The Gothicness of Black America: Liberal Studies Alumna Leila Taylor on Her First Book

A library after closing hours can be a mysterious place — making it a great location to talk with Leila Taylor about her first book, Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul (Repeater, 2019). From a bench in the children’s section of Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), Taylor, a 2018 Liberal Studies MA alumna and BPL’s creative director, explores the history of Afrogoth, the visceral horror and inherent gothicness of Black America, and her own history in the Goth scene.

Taylor’s personal relationship with Goth culture is critical to the development of the book. “I didn’t really intend to write about myself as much as I did,” she says. “I was intending it to be much more of a historical and cultural text, but I found that it was hard to talk about the subject matter without talking about myself. When I realized that so much of my own personal story was directly related to these larger historical issues and larger cultural issues, all of these genres mushed together made sense.” 

In Darkly, Taylor writes, “I suppose I would fall into the Traditional goth category or (god forbid) Elder Goth.” Growing up as a self-proclaimed Goth kid in Detroit, Taylor threw herself into the music of the 80’s goth rock. She recalls buying Siouxsie and the Banshees albums and hanging a Joy Division poster on her bedroom wall. As an adult, she reclaimed this inner angsty teen by going to events hosted by Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy, which produces events on ‘art and medicine, death and culture’.

Decolonizing Goth

Through these experiences, Taylor felt the whiteness in Goth spaces. She was often the only Black person at the events and concerts, and she started to ask herself why. “When I started this project, I was really looking at what it was like being a Black person in the Goth scene and to be the only person in the room and all that entails,” she said. “I made an effort to go looking for people who shared this experience.”

Taylor found a good starting point in the Afropunk scene. “That was my gateway into all this,” she laughs. The documentary Afro-Punk (2003) examines Black people in the overwhelmingly white punk scene, and is also the name of a movement that has blossomed into journalism, fashion, and a music festival. 

Taylor looks at Afrogoth as a twist on Afropunk. “Afrogothic is a similar  Black-centric perspective of the gothic. Some people think of it as the subculture of people who dress in black and wearing too much eyeliner, but for me, it’s closer to a way of looking at a genre through an Afrocentric, decolonized lens.” 

What Taylor found is that the experiences of Black people in the scene didn’t have anything to do with them being Goth, but rather, the lived experience of being Black in America — applicable in any field in which people of color are not considered, marginalized, or taken for granted.

“I realized there really wasn’t any difference between Black Goths and everybody else. The only difference was that they were Black,” Taylor said. “It really stopped becoming about Goth as a subculture, but the gothicness of Blackness and how blackness itself is a gothic experience.” Darkly asks, “If the gothic narrative is metabolized fear, if the Goth aesthetic is romanticized melancholy, what does that look and sound like in Black America?” Taylor contrasts this question of the “aesthetic of horror” with the real visceral horror that defines the history of race in America for many. Part memoir, part historical context, and part cultural criticism, the book analyzes the ways Goth embodies race relations in the U.S. in the twenty-first century. The skeletons in the closet are the persistence of white supremacy and the ghosts of slavery, and the haunted grounds are the ubiquity of Black death and its mourning. This ghastly undercurrent of fear and grief moves throughout Darkly, but there is still a joy in Taylor’s writing, a reclamation in processing this trauma. 

The Horror of Working, Writing, and Studying

While Darkly was published in 2019, the idea of the book has motivated Taylor for years, even before she started her Master’s in Liberal Studies at The New School for Social Research. “I knew I wanted to do it, but I had no idea what I was doing,” she said. “I had it in my head the entire time. I was writing short essays here and there of cultural theory stuff and not getting published and realizing that I really don’t know what I’m doing.”

Taylor began to take note of faculty members who could help shape her writing and processes. “I was taking classes with the people that were writing the kind of things that I like to write and the kind of style that I like to write, so having those people as a sort of a regular weekly influence was helpful,” she says, citing Dominic Pettman, Professor of Culture and Media, and Eugene Thacker, Professor of Media Studies as influential mentors. 

In addition to studying part-time at NSSR, Taylor was working full-time at BPL. When asked when she found time to work on the book, she replied “Every moment! It was before work, sometimes during work, after work, and on the weekends,” she said. “It was a lot. It was really rough, but basically any free time was when I did it. The one thing, working for the library — it was incredibly supportive. Also if I ever needed a book source it’s right there.” Working as a designer also helped her develop her creative problem-solving skills and her research process. “Part of the creative process is trying to do something that no one else has done before, something unique that is expressive of yourself and communicating a larger idea. This all goes back to the idea of sending a message,” Taylor explains.

Research Matters asked Taylor if she had any advice for writers who are full-time students, like many Liberal Studies and Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism students, or have unrelated full-time jobs. “Give yourself a break,” she says. “Don’t feel guilty if you don’t write a day, because you’ll go crazy. Don’t think about what you think other people want to read or what you think will get published or what you think is going to sell. You have to do what you want to do, as long as you can, and as much as you can.”

The Future of Afrogoth

Looking to the future of Afrogoth, Taylor says that the movement is happening right now and there’s only more to come. Taylor emphasizes that there is an abundance of work on the history of Black people of horror films. She recommends the Shudder documentary Horror Noire as particularly great viewing. “There’s a lot more scholarship about [Afrogoth] and work being done creatively in the mainstream giving it a bigger voice,” she says. Films like Tales from the Hood and the more recent works of director Jordan Peele are using horror to express the Black experience and the day-to-day terror Black people continue to experience. The success of Peel’s Get Out has amplified his messages to much wider audiences.  

“It’s not only Black people,” she says as she excitedly references newer horrors like HBO’s Los Espookys, featuring New School alum Julio Torres, and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, called “the first Iranian vampire Western.” “Any kind of opportunity for different faces and different voices is good. I think it’s only going to get better.”