Finding Diversity in Dark Academia
By: Ariel Yisrael
Dark Academia is an aesthetic centered on higher education, the arts, classic literature, and romantic longing. The trend picked up on Tumblr around 2015 and has recently become more well known on Instagram and TikTok.
The trend has become increasingly popular in part because many students are isolated from their usual academic environment. Whether or not the aestheticized images of universities mirror one’s actual college environment is besides the point. Instead, the focus of the community is on romanticizing academia and academic spaces.
Another selling point of this aesthetic is that its elements are generally quite accessible. Attire worn by dark academics consists of tweed blazers, plaid trousers, and anything with shoulder pads–all items found in thrift stores, which appeals to college students who don’t have a wealth of disposable income.
But this accessibility only goes so far. The languages considered essential to learn are Latin and French, and the list of must-read books consist exclusively of American and English authors with stories featuring primarily white characters.
Quality of the work aside, European language and literature deemed as essential and everything else as “other” is a disservice to the diversity in literature around the world.
The Color of Pomegranates is one film that highlights the diversity and the value of poetry in the dark academia community. The film depicts the life of celebrated 18th-century Armenian poet Sayat-Nova and uses his poems and still images that resemble moving paintings to reveal the poet’s life visually rather than literally.
Another notable work is the 2017 play School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play. This play fits the dark academia aesthetic and explores the politics of academia in an environment not often considered by American audiences. It tells the story of Paulina, a popular student at Ghana’s most exclusive boarding school. Paulina is a strong candidate for the Miss Universe pageant but her position is challenged by the arrival of Ericka–a talented, light-skinned girl who captures the attention of pageant recruiters.
When it comes to poetry, there is an innumerable amount of writers that are not brought up in the canon of dark academia.
Mahmoud Darwish is a Palestinian national poet and winner of literary awards including the Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize and the Lenin Peace Prize. His book of poetry, In the Presence of Absence, is a self-elegy written with the knowledge that it may be his last book. He writes, “My memory is like a pomegranate. Shall I open it over you and let it scatter, seed by seed: red pearls befitting a farewell that asks nothing of me except forgetfulness?”
In Armenia, the pomegranate is considered a recognizable symbol of the country and a symbol of good fortune in Armenian mythology. By consuming non-Western media, readers can open their eyes to symbols and phrases that don’t often appear in the literary canon. In countries where Christianity is the most dominant religion, the apple is a prevalent common religious symbol. It’s refreshing to see metaphorical language and not popularly employed by Western writers.
If dark academics purport language learning as an essential element of the subculture, then media like The Color of Pomegranates and In the Presence of Absence fit perfectly.
Langston Hughes was one of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance and one of the earliest innovators of the art genre known as jazz poetry. Hughes’ poems are often taught during Black History month about their revolutionary status. Because of this, there’s a misconception that they cannot be read for their romanticism or beautiful language alone.
In “Poem to a Bigot,” Hughes addresses those who hold prejudices against him with language that is profound in its simplicity.
“I have done so little / For you, / And you have done so little / For me, / That we have a good reason / Never to agree. / I, however, / Have such meagre / Power, / Clutching at a / Moment, / While you control / An hour. / But your hour is / A stone. / My moment is / A flower.”
In “Desire,” Hughes writes:
“Desire to us / Was like a double death, / Swift dying / Of our mingled breath, / Evaporation / Of an unknown strange perfume / Between us quickly / In a naked / Room.”
These are poems that beg to be read aloud in the dark by candlelight, by the autumn wind and rain. Or like a modern Dead Poets Society, read with friends over video chat.
The life of an academic is one defined by discourse and criticism so it’s interesting that people are uncomfortable with the criticism of academia itself. In its current state, dark academia is the glorification of European writers, universities, ways of dressing, languages, etc.
Therefore, it is natural that people of color who are interested in the aesthetic might feel left out. Even if a piece of literature written by a non-white author could fit into the dark academia aesthetic it is seldom recommended as important reading. The lack of diverse voices in dark academia doesn’t appear to be done intentionally so it is only by acting intentionally that this lack of diversity can be undone.