“Ignorance of each other is what has made unity impossible in the past. Therefore, we need enlightenment. We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity. Once we have more knowledge (light) about each other, we will stop condemning each other and a United front will be brought about.”
— -Malcom X
When I first decided to write about HBO’s Lovecraft Country, I made a choice not to analyze the black characters’s motivations or experiences. Show writer Shannon Houston and Ashley C. Ford do this exceptionally well in their podcast, Lovecraft Country Radio, while also placing it in the wider context of the black experience. I’ve learned so much from them.
I can however, explore the white characters’ motivations and draw conclusions based on what I know of whiteness. What that often means is that I end up favoring the sub plot over the main plot, omitting the black experience in favor of a white one. Someone mentioned it to me, in not so many words, but I got her meaning.
It’s an interesting dilemma. My expectation has always been that mine is but one small drip in an ocean of reactions. Nevertheless, I cannot ignore the historical fact that in writing about Lovecraft Country in this way, I inadvertently silence the message at its center. What follows is my attempt at sharing what watching this show feels like as a white person who wants to better understand the black experience. It might be that I stumble and reveal my blind spots and white defaults, but I’m ok with that. Like the kind woman who told me I might be missing the point of the show by only writing about its white characters, I hope that others will step forward.
Right now, white people fear talking about race because we don’t want to say the wrong thing. That might be understood as we don’t want to reveal any racist ideas we might cling to, which might be better translated as, we don’t want anyone to think we’re racist. We don’t want to think we’re racist. That’s why we must talk about these things, as awkward and painful as it may be, we must confront ourselves. That said, we cannot expect our long-suffering black friends to hold our hands and gently point out our failings. Lovecraft Country provides a way in for all of us. Let’s begin.
Lovecraft Country, the HBO horror/ fantasy series based on the book by Matt Brooks pulls the curtain back on the black experience using all of the tools available to the horror genre. Monsters rage, ghosts roam locked in the torment of their final tortured and mutilated forms, wicked spells cast by sinful men haunt generations, poisoning the lives of the living. And make no mistake, in HBO’s Lovecraft Country, white means evil. Which is not to say that all of the black characters are “good.” It does mean however, that we get to explore their motivations and see their humanity revealed. Bad actions then, don’t define them in the same ways bad actions define the white characters. For white people, it might be easy to dismiss this show as a “black show with an agenda.” However, you’d be missing the point, or perhaps more accurately, making the point.
All stories emerge from a shared collective experience. We judge truth by this metric. Therefore, if it feels true, it is. That this show might not feel true to a white viewer makes it no less true for a black viewer. In fact, it might make it more true.
I cannot know what “blackness” feels like. A show like this one, written with such honesty and clarity of purpose invites the white viewer on a vicarious experience of blackness. Many shows that include aspects of the black experience, have white leads. This gives the white viewer an out; we’re always seeing blackness through white eyes. Often that means we see black people who need white saviors, whether or not they know it, or we might see the black experience as one that would be fun to visit. Lovecraft Country does not glamorize blackness, nor does it invite our sympathies. One cannot watch the show and assume a white default.
Atticus, Leti, Ruby, Montrose, George, Hippolyta and Diana live on Chicago’s South Side on the eve of Civil Rights and Jim Crow Segregation still exists in the South.
In episode one, George, Atticus and Leti get chased out of a small town by a homicidal white militia simply for trying to eat lunch at a diner. Later, they encounter a small town sheriff who informs them they’ll be shot if they remain within city limits after sundown. With minutes to spare before the sun dips down, our heroes barely make it to the next town, only to drive straight into the waiting arms of a police roadblock. The murderous cops walk our three heroes into the woods at gunpoint and force them to their stomachs, shotguns pressed against the base of their skulls. Were it not for monsters that lurch from the inky blackness of the forest depths, our heroes would be dead — like so many of their kinsmen before them.
It’s hard to watch that sequence and not start to get an idea of just how terrifying it is to be black in this country. How their lives are marked by suspicion and fear everywhere they go. How the only place they ever really safe is with each other. I would say I had an intellectual understanding of this before seeing this show. Lovecraft Country lets me experience it.
White people often don’t believe in the violence of the black experience because the horror of it contradicts our own experience of whiteness. In a sense, truly buying into the horrors of the black experience in a way that still respects a black person as an equal, not someone who needs saving, makes liars of our own memories. Because our experience of whiteness is good, just and safe, we might think if we can just get them to see that, they’ll feel safe too. Generation after generation, white parents shield their children from the anguish of knowing what black children know, but also, the trauma of owning it. For white people to truly accept the truth of the black experience, we have to accept the premise that we explicitly benefit from white supremacy at their expense.
There were slave owners on my mother’s side. It’s a strange thing to admit and an even stranger thing to write. My finger hovers over the backspace key. I’ve written that sentence before, but never had the courage to publish it. Therein rumbles the conflict for most white Americans. What to do about the sins of our ancestors? It’s a weird thing for any American to contemplate, given that our national identity rotates around the axis of individuality. Christianity, our unofficial, official religion preaches that the blood of Jesus frees us not just from the chains of our own sins, but our fathers’ too. Therefore, one need only ask for forgiveness to be forgiven. Whether or not one consciously identifies with this teaching, the DNA of it runs through our national psyche and creates our unique paradox. Forgiveness, at least in the American sense, really means “to forget.” Yet, to truly atone and heal we must never forget.
That’s why we need more shows like Lovecraft Country. American culture is American media. The media we consume, we reflect. Charlie Kaufmann once observed that movies we watch inhabit our minds and change the way we think. In that way, I believe this show provides a template for how to move forward. If we can each find ourselves in the well-drawn characters of Lovecraft Country, I think we can begin to find some common ground with one another.
I have found myself in Ruby, the full-figured, darker-skinned sister of Letitia, Atticus’ love interest. Ruby, intelligent, educated, clear-minded and focused on her goals gets knocked down so many times that by the time we meet her, she’s so over being black, she decides to be white and take a white lover. Paradoxically, she begins to find herself and get more comfortable in her own skin. She takes a potion given to her by Christina, the white wealthy heiress and “Big Bad” of the season, and transforms into a white woman, but the potion expires after a time, and Ruby bursts through that frail body in riotous gore. Metaphorically, Ruby is too big for a white world. I have felt this way.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying I have felt black or that I have not felt white enough. I am, by any standard definition of whiteness, as white as they come. I recognize that these qualities bring me privileges of which I am probably largely unaware. And it isn’t that I want to be someone else. Yet, when I see Ruby breaking through Hillary’s skin, cracking bone, splitting skin, gushing blood from every seam until she stands, naked, and steaming, covered in blood like afterbirth, I don’t know. I just get it.
I think I’m angry.
The distance between white and black women is not as great as the master wants us to believe. We are both intimately acquainted with his violence. The white cop who extinguishes the life of a black man without remorse is the same man who goes home and beats his wife and possibly his children. In his mind, he was provoked and his actions justified. Racism and misogyny fit together hand in glove. White women are as endangered by sexism as black men by racism. Our deaths just take longer and happen in private. How much worse for black women.
Lovecraft Country episode eight, Jig-A-Boo, opens with the funeral of Emmett Till. After it, Ruby goes to Christina’s mansion on the North Side and they have sex as William and Hillary. Afterwards, Ruby, in an impassioned speech, tells Christina she wants her to care about what happened to Emmett Till. Christina, of course, says she does not care. Later Christina goes down to the docks, hires two white thugs to savagely beat her, then tie her to a cotton gin fan by her neck with barbed wire, and throw her into Lake Michigan. Because Christina’s father protected her from death with an invulnerability spell, I thought that this was the kind of thing she did for fun.
Thankfully, we have Lovecraft Country Radio, the HBO companion podcast hosted by show writer Shannon Houston and Ashley C. Ford. Christina, Houston explained, hired thugs to reenact Emmett Till’s death so that she could feel what it felt like to die like him. Ford, when she heard this, pushed back saying it felt performative to her. Christina can’t die so there are no stakes. Ford also wondered why Christina hired two white guys instead of black guys.
This last comment was really more of a throw-away and the two didn’t spend much time on this scene aside from what I describe. Often, however, you can tell a lot about what people assume by the things they toss off the cuff. From that statement I gather she assumes white women find black men more terrifying than white men. Not this white woman.
I was sexually and physically abused by several men in my family, starting at the age of five, all of them white. Do I need to specify that? Perhaps not. Anyway, my experience as an adult hasn’t changed my mind about white men. They don’t represent themselves well. They often don’t even try. In Why Men Hate Women, Psychologist Adam Jukes writes, “Do all men hate women? My central contention is that they do.” This coming from a man who has spent the last 40 years treating men who abuse women in the United Kingdom. That’s A LOT of white dudes.
Recently, comedian Bill Burr appeared on Saturday Night Live and in his opening monologue, slammed white women for appropriating wokeness.
“White women swung their Gucci-booted feet over the fence of oppression and stuck themselves at the front of the line. I’ve never heard so much complaining in my life, from white women…Trashing white guys, the nerve of you white women….You guys stood by us toxic white males through centuries of our crimes against humanity. You rolled around in the blood money, and occasionally when you wanted to sneak off and hook up with a black dude and you got caught, you said it wasn’t consensual.”
Rape jokes are never funny. So there’s that, but his central thesis, white women appropriating “wokeness” to benefit their already privileged existence, isn’t something I recognize. I don’t know any white women who’ve done this but, I’m only peripherally aware of much that’s going on in popular culture. I certainly have no interest in defending all white women. That’s not my issue here.
It assumes that white women benefit from white toxic masculinity. It assumes that the master treats his wife and daughters as he might other white men. It assumes we have the freedom to create our own lives within his world and even enjoy the spoils of his brutality like blood-thirsty mini-me’s in skirts. Yet, his violence comes from the need to remain in control over what he perceives belongs to him. Sure, there are benefits to being white, but the color of our skin does not protect us or our children, often his own children, from his sexual violence or physical brutality.
“Gender,” Jukes writes, “is not one of those limiting factors for men as it is for women. On the contrary, maleness is a permission; whereas for women, gender is the most powerful and wide-ranging limitation of all.”
Toxic masculinity and white supremacy go hand in glove. A man who feels he has a right to a woman’s body, and seeks to punish her if she refuses him, also feels he has a right to take whatever he wants from anyone simply because he is white. That it’s especially true if you’re black, makes it no less true if you’re a woman.
No one knows this better than black women and Lovecraft Country provides a way to see and feel white supremacy for what it is, a scourge upon our nation. In writing about this show I seek to incorporate the truths it reveals into my own understanding. I started this by saying I cannot know “blackness,” and that will always be true. However, I can listen. Lovecraft Country allows me to see, hear and feel so many things that I think the writers want white viewers to know. That we might even find ourselves in this show, well that’s a testimony to their ability to communicate honestly. In the podcast, Houston revealed that the writers spent a lot of time excavating trauma from their own lives to tell this story. At the end of it, that’s the point. Something feels true when our experiences confirm it. Lovecraft Country has helped me better understand the trauma that has distorted my own life. It has also helped me feel less alone in it. I wonder if the Lovecraft Writers anticipated that a white woman who grew up about as white as any white person can, would find herself in their show?