Context is everything. In an era where internet-accelerated culture has simultaneously offered the largest collection of freely available information ever, but also facilitated the rise of nuance-averse use of social media, the need to understand how and why things come about is more important than ever. When it comes to the burning of three African-American churches in Louisiana last month by self-identified black metal fan Holden Matthews, the mainstream press have been just as guilty of reaching for the easiest, most googleable answer as your racist uncle when he tries to prove that UKIP isn’t in fact a fascist party for people who wear boating blazers.
Kim Kelly has already covered how the conflation of Matthews’ case with ageing social media influencer Varg Vikernes’ burning of Norwegian churches not only resorts to ignorant “Satanic Panic” reactions to heavy metal culture, but also erases the vein of white supremacy running through Matthew’s choice of target. While black metal’s second-wave church arsonists felt they were attacking the symbols of an oppressive religion that destroyed their idea of an “original” pagan, pre-Christian Nordic identity, a white man destroying an African-American church in a former slave-owning southern state in the U.S. carries a very specific set of resonances.
In a majority white state, with a large ethnically white Catholic and Protestant population, why target African-American-founded churches amongst a wealth of other targets? ‘BUT BLERK METUHL’ was the mainstream media’s response and as such, yet again, they were wilful participants in erasing the role of white supremacy in a domestic terror attack in the United States. The churches founded by African slaves and their descendants weren’t only the first real estate built and owned by African-Americans, they were also the founding stones of a culture that was self-made out of the ashes of memory and the blood and sweat of life under brutalising white oppression.
From their inception, black churches in the United States “symbolised the ultimate threat to white existence”. Not only did the ability of ex-slaves to design and build churches fundamentally destroy racist notions of the inferiority of people of colour, the African-American church was a place of cultural creation, refuge, spirituality and political agency. What had started out as a white supremacist attempt to “civilise” black people under the yoke of Eurocentric Christianity backfired and turned the African-American church into an institution that, in many cases, was radical in its inception, to the point that during the Civil Rights era, “black churches were well established social and political power bases for African-Americans”.
There is a reason that Holden Matthews burned African-American churches, just as there is a reason Dylan Roofe shot nine people of colour dead at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015. It’s the same reason that four young girls died in the white supremacist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Church burnings in this case aren’t just an edgelord’s homage to the most stereotypical of black metal tropes, they are an active attempt to attack, undermine and erase the presence of African-American people in the United States. There is a cultural disconnect for white supremacists, in the United States and elsewhere, who simply can’t deal with the fact that a people slavery and institutional racism tried to destroy could continue to exist.
Bands like Jesus Piece, Pure Disgust and Soul Glo all spoke of the challenges of surviving in a black body under white supremacy, but it is a message that the white male-dominated culture within metal seems resistant to at best. While sections of black metal are avowedly fascist, there is a wider problem of bands whose racism is more coded being given a pass by white fans whose colour privilege insulates them from the sharp end of oppression. The fact is that the culture of black metal has, not for the first time, directly intersected with white supremacist terrorism directed against an ethnic minority. While modern white supremacists are indoctrinated in the dank corners of 4chan and Stormfront, there is every chance that letting racism go unchallenged in black metal is letting it turn into a similar echo chamber and incubator for a new generation of corpse-painted neo-nazis.
Words: Andrew Day