For most people my age—elder Millennial/Gen X cuspian—“goth” conjures up images of folks bedecked in black, with high-contrast hair, kohl-rimmed eyes, probably some body mods, shrouded in the distinctive whiff of clove cigarettes and melancholy. You might even imagine a specific type of goth: rivethead, romantic, cyberpunk, Lolita, or, the goth no Gen X-er ever would have predicted, the pastel goth.
The one type of goth you probably don’t visualize? A Black goth.
Goth subculture is largely associated with whiteness, but Black goths, also known as “Afrogoths,” are pushing back on that perception—first, with their presence in the community, and secondly, by challenging the dominant Eurocentric history and aesthetics within it.
“Even outside of the [goth] community, Black beauty is just now being recognized,” says Brat, a 16-year-old from Washington, D.C., who embraces elements of goth style but identifies as “alternative.” “In white communities, they look at alternative people as less than, so when you throw people of color in that madness, it’s like we’re basically nonexistent. People don’t relate those types of things to Blackness or any other race but white.”
There’s no unanimous agreement among cultural historians on the exact time and place the goth movement was born; however, most credit the ethereal synth strains of 80s post-punk and dark wave bands like Bauhaus, Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Depeche Mode, and The Cure with helping it coalesce. Unlike its more extroverted punk and new wave predecessors, goth music, and the lifestyle it engendered, was more introspective and eclectic in orientation, drawing on a diverse set of historical influences, including Gothic art and architecture, and Victorian-era dress, poetry, and aesthetics, in addition to contemporary music. On an individual level, being goth also suggested a fascination with the dark, macabre, and otherworldly.
Many goths see their community as one that accepts those whom society deems “other”—which has made the space more welcoming for LGBTQ folks, insiders say. But, like any white-majority space in a white supremacist world, it’s got issues. First, rock music history often leaves out the contributions of Black and brown people. Within punk, as The Guardian recently wrote, this remains “still an unfamiliar and unaddressed topic.” Black blues legend Screamin' Jay Hawkins' 1956 song “I Put A Spell on You”, which has been covered by everyone from The Animals to Tim Curry to Marilyn Manson, could be called the first goth anthem, but remains relatively obscure; none of the Black goths I interviewed credited it as an influence.
They did, however, all tell me that other Black people in their lives derogatorily called them “white” for listening to rock music and adopting a goth persona.
“Unfortunately, when you are a person of color and you step out and listen to something that’s considered to be a white thing, immediately you are abandoning your culture. You are abandoning your race,” says Nnaus A.O. Feratu, an “elder goth” and vegan kitchen witch, who runs the website Goth in the Raw.
Desiree Gibbs—a 23-year-old graphic designer, jewelry designer, and artist based in Dallas, Texas—told me she didn’t realize rock music had African-American origins until she began connecting with other Black goths for a scholarship-funded series of portraits she painted.
“As soon as I found that community… it really surprised me at how much of it stemmed [from] Black culture,” says Gibbs, who cites the New Orleans, voodoo, and blues music as key influences among the goths she painted. “It is just so crazy how doing this project has basically exposed me to the truth behind goth culture, like the actual truth.”
Goth culture went mainstream in the 1990s due to a perfect storm of factors: teenage disillusionment with America’s commodity culture; breakout stars like Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails, under the penumbra of alternative music; and stores like Hot Topic, which made it easier to replicate the goth fashion aesthetic. Hollywood blockbusters like The Crow and The Craft also hit screens during this time, bringing spooky, star-powered stories to screens around the country. Mainstream goth culture often portrayed the witchy and otherworldly as antithetical to Christian values, mixing icons from Judeo-Christian mythology (e.g. the anti-Christ, devil worship) with those of European paganism—to the exclusion of traditions like voodoo and sentaría that have distinctive African and Latinx roots. Yet, goth culture widely appropriated symbols like snakes, the ankh, skulls, and bones from African and indigenous cultures, as writer Shanna Collins noted in 2017.
Goth-kid-turned-librarian Leila Taylor explores similar themes in her treatise Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul and finds that compelling intersections between the gothic preoccupation with pain, horror, violence, and trauma makes goth culture uniquely suited to exploring while reckoning with America’s history of enslavement, colonialism, and the unrelenting violence against Black bodies. Black people are the embodiment of the gothic, argues Taylor, in that we are white America’s greatest fear. Or as one T-shirt puts it: “so goth, I was born black.”
Within that context, artists like M. Lamar are performing gothness as the ultimate critique of American history and dominant power structures, through haunting music and intense, provocative imagery. At the literal polar opposite end of the spectrum, Fat Bat Dana merges body positivity with whimsy, a deceptively subversive way of challenging dominant paradigms of color, size, and femininity within the goth space. When I interview Feratu—who has Nigerian, Cameroonian, and West Indian heritage; identifies as vegan, queer, and non-binary; and is a partner, parent of two “baby bats,” and a practicing kitchen witch—their gothness serves as a lens through which their other identities are understood and amplified.
Despite all the intersections between Blackness and gothness, there is still racism within the space. While harassment has long been “horrible on social media,” according to Feratu, there has been an uptick in in-person and online goth-on-goth hate during the Trump era. #GothRight and #GothsforTrump are a thing, and there are also what Feratu calls “the elitists,” white goths who believe “you have to be pale-skinned” to be goth, often using “accuracy” as an excuse for racism in the grand tradition of _Game of Thrones_-loving misogynists and the science-citing racists who couldn’t get over a Black Little Mermaid.
Still, Afrogoths all over the world are continuing to shift the relationship between Blackness and individual creative expression in new and interesting ways. Nigeria, a Black-majority country that is relatively conservative socially in comparison to the U.S., has its own burgeoning alternative scene, as does Brazil. Afrofuturist fiction, like the dark and richly imagined Broken Earth Trilogy by three-time Hugo Award winner N.K. Jemisin, and the Afropunk music festival have mainlined Blackness within subcultures long-dominated by white people. Beyoncé’s 2014 visual album Lemonade is rife with Gothic imagery and Rihanna, who appropriated #ghettogothic, mastered “goth chic casual.”
Increased representation is important, but the most counter-cultural aspect of being Afrogoth remains self-expression—though not in the same way as for white goths.
“When slavery occurred, everything that made us who we are was stripped,” says Feratu. “When you had slaves come across and they wanted to stick to the practice of traditional spirituality, it was beaten out of us… we had to abandon that.”
And that’s what makes Afrogoths different from their white counterparts: Another layer of emotions come out rooted in a more historical tradition of being othered.
“I bring pain, but pain can also be a beautiful thing,” Feratu, also an artist and musician, continues. “And that pain is something that I turn into beauty and turn into art. And as Black people within the scene, we bring heart, we bring pain, we bring joy, we bring culture. We bring ourselves and you can see that.”
This article originally appeared on VICE US.