There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal.
—Thomas Jefferson Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781,Query XVIII
Thomas Jefferson understood that slavery turned both master and slave into beasts, yet boisterously participated in it himself. There’s something insidiously more dangerous in this kind of master than the one who believes he’s more of a man for owning slaves. In HBO’s Lovecraft Country, both kinds of masters prove destructive, but the former more formidable.
In episode eight, “Jig-a-boo”, the Chicago Police department, because they truly believe in their supremacy, fall prey to the glaring weakness of it, grossly underestimating their opponents. As a result, they meet their end rather spectacularly in the jaws of a monster summoned by Atticus and his father in the exciting climax of the episode.
Christina however, who intends on achieving immortality by sacrificing Atticus, displays meticulous discipline in executing her strategy to outwit him. This presents a far more terrifying problem for Atticus and his family.
Why then, does Ruby stay in her home and share her bed?
In my last piece on Ruby and Christina I raised the spectre of the Master/ Slave ‘romance.’ I posited that Christina may feel a romantic attachment of sorts to Ruby. Ruby appears to develop feelings for her as William, but once Christina reveals she is William, it throws that conclusion into some confusion. After episode eight, however, there can be no doubt. What the two women share is consensual, intimate and intensely affectionate.
However, before we can continue, we need to interrogate the idea of the Master/Slave ‘romance.’ In his book Interracial Intimacies, 2003, Randall Kennedy argues that, in a great number of cases, slaves and their masters shared what he defines as “consenual intimacy.”
Evidence of consensual sexual intimacy within the confines of bondage is found in the unusual solicitude shown by certain masters toward slaves with whom they had sex and by whom they sired children. Freeing a slave mistress or the offspring of such a union, acknowledging paternity of or assuming financial responsibility for a slave’s children, marrying a former slave-all of these are potentially telltale signs of affection.
Kennedy goes on to site a number of examples, among them that Thomas Jefferson leased one of his many slaves, Mary Hemings to friend and businessman, Thomas Bell who fathered two children with her. Later, he purchased all three from Jefferson and they lived openly together. After some years, Hemings took Bell’s last name. Jefferson himself very famously fathered six children with his slave Sally Hemings. What would that make him to Bell? Brother-in-law? Father-in-law? Plantation family trees tell a sordid tale of white male desire. However, former slave accounts, like Harriet Jacobs’, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1861 provide alternative insight into what it felt like to be on the receiving end of this desire.
The slave girl is reared in an atmosphere of licentiousness and fear. The lash and the foul talk of her master and his sons are her teachers. When she is fourteen or fifteen, her owner, or his sons, or the overseer, or perhaps all of them, begin to bribe her with presents. If these fail to accomplish their purpose, she is whipped or starved into submission to their will. She may have had religious principles inculcated by some pious mother or grandmother or some good mistress; she may have a lover whose good opinion and peace of mind are dear to her heart; or the profligate men who have power over her may be exceedingly odious to her. But resistance is hopeless.
Yet, Kennedy points out that Harriet Jacobs, in fact did resist her master and chose to have sex with another white man whose children she bore. “It seem[ed] less degrading to give one’s self than to submit to compulsion,” she wrote.
Nevertheless, precious little exists of the women’s accounts. Kennedy bases his assumptions almost entirely on the men’s activities. Assigning the same insights to the women comes dangerously close to providing a moral alibi for the men. If concubinage meant “a less degrading existence,” for the women, then any so called, “choice” made by them more closely resembles an act of survival, than one of attraction.
This assumption of romance is an idea, “hideously loaded,” as James Baldwin told Cambridge during his debate with William F. Buckley Jr. There, he addressed the question, “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” Yet, his observation is just as relevant here. Racism and misogyny are both based on assumptions “we hold so deeply as to scarcely be aware of them,” he said.
Our question might be better framed as, can one grow to love her master? Or, can intimacy grow from fear? To love your jailer might mean you accept, in the truest sense, the master’s paradigm, that you do not belong to yourself and in fact are not worthy of this inalienable right granted him by his birthright. As Baldwin observed of white supremacy,
Leaving aside, rape or murder. Leaving aside the bloody catalog of oppression, which we are in one way too familiar with already, what this does to the subjugated, the most private, the most serious thing this does to the subjugated, is to destroy his sense of reality.
Her sense of reality destroyed, what power is hers in the bedroom? What could she give that he doesn’t already own? A dog who loves his master never refuses him affection, but the dog at least gives it willingly. Expecting the same from a human might only yield the appearance of love.
So what of Ruby?
Though a free woman she may find herself in the position of slave. It is the inevitable outcome of falling in love with the master. At the writing of this, we’re still waiting for the series to conclude. Much might depend on how it ends, but today I’ll focus on the ways in which Christina has successfully used the tools of the master’s house to ensnare Ruby.
In episode four, A History of Violence, Ruby returns home with William/Christina for one night and an incredible encounter on the stairs. In the morning Ruby wakes to find herself in the body of a white woman, the deceased Dell, now ‘Hillary.’ After Hillary/Ruby escapes back to the South Side, the cops arrive at William/ Christina’s behest and return her to him. Hillary/ Ruby writhes in agony on the floor as the potion wears off. Then, William/Christina plunges a knife into her chest before Ruby blacks out.
Christina’s brazen entitlement to Ruby’s body and use of physical force mirrors that of a master to his slave. Nevertheless, Christina uses force sparingly. Once Ruby behaves agreeably, she follows up with generosity and even tenderness.
Ruby wakes in William’s bed, naked and clean as William dresses. He engages in an academic description of the horror she just lived. Metamorphosis for humans what just a theory until he met “disgraced scientist” Hiram Epstein, the ghost in Leti’s basement guilty of torturing and mutilating numerous black people, including a baby, in the name of science. Ruby doesn’t know this. William frames it this way, “He wanted nothing more than to understand the universe, but it was beyond his reach, so he created doorways, not scientific, mind you, but magical…”
He mutters a spell then sits next to her her. “I know you’re awake, Ruby,” he says. She opens her eyes and butterflies flutter above her head. It’s a carefully calculated moment to soften the edges of the morning’s trauma and obfuscate the truth of her trauma.
Ruby: Magic exists?
William: (Leans in) Does that scare you?
Ruby: (Recoils) It scared the shit out of me to wake up white. Then, when I was stumbling down the street crazed and disheveled and screaming at everybody, they weren’t scared of me, they were scared for me. They all treated me like —
William: A human being?
The point hits home as Ruby struggles to accept it.
William: I know your transformation was painful —
Ruby: That wasn’t pain, that was something else, like being unmade.
William: It will be easier next time.
Ruby: There won’t be a next time!
William: (smiles, rises) I have some business to attend to.
Ruby understands his meaning, that he intends for there to be a next time with or without her consent.
Ruby: Am I free to go?
William: You, (places potion next to a wad of cash) are free to do whatever you please. (Exits.)
It’s classic gaslighting meant to make her silence her instinct to run. Once alone, Ruby jumps up and grabs her dress, then hesitates. The potion on the bureau pulls her gaze. We can almost hear William’s voice in her head, “human being.”
The first line of a poem from Ntozake Shange’s, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf, “Somebody/ anybody sing a black girl’s song…” plays over Hillary/Ruby crossing the street somewhere on the North Side of Chicago. In an ice cream parlor, the man behind the counter doesn’t make her pay for her cone. She rides the bus for free. When William asks why she didn’t take the money, she said she enjoyed the day using the only currency she needed, “whiteness.” As Hillary, Ruby moves through the world more lightly which naturally feels like freedom, but will prove to be her chain.
As Ruby remains with William, her feelings for him deepen. At the Sons of Adam lodge when Christina tells Ruby to hide a magic stone in Captain Lancaster’s office, Ruby balks, “The Police? You’re trying to get me killed,” and turns to leave. Christina grabs her arm and asks her, “Do you care for William?” Ruby stays to listen, then agrees, not because she is coerced, although she is, this was the “favor” William wanted in exchange for the potion, but after learning that she can help avenge William, she willingly risks her life for him.
And that’s the thing about the type of master Christina is, she manipulates her subject into thinking her desire is their idea. By offering Ruby what she wants, she gets Ruby’s complete devotion. Ruby doesn’t want to be white exactly, she wants what whiteness can give her, safety and the freedom to move about the world unhindered. Christina then frames it in such a way as to remove any guilt Ruby might feel for accepting it.
Christina: But you misunderstood William’s invitation. It wasn’t just to be white. It was an invitation to do whatever the fuck you want, that’s the currency of magic, unmitigated freedom. Who are you really, uninterrupted?
The next day Hillary/ Ruby binds, gags, and uses her stiletto heel to rape her boss, Mr. Hughes. Once done Ruby bursts out of Hillary’s skin to reveal herself, covered in blood and dripping with loose flesh. “I wanted you to know, that a nigger bitch did this to you.” A call back to the slur he hurled at Tamara, the only “colored” employee, when she refused his aggressive sexual advances.
This act binds her to Christina, a kind of blood ritual that proves her loyalty. Though Christina doesn’t explicitly request such an act, she seems to know exactly how to inspire it, make Ruby think it’s her own. Emboldened by this new found power, Ruby believes Christina plans to reveal more. In episode eight, she tells an incredulous Leti, “Christina is going to teach me magic!”
Right now, Christina and Ruby’s relationship remains consensual, but we have yet to see what happens when Ruby asserts herself in ways that don’t serve Christina. As Harriet Jacobs observed, if gifts failed to gain the slave’s compliance, “she is whipped or starved into submission to their will…But resistance is hopeless.”