African and Caribbean Culture Is The Foundation of the Gothic Movement

It was always a performance to remember: A wide-eyed dark-skinned man, dressed in a black satin cape, with a bone through his nose, played a guitar with a skull head and skeletal bones splaying across the strings. Popping out of a flaming coffin (which he bought on his own accord) was derigueur, as was the utilization of snakes and tarantulas, an ancestral ode to ancient African and Afro-Caribbean sensibilities. His riotous stage act, channeling Esu, the trickster Orisha of the Yoruba pantheon and the Lwa Baron Samedi of the Vodou, was the epitome of Gothic excellence.

Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins became America’s first “shock rocker” — laying the foundation for what would later be known as Gothic music in the United States. “Hawkins’s spooky theatrics did not emerge again until the mid-to late sixties with bands like the hearse-riding Tombstones in Canada, mostly as a part of the mainstream whitewashing of R&B music,” says Goth scholar, Nancy Kilpatrick, in The Goth Bible. “Indeed, one element that is frequently absent from discussions of Gothic music is its reliance on musical elements that originated with people of African descent.”

Gothic culture is uniformly linked with whiteness; mainstream Goth icons, such as Marilyn Mason, Bauhaus, Dracula, and the late Vincent Price comprise the most revered Goth icons in popular culture. It’s a movement typically associated with the self-absorbed melancholia of 19th century Victorian Europeans, therefore automatically dissociating with what is perceived to be a crucial aspect connected to African Diaspora cultures. These anti-Black definitions of Goth not only obscure the history of Gothic aesthetics deriving from Black folk, but also erase the reality that the African Diaspora’s history of enslavement, colonialism, trauma, and search for belonging are inherently Gothic themes. Within Gothic appropriation of African and Caribbean macabre aesthetics is the history of Black Diaspora cultures around the world.

Serpent imagery, a prevalent feature of Gothic themes, is deeply rooted in indigenous African spiritual traditions. Colonizers often viewed snake veneration with extreme distaste, particularly in Haiti, as enslaved people were watched under the eye of French masters. Animal magnetism in early Gothic literature views the snake with fascination, as well as with trepidation; snakes were associated with the grotesque supernatural forces of the natural world in 18th century English Romantic literature. “Frequently, the appearance of the serpent lends to this Gothic atmosphere an effect achieved by a combination of the ugly and the beautiful,” note researchers Lura and Duilo Padrini. Serpents as symbols of great spiritual power are greatly African in nature, as many indigenous West African peoples considered snakes to be reincarnations of deceased ancestors.

Mami Wata, a deity revered in West, Central and Southern Africa, and the Americas, is often pictured with a snake wrapped around them.

“In Africa, snakes were viewed differently. Serpent veneration was found throughout much of the continent,” explains Kenaz Filan, in The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook. “The Fon-speaking people of Dahomey honored the great serpent Ayida, who stretched across the sky as a rainbow by day and shimmered among the stars as the Milky Way by night. The Timbuktu of central Malawi paid homage to the sky-dwelling python Chikangombe. The Bantu of central and southern Africa had Monyoha, the great water snake who ensured that the rivers and lakes would never dry up for those who honored him. And during the Middle Passage and the horrors of slavery, this snake veneration was carried to the New World, particularly New Orleans.”

Gothic culture also appropriates North African spiritual symbolism, most notably with the Egyptian Ankh and the Eye of Ra. The Ankh, representing eternal life, and the eye of Ra, representing destructive forces, are heavily referenced in Gothic literature, particularly pertaining to “occult practices”. As Britain aimed to colonize Egypt with repressive political policies in the 19th century with the erection of the Suez Canal, white colonial fears and anxieties were expressed in Gothic fiction. Ailise Bulfin attributes the emergence of the Anglo-Egyptian Gothic sub-genre in response to Britain’s colonial aims: “From 1869 when the canal opened, gaining further momentum after the 1882 occupation, numerous tales positing the irruption of vengeful, supernatural, ancient Egyptian forces in civilized, rational, modern England began to appear…the typical plot turns upon modern English trespass into an ancient Egyptian tomb, the misappropriation of a mummy or its artifacts back to England, and the unleashing of a curse which sees an ancient supernatural invader exacting revenge in the heart of the imperial metropolis.” The staples of Ankhs and the Eye of Ra in Goth wardrobe are attributed to this colonial era in Africa.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins posing with a skull.

Skulls, another prominent feature of Goth culture, borrow from African spiritual traditions. Gothic wedding cakes are often decorated with skulls or skeletons, detailed with glitter and jewels; throughout the Americas, indigenous peoples employed the spiritual utilization of skulls. Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico celebrates deceased spirits with the decoration of sugar skulls, and manipulation skulls heads as puppets in parades. Africans also derived sacred meaning from skulls. “Among many African tribes it is common to preserve bones, and especially skulls, of ancestors as relics of the dead. These were supposed to be the abode, temporal or permanent, of the departed soul, and were tended and guarded with all the reverence and filial piety the transition to worship would be natural and easy,” author James MacDonald writes. Families were expected to care for the remainder of the relics, relying on priests to care for the skulls of their loved ones.

In addition to skulls, color historically plays an intriguing role in Goth culture. Black is a color associated with the morbid, shadow aspects of life that are hidden from public consciousness. Gray, another, prominent Gothic color, is connected to Afro-Caribbean spirituality. Gris Gris bags were a part of working conjure in order to achieve a specific result; these amulets were in heavy usage in New Orleans as well before the creation of Vodou dolls. Hence, the color of the gris gris bag was of utmost importance when doing spiritual work. “Gray lies somewhere between black and silver. The gris gris (gray gray) of vodoun (voodoo) blends herbs, seeds, hair, and other elements into an amulet that is worn in order to work magic spells. Gray is the institutionally drab dress Wednesday Addams prefers, an outfit sought after by goth girls,” continues Goth writer Kilpatrick. “Gray is the color of the shadow, the part of the soul the ancients believed was detachable. It is the twilight and the predawn, when the birds do not yet sing, and the squirrels sit stunned in the trees. The time when the spirits can slip unseen between worlds.”

The very existence of what is Gothic is predicated upon the African Diaspora. An embrace of Goth culture is to deeper understand the complexities of Blackness in its relationship to colonialism, identity, and ancient ancestral wisdom. To be Black is to be Goth — and unapologetically so.