Am I a Real Horror Writer?

Last night, I finally sat down to watch Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019). If you’re a horror fan and haven’t watched this amazing documentary, I highly recommend it. Based on Robin R. Means Coleman’s book, Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present (2011), the film not only discusses the historical lack of representation of black characters in horror films, but also examines the misrepresentations of black people when they appeared in them. As you might expect, the filmmakers and actors discussing the films and their historically important contexts talk about their fears and experiences with racism while trying to create art within a genre that subconsciously depicts monsters as The Other in relation to white people and culture in place of ethnic minorities.

After watching the documentary, I was inspired to watch a film from the Blaxploitation era, Sugar Hill (1974), which is about a woman, Sugar Hill, who uses Voodoo to avenge the death of her fiance. The film opens with what appears to be a Voodoo ritual with black people in traditional Haitian Voodoo garb dancing to a serious drum beat. I couldn’t help thinking of Angel Heart (1987), and expected to see Epiphany Proudfoot show up with her chicken. As the opening credits end, so does the dance and we become aware of the fact that the people dancing aren’t in a secluded location away from prying eyes, they are actually performers at a place called Club Haiti. They are performing Voodoo for a predominantly white audience. They are literally performing an aspect of blackness that is a stereotypical representation of black people in horror films. This also made me think of a similar scene in Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988).

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Typically, in horror films, Voodoo is shown as something evil, something to be feared. Depicting Voodoo practitioners as women who use their magic to hurt others, or exact vengeance, is a trope that I worried about perpetuating while writing Invisible Chains. I didn’t want to stick to the common stereotypes associated with black women, especially mambos, in horror narratives.

While Sugar is a strong female lead in a horror film, the film is still riddled with tropes like dangerous black women using magic for revenge. Her fiance, Langston, owns Club Haiti. A white gangster wants to buy it, but Langston refuses. So, he sends his henchmen to kill him. They beat him to death and leave his body in the parking lot of the club for Sugar to find.

Sugar doesn’t just use magic, she calls upon Baron Samedi who raises an army of the undead made up of former slaves who died of disease while still on slave ships. Their bodies were dumped in the water and washed up on the shore near Sugar’s childhood home. So, this movie has a lot going for it in terms of supernatural horror that looks at racism in the United States (in the past and in the present of the 1970s).

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In exchange for Baron Samedi’s help, Sugar offers up her soul, but he’s more interested in her body. But, Sugar’s final revenge is taken when Baron Samedi takes the racist girlfriend of the gangster back to the Underworld with him in place of Sugar. In my opinion, that gave the film a happy ending.

Black women in roles like Sugar are viewed as frightening and dangerous because they wield power. My protagonist struggles to accept her strengths and often downplays or hides her abilities for fear of being punished for either her knowledge or power. Her strength is a secret and she doesn’t make use of her power until she’s pushed to the limit. She protects herself and others, rather than seeking vengeance.

I worried that by writing her in this way, people wouldn’t accept her as being “authentic,” and I struggled with my decision, which I think says a lot more about me as a writer and how I see myself than it does about my character.

I also struggled with the belief that because this narrative isn’t a traditional horror story — a slave narrative with a black female protagonist — people wouldn’t recognize it as a horror novel. In fact, people challenged the notion that I was writing horror while I was in my MFA program. But, as Tananarive Due puts so succinctly in Horror Noire, ”Black history is black horror.”

I already knew that what I had written is without doubt a horror novel, but having my beliefs confirmed by another writer I respect and admire made me feel a lot better about releasing this novel into the world. Black women have plenty of horror stories to tell, and perhaps, a female slave is the most qualified protagonist for an historical horror story set in America.

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Invisible Chains will be released in a week on July 22, so my anxiety is on the rise. But after watching Horror Noire and Sugar Hill, I feel more confident about how I chose to write my protagonist, Jacqueline, and I may actually be a horror writer.

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Black Like Me

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Family photo taken in the early 1990’s with my friend and classmate, “Vampire Liz.”

Just over a year ago, something happened to me that made me question my identity. In fact, since the election results came in and I woke up in Trump’s America on November 9, 2016, I’ve been thinking about identity a lot — mine, my son’s, my friends’, my neighbors’, my co-workers’, and complete strangers’. I’m not 100% sure what made me think about the incident that caused me to question the very nature of my own “blackness,” but it might be any number of news stories you can read at your leisure online dealing with the shocking reality that blatant racism is back in style.

At any rate, whatever resurrected this experience for me, I started thinking about it a bit more deeply. During a meeting I attended about a year ago to discuss the qualifications of candidates applying for a social equity position at a state university, a topic related to current events came up. Bill O’Reilly had said some stupid, unprofessional, racist bullshit about Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ appearance.

I could launch into a tirade about that alone, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. Not today. What struck me about the topic of discussion, was the fact that the white woman who was upset about O’Reilly’s statements (even after his apology, he wouldn’t shut up and continued harassing Congresswoman Waters), managed, in the same breath, to commit her own act of unconscious racism.

The same woman who was talking about how upset she was because Congresswoman Waters had been attacked/criticized/mocked/marginalized for being “culturally authentic.” And then, she looked at me and said, “That’s the right term, isn’t it?” She committed an act of unconscious racial microaggression.

Now, to be fair, we were a group of faculty and staff working together at a university and engaged in friendly conversation about something we all took issue with, but then suddenly I was assigned the role of Black Person Expert. This wasn’t the first time, and I assure you, it won’t be the last time I get asked to put on that hat.

When I was younger, I operated under the misconception that if I was one of the only people of color in the room, it was my responsibility to speak for All Black Folks. I assumed it was my responsibility because it was an expectation of white people. Each time I was asked to speak for All Black Folks, it made me uncomfortable to be put on the spot by a room full of white people who were expecting me to educate or enlighten them on the mysteries of “blackness.” It made me uncomfortable for several reasons, including the fact that I worried I would say the wrong thing. The “wrong thing” was a double-edged sword, because I was either going to misrepresent black people by giving my opinion as an individual who had very little access to other black people growing up, or I was going to disappoint white people by not saying what they wanted to hear. These situations became even more uncomfortable when other people of color were in the room, but weren’t being asked for their input. By the time I was done speaking, I was almost 100% guaranteed to have enemies on either side of that one-sided conversation.

Why would I be chosen as the spokesperson for All Black Folks when other people of color were present? Well, because I’m not really black. I mean, unless it’s more convenient for me to be black.

When the white woman looked at me for confirmation that she was using the appropriate, politically correct terminology for…I don’t know…black people in their natural state of being, a few buried memories and neglected emotions came to the surface of my mind. But first, I laughed out loud at the absurdity of her question and the fact that she was using the term incorrectly.

Before I delve into what this one seemingly harmless question awakened for me, I just want to make something perfectly clear, just in case you didn’t know, THERE IS NO MONOLITHIC BLACK IDENTITY.

You can’t point to one person’s experience and say, “that’s culturally authentic.” Also, “cultural authenticity” is a literary term used to measure how well a book depicts a specific cultural group regarding language, everyday life, etc. So, I’m not sure you can even use the term to describe real people. And, even if you could, the woman’s use of the term in relation to Bill O’Reilly’s comments and the reality of Congresswoman Waters’ hairstyle doesn’t make a lot of sense. What distinguishes Waters’ hair as being culturally authentic?

To satisfy my curiosity and to make sure I wasn’t spouting bullshit like Bill O’Reilly, I Googled the term, and the only hit I got that referenced actual people was in relation to tourism and the practice of “performing” cultural authenticity. I think this is also called staged authenticity, in which an indigenous culture creates a version of their culture for tourists that may not match the actual lives of people living in that culture.

Even after confirming my suspicions about the term and its correct usage, it still struck a chord with me, and I felt the need to explore how I was feeling about it being used to refer to non-fictional people. People who don’t necessarily fit into the misconception of “blackness” being one identity. So, I Googled “what does it mean to be black in America.” Go ahead. Google it. I’ll wait.

A lot of people are talking (and have been talking) about the meaning of “blackness” and how we view ourselves and others. Now, this is a subject I could really sink my teeth into. I realized that reading about other people’s experiences would help me unpack my own feelings and reactions to that white woman’s question and expectation that I had the answer.

FYI, I don’t have the answer.

After searching for “what does it mean to be black in America,” I felt validated, comforted, empowered, and relieved to know that I wasn’t alone in dealing with this identity issue as a woman of color who doesn’t always fit people’s world view of “blackness.” I especially enjoyed reading a Washington Post article that looked at the experiences of three women and what it means to be “black enough.”

“According to Jelani Cobb, a historian and writer at the New Yorker, defining “blackness” is inherently complicated — because race is an invented category dating back to slavery, and the category can encompass a range of identities and cultures. People identify as black, African American, African, Muslim, Native American, biracial and sometimes more.”

Identity can be a slippery slope when you don’t fit into one checkbox. And, as most people who aren’t completely clueless realize, the shaping of your identity is more complex than simply belonging to one racial group of people. This is especially true if you don’t belong to ONE racial group of people, but rather two or more. And, don’t even get me started about the intersectionalities of class, gender, sexuality, political views, religious beliefs and economic status that make the complexities of race and ethnicity even more complex.

Just like there is no monolithic blackness, there is no monolithic whiteness (although, the implication/belief of its existence is the foundation of so many problems we’re all facing in the world today), no monolithic femaleness or maleness, no monolithic gayness or straightness, or any monolithic version of any identity. That’s right angry fascist Americans, like it or not, we really are all a bunch of snowflakes. But, that’s a good thing. Our differences make us stronger and more interesting at dinner parties.

My entire life has been about finding a place to fit in. Wondering how I will ever be enough — black enough, feminine enough, pretty enough, smart enough, financially stable enough — which really boils down to being loved for who I am and who I am not.

Who am I?  I am a college educated middle-aged woman of color who writes dark speculative fiction. I am a divorced single parent of a tween boy who can pass for white in the right setting. I am the daughter of a white woman and a black man. I was raised in rural Pennsylvania by my mother’s working-class white family who were not actively racist, but culturally bigoted.

As a teen I experimented with drugs and attended hardcore shows in Central PA with skinheads, skaters and punks. I identified with Goth culture, dressed all in black, and read every piece of vampire fiction I could get my hands on. Hell, I even met Glenn Danzig.

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Me and my BFF.

My best friend is a white man I have been friends with for over 30 years and we have family dinners and celebrate certain holidays together each year. We’re family. And, speaking of family, I’m really fortunate to be so close to my cousins who make me laugh and remember not to take myself too seriously.

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Cousins make the best friends.

So, if you’re hoping to put me into one monolithic category, good luck. The color of my skin does not determine the unique and diverse nature of my life experiences. And, it certainly doesn’t make me an expert on “blackness.”