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On ‘Lovecraft Country,’ Black Womanhood, and Building A New World

Magic, with spells and totems. A quest, with secret tunnels and death traps. Phantasmagoria, viscera, blood and spit. Sex, death, murder. Legacy, birthright and legitimacy. Storytelling, fantasy and truth.

Boy howdy, HBO’s Lovecraft Country series had a lot going on! And that’s before we get into its battles with H.P. Lovecraft’s horror and racism, both literal and literary.

I thought Lovecraft Country produced a lot of thrilling television, all in all. The show felt like the ways marginalized peoples take a popular fiction and repurpose it through their own lenses. What happens when you take Lovecraftian horror, and rather than purge it of the author’s racism, recast those monsters and themes with Black people at the center?

However, I do think the show was uneven at times. Especially at the very end, when the denouement of the final battle left a lot to be explained and, in young Diana’s murderous case, unsatisfyingly ugly and tacked-on.

At the show’s messiest and worst, Lovecraft Country felt like thinkpiece theater, seeking to answer what would happen when a Medium thinkpiece became a TV show. (And here I am writing a column about it!) At times the show spun its wheels on concept-over-story even when providing genuine scares: Ruby’s magic potion-aided sojourns into white womanhood, and the pickaninnies-as-curse storyline with Diana come to mind.

It’s the blessing and curse of life after Get Out. (Jordan Peele and his Monkeypaw Productions are in the credits.) Take a race-studies concept, slather it in horror metaphor, and you’ve got a sexy TV or film premise, from a studio or network POV.

The challenge is that the concept requires even stronger commitment in messaging and execution, in order to avoid schlock or reinforcing the offense said project is speaking out against. (Consider the mixed reviews for the Janelle Monae-starring Antebellum, for example.)

But none of those criticisms – absolutely none of it – matters much when Lovecraft Country gave us its seventh episode, “I Am.”

What a wild ride! What a grand marriage of concept, message and drama.

In that episode, Hippolyta Freeman (Aunjanue Ellis) investigates the mystery of her husband George’s death, which leads her to a machine in St. Louis that sucks her into another dimension. From here, the episode takes flight as Hippolyta learns that she can travel to anywhere in space and time, across infinite earths. She befriends Josephine Baker in 1920s Paris and becomes a Dahomey Amazon cutting down French colonizers.

In other words, she now has the power to be whoever she wants. And what does Hippolyta, this 1950s Black housewife, truly want?

First, she wants freedom: to have joy, love, to lust, to dance, to enjoy and indulge herself for the sake of herself. Those freedoms are so often denied to those without power and agency over their own lives. Tasting that freedom, in turn, uncovers Hippolyta’s anger at a society that robs her of such agency, even the hatred over being so mistreated.

“They found a smart way to lynch me without me ever noticing a noose,” she says to Baker. The white people took away her childhood achievement of discovering a comet, and dashed any chances to follow that passion and study. That anger turns to hatred of them, but also of herself for “letting” it happen.

Hippolyta, named after the Greek queen of the Amazons, travels to the Dahomey Amazons and lives out that anger at racist evil. After slaughtering a group of European colonizers in battle, she addresses her fellow women warriors. “We are here,” she proclaims, “because we did not believe them when they told us that our rage was not ladylike, that our violence goes too far, that the hatred we feel for our enemies isn’t godlike.”

It was heartbreaking, then, when Hippolyta leaps back into her marriage bed with George – the space where we first met them in episode one. The love we saw between them, then, now is colored by all the ways Hippolyta was made to “shrink” herself, as she says.

This genius, who sought out stars and could write and publish George’s green books all on her own, had to shrink down into being only a wife and mother under Black patriarchy. White men and women had already limited her, and now Black men would box her in even further.

I think about Hippolyta Freeman’s quantum leap adventures now, in these days of Kamala Harris ascending as the first female, Black and South Asian person to become vice president. How that is happening, in great part, to Black women as the backbone of the Democratic Party – as voters and organizers.

How much further would Black women soar, without the double yokes of white supremacy and patriarchy to live under?

Harris isn’t the first because she’s the best of anyone up till now. She isn’t the first because nobody before was capable. She’s the first because she was allowed – allowed! – to get to this place. Because others before her were locked out.

The world had to move to meet Harris, not the other way around. Never forget that.

After Hippolyta holds her reckoning with George, the pair head off to be discoverers. They travel through space and time in whizz-bang sci-fi style that resembles her daughter’s handmade comic books of space explorer Orithyia Blue.

Hippolyta’s living out her dreams, as well as her daughter’s, by embracing her true identity. What’s more, she’s doing it with the man she loves, who now treats her as an equal partner and not a diminished helpmate.

How many dreams have been deferred, or dashed, by these interconnected class systems of race, gender, wealth, sexuality? Think of the untold masses that social inequity robs of a chance to test their full humanity, to act fully on their potential and passions?

What would Black people be if unencumbered by the racism the circumscribes our lives these centuries hence? How many of us who fell through the cracks not have fallen but for those cracks being so many? Those firsts would have happened so long ago.

A common refrain when we discuss the first Black fill-in-the-blank, especially from the past, is how it proved to white people that Black folks were capable. If that were true, then we’d be a lot farther along. Racism and bigotry are not logical, so proving them untrue isn’t enough on a collective level. If they don’t believe in your people’s full humanity, then you’re just the exception that tests the rule.

But there is one kind of proof, and that’s for the person who broke that barrier. They can already know they’re capable, and that many before them also were capable. But it’s another thing when the moment arrives, and you’re actually in that place, actually doing it.

You stand in that truth and outside your body at the same time, actor and witness. You see yourself, and you know they – those who didn’t get the shot to be in that place – see you too. There’s something to actually seeing it made real.

In Hippolyta’s case, she literally reaches the stars.

And, this time, not only did the world move to meet her.

She built it herself.

 

 

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