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Credit: HBO

The two sides of empowerment for Black women in Lovecraft Country

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Oct 27, 2020, 6:00 PM EDT

Misha Green's HBO series, Lovecraft Country, did a great job making me feel uncomfortable through most of its first season. Much of that feeling had to do with the show's treatment of darker-skinned characters. Their story arcs and representation matter because colorism has been a longstanding issue within the Black community — while it also exists as an even bigger universal problem. However, since we were given darker-skinned characters on the screen, I want to focus on their existence, how the characters were affected by their journeys, and what I felt and subsequently had to process as a viewer.

Two episodes held my attention, for better and for worse. Episodes 5, "Strange Case," and 7, "I Am," focus on the fatter and darker-complexioned Black women in the show, both of whom get a taste of what life is like without having limitations placed on them because of who they are. Ruby and Hippolyta's journeys couldn't be any more different. Their choices in their episodes demonstrate that it matters who you let empower you, and ultimately what you decide to do with that power once you have it.

"Strange Case" focuses on Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku), Leti's tired old sister. Ruby's fatigue was palpably felt, a painfully recognizable brand of bone-tired. Here was this woman who had made it this far in life on her own, working twice as hard to receive a fraction of what someone lighter and thinner would receive by doing nothing more than just being lighter and thinner. So, when the opportunity came for her to finally get the world to give her the respect and recognition she felt she was owed, it was understandable why she made the choice she did.

The catch to Ruby's unmitigated freedom came at the cost of all that she was, all that she could be, and she put her trust in someone who selfishly withheld who they were until it was too late. At the end of the day, Christina Braithwhite (Abbey Lee Kershaw) had nothing to offer Ruby but pounds of white flesh, deceit, and a taste of freedom that left her drunk off the power of it. Ruby finally secured a job at Marshall Field's in the body of a woman named Hillary, a white and thinner body than her own. It doesn't stop there, though. Once Ruby learned that a thinner Black woman had been hired, she leaned into the leverage white women have over Black women in the workplace, verbally attacking her without fear of any recourse.

Credit: HBO

This was one of several moments in this episode that made me feel nothing but discomfort, and I hated it for her character. It is terrible that Ruby's frustrations are used to validate her decision to weaponize her suit of whiteness. It's true that Ruby wasn't doing anything that hadn't been done to her before as a Black woman, but even allowing that, there was absolutely nothing cathartic in witnessing her repeat those same actions against another Black woman — a Black woman who likely had as little control over being hired for the way she looked as Ruby had of being passed over because of the way she looked.

Christina's brand of freedom wasn't the healing kind. It was destructive and insatiable. It's how I think of white feminism, another power grab for the same power that white men hold — which is the bulk of what white power is, after all. Just look at Christina. She was a whole white woman herself, and what she played up to Ruby as unmitigated power as a white woman was in fact not true. She had to become William, a white man, in order to secure the full breadth of that power and use it to achieve immortality.

Credit: HBO

I also struggled to find any catharsis in Ruby's violent revenge against the white store manager who sexually harasses the same young Black woman Ruby chastised at work. The harassment would have possibly never happened had Ruby not volunteered her to take the rest of their white colleagues to the South Side of Chicago for a good time on the Black side of town. I don't bring this up to absolve him of his abhorrent behavior, but rather as a reminder that how Ruby chooses to operate as Hillary is important. He deserved everything she gave him, but the full context in which her revenge is carried out felt more destructive than freeing.

Instead of dismantling the oppressive forces around her, Ruby's journey felt as though it was dismantling her each time she shed off her Hillary suit — living bits and pieces of herself as she went. Ultimately, Ruby pays for opening herself up to someone who never deserved that vulnerability from the start. Nothing about their relationship was something to admire. Susan B. Anthony would be proud of Christina. Instead of cutting off her arm before a Black man could gain full control over magic, she sacrificed a Black woman who was tragically foolish enough to trust her and believe that she would put her best interest before her own.

"I Am" was a stark departure from Episode 5 and, honestly, the entire season. It was my favorite episode because of the treatment of the focal character. Like Ruby, Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis) is someone who had amazing potential cut short by the world she lived in. She is headstrong and brilliant. So, when the math wasn't adding up when it came to her husband George's death, she decided to see for herself, traveling through the same sundown towns as her husband, Leti, and nephew Tic traveled — but she did so alone. It speaks to how formidable of a woman she was before she ended up in a completely different dimension.

Credit: HBO

Hippolyta had to leave her daughter, Diana, in the care of adults who she thought were capable of keeping her safe, but that turned out to be a lie. It's no easy feat to trust others to take care of your child, especially if it's to do something for yourself. Guilt is never too far away for a parent who is honoring who they are outside of their role as a caregiver. This is the crux of Hippolyta's episode, honoring all that she is and could be in this world and others.

She ends up in the presence of an omnipotent being named Beyond C'est, who presents themselves to Hippolyta as a Black woman. This being sent Hippolyta through a multiverse in which she got to be with her idols, ancestors, husband, and anywhere else she chose to be each time she named herself. It's a freeing experience, and what seemed like a healing one for Hippolyta, even in the most violent part of her travels. She even receives closure and an apology from a man she loved but was very much to blame for adding to the ways her greatness was limited. Unlike Ruby, Hippolyta had someone who, at their core, cared that she received all that she needed and more, a being who bestowed this power of freedom upon her. This woman, whose desires were stunted by her husband's ambitions and her duties as a mother, was free to be anything she could name herself. Hippolyta had the universe at the tip of her tongue and ultimately decided to name herself mother to return to her child, a selfless act to end her adventure.

It's not like Hippolyta intended to be gone for as long as she was, but she did leave Diana in the care of adults who had no business watching over anyone's child. So, as liberating as Hippolyta's journey into freedom was, it was also bittersweet because she wasn't around to protect the most important person in her life. As a mom, I can sympathize, and I go back and forth with how delicate a balance it is to be a present parent who doesn't lose themselves along the way. Hippolyta had every right to go searching for answers. After all, that's exactly what her husband did and wound up getting killed in the process, leaving all the parental duties squarely on her shoulders.

Credit: HBO

Hippolyta and Ruby took what they were given and did what they felt they needed to do with it. They put their needs first when allowed to do so, an act that's already difficult for Black women. I hate that Ruby's frustrations clouded her judgment, and I hate how Hippolyta's journey is marred by the guilt and fallout of not being around when her daughter needed her most. It's all more bitter than sweet, but it's what Green's Lovecraft Country gave us in the end.

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