by Michael Werning
This is a transcript of ‘The (Ex-) Slave as Agent of Change in Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country’, a paper given by Michael Werning at “Cults, Cthulus, and Klansmen: The (Hi)stories within Lovecraft Country”, an online symposium hosted by the Centre for the History of the Gothic at the University of Sheffield.
Michael Werning is a doctoral student in the English Department at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His area of study is 19th-century African American literature, with a special interest in antebellum slave narratives. His dissertation examines the intersection of slavery, the Gothic, and disability studies and how the Gothic renders itself a powerful vehicle for ex-slave autobiographers to deal with, heal from, and fight back against the horrors of slavery. At Marquette, Michael also teaches the class “Foundations in Rhetoric,” in which he encourages his students to think through complex issues of social and racial justice.
Especially in recent years, the Gothic has proven to be a powerful literary and cinematic tool to portray the horrors and the lingering traumas of slavery and its aftermath. The Gothic is also highly useful – not without dangers, though – in recovering and restoring a seemingly lost past, particularly for the oppressed, as Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country (2020) aims, and succeeds, to do. While the series is set in the 1950s, the conflation of past, present, and future is palpable in every episode, including actual time travel: e.g., back to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. The show, however, goes farther back in time: to 1833 when Ardham Lodge burned down and Hanna, Atticus’s slave ancestor, escaped with the mysterious Book of Names. It is this moment, Hanna’s taking the Book of Names, that sets in motion the story of Atticus and his family, and their eventual victory over white supremacy. Hanna’s powerful legacy – the legacy of a slave – is critical to Lovecraft Country. The series thus subtly points to the central role that slaves played in shaping American culture, and, instead of portraying slaves solely as dehumanized victims, focuses on their human agency in creating family lines, in creating a legacy. For, Atticus and his crew, in rendering racial oppression powerless by binding white people from magic in the last episode (aptly titled “Full Circle”), complete what Hanna began more than a century earlier.
Reading the ex-slave Hanna as an agent of change – as the empowered creator of a family that will eventually triumph over white supremacy – gets at the core of Lovecraft Country. I would argue that it is the lasting agency of Hanna that also most forcefully tears apart H.P. Lovecraft’s notions of white superiority and “white purity.” For, Hanna’s descendants are not only related to and entangled with the Braithwhites, but they are also eventually victorious over their white relatives/counterparts (something that probably would have made Lovecraft shudder – at least for most his life). The show places the experiences of an African American family at the center of American life, history, and culture – not on the margins. Crucial to this is the restoration of the past, the recovery of a family line. Atticus first encounters Hanna at the end of episode 2, titled “Whitey’s on the Moon,” when she intervenes during the ritual, killing Samuel Braithwhite and the other Sons of Adam, and burning down Ardham Lodge. The death of the Sons of Adam as well as the destruction of Ardham Lodge mirror the events of 1833. It is the pregnant Hanna who survives and creates, not Titus; it is Atticus who survives (in ep. 2) and carries on Hanna’s legacy, not Samuel; and – in the final episode – it is Leti and her unborn son who survive and fulfill that legacy, not Christina. The victory over white supremacy, however, comes at a great cost. George dies of his wounds after making it out of Ardham, and Atticus sacrifices himself at the end of the series.
Hanna and her actions mark an “ursprung,” an origin, both of Atticus’s family and of the fight against racial violence. This family origin merges with what Lovecraft Country establishes to be the roots of evil: slavery. Antebellum American slavery, as well as Hanna’s story line, though central to the plot, stay in the background for most of the show. Hanna’s rape (by Titus) and the many other brutalities that slaves had to endure, remain implicit. Nevertheless, Lovecraft Country suggests that a confrontation with and the restoration of the past – a past that was taken away from African Americans – is necessary to overcome the evils of racism (Atticus and his crew literally need to go back in time to retrieve The Book of Names, which is the key to their eventual triumph). The Gothic and horror genres render themselves very apt vehicles in recovering a lost past and making effable – to a certain extent – the unspeakable histories of colonization, slavery, and racial violence. The fact that Hanna takes the Book of Names and uses its powers against the Sons of Adam, against all white people in the end, highlights the role of witchcraft and the supernatural as a means of resistance. Witchcraft, voodoo, and conjure practices – just like the Gothic itself – can be conceived of as “forces” in the lives of the oppressed, forces that carry, express, and preserve identity. Anne
Schroder, for example, in her essay “Voodoo and Conjure as Gothic Realism,” claims that those practices “serve as a way of preserving, reconceptualizing and reinforcing a sense of identity and community through a belief system originating in an African past, but shaped by the encounters and experiences in the New World” (422). Lovecraft Country further makes the points that witchcraft, embedded in and expressed through the Gothic imagination, can be a powerful force not only in shaping the present but also in restoring the past and in creating the future. For, the Book of Names can certainly be read as an allegory of the power of knowledge and memory, of remembering one’s ancestry (literally remembering their names) and their legacy. The Book of Names, especially when it comes to Hanna, can also be read in the larger context of the slave’s quest for literacy, knowledge, and self-making, which is central to many slave narratives. The wielding of this power – knowledge and memory – then, is what ends white supremacy in the end.
Through Hanna’s creation and Atticus’s recovery of a family line, the past is reclaimed, the present changed, and the future created. As stated above, Hanna’s story and legacy also signal a tremendous transformation: from objectified, brutalized, silenced slave to empowered creator of a family and sculptor of American life and culture. It is a shift in focus that is critical to restoring and reclaiming the past: instead of solely focusing on the dehumanization of slaves, Lovecraft Country subtly stresses the humanity of slaves in the face of constant oppression, as well as their agency in shaping American culture. It is, of course, important to stress that it is a shift in focus, not in the reality of slavery overall, in order not to diminish the atrocities of the institution to any degree. It has been the goal of this very brief paper to draw attention to the central position of the ex-slave Hanna, and of the Black women who follow her in lineage, what the show tells us about the legacies of slavery, and how we can access and understand those legacies today, as well as the issues that might come with such an “accessing” (i.e., with using the Gothic, specifically, to represent the horrors of slavery and to reclaim the past).
Schroder, Anne. “Voodoo and Conjure as Gothic Realism.” The Palgrave Handbook of the Southern Gothic, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, p. 422.