The Safe Negro Guide to Lovecraft Country: 'I Am.'

Aunjanue Ellis as Hippolyta Freeman in Episode 7 of Lovecraft Country: “I Am.”
Aunjanue Ellis as Hippolyta Freeman in Episode 7 of Lovecraft Country: “I Am.”
Screenshot: HBO

Welcome back to Lovecraft Country! Wow! Talk about the Afrofuture! Talk about Black feminism! Episode 7, “I Am.” hit all of my academic erogenous zones and I can’t wait to dig into it with you.

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First, I want to address a critique of Lovecraft Country I haven’t addressed in this space, which came up while I was discussing the show with my brother-in-law, fellow blerd Solanke Kerr. He loves anime, prefers science fiction over horror, and describes himself as a “basic Negro” (y’all know what word he used). Solanke critiqued the show for being “overly complex in ways that can be overwhelming for folks who are unfamiliar with the lore [and genre].” He also lamented that, based on the first two episodes, he was expecting a particular type of show before it turned into something else entirely.

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I understand the frustration. Lovecraft Country takes on several horror series tropes, primarily the theme of the “Monster of the Week,” each of which ultimately fits into the larger mythology leading to the defeat of the season’s (or series’) “Big Bad.” Lovecraft Country is creating a unique opportunity to explore different types of horror under the all-encompassing mythology of H.P. Lovecraft, whose horror and weird fictions were so varied, he created his own subgenre of horror: Cosmic Horror. As a result, Lovecraft Country not only showcases the complexity of the horror genre, but also carries on a long tradition of horror series, from 19thcentury Penny Dreadfuls to The Twilight Zone, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, and Supernatural. I mean, Buffy had a musical episode, y’all.

The episodic (get it?) nature of Lovecraft Country also mimics the structure of the novel on which it is based. In the novel, we get to experience different aspects of Lovecraftian horror through the viewpoints of different characters such as Tic, Leti, Ruby, and Hippolyta. Y’all don’t have to like Lovecraft Country, but I do want you to recognize that the series’ mythology is tightly woven and well-constructed with an overarching purpose. They ain’t just doing this shit for fun.

Whew, I feel better now. Professor mode: Deactivated. This latest episode was Afrofuturism in its purest form, and not just because it featured futuristic Black folks in space. Afrofuturism is a new name for ancient ideas from the Akan, Congolese, and Dogon peoples of Africa that have been remixed and revised by African Americans since the 19th century. Most importantly, Afrofuturism is so much more than Black folks in the future; it is a theory of time which is not linear but conflated. The past, present, and future coexist as one and time begins to take on a cyclical nature. My academic research centers on the “recovery project” of Afrofuturism, which is not only a reweaving of a tapestry of the past but also an assessment of what we as a people should take with us into the future—because some shit needs to be left in the past (sexism, homophobia, and colorism, to name a few).

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Multiple characters in this week’s episode use new information gleaned in the present to recover and rearrange their views of the past, starting with Ruby’s continued reckoning with William’s true identity as Christina (revealed in Episode 5). Tic becomes the next to experience a revelation that changes the context of his past, as he confirms that his father is not only gay but actively in a relationship with Sammy, another man. It’s more than homophobia that spurs Tic’s visceral reaction to this discovery; it’s the realization that so little of the physical and emotional abuse he had endured from his father had anything to do with Tic himself. Dr. Susana Morris, a literature professor at Georgia Tech, powerfully names what Montrose did to Tic as “soul murder.” Tic attempts to explain it as his past changes shape with the new information: “He said he had to whup my ass so I wouldn’t be soft,” he tells Leti. “The fucked up part is I told myself it was because he cared about me...Wasn’t never about me.”

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Again, we must take into account Montrose’s own trauma (which I’m predicting we will see more of in Episode 9), as he is passing along the generational curse of violence and abuse by his own father that defines his present inability to fully connect with Sammy. “Sammy has family. Montrose has people. There is an emotional difference.” continues Dr. Morris, “Sammy can and will go cry to his family of fellow queer folks. Who can Montrose cry to?” Montrose will have to do the hard work of reshaping his past if he has any hope of healing in the present and perhaps finding peace in the future.

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But ultimately, this was Hippolyta’s episode, and I (along with pretty much every Black female viewer I know) was so here for it. I’ve been telling my friends that this episode was full of Black WOMAN magic because there was a complexity; a self-actualization that lay outside of the parameters of girlhood. As seen through Hippolyta’s journey, this is a Black woman magic that highlights the cost of the compromises we make as Black women carrying the weight of a simultaneity of oppressions: race, genders, class, and sexualities. And here, finally, we have the classic seeker character, a trope endlessly embodied by white men of all ages and/or young, lithe white women, now embodied in a middle-aged Black woman who simply proclaims: “I got curious.”

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Before we dive into Hippolyta the Parisian showgirl, the Dahomean warrior, the Wife, and the Discoverer, I want to highlight Hippolyta, the Genius. Hippolyta’s mind is a sight to behold; there is a beauty in seeing her maneuver the orrery, operating at a level of mathematical talent not seen in Black women on film since 2016’s Hidden Figures. It is her technical genius that allows her to become any woman she can imagine.

The first iteration of Hippolyta is as a captive in an intergalactic spaceship. She is frantic as she is determined to get out, even as the goddess, Seraphina (full name: Seraphina AKA Beyond C’est—a nod to Beyoncé as well as loosely meaning “beyond this”) repeats: “You are not in a prison.” And yet she is; Hippolyta is a prisoner in her own mind, bound in her lack of imagination, the strongest shackles of all. She laughs maniacally as Seraphina repeats, “Name yourself. Where do you want to be?...Name it.” and states her first dream: to dance on stage with Josephine Baker. It’s a lark, an impossibility—and she is genuinely astounded to instantly find herself on stage in Paris of the 1920s.

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What Hippolyta is beginning to recognize is that Seraphina has imparted to her the concept of nommo, or the power to use words to create your reality. This is a classic concept of Afrofuturism, often demonstrated by the jazz musician Sun-Ra, who declared himself an alien from the future and lived his life as such—creating music, film, a dress code...his own reality from the declaration of who he considered himself to be. This is the power of the word. This is the power of myth-making—and Sun-Ra’s words declaring such are heard as Hippolyta and George travel and explore space.

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Nommo is also a classic Christian concept as God speaks the world into existence in Genesis. The Holy Bible is referred to as The Word of God and Jesus Christ is referred to as The Word made flesh. It is a god-like ability to create realities, to construct cosmologies—and for far too long, the only humans we have seen possessing this power have been white men—a truth Christina alludes to at the beginning of the episode. Seraphina helps Hippolyta recover the history and the power of naming. This is also where the recurring theme of “create and destroy” proves its importance. For in the act of creation, one must inevitably destroy what was.

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The next iteration of Hippolyta is as the American chorus girl in Paris who ultimately confesses to Josephine Baker, “I hate me.” “We don’t get to identify ourselves until we get to freedom,” explains Stacey Robinson, a professor of graphic design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “[W]e can’t get to freedom until we work through ‘I hate me’—which is the success of the white supremacist capitalist homophobic patriarchy.”

Hippolyta is wrestling with her history as she begins to shift who she thought she was. “All those years, I thought I had everything I ever wanted only to come here and discover all that I ever was was the exact kind of Negro woman white folks wanted me to be,” she admits to Baker. Hippolyta recognizes that she must fight to become the person she wants to be; fight white folks..and herself.

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“I am Hippolyta.” This is the declaration that takes her to the Dahomey kingdom to become a student of the great warrior Nawi, the last of the Dahomean women warriors. We begin by seeing Hippolyta in the fighting ring being beaten time and again by Nawi. But like so many of these scenes, we recognize that Hippolyta is not fighting Nawi, but herself. She is removing what is considered ladylike; she is shattering the myth of the angry Black woman by reclaiming her rage. And this is what separates Black girl magic from Black WOMAN magic: Black woman magic is powered by a rage built upon the righteous rage of our grandmothers, and their grandmothers, and reinforced by decades spent in this reality in a body that is both Black AND Woman.

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It is in Hippolyta’s battle that we see that righteous rage conflate time and space: 19th-century Dahomean warriors from the African continent massacre Confederate soldiers from another continent. Dr. Morris reminds us that this scene is also a remix of Hippolyta, the Greek goddess and Queen of the Amazons (she’s also Wonder Woman’s Mama!), who continuously went through it with the men in her life, including Heracles (Hercules). Yet our Hippolyta takes her power back and manages to find peace with the man in her life, George.

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“I am Hippolyta. George’s wife,” returns us to the bedroom where we first met the Freemans, in bed but with a deeper manifestation of intimacy than before. This is now the scene of a woman baring her soul, holding both herself and her husband accountable for their mutual diminishment of the beauty that is her. And he apologizes, “I am so sorry. I see now what that cost you.” He corrects his mistake. (This scene is also reminiscent of George’s scene with Montrose in the second episode where he is made aware of his willful ignorance to the destruction of someone he loves—that time at the hands of their father. I am beginning to wonder if George’s characterization as a flawed but loving man who is able to admit to and apologize for his faults is the construct of manhood Tic is meant to be aiming towards.)

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Professor Robinson, who studies and believes in the power of the Black nuclear family (we fight over this all the time) has a powerful reading of this scene: “We don’t get to the future without each other.” Hippolyta offers George her hand when she declares…

“I am Hippolyta. Discoverer.” Hippolyta—and George, now her companion on her quest—becomes what her daughter, Dee, imagines her to be: Orithyia Blue, space adventurer. It is important that Hippolyta names herself a discoverer, as one who simply travels and observes the worlds she visits, wholly different than the explorers/colonizers of history, “Space is so often seen as a colonial project” declares Professor Morris. “When do black women go into space? And when are they not a tool of the colonizer? She represents herself.”

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Hippolyta has recovered herself by not just exploring the past, but also her past. She is able to change her present trajectory to expand the possibilities of the future. This is the work Afrofuturism requires of us: a reckoning with ourselves as well as a reckoning with those who love or hate us. This is the necessary work to walk into the Afrofuture healed and whole.

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Glossary: a list of terms and descriptions to help you along your journey into Lovecraft Country.

Dahomey Warriors - a military unit of the Dahomey Kingdom composed entirely of women formed in the 17th century. Nawi, the soldier who trains Hippolyta, was the last known soldier of the unit and died in 1979.

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Bessie Stringfield - the first Black woman to ride a motorcycle across the U.S. by herself. Hippolyta sees her riding on the way to the time machine as she is listening to Parisian love songs from the time period she will later visit to meet Josephine Baker.

Salon - a meeting or a gathering of artists and intellectuals that would usually take place in the salon of the home. Ideas would be debated, there was smoking of all sorts of substances, and love affairs were created and destroyed. It was a popular French format for exchanging ideas but African Americans who traveled to and from Paris during the Harlem Renaissance would often re-create this meeting of the minds back in New York. Hippolyta’s powerful scene with Josephine Baker takes place in the Salon, also attended by one of Baker’s lovers, Frida Kahlo who declares in French: “Here’s to the girls like us who know when to create and when to destroy.”

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Recommendations: If your interest is piqued and you would like to take a deeper dive, here are some media suggestions that will help you better understand the Lovecraftian universe and other themes in this episode.

Film:

Zouzou (1934), Mark Allégret

Space is the Place (1974), John Coney

The Time Machine (2002), Simon Wells

Hidden Figures (2016), Theodore Melfi

Readings:

The Princess Steel (1905), W.E.B. Dubois

The Silver Key (1929), HP Lovecraft

The Dreams in the Witch House (1933), HP Lovecraft

Dawn (1987), Octavia Butler

The Time Machine (1895), HG Wells

The Book of Martha (2005), Octavia Butler

Rhythm Travel (1968), Amiri Baraka

Home Is Where the Hatred Is (1971), Gil Scot-Heron

Television:

Star Trek: Discovery (2017 - )

Doctor Who (2005 - )

Steven Universe (2013 - )

Reference:

Afrofuturism 2.0 & The Black Speculative Arts Movement: Notes on a Manifesto (2017), Reynaldo Anderson

Kinitra Brooks is a New Orleans native who writes about conjure women, monsters...and Beyoncé.

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DISCUSSION

michaelharriot
Michael Harriot

After watching that episode, I finally understand what Parliament Funkadelic was talking about all this time.