Black Like You: Life As A Horror Movie

“ I’m Black, they’ll never let me forget it. I’m Black alright; I’ll never let them forget it.” – Miles Davis, Tribute to Jack Johnson “Don’t call me nigger, whitey / Don’t call me whitey, nigger.” – Sly and the Family Stone, Stand! I try hard and fail to imagine what it would be like More

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“ I’m Black, they’ll never let me forget it. I’m Black alright; I’ll never let them forget it.”

– Miles Davis, Tribute to Jack Johnson

“Don’t call me nigger, whitey / Don’t call me whitey, nigger.”

– Sly and the Family Stone, Stand!

I try hard and fail to imagine what it would be like to wake each morning self-consciously aware that my skin color is the same as it was when I went to sleep — Black.

What would I do if I couldn’t process away that self-consciousness through my dreams? Fantasize it away in my sleep? Fight it as a kind of monster? Resolve it? What would it be like to wake up each day and set about in the world knowing I’m Black, knowing that whites know I’m Black — in their looks, in the subtleties of their body language, even in their need to seem cool with it. With my being Black. The Black elephant in the well-lit white room.

In the recent (and renewed) HBO horror series, Lovecraft Country, there’s a scene in “Jig-a-Bobo,” a late episode that sees Black blues singer, Hyppolyta, confront Christina, a white wraith-like witch who has been donning a Nordic-looking white male body to hump Hippolyta, consensually (it’s complicated), about how she feels after the recent funeral of Emmett Till:

Hippolyta: A 14-year-old boy was beat and shot to death, then tied with barbed wire by the neck to a cotton gin fan and cast into the Tallahatchie River.

Christina: [matter of factly] I know.

Hippolyta: But do you care? At all?

Christina: You want me to say Yes.

Hippolyta: I don’t want you to say anything. I want you to feel what I feel right now. Heartbroken. Scared. Furious. Tired. So fucking tired of feeling this way over and over. And I want you to feel alone and shameful, ’cause I’m here, feeling this, and you will never understand it. I want you to feel guilty ’cause…For feeling safe next to you and your privilege….

Christina: No.

Hippolyta: What?

Christina: I don’t care about Emmett Till….

Hyppolyta might be interrogating all whites about their souls and substance. Christina answers honestly, but gets to work thinking about it.

Lovecraft Country is based upon the same-named movie treatment-turned-novel (2016) by Mark Ruff. He’s written a few novels of some modest acclaim, but this is probably Ruff’s diamond, certainly it’s his ka-ching. The story begins when Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) returns home from Daegu, South Korea, where, aside from battling commies, he was married to a witch (Ji-ah, played by Jamie Chung) who is able to see his future when he has an orgasm, and immediately hooks up with childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) and his uncle Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams) for a road trip adventure in search of his missing father. Narratively, we’re told they are driving from the Chicago area to a place called Ardham in Western Massachusetts, but they could be driving through the South, given the crackers and fascist cops they come across, an adventure that includes a near-execution experience in Mass. when cops lead them into the woods only to see them saved by multi-eyed monsters straight out of Revelations, the scariest book of the Bible, who chew into and demolish the cops.

(You can imagine a movie theatre where such a scene would have led to a standing O. I’m not big on horror, but I was okay with a scene where the would-be, beset-upon desaparecidos were rescued from the cheesy Jim Crow crackers by the vengeful Jesus forces When He Returns.)

It turns out that Ruff’s title is ironic, in that the whole country is a place of horror for Black people trying to make their way, this way and that, from one Green Book safe inn to another without getting themselves lynched. To boot, Lovecraft’s horror is unique; it is widely known for its excursions into existential zones that are akin to Twilight Zone experiences, but with monsters. As Lovecraft writes, in his short craft piece “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,”

I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best — one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.

On top of such ordinary imprisonment, Blacks are doing integumentary time; the worst kind, for which there is no escape.

An exploration of such “strange suspensions”and “violations of limitations” is a major engine of the series which is full of magic; voodoo-esque spells, intoned with what sounds like Haitian French; time travel portals; and monsters — all intertwined with the illusions of normal reality, which, for Blacks in the 50s (the period of the narrative), included sudden lynchings in a Jim Crow world, South and North. It’s useful to keep in mind that Lovecraft was himself a racist, “a product of his time,” as some apologists have noted, but a white trying to break on through to the other side of his ignorance. For Lovecraft, it is time that is unfathomable, but probe-able. He writes,

The reason why time plays a great part in so many of my tales is that this element looms up in my mind as the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe. Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression.

Time is a constrict. And neither Lovecraft nor Ruff will let us forget it. History, memory are fragile and malleable constructs — another worry about the hivemind ahead, speaking of horror.

Lovecraft suggests that the means to accessing the escape from time can be found in certain moods that remind us of our own alienation in the cosmos; we were barely the center of all things to begin with, we’ve discovered over time, and we have probably never felt more alone, given our prodigious planetary problems. Lovecraft’s mood seems to correspond roughly with what Freud referred to as the Uncanny experience. Freud writes in The Uncanny (1919), “The better orientated in his environment a person is, the less readily will he get the impression of something uncanny in regard to the objects and events in it.” The Black experience is sometimes one of debilitating disorientation. The Father, Son and Holy Ghost (say, id) out of whack.

Just as the Green Book is a thoughtful tool for Blacks to escape the cell of their local circumstances, books in general are important in the series. We all read fiction and sci-fi to escape time and space, performing the page in our minds to the limits of our vocabulary and building (if we keep a dictionary handy) on it to enhance our future performances, and fantasies of reality. Atticus especially is fond of reading. He is especially pleased in bookstores and, later, as a guest in a mansion, to discover Lovecraft and other “escape” fiction in his room. (As a whimsical narrative inclusion, Atticus, toward the end of the first season of episodes, carries Ruff’s book as another statement about time.) And ultimately, Tic, Leto, Montrose and Hyppolyta (Leti’s sister) are in search of the missing pages from the Book of Names in which their family’s entry is crucial to the plot. Think with compelling evil thrown around every genetic corner in.

On the cover of Ruff’s novel is a little splash blurb that reads: America’s Demons Exposed! We’re not talking the monsters here, but the mighty whitey. And the monsters seem to prefer white meat. Again, it’s all Lovecraft country — “We’re surrounded by monsters all around us,” as Atticus puts it at one stage. And there’s an edge, of the kind Hyppolyta describes above, a seething hatred in response not only to injustice but also its attendant sadism and depravity. The seeming god complex of whites, what Hyppolyta describes as their sense of “privilege” for merely having been born into the world with the right skin is unnerving. In episode 2, with scenes filled with deprecation, a soundtrack reminds of the often-unspoken resentment, Gil Scott-Heron sings,

A rat done bit my sister Nell
With Whitey on the moon
Her face and arms began to swell
And Whitey’s on the moon….

And on it goes, the constant reminder of integumentary imperialism.

The monsters gobbling up the cops, in the scene described above, is not the only moment of ‘comic relief’ in the series, though definitely infrequent. In episode 3, a subtle raspberry is blown at crackers unhappy that Leti has moved into a white neighborhood and opened a boarding house for Blacks. To drive her out, they park their cars with bricks tied to the horn, a bonkers-inducing sound. Eventually, Leti smashes the car windows and knocks the bricks off, and you can’t help but think she’s momentarily shutting up the honkies.

The series is executive-produced by Jordan Peele, and one notes his familiar touches in Lovecraft Country. The sense of doubled self is present, as it is in Us (2019) with the doppelgänger experience that suggests the double life of being Black — one for horror show outside oneself in the white world — a persona non gratis, as it were — in existential conflict with the subject’s ego, as if under the constant ordeal of parasitical introjection. In Lovecraft Country this phenomenon is most evident when Hyppolyta’s daughter, Diana, is stalked by two terrifying spooks, Topsy and Bopsy. Echoes of Get Out! (2017) occur in the demonstrative need of whites to not only psychologically damage Blacks, but, in the case of Hyppolyta especially, to actually cover a Black body witha husk of their white body; sex scenes are almost like molting exercises. In Get Out! introjection takes on more intensity when a cabal of whiteys kidnap Blacks to put their white brains in the Black bodies. This is horror unique to America and the slavery legacy, where even in 21st century it’s not clear that Blacks are free.

In another skit series, Key and Peele, he did with a friend, Keagan-Michael Key, the two play out another layer of the color caste system that Blacks are forced to live with. In their introductory comments to the audience in season 1, episode 1, the two note that they are biracial, the product of Black and one white parent. The schism seems, they say, to require them to role back and forth between a white identity and Black. Or as Key puts it, “We lie.” Peele nods and adds, “To scare white people.” It’s a comedy serious, and Lovecraft Country is horror, but it all goes together in a way unique to the Black experience. (Who doesn’t remember Richard Pryor, in his prime, describing how he accidentally lit his hair on fire while smoking cocaine?)

Even Key and Peele seem to be referring back to Frantz Fanon and some of the things he said about skin color and race relations, in Black Skin, White Masks (1986):

The white man is sealed in his whiteness.
The black man in his blackness.

This sealing off is so evident in Get Out! — but perhaps equally so in the ‘molting’ scenes of Lovecraft. Thus far, it is a failed interpenetration of white and Black; a fact that the legacy of slavery, combined with simple color, cannot readily overcome. Fanon cites Hegel, and one thinks of his famous master-slave dialectic that is universal and the resolution of the thesis and antithesis in a new synthesis of co-understood need for each to progress in history.

Earlier, I reported on a scene in which Hyppolyta questions Christina’s ability to feel the suffering of others, soon confirmed explicitly by the latter. But that’s not the end of it. Later in the episode, Christina pays some crackers to do to her what was done to Emmett Till, in one of the more bizarre scenes in the whole series. We watch as they beat the living devil out of her, choke her with a coil of barbed wire, tire her feet to a weight and dump her in the Tallahatchie River. The thugs leave, and a few moments later, she crawls back onto the pier sobbing, seeing, understanding. The problem is her motivation for gaining the empathy function. Like a drowned witch at Salem, she floats up where innocence fails. And she desperately wants to connect emotionally with Hyppolyta in order to procure missing pages from a magic spells book that would make her perhaps unstoppably evil. White devil indeed.

Recently, I watched the film version of the film history book, Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present (2011) by Robin R. Means Coleman. Given the unique experiences of many, if not most African Americans, the genre would seem to be a comfortable fit for Blacks — and, indeed, has been, says Coleman, for quite some time. She says in her introduction:

The horror film is fascinating if for no other reason than that it prides itself on snuggling up next to the taboo, while also confounding our sense of good and evil, monstrous and divine, and sacred and profane. It is one of the most intrepid of entertainment forms in its scrutiny of our humanity and our social world.

It is an excellent venue for considerations of warped time, the Uncanny, and the search for true identity — the latter an especially meet subject in late postmodern reflection. We can all relate — Black and White — to the constructs and deconstructions of time, and it is perhaps a place to find a common language for our common alienation.

Lovecraft Country Season Two begins in August. It’s worth a viewing on HBO.

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