“Beyond the Magical Negro: A Guide to Black Horror”: A conversation with S.A. Cosby, Tananarive Due, Ashley C. Ford, and Victor LaValle

Ashley C. Ford, Tananarive Due, S.A. Cosby, and Victor Lavalle. Photo by Nick Doll

By Aaisha Haykal

On Saturday afternoon the attendees at the 2023 Key West Literary Seminar were treated to an engaging conversation on the role of horror, specifically Black horror, in society and what is next, audience and intentionality, the pros and cons of screenwriting, and upcoming projects of the panelists. The session was moderated by author Ashley Ford and featured renowned authors Tananarive Due, S.A. Cosby, and Victor LaValle.

The authors were clear in pointing out that the horror genre thrives on novelty, it allows both the author/writer and the reader/audience to process and deal with trauma in one’s personal and collective past, and to explore what haunts us through fantasy. Additionally, they noted that horror provides writers the opportunity to engage with how spaces and places can hold trauma and hurt and how this impacts the characters that engage with those spaces in the present day of the work. Horror is a good entry genre for new authors as there is space for everyone to tell their story and is a way to tell counternarrative stories. Furthermore, they noted that writers can also have fun with genre to explore tensions and consequences that could not happen in other writings like memoir or historical fiction.

Ford posed to the panelists a question about what is next for Black horror beyond representation. Due noted that recent success of Jordan Peele’s work and Lovecraft Country has led to an increase in representation in front of the screen (although there could be more) in Hollywood, but there is more work to be done behind in the scenes in the producer and media ownership to advocate for the work of Black horror writers. Cosby wants to get to a point where a horror work that features Black writers, directors, producers, actors, etc. is normalized. Cosby and LaValle noted that moving from the page to the screen has provided challenges (i.e., adjustments to work and the intricacies of Hollywood) benefits (i.e., money and additional exposure) to these authors. They advised that any writer needs to be confident and trust in their work. Walter Mosley advised Cosby that he as the writer is the mythmaker and that they cannot do work without you. Due encouraged that whether a writer is interested in television and film they should learn screenwriting due to learning how to structure a story.

A theme that echoed in this panel and others throughout the seminar is to encourage writers and others to be authentic and true to oneself and if you do that, you will not be steered wrong.

As an archivist that preserves, documents, and provides access to records this panel resonated with me in two ways 1. how objects/and artifacts and spaces can carry trauma; and 2. the unspoken family secrets that create generational trauma and horror but may be written in the family records (i.e., diaries, correspondence, etc.), which may end up donated to archive. I recall working with a researcher whose family were Black slave owners during the antebellum period in Charleston, South Carolina, and the researcher had to come to terms with this family legacy, which before they thought was only family lore, but seeing the records made it real to them. Thus, the archive can carry a heavy burden and the archivists a heavy responsibility.

If you are interested in learning more or expanding your reading habits, you should read the work of the panelists, who all have new work coming out in spring/summer 2023 and check out some of the work that inspired our panelists including, but not limited to Stephen King, R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike, Shook! A Black Horror Anthology (in development), Dark Dreams: A Collection of Horror and SuspenseLovecraft Country (TV series), Roots (TV series and book), Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (a documentary and a book), and Get Out (film).

Aaisha Haykal is the manager of archival services at the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. Her research interests are in African American history, community archiving, and censorship. She is one of the recipients of the 2023 KWLS Teacher-Librarian Scholarship.

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