Lovecraft Country, Programmed Safe Spaces, Themed Spatial Geographies, and the Negro Has Magic
by La-Toya Scott
[page 83] Abstract: HBO’s Lovecraft Country, developed by Misha Green and executive-produced by Jordan Peele, centers the racial plights of Black people in Jim Crow America and layers them with supernatural occurrences. This article specifically analyzes the characters of Ruby Baptiste, Hippolyta Freeman, and Montrose Freeman and how they construct safe spaces in response to their environment. I argue that Ruby, Hippolyta, and Montrose attempt to program their own safe spaces to subvert Jim Crow-era themed geography and dominant rationalities. I first analyze Ruby’s engagement with magic to show that, even though magic allows her to be more physically acceptable, anti-blackness still impacts her Black consciousness and ultimately leads to her demise. I then engage with Hippolyta’s use of magic to further argue the importance of a programmed space that acts as a counterculture to Jim Crow society. Lastly, the character of Montrose demonstrates the risk of programming a space without the safety of magic as a Black, gay man in the Jim Crow era. Ultimately, the survival of these characters depends on space and how it is mediated for otherwise oppressed and suppressed identities.
Keywords: race, supernatural, magic, racism, safe spaces, geographies
“Home. Feels like the wrong word. How can I fit in everything I am now into that place?”
- Hippolyta Freeman
In 2020, Rutgers University African American studies professor Salamishah Tillet engaged Misha Green about the popular HBO show Lovecraft Country, developed by Green with executive producer Jordan Peele. In the show, Green, like Peele in his films, foregrounds the racial plights of Black people in America and layers them with supernatural occur-[page 84]rences to show that real-life experiences are just as frightening as the fabricated ones. “In horror, there’s a level of anxiety that your life can be taken at any moment,” Green states in the interview; “That’s the Black experience.” Lovecraft Country provides insight into Black life in 1950’s Chicago during the age of Jim Crow, a time where anti-Black racism was legitimized through discriminatory laws. One striking aspect of the show is the need for characters to have safe spaces. These spaces allow the characters to embrace who they are or who they can be outside of the geography of Jim Crow while also combatting intersecting oppressions. Although Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) has created The Safe Negro Travel Guide1 to aid Black people in locating safe spaces across the United States, it is not enough to attend to the complexities of Black life, and thus, magic becomes a tool to mitigate characters’ needs for places to explore intersecting identities.
The horror in Lovecraft Country is not limited to a racialized experience but is expanded by multiple minority identities that intersect with being Black. In the case of Ruby Baptiste (Wuni Mosaku) and Hippolyta Freeman (Aunjanue Ellis), it is being Black and women. In the case of Montrose Freeman (Michael Kenneth Williams), it is being Black and gay. I argue that Ruby, Hippolyta, and Montrose attempt to program their own safe spaces to subvert the themed geography and dominant rationalities of Jim Crow society. I will first analyze the character Ruby and her engagement with magic to show how she uses it to become a white woman who can take advantage of a themed space when in an acceptable body. Then I will examine how Hippolyta’s use of magic allows her to program an experience that acts in opposition to Jim Crow society. Lastly, I will consider the character of Montrose to illustrate the risk of programming a space without the safety of magic as a Black, gay man in Jim Crow society. Ultimately, I maintain that the survival of these three characters depends on space and how it is mediated for their otherwise oppressed and suppressed identities. [page 85]
In “Programmed Space, Themed Space, and the Ethics of Home in Toni Morrison’s Paradise,” Shari Evans presents the idea of themed and programmed spaces. Themed spaces are those that already have determined rules, social guidelines, and constructs. The appeal of belonging and legitimacy is what urges the occupants of the space to abide by already established constructs. An example of theming would be immigrants to America who assimilate into American culture, giving up their culture and customs to become “American” and lessen the degree of difference associated with being an outsider. The sacrifice of being a part of a themed space is the erasure of qualities that signal individuality and autonomy. In contrast, programmed spaces allow users to conjure and curate liberated knowledge, rhetoric, and actions with one another in what would otherwise be heavily monitored practices in themed spaces. In a programmed space, the occupants can curate experiences through defining their own rules and social constructs with open-ended possibilities. An example of programming, argues Evans, is illustrated by the space of the Convent, an isolated mansion in Toni Morrison’s novel Paradise that exists apart from the all-Black town of Ruby and is occupied by women who are considered outsiders because they disrupt the dominant rationalities and social constructs of the town as designed by men. In this essay, I seek to expand the discourse of themed and programmed spaces, applying Evans’s concept to the characters of Ruby, Hippolyta, and Montrose. I will illustrate how the meaning of space changes in response to their intersecting identities, and ultimately, offer an analysis of how the characters operate within the themed space of Jim Crow America and the programmed spaces they create for themselves, which I argue they create to embrace their intersectional identities.
To Be Black and Woman
Ruby Baptiste is introduced in the series’ first episode (“Sundown”) as a dark-skinned, fat, Black woman who is not [page 86] afraid to take up space and a singer performing on stage in front of a large audience. “Watcha wanna hear? Come on, y’all don’t really like that lily-white shit they play on the radio now, do you?” she shouts at the crowd. Her sister Letitia (“Leti”; Jurnee Smollett) yells out that she wants to hear “A Whole Lotta Shakin’.” Ruby is surprised to see her sister, and the friction and competitive nature between the two is immediately evident. Leti—who is light-skinned and thin—has made her way back to her hometown of Chicago (broke and jobless) to ask for her sister’s help while she gets back on her feet. Leti assures her sister that she will find a job quickly, absently mentioning working at Marshall Fields, as if it would be no big deal. Ruby becomes frustrated with Leti, likely because Leti has privilege associated with her lighter complexion, and, as Ruby knows, that particular department store—Marshall Fields—does not hire Black people. Despite being educated and completing classes that have helped her acquire skills that would make her a prime candidate, she has not been able to break through the racial barrier. When a man asks during a card game at Ruby and Leti’s housewarming, “You think Marshall Fields hasn’t hired you because you’re colored?” Ruby responds, “Of course, I know that. And I’m willing to work harder than anybody else if that’s what it’s gonna take. You know, if more colored folk thought like me, the race would be a lot further along” (“Holy Ghost”). Rather than critique the system of white supremacy that needs to change, Ruby perpetuates a stereotype that is a commonly shared notion amongst white people in the Jim Crow era: that Black people are not working hard enough to achieve success.
Ruby’s belief in this notion, especially from her positionality, shows the power of themed space. For the themed space to work, everyone must believe and abide by the dominant rationalities that are conveyed by those in power; if more Black people believe that they can grasp success in the themed space, the less likely they are to attempt to subvert it and/or program their own. Her train of thought mirrors that of Booker T. Washington, who preached [page 87] self-help and respectability politics in the early 20th century, stating, “all races that have got upon their feet have done so largely by laying an economic foundation, and, in general, by beginning in a proper cultivation and ownership of the soil” (9). This thinking, as critiqued by W.E.B. Du Bois, perpetuates white oppression and places the blame on Black folks as opposed to the system that is made to hold them back. Du Bois writes in The Soul of Black Folks, “Mr. Washington is especially to be criticized. His doctrine has tended to make the white, North and South, shift the burden of the Negro problem to the Negro’s shoulders and stand aside as critical and rather pessimistic spectators” (34). If the burden shifts away from white people, the space which they inhabit can be more suited to their comfort. White people do not have to change the racial apartheid system at play in themed society because the very point is to legitimize the existence of that space as part of a just system. Instead, the belief is that there is something wrong with Black people because they cannot fit into that system. The onus then is on Black folks to work harder rather than on those in power—white people—to change social constructs that inhibit equity. What Ruby soon comes to realize, however, is that it does not matter how well-trained or smart she is, she is still a Black woman. Her grappling with this reality is what ultimately leads her to accept and use magic to transform into a white woman. As a white woman, she does not have to struggle to attain educational goals or certain skill sets to prove her worth. As a white woman, her skin is the only validation needed in the themed space.
The appeal of being a part of a themed white world for Ruby is that, in contrast to being in her Black body, she does not have to be exceptional. Ruby’s time as a white woman allows her to bypass the laws and racial codes that she would have to abide by in her Black body and access the opportunities that she has long yearned for. Ruby’s transformation exudes the privilege of safety and signals that Jim Crow is a white person’s themed safe space. When Ruby wakes up in [page 88] her white body for the first time after William (Jordan Patrick Smith) secretly slips her a potion, she frantically makes her way down the street of a Black neighborhood. The police arrive as a Black boy tries to help Ruby. Both Ruby and the Black boy step back and immediately put their hands in the air. A white cop asks the Black boy, “What did you do to her boy?” He raises his baton to beat him and then Ruby shouts, “Wait, officer! He didn’t hurt me. I just got lost.” The cop responds, “There’s no need to protect this animal, ma’am.” Ruby then must vouch that the Black boy did not harm her for them to back off. She then is escorted with care and delicacy by the officer, who says, “let’s get you somewhere safe ma’am, okay?” (“Strange Case”).
The intensity of this scene underscores the level of anxiety and the horror, as described by Green, in what are and have been real events for Black people, thus providing several crucial takeaways. The Black boy is immediately criminalized and equated to an animal in reaction to the outward discomfort exuded by a white woman. Had Ruby the mind of a white woman in the 1950’s to match the white body that she occupies, the Black boy could have easily lost his life. Indeed, history confirms such a conclusion, as seen in the case of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was lynched in 1955 in Mississippi, after falsely being accused of whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year-old white woman and whose story is incorporated into Lovecraft Country (“Jig-a-Bobo”). Ruby’s white body has granted her the power of voice and credibility, which contrasts the complete silencing of Black people / Blackness. Frederick Douglass is attuned to this reality when he states in his autobiography, “If I had been killed in the presence of a thousand colored people, their testimony combined would have been insufficient to have arrested one of the [white] murderers” (Douglass 86). As Douglass relates, Black people know that the racial codes are meant to not only work against them but also remove the status of a victim if harmed by a white person. The Black boy, who did nothing, could have been violently attacked or worse, killed, without [page 89] reprimand if Ruby had not used the power that she had as a white woman in that space to intervene. Ruby at this moment has also proven that she isn’t simply using a white body to claim the advantages of being white in a themed space. She is also programming her own experiences by actively aiding Black people because she still sees the world through a Black lens that remains conscious of inequity even while occupying a white body. In other words, magic has not completely erased her race amid a phenotypical transformation. Ultimately, Ruby subverts the themed space, which by its rationalities faults the Black boy.
Ruby understands that white women are offered a level of protection not accessible to the Black female body. This is historically rooted in long-standing beliefs about white womanhood associated with the Antebellum ideology of the cult of true womanhood. This ideology forwards that white women are pure, pious, modest, and domestic. Thus, Ruby as a white woman in this particular scene is someone to be protected, which would not be the case if she was still a Black woman. Instead, when juxtaposed to white womanhood, Black women are characterized as animalistic, unholy, and sex-crazed for the cult of true womanhood to prevail. The themed space does not allow for Black and white women to both be protected, respected, or treated with dignity. The constructs of themed society allow white men to treat Black women in ways they would never treat white women and it is socially permissible because the stereotypes validate these unwanted actions. Indeed, Ruby does not have to fear the things she would have to when Black. By willingly using the potion, which she does multiple times after this occurrence, she does become a part of something already determined in the white world. She becomes a part of a protected class in the space of Jim Crow. In addition to the privilege of unquestionable safety, she not only gets hired at her dream job, but she also receives a managerial position and enjoys her days purely off the currency of whiteness. [page 90]
Evans states that, to benefit from themed spaces and dwell in this “illusion of belonging,” one must willingly give up their autonomy. Arguably, Ruby does not have to give up her autonomy to become a part of the themed white world because she is still a Black woman who gets to decide when she wants to step in and out of that space by way of choosing when she wants to take the potion. The initial appeal of the potion is that Ruby can live out aspects of herself and become who she truly wants to be “uninterrupted.” But, despite having the white body as a vehicle to do that, what begins to interrupt her is not the challenges of the white world but her Black consciousness that remains even with this guise. This is important to note because although Ruby is using magic to program when she can step in and out of a white body and live the benefits of a themed space while in a white body, it is simply not enough. She realizes the extent of the inequities of the themed space between white and Black people.
Ruby’s white body grants her a front-row perspective to the private lives of white folks and shows her the ease of white people interrupting Black lives unapologetically and bringing harm upon Black bodies. This infuriates Ruby as is seen when she and her white coworkers are on the Black side of town occupying a nightclub, after they coerced Tamara (Sibongile Mlambo), the Black perfume girl, to bring them there for their entertainment. Ruby looks at the scene play out and realizes the irony in white people having no reservations imposing on Black safe spaces. Upset, Ruby steps into the back alley of the establishment to take the dose of potion that allows her to keep her guise. Instead of taking the potion to stop from transforming, she crushes the vial and allows the white body to molt and her Black body to break through. At that moment she hears Tamara nearby in the alley fighting off their boss, Mr. Hughes (David Stanbra), as he attempts to sexually assault her (“Strange Case”).
Tamara escapes but the scene is most unsettling for Ruby because it makes her realize that, although magic allows her physically to be white, it does not allow her to mentally and [page 91] emotionally detach from themes of violence that resonate with her as a Black woman, even while in a white body. Her newfound awareness from her multiple vantage points explodes what she thought she originally wanted—to be white and to access privilege—placing her in a state of confusion. The themed space cannot be fully enjoyed in her white body if she still has no power to completely change the dominant codes and conduct and program a whole new space that respects Black women and Black people as a whole. Magic has given her a new body, but it has not created a new space that accepts what her Black consciousness sees as wrong and right. Ruby’s later conversation with Christina further complicates this notion:
Christina: Guess Ruby got interrupted again?
Ruby: He told you about that?
Christina: I’ve been where you are. Disillusioned and pissed. Disgusted by a world not built—
Ruby: Please shut the fuck up. You can’t relate to who I am. And I’ve spent enough time on your side of the color line to know that the only thing you white women are disillusioned with is yourselves.
Christina: You’re right. We want to be you and you want to be us. But you misunderstood William's invitation. It wasn’t just to be white. It was an invitation to do whatever the fuck you want. That’s the currency of magic. Unmitigated freedom. Who are you really, uninterrupted? (“Strange Case”)
Ultimately, this question cannot be fully answered by Ruby in the body of a Black woman in the themed space of 1950’s Jim Crow Chicago. The magic can take her outside the physical bounds in which her Black body is kept, but her mind as a Black woman—one who has seen all she has seen and experienced all she has experienced—is a site of conflict. In Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins states, “Black women’s lives are a series of negotiations that aim to reconcile the contradictions separating our own internally defined images of self as African-American women with our objectifi-[page 92]cation as the Other” (110). Although Christina can attempt to sympathize with Ruby’s plight on a gendered level, what does that count for in light of her limited imagination toward Ruby’s struggles on a racialized level? Christina operates in a space where she does not have to think about how the codes and constructs are unfair for people with more complex, intersectional identities. Christina does not have to program spaces for protection. She is already living in a space where, relative to Ruby, she is protected. She can advise Ruby to keep taking the potion for moments of power, but for Ruby, those are attempts at putting a bandage on a much bigger wound. Ruby tries to articulate this racial hurt to Christina after attending the funeral of Emmett Till, but even that is ambiguously rendered because, at the end of the day, Christina is a wealthy white woman in mind and body who, in the end, kills Ruby in pursuit of power and gain (“Full Circle”).
In juxtaposition to Ruby, Hippolyta gets to truly program her space by choosing her experiences as a Black woman as opposed to remaining a victim to Jim Crow society and space. Hippolyta does not wish to be white, nor does she use magic to belong. Instead, the supernatural has taken her completely out of that space and gifts her diverse spaces without anti-black codes and conduct. Her opportunities are endless, and she is allowed to embrace multiple facets of Black womanhood.
Hippolyta, in a quest to find answers to what happened to her husband George, finds a lab and activates a machine that creates a tear in space and time. She meets a tall, afro-haired Black femme cyborg (Karen LeBlanc). “Who are you? What are you?” Hippolyta demands. “I Am,” answers the being. “You can’t keep me here,” shouts Hippolyta. The cyborg, identified in the episode credits as “Seraphina AKA Beyond C’est,” responds, “You are not in a prison” and asks Hippolyta, “Where do you want to be?” before telling her to name herself. Hippolyta jokingly replies, “I want to be dancing on stage in Paris with Josephine Baker.” Hippolyta is then transported in time and space to be on stage in Paris as a backup dancer [page 93] for Josephine Baker (Carra Patterson). Hippolyta, in conversation with Baker, admits that she is tasting freedom as she has never known before and sees what she has been robbed of in the past. She thought she had everything she ever wanted, only to realize that all she ever was “was the exact kind of Negro woman white folks wanted [her] to be.” She states, “I feel that they just found a smart way to lynch me without me noticing the noose.” Josephine asks her, “Don’t it just make you angry?” Hippolyta answers, “Furious. Sometimes I just wanna kill white folks. And it’s not just them. I hate me. Hate me for letting them make me feel small” (“I Am.”). Hippolyta’s statement reveals the impact of a themed spatiality upon those it is not intended to benefit. Her anger sheds light on the social order that she must abide by because she is Black. While Hippolyta does share that she hates herself for allowing white people to make her feel small, she overlooks the fact that themed space gives little option to be anything more than small. This fixed spatiality has damaging effects because it places limitations on Black being. Thus, space is more than its material makeup. It is a social product that affirms those in power while both minimizing and keeping in place those who are not.
Pauli Murray, a Black feminist activist, asserts, “A system of oppression draws much of its strength from the acquiescence of its victims, who have accepted the dominant image of themselves and are paralyzed by a sense of helplessness” (Murray 106). By being taken out of the system that has worked to shrink her, Hippolyta realizes how she has accepted the script within themed society and ran with it: she became what everyone else wanted her to be and in effect stopped defining herself. Her programmed experience with Baker lifts the veil and initiates several experiences that she gets to define. Her journeys present spaces that allow a level of engagement that expands or completely subverts everything that a scripted themed space would have her be. Hippolyta shows that the possibilities for Black women are great when allowed to self-define. By being able to define them-[page 94]selves, Black women can actively reject stereotypes that are harmful mentally, emotionally, and even physically. Hippolyta becomes empowered and even occupies a leadership role in an African all-women’s army where she trains, finds strength, and ultimately leads the army in a fight against white men. She realizes there that her rage and anger are justified and should not be erased under the responsibilities and duties of being a wife and a mother.
When she names herself again, “I am Hippolyta, George’s wife,” she wakes up next to George in their bed and begins telling him all about the time machine and the worlds she has visited. George, amazed, says, “After all your adventures, after everything you saw, you still named yourself my wife.” Hippolyta admits that she is angry because for so much of her life she was shrinking and thought that George knew how big she wanted to be but stood by and allowed her to shrink herself more for him. She tells him that she tried so many times to let him know. This admission shows that there is a themed space even within their marriage where Hippolyta willingly takes on the role of wife and performs its socially predetermined, ritualistic practices. George admits that she is right and that he helped her shrink so they could have a family and so he could do what he had to do and know that she was at home waiting for him. He apologizes to her and tells her, “I see you now, Hippolyta Freeman. I want you to be as big as you can be.” Hippolyta floats into the galaxy and is met by Seraphina, who asks if she wants to stay. With a revealing and newfound self-awareness, she chooses to go back because her daughter Diana (Jada Harris) needs her (“I Am.”). This exemplifies the autonomy and the agency that Seraphina wants her to acknowledge. Hippolyta returns to the themed space of Jim Crow 1950s America, but with the awareness of someone who has lived a life that subverts the dominant rationalities and oppressive structures meant to slowly kill Black people. With magic, Hippolyta gets to experience the complexities of being in a safe space. This may have never happened or may have remained outside the scope of [page 95] her imagination if she had continued her uninterrupted life in a space that she could not program.
The allure of the space is not in the magic that brought Hippolyta to these different realms. The allure resides in the fact that Hippolyta can define herself for herself and program her experiences according to her intersecting identities as a Black woman. The social constructs in these programmed spaces empower her rather than demeaning, overlooking, and erasing her, which has been the case in the themed spaces of Jim Crow.
“I Am a Man”
Masculinity and femininity are ideals that were constructed before race. However, due to the Atlantic slave trade, the specific masculinity of Black males was inscribed by their overseers, who dictated how they wanted the Black males. whom they owned, to be. As the historical image of the buck and an obsession with taming Black male bodies arose, racist imagery became evident in gender specificity. Within the themed space of American society, Black males already have a predetermined identity that is projected by dominant society and which finds roots in racist stereotypes. Abby Ferber states, “This narrative, which defines Black males as hypersexual, animalistic, and savage is central to White American identity” (15). Whiteness thus solidifies itself on the basis of defining Blackness. In I Am a Man!: Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement, Steven Estes explains,
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, definitions of white manhood—and especially, southern white manhood—rested on mastery over plantations, farms, and households that contained numerous dependents. The legal status of dependence (the subordination of women, children, and slaves) defined white manhood and independence. (4)
Black women and children, however, were not the subordinates of the Black man, as they were legally the [page 96] property of their masters, white men. Post legalized slavery, Black men still strive to be respected as men. Although the civil rights movement was a struggle for racial equality, questions of gender resonated within the racialized conflict as well. Estes observes:
As the modern civil rights movement began, both white and black Americans shared basic definitions of manhood. Manhood entailed an economic, social, and political status ideally achievable by all men. A man was the head of his household: he made enough money to support his family as the primary if not the only breadwinner. He also had a political voice in deciding how his community, his state, and his country were run. Racism kept many men, especially working-class black men, from achieving these attributes of manhood. This was partly by design in that white men used racism to reduce competition for jobs, for political offices, and even for women. (7)
Effectively, Black men had to construct ideas of manhood under a state of oppression. To have a sense of dominance, Black men not only oppressed Black women but also would oppress other Black men in the community who did not conform to the hypermasculine image of manhood that had been constructed. Subsequently, Black males like Montrose could not easily survive in their communities as openly gay and Black because their environments are not built for their survival, especially in 1950’s Jim Crow Chicago. The themed space of American society does not make it possible for Black men to program their versions of manhood but instead forces them to adapt to a white male ideal of manhood that cannot even be attained because of a lack of rights and privilege.
There is no magic in Lovecraft Country that would allow Montrose to transform or escape from anti-Black codes and conduct, let alone anti-gay codes and conduct, nor does he possess magic that allows him to program a space that would be accepting of his identity as gay, Black, and male. Thus, Montrose’s experience has an added layer of horror because [page 97] of his sexuality that contested societal themed norms. It is revealed that not only was Montrose gay from a young age but also that he suffered abuse from his father, who tried to “beat the gay out of him.” In one of Montrose’s drunken episodes, he is in his living room shirtless, and his inner demons start to arise as voices from his damaged childhood run through his head. Memories of his father saying, “I see the flower in your hair . . . preening in the goddamn mirror! Begging won’t save your hide. I said pick a switch. Pick a switch!” as young Montrose pleads, “Please, I promise, Dad, I won’t do it again, I promise,” signal the level of abuse that Montrose endured for being a gay Black boy (“Rewind 1921”). In effect, this conditioned Montrose to know what is and is not acceptable or normative in society. Montrose inflicts the same punishment to which he was subjected on his own son Atticus (“Tic”; Jonathan Majors) to reify “acceptable” Black masculinity. Robert F. Reid-Pharr surmises,
Sadly, homophobia within the black community does not only come from black heterosexuals but may also rear its ugly head from black LGBT persons themselves. It is a widely accepted premise that many of the loudest and most fiery homophobes may, in fact, maybe expressing hatred of themselves. (212)
He then observes, “To strike the homosexual, the scapegoat, the sign of chaos and crisis, is to return the community to normality, to create boundaries around blackness” (374). American society is white, cis-gendered, and heterosexual. Thus, to maintain and protect the theme, some Black people arguably become surrogate oppressors within their communities by surveilling and punishing those who stray from actions that support the illusion of accessible whiteness and privilege. Tic tries to convince himself that his father beat him severely because he loved him and “so [he] wouldn’t be soft,” but Montrose abused Tic because he hated himself.
Montrose’s only safe space to be gay is with his lover Sammy (Jon Hudson Odom). In a telling scene, Montrose shows up at Sammy’s door with his face busted and bruised. [page 98] Montrose exerts hypermasculine energy by handling Sammy roughly while still alluding to a feeling of shame as he barely looks at Sammy. While being on top, he strong-arms Sammy, but that contrasts with the close camera shot of their hands intertwined and the submissiveness of him performing oral sex. Seemingly, this home sphere is a safe space for Montrose to define a masculine identity that can be romantically involved with another man. However, that is arguably conditional on Sammy being effeminized and taking on the role and duties of a woman. Sammy, who is not Black and who is open with his sexuality, is fine in this role in relation to Montrose. These are the social conditions that are agreed upon in their programmed space as they subvert prevailing themed gender roles. Moreover, Sammy is also a drag queen who participates in drag ballroom culture. In that space, Sammy dresses in woman’s clothing and makeup and performs what are traditionally considered feminine gestures. Montrose attends one of Sammy’s shows and stands behind a pillar in the ballroom watching his performance. More specifically, he is watching Sammy perform freely and proudly in full drag. Montrose, after being embraced by multiple drag queens, runs to Sammy, and grabs and kisses him for the first time. Montrose is inhabiting a space that caters to an aspect of his identity and works outside of the larger rules and regulations of hetero-white hegemonic society. The people there have embraced him, and the threat of shame and violence seems lifted in that moment. Montrose is safe be-cause the programmed space of the ballroom allows him to explore his sexuality in ways that would bring shame and even great violence in the themed society he regularly occupies.
Notably, Montrose maintains some reservations about intimacy even in spaces that are signaled as safe, such as his own home. Gilly Hartel, author of “Fragile Subjectivities: Constructing Queer Safe Spaces,” states,
A safe space is supposed to be a protected place, facilitating a sense of security and recreating discourses of inclusion and diversity. It is a metaphor [page 99] for the ability, to be honest, take risks, share opinions, or reveal one’s sexual identity. Safety in this sense is not merely physical safety but psychological, social, and emotional safety as well. (1056)
Speaking to this, Montrose continues to feel psychologically and emotionally unsafe in the physical safety of his home because of the anxiety associated with his queer identity and the fear of being outed. This is seen the morning after Sammy spends the night at Montrose’s place for the first time and wakes up to grocery shop and prepare breakfast. Montrose is happy until he starts to think that Sammy might have been seen by the neighbors coming in and out of the apartment. This would have exposed their safe space and left them open for criticism and even violence. Sammy then reassures him that no one has seen him. They sit around the table with the meal Sammy has prepared and Montrose picks a fight. Sammy gets up and storms out of the apartment. Montrose chases him to stop, grabs his wrist, and apologizes (“I Am.”).
In an interview, Tarrel McCraney, story writer for the movie Moonlight, emphasizes: “The pressure of toxic masculinity forces men to forget things that are innate. You hear from men, ‘I want love, I want tenderness’ and yet we’re taught to act in the opposite way . . . And that’s rooted in misogyny, in class system— ‘femininity is weaker’” (Stallings 345). Indeed, the way themed society has shaped masculinity has made men negotiate or completely erase feelings that are deemed feminine or “gay.” Montrose wants to be tender with Sammy, but that tenderness feels surveilled to Montrose. There is no magic at Montrose’s disposal that can make Sammy inhabit another body—a female body—to fit the social roles of theme spatiality like there was for Ruby. There also isn’t any magic that can take Montrose and Sammy out of the Jim Crow era all together—like Hippolyta—to explore their multiple identities without fear. The conditioning of society and its notions of masculinity will not allow Montrose to play out what Sammy sees as a peaceful breakfast or life as a couple. The trauma inflicted upon Montrose for being gay [page 100] hinders him from exuding unregulated feelings and emotions for another man no matter how feminine the displays. When Tic and Leti walk up to this unfolding scene, Tic says in disappointment, “So it is true. You are a faggot.” Montrose screams, “I’m still your goddamn daddy! And you’ll respect me!” as he takes off his shirt and leans towards Tic as if to attack and perform masculinity. He pushes Tic and demands, “Don’t you ever call me out my fucking name!” (“I Am.”). Montrose’s fear that exposure of his queer identity will cause the erasure of his masculine one is confirmed in this scene. The rules and regulations of the themed space do not promote or allow an intersection of those identities that can survive and be valid at the same time.
The channeling of Ruby’s, Hippolyta’s, and Montrose’s anxieties through the medium of horror speaks to the life-and-death consequences of taking up space in a society not constructed for Black survival. Considering the historical circumstances of Jim Crow, Black folks could only do so much without fear of being disrupted. The experiences of Ruby and Hippolyta reveal the plight of Black women on a racial and gendered level. Although their use of magic was different, both experiences shed light on the theme of Black women generally not being seen, encouraged to progress, or protected in the way that white women are. Ruby’s choice to try to accommodate and fit into the surrounding space ultimately leads to her demise, while Hippolyta’s path allows her to leave the oppressive themed spatiality altogether and program her space through an Afrofuturist lens that views Black women as the future, and as dynamic complex people. Montrose’s intersecting identities show that themed spaces force intraracial communities to reproduce systems of oppression within the grander scheme.
Writ large, my purpose is to question the concept of safe space and bring to light the extent of Black folks’ autonomy in creating their reality without the horror. This is of importance because it shows that, as a survival tactic, Black people [page 101] need to construct spaces that reject themed customs, cultures, laws, and rhetoric to embrace intersecting identities that would be unacceptable in dominant spatial geographies that work to strip away and punish difference. Deterritorializing space by programming one’s own offers a possibility to exist with new rationalities as a counterculture to those in themed space.
1. The Green Book is the most famous of the Black travel guides written to help Black travelers find safe places to lodge, conduct business, or get gas along their routes; it was distributed annually to Black travelers during the Jim Crow era.
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La-Toya Scott is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of English at the University of Florida. Her research interests include African American literature, Black slave narratives, ethnic and cultural studies, Womanism, and Afrofuturist safe spaces. Scott has published a collaborative digital webtext in Peitho, the lead journal for feminist rhetorics in composition studies. She also has an upcoming chapter in The Power and Freedom of Black Feminist and Womanist Pedagogy: Still Woke!.
MLA citation (print):
Scott, La-Toya. "Lovecraft Country, Programmed Safe Spaces, Themed Spatial Geographies, and the Negro Has Magic." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 7, no. 2, 2022, pp. 83-102.