“A History of Violence”: Black and Indigenous Fugitivity in Lovecraft Country
by Jasmine H. Wade
[page 103] Abstract: This essay argues that the collision of Black and Indigenous fugitivities in the final moments of the fourth episode of Lovecraft Country produced a replication of colonial logics in the form of an encounter. In this paper, I perform a close reading of "A History of Violence" in conjunction with a relational methodology. This methodology includes a spectrum on which to read moments of connection as healing (a productive reciprocal interaction) and encountering (an extractive, destructive connection). In the final minutes of "A History of Violence," the main Black characters meet Yahima, an Arawak two-spirit person, locked in Titus Braithwhite's vault, and one of the Black characters slits their throat. By linking the healing/encounter spectrum to theoretical frameworks provided by Black fugitivity, Indigenous fugitivity and queer fugitivity, I present a reading of the moments between Yahima and Montrose that is rooted in both capitalist (afterlives of slavery) and colonial (Indigenous genocide) histories, cultures, and connections. This paper argues that while popular opinion has cast this scene as a failure on the part of showrunner Misha Green, there is still much to learn from this scene.
Keywords: fugitivity, queer, Indigenous, Black television, Black feminism, relational
Much of the dramatic tension in Lovecraft Country, a television series based on the novel of the same name by Matt Ruff (2016), can be read in terms of flight for the preservation of life: flight from monsters (animal and human), from ghosts, from wizards, from fire, and from colonial-capitalist power.1 The characters upend norms of race, gender, and sexuality in the complexity of their interior lives of tenderness, secrets, and betrayal. They are unruly. The Black characters in the series also resist tropes of servility by engaging in acts of refusal. They are, in other words, fugitive. They push against [page 104] captivity and into flight in specific locations, including Chicago, Boston, and Ardham, Massachusetts. In this essay, I will close read of Lovecraft Country through the lenses of Black and Indigenous fugitivity. Fugitivity, as it is taken up in this essay, is a praxis that sits at the intersection of theory and action and moves toward liberation from circumstances of systemic captivity. Stacie Selmon McCormick offers the descriptors "subversive, radical, and experimental" to this praxis (5). Fugitive acts, like those performed by the characters in Lovecraft Country, are liberatory responses to the binds of colonization and slavery. Black and Indigenous fugitivities, which I describe in greater detail later, are considered linked in this essay. Settler colonialism and enslavement are synergetic processes and considering them together deepens one’s understanding of each of them (King “The Labor of (Re)reading Plantation Landscapes Fungible(ly)” 1023; Maynard 12; Vimalassery). Black and Indigenous fugitivities are similar in that they both lean toward free futures but they are different in fundamental ways, particularly with regard to place and sovereignty.
The show is set in the 1950s and tells the story of Atticus (“Tic”) Freeman (Jonathan Majors), a Black veteran who embarks from Chicago on a magical and dangerous journey to protect his family; Letitia (“Leti”) Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), a Black activist and Tic’s love interest; and Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams), Tic’s father, are with him throughout the series. The antagonists, the Braithwhite family, are members of the Order of the Ancient Dawn, a white-only secret society that uses magic to accumulate power. Tic is a descendant of Titus Braithwhite, the founder of the Order, and Hanna, an enslaved woman. Because of this, Tic’s blood holds magic, which he hopes to use to protect himself and his family from the Braithwhites. Tic and Leti work to learn and harness the magic of the order as well as their own magic. On that journey, Tic, Montrose, and Leti meet Yahima (Monique Candelaria), a two-spirit person trapped in Titus’s hidden vault who understands the [page 105] language of the Order of the Ancient Dawn’s spells. Yahima was captured by Titus because of their understanding of the magical language Titus used to create his spells. Tic hopes to learn that same language from Yahima when they meet.
Tic, Leti, and Montrose’s journey through the series is an epistemic one. In their pursuit of knowledge, of magic, they create spaces of power in a world where it seems their antagonists have all the power. These spaces are on the margins; what Roderick Ferguson might call surplus. Ferguson refers to surplus populations as “both superfluous and indispensable . . . [they] fulfill and exceed the demands of capital” (15). Surplus populations disrupt an otherwise homogenous cultural landscape. As Ferguson prompts, “We must see the gendered and eroticized elements of racial formations as offering ruptural—i.e., critical—possibilities” (17). Tic, Leti, and Montrose generate moments of rupture from their race, gender, and eroticized positions. This gives them an advantage and opens up pathways to knowledge unavailable to the Braithwhites. In analyzing Lovecraft Country as an example of Black Lives Matter-era aesthetics, I argue that the specific magic that Tic and Leti embody becomes a way to preserve and protect Black life through knowledge rooted in Black trauma, ancestry, and Black futures (their unborn child).
Colonial-capitalist power is important to the story’s message, and thus it is also important to consider settler colonialism and Indigenous fugitivity within this Black narrative. Settler colonialism appears most dominantly in the fourth episode, “A History of Violence,” when Tic, Leti, and Montrose learn about Titus’s colonial explorations and the harm he caused to Indigenous peoples. In this episode, Montrose murders Yahima to silence them mere minutes after they meet. However, the legacies of settler colonialism and conquest appear in other episodes and remain important to the lives of the Lovecraft Country characters.2 Misha Green, the showrunner, has experienced some backlash for how Yahima dies, as the character’s death relies on two major [page 106] tropes. First, the trope of the vanishing Native, which reinforces the idea that Indigenous people are always in the past. Second, the trope of killing queer/trans characters. Yahima’s death happens so quickly she is barely able to be a full character, a character who is more than a foil or tool for the other characters. Yahima remains flat. Green’s approach to that character has been deemed a “failure” by critics. In this essay, I argue that using reading practices that prioritize Black and Indigenous life to look for examples of Black and Indigenous fugitivity allows a different interpretation of Black-Indigenous relationality to emerge. Lovecraft Country reflects how Black-Indigenous relations exist in sometimes compatible, sometimes tense states, depending on the characters’ perception of and access to power. This is not a direct challenge to the aforementioned claims of Green’s failure, but rather a widening of the lens to see what else the show suggests about Black-Indigenous relationality.
In considering the relationship between Black liberation and Indigenous resurgence,3 I apply a framework of relationality (a specific way of relating characters, texts, or groups) that considers moments of connection on a spectrum of healing and encountering. This healing/ encountering framework comes from a combination of Indigenous relational protocols in which, traditionally, Indigenous clans and tribes paused at the “edge of the woods” before entering land that was not theirs. When they paused in the woods, the groups would make their intentions clear. Then, they would come together. This was a method of bringing about reciprocity, protection, spirituality, clarity, and spatial mobility (Parmenter xxvii). The “edge of the woods” ceremony is often tied specifically to the Iroquois. When another Indigenous group moved through Iroquois territory, there were protocols for how the Iroquois would receive and care for their guests. In the play “Encounters at the ‘Edge of the Woods’” by the Collective Encounter and director Jill Carter, this concept is dramatized in a way that prompts conversation about today’s race, class, and gender relations.4 The [page 107] play presents this edge of the woods ceremony as having three stages: irreconcilability, a meeting point, and healing/ encountering. Each of these stages appear in the framework and are described in more detail later.
The framework also comes from Black feminist theories of difference, where incommensurability in relations is not just tolerated but embraced as a multifaceted way of understanding and resisting oppressive systems. Audre Lorde asserts in her essay on difference that “Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people” (115). She posits that justice for women of color would necessitate that society have a radically divergent view of difference. In her famous speech “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Lorde says, “Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic” (111). By merging the edge of the woods theory and Black theories of difference, I can theorize this dialectic through Black and Indigenous relationality in a way that foregrounds differences and opens up potential imaginings of more just futures. Speculative fiction like Lovecraft Country is particularly well-suited for this kind of theorization because of the possibilities in radical imaginings.
Within the healing/encountering framework, healing in this essay amounts to moves toward Black liberation/abolition and Indigenous resurgence/decolonization. Encountering involves the reinforcement of capitalist-colonial structures (i.e., white supremacy).5 While it can be tempting to categorize a meeting as either healing or encountering, the framework resists this binary. Instead, healing and encountering exist on a spectrum with some meetings carrying elements of both. Within the realm of aesthetics, the healing/encountering framework consists of three parts. In the irreconcilable space, I consider Black and Indigenous characters—or Blackness and Indigeneity more broadly—separately. At the meeting point, Black and Indigenous [page 108] characters are considered through a close reading of a particular moment, theme, or symbol where they connect. The meeting point must preserve differences and tensions, while allowing for examination of points of connection. Then, the analysis moves to the healing/encountering spectrum and considers the questions: Is this healing, or is this encountering? Can it be a combination of both, and if so, what does that look like? Each of these phases—the irreconcilable space, the meeting point, the spectrum—occur in this analysis in a cyclical flow, rather than a linear progression. The irreconcilable space, for instance, persists even through analysis of the spectrum. The healing/encountering framework takes up Audre Lorde’s call to imagine different ways of relating and offers a structure to consider Black and Indigenous characters in a way that widens the lens through which Black and Indigenous freedoms (and the paths to them) can be understood.
Where do Blackness and Indigeneity appear together in Lovecraft Country, and in those moments, how do healing and encountering emerge for the characters? In tracing that question through the episodes, this essay will begin with an overview of relevant concepts, including Black fugitivity, Indigenous fugitivity, and the role of gender and sexuality in Lovecraft Country and then conduct a close reading through the healing/encountering framework by looking at scenes with Hanna, Yahima, and Montrose.
Fugitivity in Black Studies
Within the irreconcilable space, I consider Black fugitivity and Indigenous fugitivity separately before putting them in relation. In Black life, fugitivity is an important praxis. It creates a space of flight, is a process of unbinding, and can contribute to forms of redress (Sharpe). It is “seeing around corners, stockpiling in crevices, knowing the un-rules, being unruly, because the rules are never enough and not even close” (Macharia). Fugitivity offers a framework through [page 109] which to look at Black life as persisting despite global, structural obstacles. The elements of fugitivity most important to this project are unruliness, refusal, and flight/escape.6
Fugitivity as unruly points to the ways in which blackness resists regulation. With the ways white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism weave together anti-Black bindings, fugitivity opens up a space of subversion just outside those norms. Captivity within the “afterlives of slavery” could be the “locus of confounded identities” that Hortense J. Spillers describes at the start of “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe”—the Sapphire, Earth Mother, Aunty, Granny, Peaches (65). Examples from Black speculative fiction include Dana’s missing limb (Octavia Butler’s Kindred), Essun’s ever-aching hand (N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season), and Tan Tan’s alter ego (Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber). In each of these examples, the characters also discover ways to subvert captivity. Spillers describes the captive body as one reduced to a “thing” that is swallowed by its powerlessness. Fugitivity resists the reductive moves of white supremacy and finds ways to maintain agency.
Captivity in Lovecraft Country comes in several forms. The Braithwhites literally hold the characters captive in episode two. In true Jordan Peele fashion, anti-Black racism functions as a cage that appears in the form of Jim Crow, racist neighbors and police, sundown towns, racist hexes, and other social, political, and economic structures. The characters’ unruliness is cast as “crazy,” even by each other at points. In episode four, Montrose says, “Crazy and stupid go well together” (“History”), referring to Tic’s insistence on taking on the Braithwhites and Leti’s decision to move into a white neighborhood.
Montrose’s critique is ironic, given his own attempts at refusal. His strategy is to close all connections between Tic and the Braithwhites. In other words, he wants to deny Tic access to the magic of the Order of the Ancient Dawn and to deny the Braithwhites access to Tic. This impulse drives [page 110] much of his behavior in the first half of the series. In thinking about fugitivity as refusal, Tina Marie Campt offers a definition that acts as a starting point:
refusal: a rejection of the status quo as livable and the creation of possibility in the face of negation i.e., a refusal to recognize a system that renders you fundamentally illegible and unintelligible; the decision to reject the terms of diminished subjecthood with which one is presented, using negation as a generative and creative source of disorderly power to embrace the possibility of living otherwise. (83)
From this perspective, fugitivity is not just unruliness, or resistance to and within the status quo, but also potentially a complete rejection of it. In this definition of refusal, there is again a nod to the possibilities that arise from fugitivity—they are possibilities resulting from negation. Fugitivity is the Black body’s acceptance of its illegibility to a system, and in turn, the decision to refuse to recognize that system and lean into the illegibility.
The final aspect of fugitivity in Black Studies that I will discuss here is escape. The connection between fugitivity by way of flight is well-explored. C. Riley Snorton links the concepts of fugitivity and fungibility, an important “practice-cum-performance” for Black people in the antebellum period to gender and sexuality (57). To be fungible is to be a tool of someone else’s worldbuilding. With fungibility comes a kind of malleability and undoing, which is usually outside of the control and agency of Black bodies. Alongside fugitivity, however, it has worldbuilding potential in creating space for new ways of being. Snorton writes: “Fungibility and fugitivity figured two sides of a Janus-faced coin, in which the same logic that figured blackness as immanently interchangeable would also engender its flow” (84). Understanding Black bodies as fungible opens up an understanding of Black fugitivity as maneuvers for flight and wandering. As Tiffany Lethabo King puts it, “Black fugitivity’s use of Blackness made fungible is evidence of Black ingenuity and invention [page 111] under conditions of capture, the hold, and social death” (110). Fugitivity is a site of Black agency, a particular kind that directly disrupts White life. King argues that Black fugitivity, when considered within her shoal methodology, causes ruptures within White settlement/ settlerhood.
Fugitivity in Native American Studies
Fugitivity has different implications within Native American Studies. As Mark Rifkin asks, what is fugitivity as flight to a place-based people? (Fictions 134) For Rifkin, fugitivity inhabits “existing systems in ways that defy the terms and topographies of legible personhood” (134). If fugitivity is consistently linked to the carceral state, from that angle, placelessness becomes a “critical norm” of the concept (134). Fugitivity, then, for Indigenous peoples can involve flight or escape but does not necessarily involve placelessness. In other words, connectedness to a place does not equal captivity; instead “situatedness appears as the condition of possibility for worldmaking” (137). Flight and refusal become worldmaking tools, or tools for shaping the world in specific and lasting ways. Worldmaking is an important part of Indigenous resurgence as it positions Indigenous people to imagine and create lives outside of colonization.7 As Leanne Betasamosake Simpson asserts:
Indigenous resurgence, in its most radical form, is nation building, not nation-state building, but nation building, again, in the context of grounded normativity by centering, amplifying, animating, and actualizing the processes of grounded normativity as flight paths or fugitive escapes from the violence of settler colonialism. (L. Simpson 22)
As Simpson suggests, Indigenous fugitivity is a process that comes about through Indigenous resurgence. The flight is not physical but, perhaps, cultural or structural in resistance (or refusal) of settler colonialism.
Indigenous refusal, important for fugitivity, differs from [page 112] the previously mentioned Black refusal in part because of the element of sovereignty. Audra Simpson writes about refusal as an alternative to policies of recognition (A. Simpson 11). Recognition policies reinforce colonialism by only acknowledging Indigenous sovereignty without changing related power structures. Where recognition reinforces colonialism, “refusal comes with the requirement of having one’s political sovereignty acknowledged and upheld and raises the question of legitimacy for those who are usually in the position of recognizing” (A. Simpson 11). Refusal, as Simpson describes in her case study of Kahnawà:ke Mohawk peoples, involves imagining and enacting sovereignty within the confines of the settler state. This imagining and enacting is a form of fugitivity. Reading fugitivity into Yahima’s situation raises questions about sovereignty and forced removal from a homeland. Their situatedness shifts from Guyana to the vault where Titus holds them captive. Yahima’s fugitivity, backed by magical knowledge, is an attempt to preserve life and the potential of worldmaking.
Sexuality, Gender, and Lovecraft Country
Black queerness and two-spiritedness are at the core of “A History of Violence,” and are important for understanding Black and Indigenous relations within the episode and between the Lovecraft Country characters throughout the series. Rather than focus on these categories as identity markers, I am curious about how these concepts function in the story. Gender and sexuality function as challenges to the heteropatriarchy that is fundamental to the colonial-capitalist systems that shape Yahima and Montrose’s lives and traumas. In other words, the Order of the Ancient Dawn works to uphold not just white supremacy, but also heteropatriarchy, and Yahima and Montrose’s lives are a challenge to that. Therefore, I center gender and sexuality in my analysis of resistance against colonial-capitalist power within the series. [page 113]
As Eve Sedgwick says, “One of the things ‘queer’ can refer to: the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, or anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (8). In Sedgwick’s capacious definition, in connection with scholars such as José Esteban Muñoz and Kara Keeling, queerness is a descriptor of the surplus (22). Spatially, this may indicate a life on the edge that is a site of both vulnerability and possibility. Temporally, queerness is always in the “not yet,” the beginning perhaps of a hopeful future (Muñoz 1). In addition to queer spacetimes, the representation of queer bodies is important here. Montrose’s identity as a Black gay man from the Midwest shapes his sense of self, his experiences, and his relationships. Through the series, he vacillates between seeking pleasure and feeling a sense of shame, trauma, and lack of fulfillment. When Montrose recalls being punished as a child for wearing a flower in his hair and other offenses, he is remembering his refusal of certain norms.
Two-spirit is an umbrella term that refers both to historical “gender constructions and roles” that are outside colonial gender norms/ binaries and to contemporary Indigenous people who are continuing in those roles (Driskill et al. 4). Anthropology and other fields outside of Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) have formed lasting narratives about queer and two-spirit Indigenous peoples through the “third gender” concept, or more specifically the berdache figure (Towle and Morgan 469). Within NAIS, and specifically within queer Indigenous critique, two-spirit people are placed solidly in the present. Their artistic and political contributions have supported decolonization processes and other movements (Vowel). NAIS also reinforces the idea that GLBTQ2 Indigenous communities are heterogeneous between and within each other, comprised of different nations, politics, knowledges, and gender practices. I am careful here not to use two-spirit, transgender, berdache, or third gender [page 114] interchangeably; each term has a specific lineage and has been part of specific conversations. I use two-spirit here because Yahima identifies as such in Lovecraft Country. Qwo-Li Driskill et al.’s definition in Sovereign Erotics is especially relevant: “the term ‘two-spirit’ can be both an organizing tool and a particular political orientation that centralizes a decolonial agenda around issues of gender and sexuality” (5). Through this understanding, Yahima, as a two-spirit person in a Black-written, -directed, and -produced television show, connects to the broader themes of this project, including decolonization and Black-Indigenous relationality.8
Audre Lorde’s concept of the erotic, through the fields of queer of color critique and queer Indigenous critique, informs my approach to Tic and Montrose’s connection to Yahima. I am interested in the erotic partly because of the way gender and sexuality sit at the center of colonial-capitalism resistance, as well as abolition and decolonization. In addition, it is a framework that pairs well with the healing/encountering spectrum, since both use affect to understand and evaluate the impact of relations. Lorde describes the erotic as “a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling” (53). It is a “life force” and “the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge” (55-56). As Grace Hong asserts, the erotic is a kind of relationality, one that eschews the hierarchal power structures of heteropatriarchy/white supremacy and suggests a different way of relating (78). According to Lorde: “The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person” (Lorde 56). This way of relating is rooted in the “sensual and affective” in a way that goes beyond the sexual and allows feeling to prompt the pursuit of relations that thrive on difference, rather than punish it (Hong 78).
Queer Indigenous studies has taken up Lorde’s erotic framework and applied it to Indigenous life along with Indigenous ways of knowing. Deborah Miranda describes an [page 115] Indigenous erotic as “a perpetual act of balancing—always working toward balance through one’s actions, intent, and understanding of the world. But both love and the erotic are at odds with the violence and domination that structures any colonizing and patriarchal structure” (4). Within the field, the erotic has specific uses. First, the erotic can be a kind of lifeforce that unsettles “sexuality” as a colonial power, in ideology and in practice. Second, the erotic ties into the transformative, resistant power associated with two-spiritedness. Third, if Indigenous people tap into the erotic, it forces all in relation with them to face the past and present of colonization. As Lorde also suggests, the erotic is a threat to the status quo, and to engage with it is dangerous. The Indigenous erotic threatens not only settler colonialism but also heteropatriarchy. It makes Indigenous people, particularly Indigenous women and two-spirit people, visible in a way that is not reducible to stereotypes and specters. Fourth, as Rifkin suggests, the erotic is fundamental to decolonization as it necessitates a change in relations that allows for inclusion where the status quo demands exclusion. This shift of power can mean that the erotic can reconfigure sovereignty (Rifkin, “Erotics” 174).
In episode two, “Whitey’s on the Moon,” and episode four, “A History of Violence,” the erotic and fugitivity are most apparent in the narratives involving Hanna, Montrose, and Yahima. As King argues, “Black and Indigenous people make a future, or worlds, for one another by drawing on the power of the erotic” (143). In my reading of both these episodes, I lay the erotic over the healing/encountering framework. The erotic—the transformative, radical, lifegiving power—is present in healing. Considering the other end of the spectrum, encountering does not mean the absence of the erotic. Rather, the erotic offers an epistemic pathway to interpreting connections through the language of healing and encountering. This essay will now explore questions of where and whether the erotic appears through the concept of fugitivity. [page 116]
The Erotic as a Meeting Point
The meeting point for the healing/ encountering framework in these episodes of Lovecraft Country is the erotic. Imagine its power spatially, laid over the healing/encountering spectrum. In places/ times when the erotic is strong, healing is strong too. Where it is weak, the spacetime is closer to encountering. Throughout the spectrum, there are spacetimes that are ambiguous, where the erotic is not easily categorized as strong or weak. The strength of the erotic depends partly on the nature of the relations, so it can be in flux.
Black fugitivity is a process of making that which has been unmade within captivity; Indigenous fugitivity is a process of worldbuilding through rootedness and refusal. The difference between Black and Indigenous fugitivities, particularly around issues of sovereignty and differentiations in the role of place, is significant. In considering fugitivity and erotics together, King asks, “Can Native sovereignty function as a malleable analytic that Black and Native erotics can bend, curl, and reshape toward a mutual futurity? More specifically, can Native sovereignty bring about a porous notion of self that opens itself to accepting the erotic potential of the other—in this case, Black flight, porosity, and chaos?” (King 110). I seek to interrogate if both abolition and decolonization are fueled by the erotic, a force that has the power to manipulate spacetime. Is it possible to imagine and then build a world that includes the necessary components of abolition and decolonization? If fugitivity is a malleable analytic, it may, through the erotic, open new spatial and temporal pathways for alternative modes of relation. Within speculative art and texts, the analytic of fugitivity allows for the simultaneous undoing and (re)making of alternative worlds emerging out of colonial-capitalist ones. Lovecraft Country, for instance, exposes the machinations of white supremacy, and there are also nods to a different future where Black people heal and name themselves. [page 117]
In order to fully explore Black and Indigenous fugitivity in Lovecraft Country, it is important to start with Hanna, the enslaved woman who fled from Titus Braithwhite, leaving fire and destruction in her wake, and is Tic’s ancestor. In episode two, “Whitey’s on the Moon,” Tic, Uncle George, and Leti are in Ardham, Massachusetts because Tic has received a letter from Montrose saying he is in trouble. While in Ardham, the three characters are taken in by Samuel and Christina Braithwhite at their home, which is a replica of Titus’s home. While they look for Montrose in the woods near the house, Uncle George recounts hearing about Tic’s mother’s ancestor who fled from Titus’s estate because of a fire. Even though Hanna does not have any lines in this episode, her presence is integral to the events of the entire series, and it becomes clear that Hanna started the fire that destroyed the first Braithwhite home. Tic’s journey in this episode runs parallel to hers, as he also destroys the Braithwhite home and then follows the vision of Hanna to safety.
Hanna’s narrative illustrates Black fugitivity and fungibility as tools to manipulate spacetime toward freedom. The Braithwhites lure Tic to their home so they can use him to cast a spell for immortality. Tic, specifically, is important because his blood is “spelled” like Titus’s blood was. The mistake that the Braithwhites, specifically Christina’s father, make is only considering Titus’s contribution to Tic’s blood. Because of Hanna’s blood, Tic destroys the Braithwhite estate, just as Hanna did decades before.
Hanna’s destruction of the Braithwhite estate is a “fugitive maneuver,” to borrow from Snorton (59). Hanna is also ungendered. As Spillers asserts,
[T]heir New-World, diasporic plight marked a theft of the body—a willful and violent (and unimaginable from this distance) severing of the captive body from its motive will, its active desire. Under these conditions, we lose at least gender difference in the [page 118] outcome, and the female body and the male body become a territory of cultural and political maneuver, not at all gender-related, gender-specific. (67)
The process of enslavement is one of ungendering the site, the space, of the Black body. “Fugitive maneuvers” creative processes that attempt at redress (Snorton 59). This redress within the context of Black speculative fiction, and more specifically in Lovecraft Country, is less about recovering or restoring what was lost, but rather about creating something different and life-giving. Blackness is “a place where being undone is simultaneously a space for new forms of becoming” (Snorton 70). Hanna’s ungendered body is a space—“a territory of cultural and political maneuver”—that she manipulates through fugitivity. Where colonial-capitalist systems unmake her through the processes of slavery, she makes herself into a new form. Her fungible fugitivity comes first in the actual destruction not only of the geographic space of the Braithwhite estate but also of the site of her body as captive. In “Whitey’s on the Moon,” Hanna bends space and time to come to Tic and show him the way out and how to destroy that geographic space of captivity all over again. The intergenerational power of her fugitivity is important in the irreconcilable space.
When Leti, Tic, and Uncle George are in the woods near the Braithwhite estate, they imagine Hanna running through the woods. Leti says, “Hanna ran through these woods pregnant. She was a brave woman” (“Whitey’s”). In this scene, I also imagine Hanna running through the woods, smoke from the fire at the Braithwhite estate rising in the air behind her. I wonder where the Indigenous peoples of that land are. I wonder if Titus, who was a colonist as well as a capitalist, had encountered them in some way. Perhaps he tried to get the Indigenous peoples closest to him to read the Book of Names, which is the main magic book for the Order of Ancient Dawn, before capturing Yahima in Guyana. In this speculation, I am implementing a method of reading Indigeneity into Lovecraft Country in places where it may not be obvious. Danika [page 119] Medak-Saltzman posits this reading method as liberatory; it keeps Indigeneity and settler colonialism from falling out of conversations in critical ethnic studies (18).
In specifically applying Medak-Saltzman’s method to Black speculative art, I am building on work in Black Studies that seeks to situate blackness within narratives of conquest and settler colonialism.9 It is important to keep Indigeneity centered in conversations of settler colonialism even as Blackness enters. This move keeps Indigenous peoples from being erased continuously from histories and fictions about the land in North America. Still, the connection between Black and Indigenous histories and imaginings can open up new modes and ways of seeing and thinking.
In reading Indigeneity into “Whitey’s on the Moon,” I see Hanna’s off-screen flight through the woods, along with her theft of the Book of Names, as not only resistance against her own enslavement but also a refusal of empire. As already established, Titus is both a colonizer and a capitalist; his fortune and his magic are both rooted in slavery and New World colonization. Hanna’s flight and theft preserves the genealogical line that led to Tic. It also reinforces Yahima’s refusal. (By the time Hanna burned down the estate and left in 1833, Yahima had already been preserved in Titus’s vault for decades, since about 1810.) If Yahima and Hanna could meet at the edge of those fictional woods, what might they say to each other? Would Yahima read Hanna’s intentions differently than they read Tic’s? I imagine Yahima and Hanna would exchange knowledge.10 They both understood some aspects of the Book of Names, and, if given the opportunity to share what they each knew about magic, perhaps, in their fugitivity they could have moved in additional ways toward liberation and resurgence.
In the edited collection Until We are Free, which includes work by and related to Black Lives Matter Canada, artist Marcus Syrus Ware asserts that “abolition is decolonization” (Diverlus et al. 40). If abolition and decolonization are one, and if Hanna and Yahima’s struggles are co-constituted, then [page 120] it becomes even more important that aesthetics reflect that. For it is through imagination that abolition and decolonization become possible. The work of Black Lives Matter Canada and other organizations that operate in Black and Indigenous solidarity is important when considering Black and Indigenous speculative art. Because of the speculative work of these activists, artist-scholars can shift to those other dimensions, even temporarily, and imagine various narratives for fictional characters and real communities. In other words, Hanna’s fugitivity is generative in the way it opens pathways to different suprafictional modes of relation.
Yahima's Fugitive Pose
Yahima’s narrative presents challenges when considered against scholarship in Indigenous aesthetics and literary critique. Yahima functions as what Gerald Robert Vizenor calls a “fugitive pose” (145). In a fugitive pose, a Native American character is a simulation, a fake, while the Indigenous people are absent. In aesthetics like this, the “Native,” as Vizenor would say, is fugitive (in flight), and the character does not actually represent Indigenous life. (Vizenor makes the rhetorical distinction between Native and Indigenous to separate the simulation from the real.) This sentiment is echoed in Steve Pavlik et al.’s concept of Native apparitions in film, where Indigenous characters are specters, diaphanous shapes of Indigenous people rather than sturdier representations (5). Healing can be aesthetic sovereignty, in which “the Native” is present, not fugitive. Decolonial aesthetics “breaks from coloniality’s reliance on hyper-individualism to maintain this world, and diffuses itself through shared artistic processes to imagine ‘worlds otherwise’” (Martineau and Ritskes ii). They cause a fracture in the sensible in order to transport us, however momentarily, to liberatory spaces. While “A History of Violence” may be an example of anti-racist aesthetics (or even Afrofuturist aesthetics), it is not decolonial. [page 121]
Part of the failure of “A History of Violence” is that the episode relies so heavily on reductive tropes of Indigenous people that Yahima cannot be much more than a tool for continued conflict between the Black and white characters. Yahima’s death sparked conversation, and in some cases outrage and confusion, in the media, including on Twitter. Misha Green tweeted in response to a flurry of messages: “I wanted to show the uncomfortable truth that oppressed folks can also be oppressors. But I didn't examine or unpack the moment/portrayal of Yahima as thoroughly as I should have. It's a story point worth making, but I failed in the way I chose to make it. #LovecraftCountry” (@MishaGreen). Reading Green’s intentions through the healing/ encountering spectrum, potential dynamics emerge between Black and Indigenous communities, as well as Black liberation and decolonization. Does Black liberation, a major theme of Lovecraft Country, necessitate the oppression of Indigenous peoples? Green’s failure here is potentially an inability to see the dramatic potential of messy coalition that goes beyond the oppressed/oppressor binary and beyond simple comparison. In other words, Yahima’s story required a different kind of relational structure in order to be successful.
It is important to also note Yahima’s death as a failure in aesthetics as representation and a failure within the show’s overall goal of challenging oppressive forms of representation. Still, the oppressed-person-as-oppressor dynamic troubles any inclination to view healing/ encountering as a binary. As I hope I have demonstrated, healing/ encountering is not merely a linear spectrum but more a kaleidoscope of possibilities of relationality. Even though it can be tempting to categorize each point of connection as either healing or encountering, it would be too easy to cast Yahima’s death as solely an encounter.
Yahima’s two-spiritedness positions them outside the gender binary, which signals a non-Western form of relationality. Paula Gunn Allen argues that colonization’s primary assault was on Indigenous relations (Allen 3). Within the [page 122] world of Lovecraft Country, Titus’s violence against Yahima involves their entire family. In reading two-spiritedness as a political orientation as well as a gender identity, Yahima’s character raises questions about decolonization and healing within the world of the series. Part of Yahima’s fugitivity, especially when read in conjunction with the erotic, lies in their ability to preserve space for healing even amidst great violence. This is a “sovereign erotic,” to borrow from Qwo-Li Driskill et al., who build on Lorde’s erotic and argue that a sovereign erotic connects gender/bodies to traditions and histories (3).
Yahima’s healing—what little is available to them—may be read in their fugitivity. When Tic finds them, Yahima is a captive in the vault. They are surrounded by the posed figures of their deceased family. This kind of captivity locks Yahima in both time and space. When Yahima awakens, they reveal, through a monologue in Arawak translated in subtitles, that they used the Book of Names to save themself and keep Titus from the pages. This information is revealed only. The fact that Yahima uses the Book of Names to preserve themself in an act of outright refusal is a clear example of their fugitivity at work. For Indigenous peoples, “situated-ness appears as the condition of possibility for worldmaking” (Rifkin, Fictions 137). Like so many Indigenous peoples throughout the histories of the Americas, Yahima is torn from their home and finds a kind of rootedness within the trauma of colonization and in a different place. Within that magical decision, Yahima blocks Titus from having full access to the language that the Order of Ancient Dawn needs to create their magic and preserves the possibility of life and new worlds.
Montrose’s murderous act—killing Yahima to block specific knowledge—is a mirror of Titus’s murderous acts to gain access to specific knowledge. In other words, it is largely an encounter. As I attempt to avoid constituting a [page 123] healing/encountering binary, I wonder: Where does healing appear in this violent encounter? In taking this story as theory, what does that moment suggest about the potential for liberatory futures for Montrose, Yahima, and the contemporary viewers who feel represented by their characters?
The erotic offers a lens through which to see Montrose’s murderous act. Layers of Montrose’s feelings dominate “A History of Violence.” His feelings—about living on the margins as a queer man, about losing his brother in the second episode, about wanting to protect his son—all collide. From the beginning of the episode, Montrose tries to block Tic’s efforts to learn more about the Order of the Ancient Dawn. He believes that getting closer to white supremacist power will only bring more harm to his family. Some of this is informed by his lived experience as a Black man, and some of it is informed by grief over his brother’s death in episode two. He wants to save his son’s life and is also still reeling from the overlapping traumas of the Cold War, growing up queer with an abusive father, a lifetime of performing straightness, and the Tulsa massacre. I offer this not as an excuse for the character, but rather to argue that Montrose was neither entirely out of his mind with trauma, nor acting in the best way for all the characters, including Tic.
Montrose’s fugitivity, which he exhibits throughout the entire series, not just in the moment centered here, is not fully realized. This immature fugitivity also suggests the erotic is, at least partially, absent. King’s description of Black fugitivity is as “evidence of Black ingenuity and invention under conditions of capture, the hold, and social death” (110). Within fugitivity, refusal and flight are “modes of freedom” (Martineau and Ritskes 4), and Montrose attempts fugitivity. This is evident in his refusals—the way he blocks certain futures and closes pathways to knowledge—and the ways that he participates in a vibrant Black queer life, even if it is not public-facing. Fred Moten theorizes that the temporality of fugitivity allows Black people to “remember with a difference” (263). Darieck Scott also argues that part of Black [page 124] radicalism is remembering the past and reshaping the future differently than dominant narratives will allow (72). Within these understandings of fugitivity, Montrose tries but does not fully realize the kind of worldbuilding power fugitivity can have.
His unrealized fugitivity may be in part because of what Franz Fanon called “tense muscles” (16). Fanon’s muscles metaphor peppers The Wretched of the Earth as an example of the significant but incomplete contributions of the body to liberation, specifically decolonization for Fanon. He writes: “The muscles of the colonized are always tensed. It is not that he is anxious or terrorized, but he is always ready to change his role as game for that of hunter. The colonized subject is a persecuted man who is forever dreaming of becoming the persecutor” (16). This is in part a psychiatric observation, as Fanon was observing patients who were not well. It is also a political observation. Tense muscles “describe the paradox of a being who experiences utter defeat but who is nonetheless not fully defeated” (Scott 72). Without a strong consciousness, “the colonized” can never fulfill the dream of revolution. Within the healing/encountering framework, this is where story comes in. Speculative stories are the mirage that supplements the ready-for-revolution tension in Black and Indigenous bodies. Montrose has tense muscles; this is evident even in the way he holds his body throughout the episode. His lack of imagination, the inability to see how his and Yahima’s struggles were connected and how they were not necessarily a threat, prevented his fugitivity from having the kind of generative effect it did for characters like Hanna.
Lovecraft Country is a fertile site for questions about Black and Indigenous aesthetics and representation. In this essay, I’ve shown how healing and encountering can appear in different ways, even if only partially, through an analysis of the different spatiotemporal positionings of the characters. While white supremacy plays an important, antagonistic role in the series, my analysis focuses on relations between Black [page 125] and Indigenous characters through an understanding of the erotic. Hanna, Montrose, and Yahima’s gendered and sexual positions intersect with their races to illuminate important power dynamics. Reading Indigeneity into Hanna’s story opens up possibilities for healing as abolition and decolonization become linked modes of resistance and resilience. Yahima remains only partially formed, and yet they are still able to enact Indigenous refusal as a form of protection. Montrose’s muscles remain tense, literally and figuratively, and twitchy as he grapples with self-hatred and a warped view of how to protect his family. With each of these characters, elements of healing and encountering emerge.
Montrose, Hanna, and Yahima all exhibit fugitivity in different ways. This essay exemplifies a reading practice that looks closely for connections between Black and Indigenous fugitivities along with signs of the erotic. Through this practice, I observe relationality on a spectrum of healing to encountering. In Lovecraft Country, I read Indigeneity not only in the episode “A History of Violence” with Yahima, but also in Hanna’s off-screen run through the woods in Ardham. Reading healing and encountering through the erotic not only positions affect, gender, and sexuality at the center of capitalist-colonial systems and resistance to them, but also opens up ways of understanding the connections between the characters. While Montrose is a vulnerable and marginalized character as a gay Black man, he also initiates a tragic encounter with Yahima, another vulnerable and marginalized character. Still, Yahima’s murder is not an abject failure; it complicates the nuances between Black and Indigenous struggles and hopes for liberation. In this way, the Black-Indigenous relations in Lovecraft Country span from the way that I imagine Hanna destroyed both capitalist (slavery) and colonial (Indigenous genocide) power with fire, to the way that Montrose unintentionally reinforces capitalist-colonial power by murdering Yahima. [page 126]
1. Throughout this essay, I will refer to colonial-capitalist power to situate colonization (and its dependence on Indigenous genocide) and capitalism (and its deep ties to anti-Black racism) as co-constituted.
2. This connection between Black enslavement and liberation and Indigenous genocide and resurgence is part of an ongoing conversation found, in part, in the following works: Diverlus et al., eds, Until We Are Free: Reflections on Black Lives Matter in Canada; King, The Black Shoals; King, Navarrow, and Smith, eds., Otherwise Worlds; Rifkin, Fictions of Land and Flesh; Wilderson, Red, White, Black.
3. Indigenous resurgence is a commitment to “daily processes of truth-telling and resistance to colonial encroachments” and prioritizing Indigenous ways of knowing and being, according to Jeff Corntassel. It is a necessary part of decolonization efforts.
4. The Collective Encounter with Jill Carter performed “Encounters at the ‘Edge of the Woods’” at Hart House Theater at the University of Toronto in 2019.
5. While the term “encounter” may seem benign considering the horrors of colonization and slavery, I use this term for two reasons. First, it is the term used in The Collective Encounter with Jill Carter’s play “Encounters ‘At the Edge of the Woods.’” In the play, Indigenous and non-Indigenous characters come together in specific moments that highlight tensions around race, gender, and sexuality. For instance, one of the Indigenous actors delivers a monologue about being an Indigenous student at the University of Toronto. After these moments are dramatized, the characters ask, “Is this healing? Or is this encountering?” Second, the word encounter allows for some flexibility. An encounter can describe the meetings in North America that led to Indigenous genocide. It can also refer to inequity in institutions like schools and government. It can refer to the ways Blackness and [page 127] Indigeneity are often consumed (in different ways) by the dominant culture. Encountering allows room for me to consider the more subtle ways colonial-capitalism is reinforced in our society.
6. These terms are inspired by the structure of Marquis Bey’s Them Goon Rules: Fugitive Essays on Radical Black Feminism.
7. Speculative fiction, like Lovecraft Country, is especially important for worldmaking. It prompts readers to imagine otherwise. It is within speculative fiction that Black and Indigenous people can imagine the details of freedom.
8. My theorizations of two-spiritedness are also informed by work that puts queer Indigenous studies in conversation with queer studies. See Driskill, “Doubleweaving Two-Spirit Critiques”; Morgensen, Spaces between Us.
9. See King, “The Labor of (Re)Reading Plantation Landscapes Fungible(ly)”; King, The Black Shoals; King, Navarro, and Smith, Otherwise Worlds; Wilderson, Red, White & Black; Wynter, “1492.”
10. Hanna’s relationship to magic is hinted at in that she was able to appear to Tic to guide him from the lodge in episode two. She also taught her descendants how to magically bind and protect the Book of Names after she took it, as mentioned in episode nine, when the characters travel back in time to the massacre in Tulsa.
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Jasmine H. Wade is an Assistant Professor of English at California State University, Los Angeles. She received her PhD in Cultural Studies at the University of California, Davis. Her book project Spacetime Manipulation: Difference and Futurisms in Black and Indigenous Speculative Fiction is an interdisciplinary project that looks at speculative film and literature in conjunction with social movement manifestos. She has received several fellowships, including the Mellon Public Scholars, HASTAC Scholars, the Imagining America Creative Documentation Fellowship, and the Writer’s Grotto fellowship. Wade is also a speculative fiction writer who has work in several literary magazines and anthologies.
MLA citation (print):
Wade, Jasmine H. "'A History of Violence': Black and Indigenous Fugitivity in Lovecraft Country." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 7, no. 2, 2022, pp. 103-130.