The Safe Negro Guide to Lovecraft Country: 'Rewind 1921'

Leti and Hattie hold hands through the flames of the Tulsa Massacre.
Leti and Hattie hold hands through the flames of the Tulsa Massacre.
Screenshot: HBO/YouTube (Getty Images)

Did you catch the fire? Sunday’s journey through Lovecraft Country was full of hope—as passed down to us by our ancestors and living elders. It might seem an odd takeaway that an episode beginning with a hexed Dee coming dangerously close to becoming a Topsy twin (uh, triplet? I’m still having nightmares about them damn twins, y’all!) and ending with Tulsa, Okla., engulfed by the flames of white terrorism would be hopeful, but it was.

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In week seven of HBO’s groundbreaking series, I spoke about righteous rage but I’m thinking that the fire this time (to reference the work of James Baldwin and the recently deceased Randall Kenan) also contains a just love; a love grounded in justice for ancestors of yore and the descendants of the future. In this episode, we see, through the lens of the past, the fire that is ours in the present day to catch and pass on. And we see this coupling—of rage and love—in the Greenwood citizens’ defense of their families and community; in Tic’s rejection and subsequent protection of his father; by Hippolyta, who channels the fire as the literal motherboard for the time machine; and again literally in Leti’s long, fiery walk back to the Stradford Hotel (a real-life location) and the portal, clutching the Book of Names.

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Before we get to Tulsa 1921, let’s check in on the Black Scooby Gang (my ode to Buffy the Vampire Slayer), who began the episode blaming each other for Dee’s demise. We got some fast-moving narrative development in the first third of this episode, giving us Lancaster’s final death at the hands of Christina’s clever manipulation of his regeneration spell (with help from Ruby), Hippolyta’s superhero-like entrance, and Act One culminating with Ruby driving off in Christina’s Rolls Royce after a “Come to Jesus” moment with Leti.

At first, I interpreted Ruby warning Leti against following “after some man” as simply hypocritical, for she is doing the same with Christina—following after her own (wo)man. But this scene and the next, featuring Christina and Ruby, brings clarity to Ruby’s motives. She is maneuvering to protect herself and Leti, period. Fuck everyone else. The promise she extracts from Christina regarding Leti was a foreshadowing filled with foreboding. Yet however detached, Ruby’s actions mirror those of Montrose, as he is similarly maneuvering to protect Atticus and his grandson—Leti ain’t nothing more than an incubator to him, where Tic and the (future) George are concerned. This does not bode well, for the Black Scoobies will have to come together, fully, to defeat Christina.

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Though the Scooby Gang is in disarray, they must gather their resources to save Dee from Lancaster’s Topsy twins. They must return to the afternoon of May 31, 1921, the start of the 24-hour period that saw the destruction of the affluent Black community of Greenwood by white terrorism. The massacre seemingly begins with the suspicious arrest and jailing of teenager Dick Rowland, who shined shoes and was falsely accused by of some sort of assault on elevator operator Sarah Page, who was, at the very least, a platonic friend who never even pressed charges against Rowland.

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Mechelle Brown, program coordinator at the Greenwood Cultural Center, explains that thousands of whites began to riot outside of the Tulsa courthouse, compelling 100 armed Black men to approach the courthouse, intent on protecting Rowland (returning after a smaller contingent was initially rebuffed by the sheriff). When one Black man was confronted about the gun he was carrying, a struggle ensued and the chaos exploded.

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“It was powerful…[the writers] did their research. As [Montrose] is recalling the Black entrepreneurs, some of those sites, [like] Standpipe Hill, were accurate,” Brown enthused, “What I liked about this portrayal, [was] them showing African Americans fighting back. There were Blacks fighting to defend their community...Watchmen didn’t show that.”

It is the fire—the coupling of righteous rage and just love—that pushes the citizens of Greenwood, most especially the men, to defend their families, homes, and businesses as a unit. A lesson the Scoobies must learn to emulate if they are to survive their showdown with Christina. The Rowland incident was simply the catalyst in an already tense racial situation; “It was a racial tinderbox,” insists communications professor Dr. Reynaldo Anderson, who also contributes to the forthcoming graphic novel on the Greenwood Massacre, Across the Tracks: Remembering Greenwood, Black Wall Street, and the Tulsa Race Massacre (Abrams Books, Spring 2021). As he notes, in the year prior to the riots, “It was an eye-for-an-eye situation; [the Blacks] lynched a white guy on Saturday and [the whites] lynched a Black dude on a Sunday.”

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Dr. Anderson laments that nonviolence has erroneously been the vision of the Black fight for civil rights in America, saying, “nonviolence is only a recent invention.” He insists that Black Wall Street was a part of the Golden Age of Black Nationalism (1880-1920), and these folks prided themselves on being self-reliant, autonomous and heavily engaged in self-defense.

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“A lot of Black veterans were there to defend BWS,” he further explains. “The African Blood Brotherhood, one of the precursors to the Black Panther Party [was there].”

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There was, at that time, also an overwhelming number of Black folks in Oklahoma of many different ethnicities: the African Americans fleeing the post-Reconstruction South; Black Indigenous folks who were children of those enslaved by the Five Nations; folks from the Caribbean and West Africa—because Black Oklahomans had recently pushed to create a Black state of its own. Accordingly, there was a multiplicity to Greenwood’s Blackness that would later be revered as unique along with the better known Harlem Renaissance, for, by the summer of 1921, Greenwood would be reduced to ashes. Brown recalls that its Black defenders were simply overwhelmed and outgunned by newly deputized whites and the National Guard, which would later place 6,000 surviving Greenwood residents—men, women, and children—in internment camps, holding them there as whites looted their homes and businesses before burning everything to the ground.

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It is the weight of these memories that brings us a drunken Montrose, suddenly dropped into the birthplace of both his early familial and romantic trauma. Tic reacts to his father’s drunkenness with bitter anger; he remains so heavily jarred by his father’s revelation that George might be his biological father, he is too disgusted to recognize his father’s PTSD. Montrose has often spoken of removing everything soft from himself, and we’ve been made to realize he has excised so much of it from Tic as well, making Tic’s coldness his just reward. But love ain’t always just. Both of these men are out of balance; they ain’t got the full fire Sanchez is talking about. They’ve got a lot of rage, but it’s self-righteous. Conversely, they’ve got some deep love, but it ain’t grounded in justice.

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Montrose’s pursuit to do right by his first love, Thomas, acknowledges the depth of the adolescent feelings he rejected so thoroughly, even though it’s 30 years too late. This pursuit, though senseless, is fruitful, for it grows the gentleness inside him. We see Montrose’s look of longing and regret as he refers to his young lover as a “faggot”—cruelly, the same slur the white mob will soon after repeat as they shoot Thomas in the head. Montrose’s reckoning with his memories of Thomas is his own act of coming out of the closet to himself—a much more intimate revelation than the momentary evolution we saw in Episode 5. Montrose begins to restore the softness so hated by his father and further hardened by his own self-hate. It is in that dirty alleyway, bottle in hand, that Montrose begins to ground his love in justice; justice for Thomas and justice for his own young, gay self—a self he suppressed and lied about for years. Montrose ain’t got the fullness of the fire that Sanchez raps about but he has enough of it to spark the fire in his son.

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It is also in this alley that Tic is not simply reminded of the sacrifices of his father but recognizes that the soul murder Montrose committed upon him, he first committed upon himself. Tic regrets his deep disregard of his father and is spurred to action by the violent white gang of teenagers that threatens the three people he’s loved the most in this world. It is here that Tic catches the fire, grounding his own love in justice for the young Dora, George, and Montrose and acting in righteous rage to protect his young gay father, a boy full of the softness that will be needed if there is any hope of reconciliation between the two. “I got ya, kid” brings us full circle as we are reminded of the opening scenes of the series, in which Tic is rescued from Cthulu by Jackie Robinson’s forceful swing as he repeats the self-assured and assuring phrase. Tic now has the fire he could only dream existed in a heroic celebrity figure, but now burns bright in him as his father’s rescuer...and hero.

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A requiem for the dead plays as we witness the destructive effects of white folks’ jealousy; their need to scorch the earth rather than see Black folks prosper. Soprano Janai Brugger’s voice soars in an operatic requiem for the dead (seriously y’all, they wrote an original fucking opera! I so respect these creators’ level of geekdom!); a soulful rendering of Sanchez’s poem as Leti herself catches the fire from Nana Hattie (Regina Taylor) and she, in turn, helps usher the older woman into the afterlife. The sacrificial horror of Nana Hattie’s death, which shows her skin melting off of her skeleton as she holds tight to Leti’s hand, is another example of Lovecraft Country displaying the beauty and the power indicative of the horror genre when it is done at this level of excellence.

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At first, Leti’s walk back seems filled with sadness and regret at the loss of life—but I know I’m not the only one who cries when I am filled with rage. Leti’s journey home is tearful, yes, as she carries the Book of Names in an act of justice—and deep love for Dee, Tic and the future generation that lies just below her heart. But she is also filled with an anger so deep, so righteous, she can barely contain it, only able to focus upon placing one foot in front of the other. Leti is filled with the just love of the ancestors and is now in possession of righteous rage to pass on to her son and future generations of a people who demand nothing short of liberation.


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

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National Coming Out Day - Montrose came out, fully, to himself and his son this past Sunday, wonderfully coinciding with National Coming Out Day 2020.

Sonic Screwdriver - a near-omnipotent tool used by the various incarnations of Dr. Who, the British science fiction wonder. Hippolyta reveals her own sonic screwdriver, used in place of the key to the orrery Tic gave to Christina.

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Al Jolson - a Jewish entertainer who performed in Blackface and was a superstar of the 1920s. His song, “Avalon,” plays at the Stratford when they arrive.

Sonia Sanchez - Sanchez’s “Catch the Fire” is the 2004 poem that we hear the poet recite as Nana Hattie literally burns in Leti’s hand. It is repeated in operatic form in the final scenes of the episode.

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Requiem for the Dead - its most specific meaning is typically a Catholic mass for the dead. But in this episode, Janai Brugger’s soprano operates as a dirge or a lament for the dead that honors their sacrifice in a deeply meaningful way.

Cajon al Muerto - “a drumming ceremony honoring one’s ancestors and earthbound spirits that is common in La Regla de Osha” per Dr. Nicholas Jones’ book Staging Habla de Negros: Radical Performances of the African Diaspora in Early Modern Spain (2019). This is a specifically diasporic method of honoring the dead, a different sort of requiem that is uniquely Black in its origin and practice.

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Osage County Murders - a conspiracy of white men to marry and then murder wealthy Indigenous women (The Osage are an American-Indian nation) for their land and resources. These murders were occurring at the same time as the Tulsa massacre. White folks were running wild, actively and openly killing Black and Indigenous people of means.

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:

Back to the Future (1985), Robert Zemeckis

The Exorcist (1973), William Friedkin

Abby (1974), William Girdler

Constantine (2005), Frances Lawrence

Readings:

The Time Machine (1895), HG Wells

The Silver Key (1929), HP Lovecraft

Phantom Stranger (1952 - Present),

The Mysterious Traveler (1956-59), Joe Gill & Steve Ditko

Mage: The Hero Discovered (2004), Matt Wagner

Television:

Dr. Who (2005 - Present)

Quantum Leap (1989 - 1993)

Reference:

Negro Thought in America 1880 - 1915: Racial Ideologies in the Age of Booker T. Washington (1963), August Meier

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Negro in American Life and Thought: The Nadir, 1877-1901 (1954), Rayford W. Logan

The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925 (1988), Wilson Jeremiah Moses

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (2017), David Grann

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

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DISCUSSION

murrychang
Murry Chang

This was a hard episode to watch but that’s because it was so amazingly well done.

I love how the series isn’t going hard on the Great Old Ones but is more about how using magic in the Lovecraft universe will eat your soul. For example, Ruby isn’t just looking for protection anymore: She kills the woman who Christina was using for her spell and says she pictured herself as a redhead, meaning she’s totally down for finding another victim that’s more to her taste. 

Contrast that to Hippolyta, who gains her power through science and sheer strength of will.