by Neve Kamilah Mazique-Ricardi
Since it first premiered in August, Lovecraft Country has incorporated itself into my sacred Sunday routine. From jump, the Black-centered fantasy horror adventure series has hit the ground, or the cosmos, running. Lovecraft Country is fun, sexy, scary, campy, tragic, terrifying, and wonderful, everything I want fantasy horror to be. To its credit, it manages to show some of the horrors faced by an ancestrally magical and nerdy Black family on the South Side of Chicago, and throughout the East Coast, in Jim Crow Era America. Namely, Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors), a young veteran returned home from the Korean War to find his father has gone missing and was last seen somewhere around Salem, Massachusetts, and his close friend from high school Leticia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), a light-skinned, adventurous photographer and bohemian, and each of their immediate relatives. Naturally, the types of horror faced by this family are both related to anti-Black racism and racist white magic.
Thus far in its six episode existence, Lovecraft Country has firmly positioned itself as hearty horror for social change, with a habit of “punching up.” Deaths of cops, colonizers, and klan wizards are deliciously gratuitous. When violence is perpetrated against Black folks, it is often avenged righteously. I scream, cheer, and cry every week! Or I did, until Episode 4 in which an Indigenous femme is murdered in the same episode in which she is introduced. Living up to its name, “A History of Violence” opens on Tic’s father, Montrose Freeman (Michael Kenneth Williams), a man triggering to Tic to say the least, alone in his room listening to his own father’s voice in his head. The voice is angry, taunting, disgusted. Montrose’s father is describing the horror of finding his son dressed up femme. Viewers hear something about flowers, something about Montrose being terrible at manness, and the sounds of the beating that follows.
In the present, Montrose burns magical pages — bitter, wounded, scared — thinking about how the white man has sorcery too, as he discussed with his brother and Tic’s beloved uncle, George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance), before George died at the hands of a white magician. “Smells like Tulsa,” Montrose says to the fire, and the rest of the episode answers. The last scene of the episode also occurs in a bedroom, that place of rest, lust, beginnings, endings, shame. Here is Yahima (Monique Candelaria), a Two Spirit Arawak trans femme who is at least 500 years old. Montrose comes up behind her, whispers “I’m sorry,” and slits her throat. Since Yahima escaped from the flooding secret vault beneath a museum along with Tic, Leti, and Montrose and was now staying as a guest in their home, she felt safe; she didn’t see it coming.
Neither did I.
Yahima had been held prisoner by Titus Braithwaite, Tic’s white ancestor. As the story often goes, Titus wanted many things Yahima had, and he tricked her into giving them to him. He never held up his end of any bargain, murdered Yahima’s whole family, and then froze her between life and death in a ship’s belly of her dead kin for centuries, guarding magical writings as a skeleton. When Tic, Leti, and Montrose meet her, it’s at the end of a long journey through the treacherous, cavernous bottom of a museum of natural history in Boston.
It appears Yahima is introduced naked in Episode 4 for no other reason than to show us that she has both breasts and a penis. Montrose asks her “what” she is, and she answers that she is both man and woman, Two Spirit. The choice to make us see Yahima’s genitals through Montrose’s eyes felt like it was meant to show a storm brewing inside him around gender and sexuality. But it is precisely this connection that makes his murder of Yahima so chilling to me. Both Native and Black women, especially Native and Black trans women, are more likely to be the victims of murder than many other groups of people. The murderers of trans women of color are often cis men or people ingrained with toxic masculinity. These aggressors don’t want to deal with questioning their own sexualities or genders and feel challenged, triggered, affronted, by the existence, genders, and sexualities of trans women of color, who they may or may not be very attracted to. In Lovecraft Country, it is evident that Montrose is Black and queer and that Yahima is Native and has a queer gender. Her murder was an affront.
Arawak and Taino peoples are the ancestors and relatives of many Black people living in the Americas today. Their religions and customs have majorly influenced Creole and diasporic religions like Haitian Vodou, Santería, Louisiana Voodoo, Lucumí, and many others. It stands to reason that Tic, who is Black and has some European ancestry, might have Native/Indigenous American/Caribbean/South American ancestry too. Yet in Lovecraft Country, Yahima is silenced by Titus, Tic, and Montrose. Titus, we learn through exposition, imprisoned Yahima and turned her into a siren. In order to stop her blood-curdling screams in the elevator as the four escape the museum, Tic punches her in the face. The show does not shy away from depicting violence against women of color, but the violence that women do or do not survive in the story is balanced by how they are contextualized and humanized. Yahima does not receive the same care and respect. Would Tic have punched a cis woman in the face? Would Montrose have made a choice other than murdering Yahima if he had succumbed to the glitter first? Yahima’s last words spoken aloud to Tic were, “You are not guilty of the sins of your forefathers, but I do not know your spirit.”
In Episode 5, “A Strange Case,” Leti expresses disgust, grief, and anger that Montrose murdered Yahima. She says, this magic is evil — it’s making us do evil things. Later, she prays for Yahima. I appreciated that as a woman of color, Leti felt some solidarity with Yahima. On the show’s official podcast, hosts Ashley C. Ford and Lovecraft writer Shannon Houston discussed the echoes of Audre Lorde’s “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” in the journeys of the Black protagonists of Lovecraft Country, especially in “A History of Violence.” Oppression can constrict the imagination, and so perhaps it was this atrophy of imagining that made Montrose kill a person who he could have related to in some way. What changed between Episodes 4 and 5 that led Montrose into a place of deepened acceptance of at least his own sexual identity? In an episode replete with cameos like one by Shangela, Montrose accompanies his drag queen lover to a club where she’s performing and realizes that actually, he wants to 70’s diva spin dance through the land; he wants to crowd surf along the hands of queer people while being showered with gold glitter; he wants to kiss his boo on the mouth; he wants to succumb to feeling good about who he is and who his people are. Montrose and his crew aren’t the only queer characters being introduced in Lovecraft Country either, but that’s a story for another time.
Sometimes our similarity or dissimilarity from our ancestors doesn’t matter, if we don’t make choices that promote solidarity and upliftment of oppressed peoples. I’ll still be watching every Sunday to see how the imaginations of our cast of characters expand. Who knows, maybe Yahima will come back and join the gang of badass magical women of color I see forming? I’d like for her death to not be in vain.
NEVE (Neve Kamilah Mazique-Ricardi) grew up in the part of rural, small-town Jersey Imogen Binnie aptly says, “seems never to be shown on TV.” They claim among their ancestors, Edward C Mazique, the physician to the Civil Rights Movement, and Margery Williams Bianco, the author of The Velveteen Rabbit. NEVE is a choreographer, writer, composer, and multidisciplinary punk performance artist based in Duwamish and other Unceded Coast Salish Territories. He/They identify as a mixed Black/Indigenous Sudanese, British/European American biqueer polygender femme disabled country punk. They have been published in Curve, ModelViewCulture, Harlot Magazine, Plenitude, Everyday Feminism, and Maximum RocknRoll among other places.
Featured image is a promotional photo for Lovecraft Country courtesy of HBO.