February is Black History Month, which we observe in the U.S. by celebrating the lives and achievements of African-Americans throughout the country’s history. In this vein, I wanted to highlight some of the black writers—particularly female writers—who have made significant contributions to the Gothic genre. The Gothic is generally regarded as a Eurocentric genre, created by upper class Englishmen in their extravagant estates and adopted by those who wished to imitate them. But like any good genre, the Gothic is adaptive. Its elements have been co-opted by American writers of urban horror, such as Edgar Allan Poe, and transformed into the unique subgenre of Southern Gothic by the country’s more rural authors. It is no surprise, then, that the black literary community has embraced the Gothic as well, though usually in forms less immediately recognizable than your typical tales of women in nightgowns fleeing from monsters in a castle. Read on for a list of prominent black authors who have incorporated the Gothic into their works.
Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813–1897)
Harriet Ann Jacobs was born into slavery in North Carolina. After enduring the sexual advances of her master, she escaped and hid in an attic crawl space for seven years before finally making it to the North and to freedom. While living and working in New York, she began writing her book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which combines elements of the Gothic with another popular genre, the slave narrative. In early American history, some of the first prominent literary works by black authors were these personal accounts of slavery written by freed or fugitive slaves—the most famous example being Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845). These narratives were used to fuel the abolitionist movement, and were also one of the few venues through which black writers could achieve large-scale literary success. Usually autobiographical in nature, the slave narrative depicts in graphic detail the cruelties of slavery and seeks to make white readers sympathize with the black subject’s suffering.
In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs uses her personal history to examine the topic of sexual abuse (rampant within the institution of slavery) through a Gothic lens. From its inception, Gothic novels such as Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto or Lewis’s The Monk have elicited horror by depicting female purity under threat of sexual violence. In these novels, a young and innocent woman is pursued by a villainous man who seeks to possess and corrupt her. Jacobs uses the same model to show that black women have this female purity as well, and that it is under threat from their white masters.
Toni Morrison (1931– )
You’ve probably read a few of her books in school. Toni Morrison is one of the most celebrated black writers in American history. She’s written almost a dozen novels, including The Bluest Eye and Sula. But her most popular—and her most Gothic— is her fifth novel, Beloved. In Beloved, Morrison tells the story of a fugitive slave who is haunted by the child she killed. Like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Beloved uses elements of the Gothic genre to represent the horrors of slavery. Like a classic Gothic protagonist, Sethe is haunted by a past wrongdoing—she murdered her infant child rather than allow her to be recaptured and return to the life of a slave. Years later, the child reappears—first in the form of a ghostly presence that throws objects around the room, and then in the form of a mysterious young woman who calls herself Beloved. These elements of the supernatural are central to the story, but they are not the true source of its horror. Scarier than any ghost could be are the conditions of a society that would drive a mother to kill her own child.
Octavia E. Butler (1947–2006)
When you think “Octavia Butler,” probably the first thing that comes to mind is “science fiction.” She is well known for her time-travel slave story Kindred and for her alien saga Lilith’s Brood. But since the days of Mary Shelley, science fiction and the Gothic have always walked hand in hand. Butler’s final novel before her death in 2006 was a vampire story called Fledgling. Vampires have appeared in Gothic tales since the genre’s earliest days, but Bram Stoker’s Dracula has made them almost synonymous with the genre. Butler’s vampires are depicted in a very scientific light, with in-depth descriptions of the symbiotic relationship between members of the blood-drinking species called the Ina and the humans who bond with them. The main character, Shori, is a hybrid Ina who has been genetically modified to have darker skin and therefore to be resistant to the Ina’s main weakness, the sun. Because of this difference, however, some the other Ina despise Shori and seek to kill her and her family. In this way, Butler blends the classic vampire myth with an exploration of race and prejudice.
Gloria Naylor (1950–2016)
Gloria Naylor began her writing career in the 1980s with The Women of Brewster Place, a novel that weaves together seven stories of different black women living in the inner city. However, it is in that book’s sequel, Linden Hills, that Naylor’s affinity for the Gothic really comes out. Like The Women of Brewster Place, Linden Hills is an examination of African-American society and interpersonal relationships. Instead of the inner city, though, this book is set in a wealthy suburban community called Linden Hills. Shaped like an inverted pyramid, Linden Hills is somewhat morbidly modeled off of the circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno—the deeper into the valley you live, the more wealthy you are, but also the more corrupt. The Lucifer character at the center of this hell is an undertaker named Luther Nedeed, who in many ways represents the classic Gothic villain. He’s the most powerful man in the neighborhood, gaining power both from his long family legacy and his willingness to hurt and manipulate others. His role as a mortician and the location of his house beside a cemetery align him with death and the macabre. His newest wife, Willa, stands opposite him as the traditional female victim. The story is told through two poets, Lester and Willie, who serve as interlopers observing the neighborhood. Though they both initially envy the residents in the deeper circles of Linden Hills, it soon becomes clear that those living there have sacrificed their racial identity and possibly their very souls in exchange for material wealth and prestige.
(I am indebted to Dr. Maisha Wester, whose research I drew on for this post. If you want more information on this subject, she has written a book called African American Gothic: Screams from Shadowed Places.)
Have you read any of these authors? Do you have a suggestion of other African-American writers to add to this list? Share your thoughts in the comments!