Pale, thin, and white. In some ways, the aesthetic ideal for a goth isn’t much different from the aesthetic ideal for a ballerina.
While ballet has superstar Misty Copeland bringing attention to the lack of diversity in that field, goth culture doesn’t have an African American of similar status as its face. Yet black goths exist. They can be found in Facebook groups like Black Goth Girls Rock. They attend the AfroPunk music festival in combat boots and Wednesday Addams dresses. And they’re buying the new tops illustrator Bianca Xunise designed for indie brand Adorned by Chi.
“So goth, I was born black,” the shirts declare.
It’s the unofficial motto of goths of color, Xunise explains.
“I don’t know the originator,” she says. “It’s something I’ve seen and heard since the early days of LiveJournal.”
Born to artist parents in Chicago, the 30-year-old says she’s identified as a goth since childhood. Although contemporary music was off limits to her as a kid, she found herself drawn to movies like Beetlejuice, Casper, and Mermaids. But her interest in goth style and culture led bullies to pick on her in school. Some of her black classmates were weirded out by her interest in the subculture, while being a woman of color made her feel as if she didn’t quite fit in with fellow goths.
“Whiteness and thinness and all these other things are valued in the goth community, and that can make you feel very excluded because I had a black body and skin,” she says. “I’m not a thin, pale white woman. I’m a plus-sized black woman, but I thought, ‘I’m going to create my own space.’”
Xunise isn’t the only one. Other African-Americans say they became “scene kids” because of their upbringings, interest in art and music, or fondness for a particular aesthetic. They point out that goth and alternative cultures may be linked to whiteness in the popular imagination, but many of the characteristics associated with these subcultures, especially piercings, tattoos, and rock, have roots in communities of color.
Goth icon Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was a black man from Cleveland known for his theatrical rendition of the 1956 hit “I Put a Spell on a You,” which a sultry Nina Simone covered in 1965. Hawkins took his style cues from Dracula and voodoo stereotypes, with a trademark cape, slick hair, and stage props that included coffins, rubber snakes, and a skull on a stick.
Examples of the Southern Gothic can be found in works by African Americans, including Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved and Kasi Lemmons’s 1997 film Eve’s Bayou. More recently, pop star Rihanna has embraced a goth-meets-street look, giving rise to the term “ghetto goth.”
If you look for it, it’s not hard to spot how blackness and goth style intersect. Still, Xunise felt affirmed when she ran into a woman wearing a piece from her collection, where items range from $28 to $45.
“Another girl was wearing my shirt, and she’d put together a whole outfit with a vinyl skirt and lipstick,” Xunise says. “It was overwhelming. I know people enjoy my work, but to see somebody wearing my art, I started to cry. It felt so amazing to have, like, a validation.”
Xunise’s collection came about after Adorned by Chi’s owner, Jacque Aye, approached her about a collaboration. The women traveled in the same circles online, and Aye says she has long admired Xunise’s style. The fact that Xunise is a cartoonist and illustrator made Aye even more eager to work with her, she says.
A self-described “weirdo,” Aye, 26, doesn’t identify as a goth but says “this community needs representation.” She launched Adorned by Chi (Chi means god in the Igbo language) in 2015 to give quirky black girls a place to shop.
She says black women are too often portrayed as aggressive and dressed in provocative clubwear in the media. She wants to see black style represented across the spectrum, be it cutesy — she likes poofy dresses and polka dots — or goth.
“Black people are put into boxes of how we’re supposed to dress and what we’re supposed to wear,” she says.
Alicia Gaines knows all about those boxes. Born to a white mother and a black father, she grew up in Portland, Oregon, as “for sure, a teenage goth,” she says. But being biracial didn’t make it any easier for her to elude stereotypes about African Americans. Although she was a metalhead, classmates expected her to like rap. Before long she began draping herself in black clothing.
“I think it was a way to subvert people’s expectations of how I should be,” says Gaines, now 29. “I thought it was pretty freeing.”
As she took part in a music scene where she was often the “one weirdo black” at a concert, she became increasingly aware of “being part of a scene and being welcome and unwelcome at the same time,” she says. She developed what African-American sociologist W.E.B. DuBois described as “double consciousness” in his landmark 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk.
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity,” DuBois wrote.
Although Gaines has sometimes acutely felt as if she didn’t belong in certain spaces, she now lives in Chicago and has had the opportunity to connect with other black people in the alternative music scene. She’s both a musician and an art director. It’s gratifying for her to run into a person of color in a rock venue and exchange a head nod in acknowledgement. She notes that festivals like AfroPunk came about to give African Americans in the scene a chance to come together.
Today, Gaines has a “post-punk sensibility” and continues to wear all black. She says the goth philosophy is complex. It can mean daring to look at what frightens others or finding the beauty in ugliness. It can also be a certain questioning of styles.
She says Rei Kawakubo, the fashion designer behind Commes des Garçons, has a goth attitude because she embraces a style that is “not aesthetically pleasing.” Known for their geometric shapes, exaggerated size, confrontational patterns, and layers of fabric, the iconic pieces in the line are more works of art than mere clothing.
“It’s always about questioning what is normal and how that questioning expresses itself,” Gaines says.
In popular culture, where racial stereotypes have narrowed depictions of African Americans, identifying black women with a goth or alternative sensibility can be difficult. But Grace Jones, Deborah Anne Dyer, Fefe Dobson, Janelle Monáe, Lisa Bonet, Cree Summer, and Rachel True are some of the black women that African Americans in the goth scene have found inspiring.
Xunise is especially fond of True, who starred as Rochelle in the 1996 cult film The Craft about a teenage coven of witches. Rochelle is the movie’s only black character and uses her newfound powers to get back at a racist classmate who bullies her. While many black girls who’ve attended predominantly white schools can relate to Rochelle’s storyline, they also appreciate her aesthetic, True told Racked about the groundbreaking character she played.
“They love everything about the look — from the baby barrette to the chokers to the [Catholic schoolgirl] skirts,” the actress says.
When she’s not in uniform, Rochelle is styled darkly, with flowing black dresses and matching tights, chocolate lipstick, crucifix earrings, and layers of beaded jewelry. Other times, the character wears flowing cream and brown, giving off more of an earthy witch vibe than a goth aesthetic.
“Rochelle — she’s an alterna-chick,” True says. “There just weren’t that many when I first started acting in Hollywood in the ’90s. There were a lot of Boyz n the Hood movies and a lot of white teen movies, but the two didn’t really cross. Unless you saw Denise Huxtable on TV, you didn’t see any black alterna-chicks.”
It’s a style to which True, 50, feels a personal connection. She grew up in New York sporting what she calls a “pseudo goth” or “boho goth” look with an actor’s disposition. “It was like, I am in black because ‘I’m in mourning for my life,’” she says, quoting Anton Chekhov’s 1895 play The Seagull. “That’s kind of where the dark aesthetic came from. I was already into tarot cards since I was a kid. I would have never called myself a pagan, but I definitely had a goth moment.”
There was a limit, though. She loved The Cure but would never have painted her face white to look like frontman Robert Smith, she says.
Today, True is still acting. She recently appeared on BET’s Being Mary Jane with Gabrielle Union and Michael Ealy. And she’s made headlines since last year for doing tarot readings at the House of Intuition in Los Angeles.
She’s thrilled when little goths, especially little black goths, approach her to say the Rochelle character resonated with them. But she says 21 years after The Craft’s debut, there’s still a dearth of unconventional black women in popular culture. She considers Rihanna and FKA Twigs alterna-chicks for embracing a unique sense of style but says most people would be hard-pressed to name more examples, which is why Rochelle continues to be a fan favorite decades later.
“I love that there’s a [clothing] line specifically targeting brown goths, POC goths, or alterna-chicks,” she says of Xunise’s new collection. “For a long time, they’ve been part of a marginalized group and marginalized in that group.”
Growing up black, Muslim, and female in St. Louis, Christina “Steenz” Stewart understands what it’s like to be marginalized on multiple fronts. A community manager for a comic book publisher, she rotates between a goth, preppy, and Lolita look. The 27-year-old first began to play around with her style to distinguish herself from her fraternal twin sister, with whom she had to coordinate outfits for years. She also wanted to explore creativity in her appearance while still adhering to Islam’s rules about modesty.
“In high school, I started wearing ties and suits, and other days I would wear giant poofy dresses,” she says. “I tried to find a way to stand out.”
When Stewart reached college, she stopped practicing Islam and began to get piercings and color her hair. She resents that black women who dye their hair bold colors are often labeled as “ratchet,” while their white counterparts avoid similar judgment.
“It’s a double standard,” she says. “We’re literally doing the same exact thing.”
Stewart has also fought the notion that she’s trying to be white by experimenting with her hair and getting facial piercings.
“Regardless of what people’s assumptions are, I find a lot of inspiration from alternative culture comes from people of color,” Stewart says. Ethnic groups in Africa, like the Fulani and Masai, have practiced body modification for centuries. “Just because you’re white and made it into your own doesn’t mean I’m copying off of you,” she adds. “Rather, I’m taking it from its original intent and making it my own.”
Stewart has a septum ring, a labret piercing, two conch piercings, and braided hair.
“I recently went natural, and it’s kind of amazing,” she says. “For so long, I was leaning toward relaxed hair and alternative style and streaks. That was fun, but I definitely appreciate that I can use my natural hair and still have that lifestyle without going into a Eurocentric style of beauty.”
While she’s faced criticism from the outside world for the way she presents herself, she has not faced it from her parents. She describes her family as nerdy and comic-book obsessed. Her mother is a “huge Trekkie” with an interest in cosplay, so having a daughter who stands out hasn’t been cause for concern, Stewart explains.
Cassandra Lee, 25, grew up in a similar household. Her father is a punk music fan with tattoos and black fingernails. She appreciates goth but identifies more generally as alternative, or what True would call an alterna-chick.
“I definitely wear a lot of black, I think to the point that I started filtering to black when I online shop,” Lee says. “My style may come off as a little bit of goth, with mesh and harnesses. I love chokers. I think I could come off as punky, as goth, as very street style.”
Both she and her father are longtime customers of The Alley Chicago, an institution of sorts on the city’s north side known for its leather jackets and assortment of punk and goth basics. Lee loves punk, metal, and industrial goth music and lists The Cure, Nine Inch Nails, The Black Dahlia Murder, and Ministry as her favorite bands. Her taste in music and fashion has surprised some African Americans.
She recalled standing outside of Chicago music venue The Subterranean with a black friend when an African-American man approached to ask if they were actually in line for the show. He told them that he’d never met a black person interested in the alternative scene.
“There’s a lot of us,” Lee told him. She’s also been asked several times whether she’s actually from Chicago’s Southside. She is.
“We grow up with a little more scrutiny, not even feeling accepted,” she says. “But all of this — the music, the plugs and piercings — comes from our culture.”
More than outward appearance, Xunise says that the goth sensibility is an attitude that reflects the darkness within oneself. Her advice to would-be black goths?
“Be the little weird you that you want to be,” she says. “You have to live with yourself. You can’t allow other people to dictate what you can or cannot be as a black person.”