Atticus (Jonathan Majors) and Leticia (Jurnee Smollett) in Lovecraft Country. (Photo credit: HBO)
Lovecraft Country has taken us all by surprise. The season is not just promising us an extreme commentary on America’s race problems–it’s also giving us nods to moments in time illuminating the unspoken parts of American history. Here are six of those moments that jumped out to me.
The Martian princess
At the beginning of the episode, we see Atticus’ dream of Korean War memories and pulp fiction. A red Martian princess comes down from a spaceship and welcomes him with a hug.e
As Collider writes, the red princess is probably a reference to a character developed by another racist writer, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs is perhaps known for his fantasy books about Mars, the Barsoom series, as much as he is Tarzan, both of which have racist underpinnings. As Collider writes, Chung’s red princess is a nod to Dejah Thoris, Martian royalty, and the love interest to Burroughs’ lead character, John Carter. As we learn in the scene in which Atticus and the Black female traveler are walking to Chicago, Carter was a soldier in the Civil War. More than likely, he was a Confederate soldier, seeing how he was also a Virginian.
As Collider reports, the Barsoom books might have tons of swashbuckling and adventure, but they are also full of racist ideology. “It’s also worth noting that in Burrough’s Barsoom series, there is a hierarchy among the alien races with skin color playing an important factor,” the article states. “The Barsoom lore says the red alien race is the dominant one but has resulted from the generations of fair-skinned, yellow-skinned, and black-skinned alien races producing children.”
As you can imagine, all of this plays into a white supremacist way of thinking–many white supremacists still believe in racial Darwinist theories about cranial differences among races and other methods that have been disproven for decades. One approach among this lot is that white men are the most evolved form of humans on earth. According to this logic, the darker a human is in skin color, the closer you are to a primitive animal. With this in mind, you might be able to see how having people of color playing the hero and princess roles subvert the hierarchy Burroughs established in his books.
If you want more analysis of the opening sequence, including more explanations about the appearances of Jackie Robinson and the War of the Worlds-like fighting sequence, check out Collider’s article.
The speech that acts as a backing track to Atticus, Uncle George, and Letitia’s horrible experiences traveling across the country is James Baldwin’s speech during a “debate” of sorts with conservative William F. Buckley. As Men’s Health reports, the men spoke at Cambridge Union “to discuss whether the American dream came at the expense of Black Americans[.]”
Naturally, Baldwin believed that Americanism as a construct hinged on Black subjugation. He said in part:
“I don’t disagree with Mr. Burford that the inequality suffered by the American Negro population of the United States has hindered the American dream. Indeed, it has. I quarrel with some other things he has to say…It would seem to be the proposition before the House, and I would put it that way, is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro, or the American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro. Is the question hideously loaded, and then one’s response to that question–one’s reaction to that question–has to depend on effect and, in effect, where you find yourself in the world, what your sense of reality is, what your system of reality is. That is, it depends on assumptions which we hold so deeply so as to be scarcely aware of them.”
Baldwin’s statement about America hinging on Black oppression acts as a primary source for the thesis Lovecraft Country presents through Atticus, Uncle George, and Leticia’s experiences. The type of America showcased in Leave It To Beaver can only thrive if the other America, the one filled Black people and other minorities who are pushed down and criminalized, remains stalled. If America is built on that premise, how can it be a land of the free when even those who are “free” are chained because of others’ oppression?
The idea of two Americas is showcased expertly when especially when our trio drive by the billboard showcasing an affluent, prosperous White family on a road trip with the words, “World’s Highest Standard of Living” emblazoned across the top. In front of the billboard is a line of poor Black people at the bus stop.
The image of poor Black people in front of the “World’s Highest Standard of Living” propaganda billboard was taken by Margaret Bourke-White, a White female photojournalist. According to Wikipedia, she became the first Western photographer to take photos of industry in Russia (then called the Soviet Union) in 1930. Throughout the ’30s, she would travel around America documenting the Depression and the Dust Bowl, with her photo of the Black poor, “Kentucky Flood,” appearing in Life Magazine. The image has reverberated throughout American history and pop culture, being used as the inspiration for the album artwork for Curtis Mayfield’s 1975 album, There’s No Place Like America Today.
Suppose you remember seeing the camera linger on a well-dress Black woman and young girl. In that case, you might not have realized that you were looking at an immaculately-styled reference to one of Gordon Parks’ most famous photographs, which was part of Parks’ The Restraints: Open and Hidden for Life Magazine. As Newsweek reports, the image of the woman and child is of Joanne Thornton Wilson and her niece Shirley Anne Kirksey. The two were photographed outside a department store in Alabama. Several other photos from the series were used as references throughout the first episode.
The photograph was part of Parks’ massive library of images documenting the Jim Crow south. I featured Parks in my book, The Book of Awesome Black Americans, and how he contributed to our arts culture today.
Gordon Parks is one of the greatest photographers to document Black life in America. Parks’ love for photography began in his young adulthood when he saw images of migrant workers in a magazine. He bought his camera at a pawn shop and learned how to use it. He was talented–even though he had no professional photography experience, he was able to secure a job with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to take photo evidence of various social issues happening around the country.
After the FSA closed in 1943, Parks had to find work as a fashion photographer until Life Magazine hired him after viewing his 1948 photo essay on the life of a Harlem gang leader. His position with Life made him the first Black staff photographer and writer for the publication, breaking the color line at Life and furthering the African American footprint in mainstream photography. He also became huge in Hollywood, becoming the first African American to write and direct a feature film, 1969’s The Learning Tree, based on Parks’ book of the same name. In 1971, he also directed Shaft, one of the most iconic blaxploitation films ever.
The Green Book
I know you’ve heard about the film Green Book, but there’s more to the actual Green Book than that whitewashed story featured. The real story starts with Victor Hugo Green, a mailman who realized Black travelers were underserved niches in racially-segregated America. Here’s a bit on him from my Lovecraft Country review:
The Green Book, otherwise known by its official title The Negro Motorist Green Book, was published by Victor Hugo Green from the ’30s through the ’60s. The book is what Uncle George Freeman (Vance) is working on and what he uses to justify him going with his nephew, Atticus (Majors), and Atticus’ friend Letitia (Smollet) on a search for Atticus’ missing father (Williams).
The Green Book was first published in New York in 1936. But, according to Wikipedia, the book “expanded…to cover much of North America, including most of the United States and parts of Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda.”
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Green developed the Green Book after he and his wife’s experiences traveling from her home in Richmond, VA, to their married home in Harlem, NY. He based his book on his experiences and recommendations from his co-workers and utilized a similar publication style from Jewish travel guides in Jewish newspapers to frame his book.
The first book, which only covered New York travel, was published in 1936, but demand was so high that subsequent issues focused on national travel and travel essays, safe driving tips, sightseeing guides, travel tips, and more.
Even though the two resources I read for this article didn’t mention anything about the Green Book business creating local agencies for writers, I imagine that Green Book hired freelancers to have so many different sections. We might know more about Uncle George’s affiliation with the Green Book later on. Still, for now, I’m assuming he’s a freelancer, or even a former post office worker (since that’s where the majority of Green’s travel recommendations came from). George could also be someone who worked in the Negro Affairs for the United States Travel Bureau. This bureau was part of the Department of the Interior and headed by Charles McDowell, who worked with Green on expanding the Green Book.
The Green Book helped travelers avoid, or at least safely travel, sundown towns, the type of communities our trio frequently ran into during the first episode.
Jim Crow-abiding sundown towns were towns where Black residents or travelers couldn’t be out after a specific time of night–typically when the sun went down, as the name suggests. After which, it was virtually free reign for white people–police or civilian–to terrorize Black Americans. The sundown town’s status was either upheld by real estate agents in the area who used exclusionary covenants dictating who could live in specific neighborhoods or via the town’s law enforcement.
As Wikipedia states, the towns, also called gray towns or sunset towns, were all-White communities that prohibited minorities from entering or remaining in the communities without harassment. Punishments could range from “minor” acts like threats to hardcore punishments such as lynching. Keep in mind that with “laws” as they were in these towns, people could find any reason to lynch any Black person.
Minorities prohibited from sundown towns were, of course, Black people, but also Chinese, Native Americans, Mexicans, Japanese, and Jewish people. One thing of note: Lake Forest, Ill., apparently still had anti-Black, anti-Jewish neighborhoods until the 1990s. Also, while there are technically no more sundown towns in Alabama, there are still areas where many Black people will not dilly-dally in if they’re on the road because of the area’s history. Those examples are just two showing how deep-seated racial discrimination and violence is in America.
Which Easter eggs jumped out to you?