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The Safe Negro Guide to Lovecraft Country: 'Jig-a-Bobo'

Illustration for article titled The Safe Negro Guide to iLovecraft Country/i: Jig-a-Bobo
Screenshot: HBO

Multi-orgasmic sex while molting your white-woman skin? Running from creepy twin pickaninny caricatures? Saved from gunfire by a concrete shoggoth? It must be Episode 8 of HBO’s Lovecraft Country! Last Sunday was a welcome respite from watching The Masque of the Red Death play out in real-time on our nightly news, but you want to know my favorite lesson from this episode? A shoggoth may not come when you want it to, but it’s always on time! Just when the racism is too much, here they come to save the day...or night.

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There was so much going on in this episode and I believe this is the most indicative episode of the series, particularly as a work of horror. We get the body horror of the sex scene, the creepy hauntings of the Topsy twins, and the monster horror of the shoggoth, all scaffolded by the terror of white supremacy manifested in the state-sanctioned, racist, and gendered violence of the plot.

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“Terror is the act of violence,” explains Dr. Regina Bradley, a professor of the Contemporary Black South, adding, “Horror is the response.”

Horror allows us to explore difficult themes in much more imaginative ways than straightforward works. We are exploring the same themes highlighted in works such as 12 Years a Slave (2013): the Black/white woman dichotomy, unspeakable violence upon Black bodies, and problematic antebellum literature (in this case, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin); this time, we just get the pleasure of seeing a shoggoth throw a racist cop—and his car—in the protection of a Black man. In the context of Lovecraft Country, horror is the delicious cheese sauce that helps you eat more of the broccoli that is historical Black suffering in America. In this episode, the horrors of white supremacy threaten each character, but it is ultimately the most vulnerable of us all, our children, who are viciously and viscerally attacked.

Before diving into Dee’s tale, I want to spend some necessary time with Ruby and Christina/William as their relationship fluctuates between utter fascination and generous discomfort. As I was held rapt by their sex scene, my only thought was, “Aw hell, now how am I going to explain this shit?” Firstly, it was a beautiful scene of body horror; there was a unique allure in viewing Ruby’s voluptuousness rip through the petite Hillary, refusing to be contained by the demand that Black womanhood take up less space. Dr. Janell Hobson, a scholar of Black women’s beauty and enfleshment, sees the entire episode as a manifestation of our need to rip and “tear away at white flesh” in reaction to our knowledge of what was done to Emmett Till and what would ultimately be done to Dee by the episode’s end.

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This episode explores the historically contentious relationship between Black and white women, which continues to be fraught with unspoken hostilities to this day. Rarely is there a complex, popular cultural portrayal that spends time and care exploring just how deep the beef is that exists between us and white women, and I believe this is why I am unable to fully buy into Ruby and Christina’s relationship: There is too much evidence of white women’s joy, complicity, and guilt at the suffering of Black women and children. The grievous nature of the sin that janky-ass white woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham committed in accusing the young Till grounds this episode. The lies of white women and the violence committed in the name of their protection—protection historically denied to us black women—just sends the whole premise of Ruby and Christina’s love story crashing down.

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This is not to say true affection does not exist between them. Again, that bath scene is touching in its care and concern for Ruby and her dignity. Rarely do we see a fat-bodied, dark-skinned black woman treated so tenderly onscreen. The way in which William unhooked her garters and removed her stockings and panties made me swoon, but...I couldn’t trust it. Not only did those hands belong to a man who looks positively Aryan, but I knew those hands belonged to the ultimate Karen that is Christina.

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I even allow space for Christina’s warped act of love in reenacting Till’s violent assault so she could heed Ruby’s advice and feel something—hell, anything akin to what her lover demands of her. But the action is so overwrought and over-the-top (in typical white woman fashion) that it still amounts to too little, too late. The camera focuses on Christina’s lips as she recites the incantation that will protect her life before she surrenders to the thug violence she has purchased. She remains protected by her white womanhood as these violent white men double-check that they have her permission to violate her. It actually highlights her privilege, for as Dr. Bradley forcefully reminds us, “Emmett Till ain’t have no protection spell.”

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As we move into Dee’s part of the episode, I have a confession to make: I am the world’s scariest horror scholar. For real, I watch horror movies with my ears plugged and my eyes (sometimes) closed on the first viewing; it causes me such deep, self-inflicted anxiety. I became a horror scholar because I realized that if I analyzed a text to death, I was no longer afraid. So when I tell you these damn Topsy twins have creeped me TF out? And it’s not just the monstrosity of the twins themselves, or even the disjointed, pseudo-human ways in which they move. It’s that damn knocking sound, the ways in which the minstrel song Stop Dat Knockin (1847) frantically revs up that gives it the eeriest quality (a sonic tool also used by series producer Peele in his films Get Out and Us)…*shivers* I’m gonna have to write about them in-depth to exorcise them from my psyche.

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And these Topsy twins are filled with a complex history. I spoke with Dr. Rebecca Wanzo, whose new book, The Content of our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging (2020) deals with depictions such as those we saw Sunday night. She reminds us that these are caricatures meant to remind viewers of the character Topsy from Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851), who was the badly behaved enslaved black girl actively juxtaposed against the angelic white Eva, who was her enslaver’s daughter. Though she is ultimately “saved” by white Jesus’ grace, Wanzo “adores Topsy’s resistance” to enslavement by taking joy in her “playful, energetic, interesting black girlhood,” for which she is condemned in the novel.

Wanzo furthers that the pickaninny caricature that defines the Topsy twins isn’t simply a monstrous representation of Black girlhood, but that “they were also victims of violence.” There are countless racist images in which Black babies were used to sell products and endangered for the entertainment of the white masses. “They are haunting [Dee], chasing her, and they are also the thing that she can’t get away from—and are produced by state violence—because part of what these representations were meant to do was to dehumanize black people, and specifically here, black girls.”

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We must connect those black girls to the state violence Dee experiences at the hands of Lancaster and his lackey as he places a hex on her that brings inanimate objects to life and imbues them with the hexee’s deepest fears. The Topsy twins are doppelgängers of the two Black girls she throws rocks at for their joy immediately before she is snatched by Lancaster. Those two girls, eating ice cream, untouched by the horrors of the day also have red bows in their hair reminiscent of Topsy and are harbingers of the twins.

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The Topsy twins are the manifestation of so many things for Dee, but most significantly of her grief and rage at the death of her friend, Emmett Till. Dr. Bradley laments that we have lost so much in our watered-down recollections of the Civil Rights Movement, especially when we discuss the tragedy of Till’s death. This episode remembers and brings forth the righteous rage of the moment and places it front and center.

“We get the visceral nature of Emmett Till’s remembrance. The smell of the bodies. The heat. The rage. The city shuts down…[these details have] been lost to history,” she explains. “It complicates how we deal with historical trauma.”

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With Till’s death, Dee has lost her innocence. She wanders the city dressed in a fluttering, almost antebellum white dress (reminiscent of the young Nettie from The Color Purple) but a black sash cuts across her torso reminding us of her immediate loss and foreshadowing the bright red of her blood which will paint it by the episode’s end. The twins are always...there. Even when not onscreen, Dee is followed by their presence; the young white girls jumping rope in the neighborhood sing of them: “Topsy with her yellow eyes. Tries to claw the one she spies...Topsy has the wildest ‘do. She just wants to dance with you.” This scene also hearkens back to the girls’ nursery rhyme about Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street.

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Yet the haunting innocence often afforded to white girls is too often denied black girls, particularly one whose best friend has been killed, his body marred by white terrorism. As Montrose refers to Dee’s sudden, vicious entry into Black womanhood: “Ain’t no getting around this. [It’s] every Negro’s rite of passage in this country...child or not.” And he soon after warns her that there will be no respite from the violence of white folks; they will continue to come for her for the rest of her life—not unlike the Topsy twins themselves. He offers one bit of advice: “No matter what you do or how well you do it, they always take it from you! That doesn’t mean you have to give it to them easy. They come for you, you damn sure make them work for it!”

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And this is when we see Dee’s rage. Her rage at her parents for abandoning her in her time of need. Her rage at losing her friend. Her rage at having to confront a world that hates her and everyone who looks like her far too soon. And in her rage at their relentless pursuit that leaves her paranoid and half-crazed, she resolves to make them pay, a scene powered by the inspirational words of youth activist Naomi Wadler. Dee storms into Lancaster’s office, this time unafraid; she’s sick and tired of being sick and tired. Dr. Wanzo reminds us of the questions raised about histories of violence: “Do we understand them as actually driving people crazy, or are they things that just tear at us...are they ways of destroying Black people that people interpret as crazy?”

Crazed, irrational, whatever, Dee is now simply determined to make it stop. She interrogates Lancaster as if he were a perp—and he is the perpetrator of her torture. She demands answers and he complies, attempting to maneuver her desperation to work in his favor, hoping she is willing to do anything to stop the pursuit of her nightmares. But Dee knows that even though whiteness started this terrorizing journey, it damn sure ain’t gonna stop it. She recognizes that she is on her own and leaves in a fit of disgust, literally spitting at him, “Fuck you, Pig!”

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Dee is determined to set her own trap, to solve the problems only she can see and the spell won’t allow her to talk to anyone else about. She lies in wait in her parents’ office, now bereft of their presence. She frantically draws the twins’ faces as she lies in wait, offering her loved ones necessary clues as to what has been pursuing her and what could ultimately cause her demise. As they once again encroach, Dee lashes out, finally, angrily beating the twins with a lead pipe held as if a baseball bat in a stance that recalls Jackie Robinson, who we met in the first few minutes of the series premiere. (Editors note: For those curious about the team logo on the cap Dee was wearing, it was the Chicago American Giants, a Negro League team that was the longest continuous franchise until it ended in 1956, the year after this episode was set.)

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By the time Montrose walks in, Dee looks positively crazed by demons only visible to her. Not only is he unable to aid her, but his embrace of futile protection leaves her vulnerable to their attacks. Bradley reminds us there is a specificity to some black girls’ traumas that the Black boys and men who love us can’t protect us from because they literally don’t see them “and therefore can’t understand it...Black girls are illegible to the people that care about them.” She continues, “the things Black girls have to deal with behind closed doors will fuck you up.” For ultimately, no matter how enraged, how hard she fights to make them pay, Dee is still a Black girl, a child afforded only so much power and crippled by grief so deep.

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This episode allows us another opportunity to relish the tearing into white flesh—which we experienced last week with the Confederates. This week, we get to see Ruby’s ripping through Hillary’s inadequate containment, to witness the barbed wire rip through the delicate skin of Christina’s pale throat, and finally, to relish the white cop who is impaled on the tentacle of the shoggoth as it pierces his rectum and protrudes through his mouth. Yet Green reminds us of the price of violence—even of delicious revenge—in the body of a vulnerable young black girl whose innocence and sanity were violently torn asunder by the sins of others.

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

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Topsy-Turvy Doll
- a doll with a split rendering, on one side is a Black girl, usually with the stereotypical characteristics of the picaninny. On the other side is a pig-tailed white girl, often blond. The doll, influenced by the characterization of Eva and Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, recalls the white supremacist dichotomies of black and white girlhood.

Kara Walker - her artwork explores much of the visual antebellum and minstrelsy images invoked in this episode by the Topsy twins

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Naomi Wadler
- an 11-year old black girl when she organized a walkout at her elementary school in response to the gun violence at Parkland High School in 2018. Naomi also gave an empowering speech at the March For Our Lives rally in March of 2018. Her words play during the scene in which Dee becomes determined to beat the Topsy twins.

Mark of Cain - a curse or sign placed upon Cain, marking him under the special protection of God. The sign promised that there would be severe punishment for anyone that moved against Cain. There has long been a problematic association of this mark with Black people, as our skin is a supposed punishment for committing fratricide.

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Roy Bryant & J.W. Milam - the pieces of shit that killed Emmett Till.

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.

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Film:

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Wes Craven

The Color Purple (1985), Steven Spielberg

Tales from the Hood (1995), Rusty Cundieff

Us (2019), Jordan Peele

Readings:

The Outsider (1926), HP Lovecraft

The Silver Key (1929), HP Lovecraft

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851), Harriet Beecher Stowe

The Bluest Eye (1970), Toni Morrison

Reference:

The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip Hop (2006), Kyra Gaunt

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The Content of our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging (2020), Rebecca Wanzo

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

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DISCUSSION

My thoughts on Christina’s “I want to know what it’s like” scene:

“Well, damn, you went to the extreme to see what it was like for Emmett Till...or you could have just listened to Ruby, saw her pain and realized her agony.” But she had already shown that she really didn’t think much of Ruby’s feelings when she dismissed her reasons for taking the potion that turned her into Hillary for her sex session with William (while you bullshitting Christina, why do you turn into a dude everytime you want to get with Ruby, why not be yourself, huh? Trick.)

I would love for Ruby to tell Christina to go kick rocks but I have a feeling, from the previews of the next episode, Ruby’s going to use her relationship with William/Christina to help out the Scooby Gang (and give Leti a chance to be indignant about her big sister getting in bed, literally, with the White She-Devil/Aryan Prince even after she did the same thing with the whole Mark of Cain trade-off)