Decolonizing the dark academia aesthetic

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Despite the recent popularity of the “dark academia aesthetic” as seen across social media platforms, it takes minimal research to find out how classicality has functioned in academia and in American history along with the non-critical consumption and reproduction of the aesthetic. Illustration by Kaitlyn Tran/The Daily Campus

Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed a growth in popularity of the “dark academia aesthetic” in fashion and decor across social media. If you haven’t yet seen the many dark academia Pinterest boards, YouTube and TikTik lookbooks or Spotify playlists, the dark academia aesthetic is inspired by classic literature and ancient Greek and Roman figures, revering images of reading and learning. To be clear, I have no problem with someone wearing blazers or plaid pants and decorating their rooms with Roman-style head busts. I do, however, find issue with the non-critical consumption and reproduction of the dark academia aesthetic.  

It takes minimal research to find out, for example, how classicality has functioned in academia and American history. The idolization of classical art and philosophy is ancient, arguably beginning in the United States with the installation of Harvard University and other colonial colleges. In Ibram X. Kendi’s book “Stamped from the Beginning,” he talks about how these universities continued British traditions of regarding “ancient Greek and Latin literature as universal truths worthy of memorization and unworthy of critique.” They focused specifically on Aristotle, for example, because they could apply his ideas on the existence of human hierarchies to the newly formed concepts of race, defending a racial hierarchy and systems of slavery.  

Selected classics have been enshrined as the epitome of Western civilization and made inaccessible as cultural capital to people of color in a more implicitly oppressive manner. This is and has always been an intentional practice. Later in his book, Kendi mentions how Egyptologists like George R. Gliddon attempted to rewrite the history of ancient Egypt, claiming that it was not an African civilization but a Caucasian civilization that, like America, enslaved Black people to dually deprive enslaved Black Americans of their claim to “classical” heritage and validate American atrocities. Cultural and academic fascination with the “classics,” then, have long functioned to maintain racially-determined hierarchies.  

Given its shared glorification of classicality, the dark academia aesthetic is a direct descendant of these oppressive practices and their racist evolutions in the centuries since. But this is only one side of dark academia. What about the exclusive nature of the Western literary canon, venerated by dark academics? The classist history of blazers and pants as the “intelligent” or “professional” way to dress? The false sense that academia is a product of Western culture? And, of course, the many, many barriers for Black, Indigenous and other segregated people of color from becoming “academics” at any level? 

I imagine some responses now to be along the lines of: “I like the aesthetic, not the ideology!” To which I would respond: “Well, I would hope so!”  

My second critique is not of the aesthetic itself, but of the way that the aesthetic has been artificially divorced from its ideology. “Aesthetics” are colloquially used to describe a particular style, but they are and have always been more than simply a style. Historically, for example, the Black Arts Movement was described as the “aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept.” Leaders of the Black Arts and Power movements recognized the contribution of White aesthetics (think: classics and canons) to White supremacist ideology, and responded accordingly, reclaiming their connections to ancient Africa and creating a distinct Black aesthetic.  

To my earlier imagined responder: What has changed about White aesthetics in the past 50 or so years since the Black Arts Movement that allows us to separate White aesthetics from White supremacist ideology now? In my eyes, unfortunately very little. I don’t intend for this to be a conclusive piece but the beginning of a dialogue. Decolonization is difficult and complex, and the conversation should begin by asking: Can dark academia even be decolonized?  

Here’s my take: I think that if the dark academia aesthetic can center reading and learning beyond the Western world, then perhaps it can be decolonized. This would, however, require an intense reversal of its values and of its images, and I, unfortunately, have no delusions that such a reckoning will come anytime soon. That would require collective rejection of internalized assimilationist ideologies. 

But can you imagine? 

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