Black Hauntology: An Introduction

The ghosts that endure

Phillip B. Williams
Illustration by Tung Chau

“Black experience in any modern city or town in the Americas is a haunting. One enters a room and history follows; one enters a room and history precedes.”
Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return

I was raised among ghosts: floors creaking without provocation, shadows darting from the corner of my eye, empty glasses seemingly tossed onto the floor. Once I heard a distinct voice coming through my bedroom window saying what sounded like a name or an adjective. “Shifty, shifty” went the breathy condemnation whose clarity belied the possibility that the sound was emanating from the box fan blowing in summer air from the back porch. A young family member once had a dream about a dead uncle they had never met. The dead remain with us in some form, regardless of our belief in ghosts, but haunting is not only the behavior of spirits.

There is an understandable resistance to placing Blackness in proximity to death, the suggestion that the legacy of Blackness has its sole foundation in demise, trauma, and lifelessness. In her book Ghostly Matters, the scholar Avery F. Gordon writes that “haunting is not the same as being exploited, traumatized, or oppressed, although it usually involves these experiences or is produced by them.” Instead, Gordon argues, haunting is a kind of “animated state in which a repressed or unresolved social violence is making itself known,” a category of experience comprising “those singular yet repetitive instances when home becomes unfamiliar, when your bearings on the world lose direction, when the over-and-done-with comes alive.”

I believe haunting is the cyclical attempt at reconciliation between a past story and a present inheritor of said story.

As I curated this folio on haunting, I considered the subject in a similar vein. The works included push the boundary of what is known and can be known, of defamiliarization and the powerful and radical comfort that afterlife-into-life, mythology, and even trauma can provide. How does Blackness’s relationship to death increase our understanding of life and all that’s possible in it? How does elegy act as an aide-mémoire not only for those no longer with us in body but also for the mourning self? In what ways does forgetting manifest as both balm and burden for the one who has forgotten, who wishes to forget? How does tending to the work of an ancestor haunt the caretaker and the readers of the preserved work?

I am attracted to Gordon’s use of the word “repetitive,” as though there is something inescapable about what these writers have experienced. Haunting, here, is not just the spectral remnant of the once-living; it is the residue of perpetual active and aware living of such density that it casts a shadow, recoloring the ways Black people think, move, and feel in the present tense by always tethering us to what was. Some may call this Sankofa, others “wisdom.” As Toni Morrison wrote in Beloved, a few may consider the experience “re-memory.” I believe haunting is the cyclical attempt at reconciliation between a past story and a present inheritor of said story, a loop of existence similar to that described by Dionne Brand above. Sometimes the attempt at reconciliation results in impeccable violence that procures future hauntings where inconclusiveness and trauma reign. Sometimes the reconciliation happens peacefully, and with each return to the unfamiliar a new form of knowledge is gained.

Click here to read the folio.

Phillip B. Williams is from Chicago, and author of Thief in the Interior. A recipient of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, Whiting Award, and Radcliffe Fellowship, he currently teaches at Bennington College and Randolph College. @PBW_Poet
Originally published:
July 11, 2022


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