, haunting, and, moreover, haunted. The last item on this list is crucial. Unlike Horror, the Gothic draws no stable distinction between Frankenstein and the monster, between the (exhausted) proprietor of reason and the product of its sleep, between the one who is haunted and the one who haunts. Through virtually all of Western Literature, however, and in the majority of America’s media (as well as its lawcourts) today, Black characters — if they are represented at all — are consigned solely to the role of the one who haunts, never to that of the one who is haunted. Doubtless, the underlying message here is a version of the pseudoscientific notion that Black people experience less pain (a notion which remains disgustingly prevalent, and which continues to be propagated under the guise of legitimate “science”): more melanin also is supposed to make a person less susceptible to psychological pain, and less capable of being haunted, therefore (in spite of the fact that Black history is perhaps the most traumatic and haunting of all). “Dehumanization” writes Taylor, “is a creepy endeavour”, and one of the crucial requirements in the process of re-humanisation is a mode of representation in which Black characters are not just “spooks” (an old racist slur, which Darkly discusses in depth) but also spooked. In order to surpass the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow — in order to properly consign their horrors to the past — we need an aesthetic which acknowledges that those very legacies can never be consigned to the past, a style which is sensitive to the fact that they continue to plague their heirs like endless nightmares. And that style is AfroGoth.

III

“I am anticipating…” writes Taylor toward the end of Darkly, “that music critics will complain that I haven’t mentioned Christian Death, Fields of the Nephilim, or Militia Vox”. It cannot be denied that the selection of texts covered in Darkly feels eccentric; but this is precisely the point. To complain that something hasn’t been included is no more an appropriate criticism of Darkly than it is of, say, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music or Lux and Ivy’s Favorites; the point, of course, is that the selection is a deliberately subjective one, one guided by personal taste, so that it too is able to function as a mode of self-portraiture.

One character who doesn’t fare particularly well in Darkly (or, at least, with whom Taylor admits that her relationship is “complicated”) is Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins. For Taylor:

Hawkins was brilliant, and goth owes him a debt of gratitude, but I still get squeamish watching his performance. Was he a groundbreaking Black performer struggling to make it in a business owned by white people, fighting to keep his image under his own control, or would he forever just be a novelty act with his most famous song legitimized by other artists who played it straight (including Annie Lennox)? He resented being pigeon-holed saying, “Why can’t people take me as a regular singer without making a bogeyman out of me?” The performance, the visual presentation, the power of drama surpassed the song, assigning an identity for the artist that he couldn’t shake. He screamed and so he became Screamin.’

Here, Taylor seems to accept Hawkins’ own account of there being an absolute split between the role which he aspired to inhabit (“a regular singer”), and the role which he was forced into (“a bogeyman”). And while she doesn’t quite say it outright, the implicit suggestion is that this latter role — for all of its claims to have been radical or subversive — might have been little more than a latter-day incarnation of the blackface minstrel show: a stereotyped and derogatory representation of Blackness intended solely to affirm the existing prejudices of a predominantly white audience. For Taylor, what might save Hawkins from this criticism is his capacity for irony, his awareness of this split:

But there’s this one moment where he appears to be on the verge of laughter himself, barely holding it in. It’s a rock & roll cakewalk, making fun of white people’s fears, giving them exactly what they thought Black people really were: savage, unintelligible, overly sexual, and scary. When he’s done he gives a dignified bow and gracefully exits the stage reminding us that it was all an act. He was urged on by DJ Alan Freed, who convinced Hawkins to double down on the spooky imagery by rising from a coffin. He resisted at first saying, “No black dude gets in a coffin alive — they don’t expect to get out!”

I must admit that my own relationship with Screamin’ Jay is much less complicated: it is simply one of adoration. I love his music, and I love his legacy — the legions of performers whom he has inspired (and The Cramps most of all). And moreover, I love them not ironically but in earnest. Could this be a problem?

IV

If one thing is made clear by Steve Bergsman’s latest work — I Put a Spell on You: The Bizarre Life of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins — it is that we can’t really accept Hawkins’ own account of anything. What makes this book such an extraordinary read is that its subject was a chronic liar. And this makes for a biography like few others: Bergsman is able to juxtapose Hawkins’ version of events — or, in many cases, multiple, and contradictory, versions of events — against what actually happened — or, at least, against Bergsman’s painstaking efforts to reconstruct what actually happened. And what results is not simply a portrait but an entire rogues’ gallery, a dizzying series of real and mythical Screamin’ Jays who blur eerily into one another.

Another thing made clear by Bergsman’s book is that the idea of an absolute split — between the role which Hawkins aspired to inhabit, and the role which he was forced into — was not something of which Hawkins was simply aware, but another of his wild fabrications — or, at least, something which he greatly exaggerated throughout his life. Grotesque theatrics were present in Jay’s act well before he was introduced to Alan Freed. And while Freed did pay Hawkins to get into (and to emerge from) the coffin, what emerges from Bergsman is that it didn’t take nearly as much to convince Hawkins as he often made out. Freed appears to have paid him $300; in some of Hawkins’ accounts the sum is as much as $5,000. Hawkins insisted that he intended “I Put A Spell on You” to be “a refined love song, a blues ballad”. He maintained, moreover, that he first recorded it in this way, and that the famous version only came about when a sound engineer decided to remake it as a novelty record: getting the whole band drunk, feeding them barbecued ribs (in some of the more racially-charged versions of the story, it is not ribs but fried chicken that the band is fed), and making Hawkins insert a whole lot of incoherent snorting; Hawkins also maintained that he was so intoxicated during the re-recording that he doesn’t remember the session at all, and that afterwards he had to (re)learn the new version of the song in order to take it on tour. But the authenticity of this narrative is called into question by the fact that the two recordings are not substantially different (perhaps, in part, because the band were well accustomed to playing drunk), and that the snorting which made the second so controversial is very much present (albeit shorter) on the first. If any coherent picture emerges from Bergman, it is not just of a Black man tragically consigned to the position of the one who haunts; it is also of one who had to make out that he had suffered that fate in order to cope with the fact that he had suffered another — with the fact that he had become, at least in a commercial sense, a one-hit wonder.

The ultimate revelation of Bergsman’s book is something that true (that is, lasting) fans of Hawkins — of his tragic baritone, and of his anguished vibrato — have suspected all along: that Hawkins was an artist who was deeply and fundamentally haunted — sometimes by his success, more often by his failures, by the past, by feelings of inadequacy, and by the burden of responsibilities which he couldn’t fulfil. And this is the true genius of “I Put A Spell on You”. On the surface, the song appears to be sung by the one who haunts — by the cannibal, the vampire, the witchdoctor, etc. — by the one who has “put a spell” on the audience; what quickly transpires, however, (at about “You know I can’t stand / All your running around”) is that the singer has himself been bewitched, has had a spell put on him — that he has become obsessed with a lover who has rejected him, and that this rejection is depriving him of his ability to think (and to communicate) rationally. It is “a sophisticated blues ballad” which draws additional sophistication from the fact that it is partially disguised as a novelty, and which thereby straddles both of those categories. It is a true expression of the one who is haunted which purports — and, crucially, fails — to cloak its own vulnerability in the trappings of the one who haunts. Hawkins is Frankenstein and the monster, the (exhausted) proprietor of reason and the product of its sleep, a divided subject; and while he might not be AfroGoth par excellence, he certainly deserves to rank among its founding fathers.

 

 

Oscar Mardell

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Oscar Mardell was born in London and raised in South Wales. He currently lives in an urban commune in Auckland, New Zealand where he brews beer and practices Aikido. He teaches in the English Department at St Mary’s College, and volunteers for English Language Partners NZ. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in War, Literature & the Arts, The Literary London Journal, and DIAGRAM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 11th, 2019.