Southern Gothic: A Love Letter to the South

Southern Gothic: A Love Letter to the South

image courtesy of BAM.com

From the suburban neighborhoods of West Virginia spanning all the way down to the Lone Star state of Texas this is home to what is known dearly as the American South. It's also home to the popular Southern Gothic aesthetic. Deriving from 19th-century Gothic literature and the works of authors such as Edgar Allen Poe and William Faulkner, Southern Gothic explores the mysticism and mysteriousness of the South.

Quvenzhané Wallis in  Beasts of the Southern Wild

Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild

Southern Gothic set out to debunk the myths of how the South functioned after the Civil War, casting out the Antebellum lifestyle often associated with it. Antebellum is defined as a particular time period before or after a war, which in this case refers to the American Civil War and the time after it occurred. It's not an easy thing to do. There are many landscapes such as old plantations and slave markets that still stand and serve as a constant reminder of how horrid life down South was and partially still is to this day.

Most of the stories using Southern Gothic focus on the decay and slow decline of its surroundings. It's pretty standard for small towns to exude this type of energy, but there’s something about the deep South and its haunting landscape that resonates with everyone who experiences it. There are several odd legends and characters that are recurring tropes within this aesthetic, and it's important to note how they are being written in these stories and portrayed on screen.

One of my favorite stories to come out of the Southern Gothic aesthetic is one about Robert Johnson. Legend has it that Johnson was a mediocre guitarist who stumbled around juke joints, or a bar where many blacks gathered during the night to gamble, smoke, drink, and dance, waiting to become one of the greatest blues musicians the world could ever know, but he was booed and shunned everywhere he went. One night he made his way down to the crossroads where he sold his soul to the Devil to become a great blues player. His record, "Hellhound on My Trail," is said to describe his life after selling his soul, with the Devil's hounds after him, to collect their payment. While many of the details surrounding Robert Johnson's life have been debunked by family and friends, the magic and curious nature of that story have underscored why Southern Gothic will never fade.

Southern Gothic serves as my favorite genre because it dares to question the status quo of the old South and examines all stories from all sides. All too many times, the South is looked at as a place still stuck in the '60s and is shut out from meaningful conversations. Black Southerners are the most overlooked, only being seen as slaves or the help when it comes to the portrayal of Black Southern life in film and television. So in response, Black Southern Gothic was born. One of the most popular Black Southern Gothic pieces of work is Kasi Lemmons' Eve's Bayou, a coming of age story about a young girl who deals with her family's dark secrets by using the power of voodoo, another important characteristic of the Southern Gothic aesthetic. It was a moving film for Black girls like me because it proved our stories could be told and that we were far more complex than what others believed. A true Southern Gothic gem.

Another important Southern Gothic film that is near and dear to my heart is Beasts of the Southern Wild. A film about a young girl named Hushpuppy who lives in the bathtub with her father. She fights against the wild and mystical beasts who threaten to take away her home. Set in New Orleans, this film approaches the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill in a different and creative light. Director Benh Zeitlin was looking to cast six to nine-year-olds, yet five-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis stole the show and the role of Hushpuppy, propelling her to stardom and making her the youngest nominee for best actress in Academy Awards history. Seeing a young black girl from the South sitting in a room full of Hollywood legends really affirmed multiple things for me. One: Giving black girls the same opportunities as their white counterparts allows us to soar and exceed in various fields. Two: Never let anyone tell you-you're too old or too young to do something. Three: This is only the beginning for us because I believe Southern Gothic is making its way back to the forefront of film.

The South tends to be a caricature to those on the outside looking in, a place where life moves slow, everyone talks with a drawl and drinks their tea cold, a place with a haunting past. But to the people who live there, to me, it's much more than that. It's a place I call home.

Southern Glossary

Antebellum: Existing before a particular war, mainly used in reference to the American Civil War.
Black Southern Gothic: A sub-genre of Southern Gothic literature that focuses on Black life in the South.
Crossroads: A road that crosses two intersections.
Juke Joint: A bar where one typically drank, gambled, and danced. Juke joints served as a safe haven for Blacks during the Jim Crow era.
Old South: The South before the start of the Civil War in 1861.
Southern Gothic: A subgenre of Gothic literature that takes place in the South
Voodoo: Black religious cult practiced mainly in the Caribbean and Southern United States. It mixes Catholic rituals with African magic.

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