The Safe Negro Guide to Lovecraft Country: A History of Violence

Yahima, seated, and Montrose in the pivotal final scene of Episode 4.
Yahima, seated, and Montrose in the pivotal final scene of Episode 4.
Screenshot: HBO

Welcome back to another week in HBO’s Lovecraft Country; our fourth. I want to begin this article moving backward from the largest issue in this week’s episode (serious spoiler alert): the violent murder of Yahima by Montrose. The final scene features a presumably cis Black man slitting the throat of a “two-spiritIndigenous person in a direct attempt to silence her, erasing important knowledge only just recovered after she was kidnapped, imprisoned, and silenced in a different way—effectively, a different type of death—by the white colonizer Titus Braithwaite.

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This is significant because Yahima is rightfully being read by viewers as a third-gendered, intersex, or trans-adjacent person. I want to start off by being clear that I don’t have the answers to all of the questions I’m going to raise, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss them and wrestle with these ideas and issues. Though Montrose catalyzed this episode’s cliffhanger, I will try not to delve too deeply into him in this installment, since the effects of his actions are dealt with explicitly in the next episode. But for the record: Do I believe a mistake was made by ending the episode with Yahima’s death? Yes. Did it have an emotional impact? Yes. Was it worth it? No.

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It would be easy to ignore the significance of Yahima’s death and chalk it up to the violence of horror. It would be even simpler to “cancel” the entire series because of such a scene. But I am an educator and a horror scholar—and it’s for moments like this that I exist. It is my job to talk us through the familiar and the uncomfortable, especially when it shows up in one of our favorite new series. The title of this episode is ‘A History of Violence’ and it applies in so many ways by the hour’s end. The horror genre itself has a problematic history of violence against women, femmes and POC, but the term also applies to the violence of Titus Braithwaite—a mixture of both Christopher Columbus and Aleister Crowley—as a colonizer and enslaver. Perhaps most importantly, it is relevant to Montrose’s history as a survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, an abuser of his son, and, ultimately, the murderer of Yahima in such a vicious and violent manner.

This episode also begs a conversation on the grander narrative of the structural violence of hierarchies, the problematic construct of our Western society that pushes the oppressed to become the oppressor. Michael Lamar Simeon, aka Black Gay Comic Geek expounds upon this history, writing: “violence against trans or even intersexed men and women of color, there’s a history there. Especially with it being perpetrated by men of color.” The data on violence against trans women of color, especially those identifying as Indigenous, supports this truth-telling. The genre of horror is never a “safe space” and it consistently asks us to “hold things in tension,” explains Michigan State University’s Dr. Tamura Lomax, a Black feminist scholar of religion and culture:

[Holding things in tension] notes that there are many paths to truth/s and what is true is also relative, positioned, contextual, constructed, and thus dynamic. There’s never a singular reading of a thing or phenomenon and thus multiple things can be true at once. Holding these things in tension means acknowledging sometimes truths contradict each other. [It] Doesn’t make them less true. [It] Makes life messy. If we are to be honest to this reality then we must hold these things in tension rather than erase one or the other in order to fit our narrative.

The characterization of Montrose demands we hold our sympathy for him as a traumatized possibly queer (as implied by Tree) Black man in the 1950s in tension with our disgust and dis-ease with his horrific act of violence against Yahima. Further, Montrose also highlights who us Black folks choose to throw away and who we don’t. We must look at the gendered nature of the concept of the Prodigal Son and who we allow grace; i.e., we traditionally allow Black men and boys to get away with a whole lot more shit than Black women and girls, we must acknowledge our dangerous deference to patriarchy.

Last week, I spoke of how horror gives us room to explore uncomfortable truths, and with the appearance of Yahima, we explore those uncomfortable realities of our own histories as oppressors and perpetrators of the white settler-colonial project of removing Indigenous peoples from their land. We celebrate the bravery of the Buffalo Soldiers while remaining willfully ignorant of their active participation in the removal and control of the Native Americans of the Plains as well as participants in the “ American Indian Wars” on the wrong side of history. We must also acknowledge that a significant part of the settler-colonial project was to erase the presence and possibility of two-spirit people in order to reify strict gender binaries.

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Simultaneously, members of the Five Native American Nations enslaved Black folks, forcing us to hold their slavery and persistent anti-Blackness in tension with our own trash behavior. No one’s hands are clean. That is the point of our Elder God whiteness and its false hierarchies, it pits everyone against each other—just as the Sons of Adam pit Montrose against Yahima.

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This episode was another case of art mirroring life in ways that are unsettling. Lovecraft Country is purposely messy. Though I disagree with the killing of Yahima and how it was handled, this is not lazy work; it is too rigorous in its research. The presence of Yahima, a literal relic that comes back to life, emphasizes that we must wrestle with our pasts—the good, the bad, and especially the ugly.

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

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Indiana Jones Franchise - A famous action/adventure saga of four films that feature Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, an archaeology professor and tomb raider. ‘A History of Violence’ feature themes (father/son conflict, feisty love interest), plot points (the search for a book containing ancient secrets, forced completion of puzzles and dangerous feats in order to move through an ancient space), and direct visual references (the refracted moonlight sequence, climbing down ropes, faith walk across beam) to this film series.

Arawak - Indigenous group of peoples that lived in what is now South America and parts of the Caribbean. Those Arawak that lived in the Caribbean were referred to as Taino. The Arawak considered two-spirited beings as blessed and treated them as such.

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Two-Spirit - The Trans Language Primer defines these folks as LGBTQ+ people of North American indigenous descent. Two-Spirit identities are directly linked to indigenous spiritual and/or religious belief systems that vary from tribe to tribe. Two-Spirit individuals do not identify with either heterosexual orientation, cisgender identity, or both. Some tribes have spiritual and religious belief systems that do not support the idea of two-spirit identities. Two-Spirit people, historically, were respected spiritual leaders among their tribal nations up until the colonization of North America. Two-Spirit people may or may not transition physically, legally, or socially. This is based on their understanding of their relationship with gender and their access to transitioning within their culture. Generally, people with two-spirit gender identities are considered under the nonbinary and transgender umbrellas but may or may not identify as transgender or nonbinary specifically. This term should not be used by people who are not Indigenous/First Nations of Turtle Island.

Dreamcycle Series - A separate, lesser-known mythology created by HP Lovecraft that contains a series of short stories and novellas. This mythos features a place called the Underworld, a subterranean region that lies below a castle, not unlike Leti’s new home.

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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:

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Steven Spielberg

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Steven Spielberg

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Steven Spielberg

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Steven Spielberg

The Goonies (1985), Richard Donner

National Treasure (2004), John Turteltaub

Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995), Ernest R. Dickerson

Readings:

Blackjack: Blood and Honor (2000), Alex Simmons

Griot: A Sword and Soul Anthology (2011), Milton J. Davis

Taurus Moon: Relic Hunter (2011), DK Gaston

A Blade So Black (2018), LL McKinney

Short Stories:

The Dream Cycle of H. P. Lovecraft: Dreams of Terror and Death (1934), HP Lovecraft

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The Rats in the Walls (1924), HP Lovecraft

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (1926), HP Lovecraft

The Pit and the Pendulum (1842), Edgar Allen Poe

Reference:

Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (2017), C. Riley Snorton

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

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DISCUSSION

I thought there would be more about the episode other than Montross despicable act (which I thought was set up well; Tree saying that he was gay and then Montross closing the door to Yahima room, then walking behind her, putting his hands gently on her shoulders, her inviting his gentle touch and then MONTROSS SLIT HER THROAT! YIKES, MOTHERFUCKER, YIKES!)

I’m pretty sure that this episode broke the HBO record for the amount of times they used the word “shit” in a single episode...sorry Clay Davis

and the episode showed the perfect version of a black Indiana Jones type movie, a whole lot of cussing, screaming, fussing and gotdamnisms. Misha Green needs to do a feature film version of that, stat!

The MVP of the episode is, without a doubt...