Reliquary for the Digital in Nine Key Words ν or II. or □ / Code, the Black Shibboleth, and Demonic Cartography in Lovecraft Country / Elizabeth Reich

The 2020 series Lovecraft Country, produced by Jordan Peele and developed by Misha Green from Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel, offers a speculative critique of H.P. Lovecraft’s genre-defining, racist fictions. Lovecraft is a highly intertextual show, with episodes engaging varying genre conventions (not just horror!), literary texts (from The Count of Monte Christo to Uncle Tom’s Cabin), sonics (Gil Scott-Heron, Sonia Sanchez, and James Baldwin; the theme song from The Jeffersons and Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”) as well as notable iconography and events from Black American history – so much so that the series proliferates meaning without seeming to produce any single, unitary vision of Black history or culture in the United States. Unless it is what Michael K. Williams is reported to have said, quoting civil rights activist and singer, Nina Simone (whose sounds thread through the series): “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times.”1

Reflecting their today, the artists involved in producing Lovecraft created an artwork and narrative that moves across many times, and through a series of temporally disjointed episodes that themselves are also about time. Some episodes are anchored by historical events, like the murder of Emmett Till or the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 while others express temporalities, like Afrofuturism and Einstein’s theory of relativity. Some episodes into the show, Lovecraft begins to rework its own diegetic time, not only through the multiple forms of time travel that become givens in the fiction, but also by introducing an extratemporal dimension to the storytelling, whereby the characters come to learn that they are living out a story written in the future; and that their present and future are both changing in relation to an ongoing rewriting. In a late episode of the series our protagonist, Tic, watches another version of himself appear years before his birth to save both of his potential future-fathers’ lives in an incident shown at the opening of Lovecraft’s first episode. The time shown to us is also a life-sustaining paradox, inviting viewers to (re)consider not only “the times,” but also what kinds of timeBlackness might require or call its own. Ultimately it is only through the alternative discursivity of the Black female body that the time needed for Black survival can be apprehended from a dimension wherein its paradox can be resolved.

Episode 1, “Sundown,” presents the first of the show’s structuring temporal paradoxes as a problem of Black movement in relation to White technology: maps, legislation, delineations, and jurisdictions. With White supremacists operating, surveilling, and enforcing these technological domains, Lovecraft seems to suggest that Black life may only be lived in the realm of the anti-discursive or illogic. In one scene Tic (Atticus), George, and Leti (Leticia) are stopped during their road trip to locate Tic’s missing father Montrose by Sheriff Eustace Hump. Despite using George’s annotated “safe travel” map, they find themselves caught in a nexus of Black Codes: racist sheriffs, the setting sun, the speed limit, and an arbitrary demarcation of territory. After harassing the trio with epithets and threats of violence, the Sheriff finally lets them go, suggesting that if they make a U-Turn they might have a chance to cross the Devon Country Line before sunset. Laws in the county prohibit Black movement after dark, and Hump promises to shoot them if they break them.2

Tic drives as hard but not as fast as he can, because Hump has warned them that if they exceed the speed limit they will be pulled over and will as a result run out of time. The station wagon (called Woody) moves steadily, with the sun beginning to set in the background over a flat landscape. The camera cuts between Woody’s speedometer, Tic’s tensed face as he forces the car forward, holding it at exactly 25mph, and the sheriff’s vehicle repeatedly ramming the back of the wagon. The editing prolongs the chase that is somehow also the opposite of a chase, because no one can go all that fast—and extends the road and county line ahead until it seems to recede against a fast-sinking sun. As opposed to Zeno’s arrow’s ineffective movement while distance yawns in the foreground, time and the sun pass at the same rate and, by comparison to the car, seem to pick up speed. When Tic makes it past the line with seconds to spare, he is met by what the sheriff surely knew would be there for him all along – another sundown county line with a waiting crew of deputies. His movement across demarcated space and earth time, shown by the clock and the progress of the sun, does not bring Tic to new coordinates, and his interpretation of what should have been useful coding on his Uncle George’s map (adapted for Black travelers during Jim Crow) has not helped the travelers.

The why of these failures is answered by the ways in which the sequence—and the series itself—figures the ubiquity of anti-Black surveillance and control, and the impossibility of Black movement in a mapped terrain of White supremacy. Across the series, we that the roads of Lovecraft’s countryside are part of a network of power that in the fiction of the show also extends underground and which draws on ancient language and spells to maintain itself.3 In the last shot of the awful scene, the specter of state sanctioned White violence past and present fills the darkening shot as flashing red, white and blue lights in the dusk…

George’s auto repair shop, where George also runs the “Good Negro Travel” business provides one of the few safe bases amidst White space, time, and technology—providing maps that embed in Black code the road-by-road locations of White violence across the country. His praxis is to coopt and repurpose White routes to fight for Black survival, and provides the first example of this dominant mode of resistance in the series. In the same vein, Tic reiterates the words, books, and enunciations harnessed by White supremacists to steal power from them. and a core group of Black characters use the Sons of Adam’s tunnels to find and connect each other with a fugitive safety and—they hope—the Sons lost Book of Names, though the tunnels were built to enable faster and multidimensional travel between the sites of anti-Black power and experimentation: Hiram Epstein’s house on Chicago’s Northside and Titus Braithwhite’s Ardam House, in Massachusetts.

While Tic’s and Leti’s tunneling, code-breaking, and translations across the episodes seem to move them closer to a necessary truth or originary language that will provide an above-ground victory, their efforts do not really yield progress. Newtonian physics cannot explain or adjust for the warping gravity of White supremacy, and in their travels Tic and Leti encounter repeatedly an image of radical incommensurability that is both a partial resolution and also the sign of what continues to remain irresolvable within the show. The image is of Hanna, Tic’s enslaved, raped, pregnant, run-away maternal ancestor—Hanna stands in the doorway of the burning Ardam house mouthing words that cannot be heard amidst the roar. Titus has mispronounced the sought for shibboleth and Hanna has used the magic Titus cannot gain to destroy him. Carrying Tic’s DNA—a molecular Black code—within, and the soon-to-be-lost Book of Names in her arms, Hanna stands at a threshold in a moment in time between slavery and fugitive self-emancipation.

Hanna seems to be the answer to the show’s various impossibilities as well the revelation of the “truth” of American history: its mixed raced ancestry, its brutality, its thefts and careful disappearing of any such cyphers of Black power. By presenting a robust figure of embodied femaleness, Hanna and the truth she represents would seem also to serve as antidote to the masculinist discursivity that continues to rewrite and then necessitate rewriting itself, first as oppression and then as resistance and both at once and so on again. In his seminal text on the shibboleth (which he also refers to as cypher), Jacques Derrida explains that the concept originates in the Hebrew Bible and is linked in its meaning to the uniqueness the letter in the word that makes its pronunciation challenging. While the pronunciation is meaningful, the meaning of the word is arbitrary, as are at very best the chances for using a shibboleth to gain the protection and/or discursive powers its enunciation should ensure – or at least this is part of Derrida’s critical theorization. Commenting on Holocaust poet Paul Celan’s resituating of the nation-building, genocidal shibboleth from Judges 12 as an anti-fascist enunciation of affiliation and resistance bound to fail, Derrida argues that both the shibboleth itself and Celan’s poetic usage of shibboleth perform a singularity and violence, in part by claiming a decisive time and being antithetical to the work of discourse/language. Instead, there are only endless discursive interventions demanding intervention like those Tic and Leti pursue in Lovecraft, and which in their proliferation Derrida would describe as “holocaustic recurrence[s] of generality.”4

In fact, one problem with the shibboleth that must be pronounced by the right body belonging to the right party at the right time, is that it is bound to arrive too late to disrupt the fascist logics it has been so carefully architected to both demonstrate and destroy. And so, while Hanna as wordless image should be the solution, she is also the persistent undead cypher, and sign of the too-late temporality of Tic and Leti’s methods: holding and held by the logocentric power of the Book of Names. In addition, she is a reminder of the need for translation, mediation, and the imaginary work of the visual and televisual that also capture and inaccurately represent Blackness. A recurrent image of history and the history of Black slavery in the Americas, with her untranslatability, liminality at the threshold, and endurance of the past in the present, Hanna is what Gilles Deleuze has called a cinematic “time-image” rupturing the diegesis through an insistent historicizing and sudden engaging of viewers’ sensory-motor system and affective or phenomenological knowledge. As such, Hanna serves as both sign and signifier of materiality jutting across the diegetic time into that of the viewer, into our out-of-joint present through which we would like to move forward.

But Hanna’s temporality only partially transcends the constraints of the logic and discursive tautology of the show. At first Leti, who is also pregnant with the same line of DNA, cannot locate the image of Hanna because of its irresolvable multiplicity: visible but fugitive, present only in the past, and pregnant with both the unsayable brutality of history and Black futurity as well. But, through conversation with Tic and intense focus, she places her. After a recollection with a series of shot reverse shots that reconstruct a momentarily stable present and establish recognition between the two women, Leti is able to access Hanna’s time and place, and through Hanna the information needed to find the Book of Names. Though Hanna has successfully hidden the book to preserve her freedom in another house that burns, this one in the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, Leti and Tic use tunnels, spells and the technology of time-travel to undo Hanna’s work. When the pair arrive in 1921, Tic watches himself already saving his father and knowing he has been rewritten into his travels by his future son to arrive earlier, in time to save his father – though it is hard to understand how the child revised the story could have been born in a time after which Tic’s father has died before Tic’s birth. Leti in the meantime gains the trust of Tic’s great grandmother Hattie, who has kept the book for Hanna, and is able to convince her to join an extra-temporal circle needed to destroy the spectre of brutal supremacist doctor Hiram Epstein; and also take the Book of Names back to the present, pushing the show toward resolution.

These three women’s connection, and their unlikely cartography traces also the all-but impossible structure and temporality of Black familial reproduction in what Saidiya Hartman has called, referring primarily to foreclosed futures and untimely death, the “afterlife” of slavery.5 In Hortense Spiller’s powerful essay about the ungendering of Black women in this afterlife, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: American Grammar Book,” Spillers argues that captivity and violence, and forced and ruptured lines of maternity and paternity under slavery, transformed Black women into defining ungendering.6 Hanna and Leti, also made unnatural by their paradigmatically natural pregnancies, are connected by two or three point of view shots, by bearing related DNA, by a book of names, and through terrible violence. They are, like all of the Black women, including George’s wife Hippolyta and her daughter Diana, marked by the same untranslatable, enfleshed, hieroglyphics Spillers describes as the illegible discursivity of White supremacy on Black womanhood. Each woman in the show carries those signs of the transformation of human beings who could be mothers into something else that does not fully cohere within the alternative epistemology of the stolen, but impossible to own, Black body.

And so, Hanna and her suspension in immanent destruction also represents the incomplete, incorrect, or perhaps even ontologically impossible resolution of time through only discursivity. Ironically, because Lovecraft’s code is not only discursive that Hippolyta is at first excluded from the work of map-making and code-breaking. She seems to be one of the few characters without the flesh and blood relationship to Tic required for pronouncing the shibboleth. But, Hippolyta’s position in the narrative as the one who questions its construction and later unsettles its temporality suggests that she is in fact not subsumed by the logics of “the times” or the series, either. She has a special knowledge enabled both by her Black female marginalization and body and by her unusual gift with advanced physics its understanding of time as variable, specifically Einstein’s theory of relativity that can account not only for temporal and gravitational warps but also through Hippolyta reanimate Epstein’s orrery (moving model of the stars) and provide access to the Black times than can bring resolution to the season’s series.

Hippolyta extends not only time but the possibilities for Black existence by virtue of her refusals to accept narrative explanation, Earth time, and the limits of the representable. In episode seven, “I Am,” Hippolyta seems trapped in a kind of spaceship or otherworldly location, though the powerful Black spacewoman who talks to her insists she is not. The entrapment turns out to be Hippolyta’s own underestimation of her power. The command, “Name yourself,” from the mysterious woman who in a scene in unprotected outer space appears to be God, turns out to be the gift of wisdom and opportunity for Hippolyta, who has only to pronounce who she is to become that being. By coming to knowing that the shibboleth is hers inherently so long as she can tolerate her beingness as beyond White epistemology and its time, Hippolyta is finally able to produce the shibboleth and use it to effect her chosen transformations. These transformations exceed the terms in which the Bible, Celan, and Derrida—as well as Titus and Tic—regarded the shibboleth, because they are in a dimension that also encompasses the temporal as multiple and itself dimensional beyond what humans have been able to figure.

Hippolyta’s extra-temporal, extra-discursive knowledge is the result of her recognition of her alternative ontology as a Black woman in the American “afterlife,” whose full being and movements cannot be charted. Or rather, her transdimensional cartography, is that of the extra-terrestrial, the unmappable, and the demonic ground geography of the female maroon that Kathrine McKittrick describes as the connections and movements of Black diasporic women.

In Lovecraft, it is this cartography and this illogic that converts at critical moments the rooted tunnels that connect horror house to horror house to a form of underground railroad, however endangered by the fact of earthly Black ontology.7 And it is Hippolyta’s travels into outer space and to a new understanding of Black womanhood—symbolized in the end of the season by her newly-blue hair (matching that of Dee’s comic book creation, Orithya Blue) – that imposes on Lovecraft’s viewers the “holocaustic… recurrence” of the likelihood that in this world and others beyond it, there may in fact be no meaningful category of the human.8

In the final scenes of the show, Hippolyta’s daughter, Dee, who has also intrinsically understood the possible movements for Black women, uses the metal arm her mother brought her from the future to crush Christina’s windpipe and kill her—and becomes the sign of the Black female non-human in her power. Hippolyta’s body has transformed from her travels during which she came to understand Blackness as a freedom. This is a freedom Nina Simone, Misha Green, Saidiya Hartman, and Hortense Spillers do not predict, though the powerful and resonant sonic, imagistic, cultural, and temporal layering of Lovecraft tries to optimistically piece something of it together. Nonetheless, in episode 7, Hippolyta rises off the ground, hangs in outer space, descends to the earth, swoops to the sky—she is not bound to any car, to George’s maps, or to anything besides the world she chooses. In one scene, as she is beginning to discover her freedom, Hippolyta shares, with another self-determined Black woman, Josephine Baker, the tragedy of being too bright a burning star within an alternative circuitry of resistance against American anti-Blackness . In the next, Hippolyta passes out of this realm, moves into the time and place of what Ashon Crawley has called “otherwise,” a “joyful tarrying.”9 Returning, she traverses the discursive no-man’s lands left off the official maps. She might have met Nina Simone singing her anthem for the Civil Rights Movement, “Mississippi Goddam,” that rails against Till’s still ongoing death nine years later, as well as Medgar Evans’s murder and the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing that killed four girls in 1964.

She might have passed through today where a version of Lovecraft is being watched, fixed to its time and that of its viewer, but only in the moment. Today, in 2021, the law says you cannot provide water to those waiting to vote, and it will be hard to vote if you are Black. Mississippi’s broken tunnels and pipes do not deliver needed water to Black residents and the National Guard stays, as it did in 1964, “to help.” The infrastructure of White supremacy is as much a brokenness as those water pipes which one day may pour fire. In the words of Black Arts Movement poet Sonia Sanchez, scored on top of Lovecraft’s rendering of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, “Can’t you smell it coming out of our past? The fire of living / not dying… The fire of Blackness.”10

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  1. Lambe, Stacy. “How ‘Lovecraft Country’ Depicted the Tulsa Race Massacre in Episode 9 (Exclusive).” ET. October, 12, 2020.
  2. Browne, Simone. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.
  3. Bay, Mia. Travelling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance.Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2021.
  4. Derrida, Jacques. “From Shibboleth: For Paul Celan.” Acts of Literature. (New York: Routledge, 1992), 371.
  5. Hartman, Saidiya. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 2007.
  6. Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics. 17, no. 2. (Summer 1987): 64-81.
  7. Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. New York: Doubleday, 2016. Also, Underground. Season 1, episode 1, “The Macon 7.” Directed by Anthony Hemmingway, written by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski. Aired March 8, 2017.
  8. The “category of the human” is a term borrowed from Kodwo Eshun. I examine the relationship between Black being and “the human” through the work of Eshun, Sylvia Wynter, Frantz Fanon and Alexander Weheliye in my essay “Documentary Strain.” Eshun, Kodwo. More Brilliant than the Sun. London: Quartet Books, 1998. 1. Reich, Elizabeth. “Documentary Strain, Black Artists, and the Afrofuture: Terence Nance’s The Triptych.” World Records. 3, article 5 (2018): 46-60.
  9. Crawley, Ashon T. Black Pentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility. New York: Fordham University Press, 2017. Reich, “Documentary Strain, Black Artists, and the Afrofuture: Terence Nance’s The Triptych.”
  10. Sanchez, Sonia. “Catch The Fire (for Bill Cosby).” Full Moon of Sonia. CD Baby. 2004.