The Safe Negro Guide to Lovecraft Country: Strange Case

Ruby sees butterflies after an unexpected metamorphosis as William explains in Episode 5, “Strange Case.”
Ruby sees butterflies after an unexpected metamorphosis as William explains in Episode 5, “Strange Case.”
Screenshot: HBO (YouTube

Hey! Welcome back to another week in Lovecraft Country! Our fifth week’s episode—the first half of our midpoint in the season, and our most extensive analysis to date—was full of interruptions and metamorphoses (spoilers to follow): Ruby was plagued by interruptions, both as a Black woman and a white one; Tic’s progress seems to be constantly interrupted by his father; and Montrose’s whole narrative could be considered “Man, Interrupted,” as he is a walking, gaping wound of trauma. The theme of metamorphosis was both literal and emotional, as this was an episode and growth and change for Ruby, Tic, and hopefully Montrose, as well.

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Last week, I spoke about Black folks as oppressors, as perpetrators of the historical white settler-colonial project, as seen, in particular, in the actions of Montrose. At the beginning of this latest episode, we see that there is a distinct divide in the Black community with regard to this issue: Atticus shows us the anger many Black folks feel when our own people allow themselves to be used as tools of white supremacy. We also see the distinct effects of Montrose’s shame associated with his murder of Yahima.

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So much of this episode is about the horrors of a lack of imagination. Montrose is seemingly unable to show protective love toward Tic without enacting violence. Tic and Leti are unable to imagine a romantic relationship in which they aren’t constantly battling each other. And Ruby is unable to imagine that as a white woman powered with a prodigious education, she could be so much more than a Marshall Field’s saleswoman. Yet each character uses the interruptions of life to metamorphose into someone with more complexity and in hope of finding peace; it reminds me of Toni Cade Bambara’s words in her novel The Salteaters (1980):

“Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?… Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.”

This week, I spent some time with Michigan State University’s Kristie Dotson, a Black feminist philosopher and a specialist on black women’s epistemic oppression and the epistemic violence inflicted upon us. Basically, she investigates why folks don’t listen to Black women—especially when they know we are right. Dr. Dotson views the interruptions in this episode as a metaphor for the everyday drumbeat of oppression and the particularly relentless nature of suppression and subordination.

“You can’t actually understand this episode unless you are focusing on hierarchies,” she insists. “And you are thinking about the many layers of who’s got whose boot on whose neck—and who owns that boot? And it affects white folks, too,” she adds. ‘White women in particular.”

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As illustrated in Ruby’s story arc (“somebody/anybody, sing a Black girl’s song,” Ntozake Shange’s words implore), it’s not that Black and white women face the same oppressions but we must acknowledge the overlap of the oppressive structures they operate within. Ruby is young, gorgeous, and educated but can only seem to find a job as a charwoman or part-time housecleaner, and her side hustle as a blueswoman ain’t paying the bills—especially since she keeps cussing out her audience. (Yelling out “Well fuck you, too” on the mic doesn’t seem to get folks to open their wallets.) L. Michael Gipson, a cultural critic, community advocate and creator of the forthcoming Gipson Gazette podcast believes Ruby also interrupts herself:

“She [has] this narrative in her head in which she is already counting herself out before anyone else can,” he posits. “Racism, sexism, and sizeism [are] real. But she has already made the decision that it won’t happen.”

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This is clear in Ruby’s inability to dream bigger: Is being a Marshall Field’s servicewoman really the extent of her liberated fantasy? It is actually her new boss, Mr. Hughes, who insists she become the assistant manager, even as he admits to being threatened by her education level: “Maybe I should worry about you taking my job!” he nervously chuckles.

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But even as a white woman, Ruby is repeatedly interrupted: She is whisked back to her “husband” William by the cops, who easily accept his male words over her female “hysteria.” (Interruption.) She has to deal with the catty asides of her fellow white workers, even though they are her subordinates. (Interruption.) And then, there is her “handsy” boss who offers her a long hug after awarding her the job and drools at the prospect of being her sexual pet. (Interruption.)

Ruby is perhaps the only one surprised that William is revealed to be Christina by the end of the episode—and it isn’t due to a lack of intelligence but a lack of vision, since Christina was BDE personified.

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“Ruby, you trying to be a white lady,” Dotson argues. “Christina is dreaming BIG—she wants to be a white man! Sky is the fucking limit! [Ruby] can go ahead and be this interrupted white woman; Christina has done that...Christina is at the rich and powerful white man level—a patriarch! If you’re going to dream white supremacy, dream BIG!”

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Ruby’s true metamorphosis is not one of the body but one of the self as she gains clarity in the sociological hierarchies that plague our society. I think it is easy to say Ruby did not want to be Black—but that ignores the nuance packed into this short tale. Media professor John Jennings states that the title, “Strange Case,” refers not only to the full title of the famed story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but also acts as a rightful term for the body itself; how it acts as a “strange case” for our very selves. Ruby is simply trying to negotiate the skin she is in as she recognizes it for the currency it is. That skin—white or Black—is something in which she could trade and exchange as she clamors for the access to power it offers.

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“She thought whiteness would solve her problems,” says Dotson. “But it got more and more complicated when gender got introduced, and then when even brute power [i.e., the tortured guy in Lancaster’s closet] got introduced...I think it shocked her so much and that’s why she had that tirade on the floor [admonishing Tamara].”

And this is the genius of Lovecraft Country: you know shit is bad when the people having the worst day ever in a sea of Black folks across the gender and sexuality spectrum are the white man locked in the closet with his tongue cut out and the white male manager with a velvet stiletto stuck in his ass.

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This was an episode focused on patriarchy and power: Who is the one able to interrupt as opposed to being interrupted? We see this in Tic’s harrowing relationship with his father, Montrose. Montrose continues to interrupt his son’s search for mystical answers in the Language of Adam and Tic’s response is metastisizing in its violence. He is horrified when he realizes his father has killed Yahima. Yes, she was a font of information, but this was also the needless death of one more person of color perpetrated by his father even as Tic is still processing the needless deaths he caused in Korea, fighting another white man’s war.

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Gipson sees himself in Tic: “When you are a Black boy who grows up with that kind of father, who has all of that violence, strictness, controlling in his nature...Your greatest hope, your greatest fear is that you won’t be him,” he says. “You can’t grow up with that kind of violence, that kind of figure, and not address that violence in you.” The interruptions of Montrose breathe life into the violence within Tic and it scares him. “Tic brought a tear to my eye when he said, ‘Please don’t be scared of me,’” Gipson continues.”It was the way that he said it. But also the weight of it.”

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Tic’s metamorphosis is the rejection of his father’s violence and the power his father’s interruptions hold over him. In the process, Tic willingly gives up power to Leti, gently breaking down the hierarchies of their romantic relationship and rejecting the poison of patriarchy. Tic and Leti are fighting (literally) to reimagine what healthy Black heterosexual love could look like, creating a dynamic in which power is traded back and forth, privileging balance over subjugation.

Yet subjugation plagues the life of Montrose. His continuous subjugation to his own trauma is so damn frustrating and presents repeated interruptions to his own possible happiness. The dude emotionally bleeds over everyone—and frankly, it’s tiring. He hoards what little power he has and lords it over his lover, Sammy, in ways that are, at the very least, emotionally abusive. Sammy gives up all of his power to Montrose, feeding off of the breadcrumbs of small flashes of tenderness during their otherwise violent sex as he patiently waits for Montrose to give up his power and emotionally surrender. Ultimately, Montrose is literally lifted up as he lays his burdens down.

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Unfortunately, I don’t trust it. I would love to be wrong but I see Montrose as past the point of no return, stagnant in his potential for growth and healing. He literally has nothing and no one left but Sammy—no brother, no son, no wife, no peace—and in my opinion, it’s not a fair deal to either of them. I predict Montrose’s shame and anger will return again in the morning, as it is impossible for him to stay in the freedom of the ballroom where he can get a taste of being his true self and be at peace with who he is and what he has done. That moment was fleeting; so too is his redemption.

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And so I return to the genius of Toni Cade Bambara as I revel in the hope and metamorphosis of Ruby and Tic:

“...got to give it all up, the pain, the hurt, the anger and make room for lovely things to rush in and fill you full.”

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

Locusts - Throughout this episode, locusts are a continuing motif signifying the process of metamorphosis. A man on television reports a swarm of Kenyan locusts in the scene in which William first frees Ruby from the Hilary body; later, Sammy says the locust inspired his performance. Offscreen, there is an actual locust invasion of Kenya happening...right now.

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Changeling/Shapeshifter - a shapeshifter is someone with the ability to change their form through supernatural or scientific means; a common supernatural trope. Shapeshifters usually refer to the ability to change into another animal or non-human entity while a changeling often refers to the ability to change from one humanoid being to another. The mythological changeling is actually one of The Fae.

Soucouyant - a shapeshifting mythological being from Caribbean folklore that can literally shed her skin and take on another spiritual form. She feeds off of the energy from young babies and is often conflated with the myth of Lilith.

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Cheryl Dunye - the Black woman who directed this episode. She specializes in creative works that portray dignity and complexity in Black queer folks. She is best known for her classic film, The Watermelon Woman (1996).

Drag Pageantry - the precursor to what is now known as ballroom culture. The earliest pageant dates back to 1869 in Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge, and has been a space of release and liberation for well over a century; the only space queer men could relieve themselves of the masculine expectation of performance. Chicago was one of the lesser-known locations of flourishing ballroom culture and the early stirrings of the queer liberation movement, but Black men remained especially vulnerable, often harassed by the cops and, if you were caught in a raid, local media would notoriously publish your name in the paper, thus ruining your life. Because of this, Gipson insists we are looking at Montrose and Sammy’s 1955 relationship with contemporary eyes: “Gay Black folks could expect sex and flings. But it was rare and lucky to find an actual partner,” he says, reminding us: “This was before the Gay rights movement...relationships were limited and were primarily sexual and/or transactional...and illegal.”

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Pulp Fiction - a subgenre of popular literature that “refers to a genre of racy, action-based stories published in cheaply printed magazines from around 1900 to the 1950s, mostly in the United States,” and named for the ragged-edged paper they were printed on, made from wood pulp, according to Dictionary.com, which notes: “Pulp fiction created a breeding ground for new and exciting genres; though their heyday has passed, the magazines’ eye-catching covers and dramatic, fast-paced, and simple stories left a legacy that can be seen in today’s movies, TV, books, and comics featuring action heroes and over-the-top villains.”

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:

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Rouben Mamoulian

Imitation of Life (1959), Douglas Sirk

The Queen (1968), Frank Simon

The Manitou (1978), William Girdler

The Fly (1986), David Cronenberg

Switch (1991), Blake Edwards

The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Jonathan Demme

American Psycho (2000), Mary Harron

Splice (2009), Vicenzo Natali

The Soul Collector (2019), Haröld Holscher

Readings:

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Robert Louis Stevenson

Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, A. D. 1933-1940 (1931), George Schuyler

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Passing (1929), Nella Larsen

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1975) by Ntozake Shange

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Short Stories:

The Shadow Out of Time (1936), H.P. Lovecraft

Blue Hand Mojo: Dust to Dust (#1) (2016), John Jennings

Television:

Supernatural: Skin, Season 1, Episode 6

X-Files: Gender Bender, Season 1, Episode 14

Reference:

Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995), J. Jack Halberstam

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

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DISCUSSION

I know I’m hogging the mic, here. Sorry.

Two things about Ruby’s Walk On The White Side:

Her instinctively raising her hands up when the police showed up and the look on her face when she saw that they were there to protect her white femininity.

and

The look on her face when she got the free ice cream cone was a perfect parallel to Eddie Murphy’s response to getting the free newspaper from the white guy in the classic SNL White Like Me skit.