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Lovecraft Country Academically Dissected – Episode 1: Sundown Town

  • Ep 1: Sundown Town 

In episode 1, we are introduced to our hero Atticus “Tic” Sampson Freeman standing in a battlefield filled with an interesting mix of images and interpretations of his life, family stories, and H. P.  Lovecraft pulp writings. Then we are jolted into a reality of Atticus on a bus going north, leaving behind Jim Crow south sometime in the 1950s. However, he is not leaving behind racism. Though the bus he is on is leaving Jim Crow south, he is sat in the “This Part of the Bus is for the Colored Race”. Our first monster, racism, enters the story. When the bus breaks down, Tic is seen carrying the bags of the only other Colored person, an older woman, because, though the driver located a ride for the white riders on the bus, the two Colored riders are left to walk to the next town. As Tic and the older woman walk together, we learn of family troubles between Tic and his father, who is now missing. We also learn why he loves Lovecraft’s pulp. The stories gave a small black boy from the Southside of Chicago adventures. Tic’s companion, however, keeps bringing up the racism within the books, such as John Carter in The Princess of Mars, who was a Confederate soldier. This opened the doorway into Lovecraft’s stories of adventure but did not hide his blatant racism. 

We then find ourselves on the South side of Chicago observing a black couple, Tic’s Aunt Hippolyta and Uncle George, in bed together sharing love and intimacy usually only shared by white couples on television. We see some foreshadowing as George tries to shrink his wife’s ambitions of traveling with him due to society and the fear of what could happen to a black body let alone a black female body. And if you know anything about what happens to the female body during war or simply the rape and beatings black women were forced to endure during our enslavement and often for simply existing, Uncle George fear is not unwarranted. We learn later that George, who releases a “Green Book” or safe Negro driving guidebook, faced both psychological and physical struggles while traveling to research his book, such someone using a bat to break both of his kneecaps while he was driving outside of a town called Anna. Though extremely dangerous, learning where Negro Colored drivers could go to obtain gas, rent lodging, eat, and more in relative safety was incredibly important undertaking. Physical mobility is an American treasure as we are the home of the Model T. Ford automobile, but was predominately only safe to do if one was White, especially during this time period.

As George and Hippolyta lay in bed, Hippolyta observes that the walls are thin. Their daughter, Diana “Dee”, seems to also agree with her mother that the walls are indeed thin. Upon hearing her parents having sex through the wall, like any self-respecting child when faced with their parents sex life, she is disgusted and walks into the kitchen where she is happily surprised to find he cousin Tic back home from war and in town after living in Florida. Tic seems to have truly gone as far away from his father in south side Chicago as he could, even running into the arms of Jim Crow as an escape. Foreboding creeps further into this story. 

We then find Tic sharing a letter written by his father, Montrose, with his Uncle George, his father’s brother. Tic and George also briefly confess their shared love for horror and science fiction novels. Once again, Lovecraft’s racism is touched on when Tic says that his father hated his love of Lovecraft novels and made him read “On the Creation of Niggers”, a poem written by H. P. Lovecraft in 1912, in a bid to rid him of “pulp trash” and turn him on to more “respectable literature”. From the letter from Tic’s, we discover that we must travel with our main characters to a village in Massachusetts called Ardham, which somehow ties into Atticus’ mother’s family heritage and Tic’s secret inheritance. Tic and George decide to travel to Ardham together, with George doing research for the Green Book on the way. We also learn that a childhood friend of Tic’s, Letitia “Leti” Lewis, who was the one girl in the Southside Futurist Science Fiction club, will joinTic and Uncle George on this adventure, or at least for part of it. Leti’s brother Marvin works for the Springfield African American, and Tic and George need to meet up with him to get information on the town of Ardham. 

After reading the mysterious letter his father wrote to him before he disappeared, Tic tries to find out more about his father’s whereabouts. He heads to the local bar owned by a man named Sammy, a place where Tic has often had to gather up his drunk father. Inside the bar, a man named Tree instructs Tic to go out back to find Sammy, the owner he is there to question. When Tic arrives in the alley, he finds Sammy receiving oral sex from a young man. Once Tic makes himself known the action immediately stops with Sammy pulling up his pants and the other guy running off; we never see his face. Though Tic is clearly embarrassed rather than incensed to violence or gay bashing that would be usual. This scene brings up the homophobia that existed in 1950s. Homophobia is yet another monster that enters the story.Sammy tells Tic that he has not see Montrose, Tic’s father, for weeks. Sammy explains that while he didn’t see the car Montrose left in Tree did. The driver was dressed like a lawyer and the silver sedan was clearly foreign and fast.

The night before the three leave, we see them all at a neighborhood party. Here, we meet Leti and her sister Ruby. The two  have a complicated relationship. Make no mistake, there is love there, but with that love comes frustration and years of built up anger, such as Ruby sending Leti money and Leti missing their mother’s funeral. The sisters also have a complicated relationship with their mother, who Ruby describes in a future episode as selfish. We also find out that Ruby has to live somewhere less than ideal because of the cost of paying for the funeral. Foreboding creeps in further. As does the complexity since none of these characters nor their relationships with one another could ever be described as one dimensional, which is territory where black characters usually reside in TV shows/fiction.

The next morning we find Leti packing up Woody, Uncle George’s trusty and frankly beautiful car, for their adventure out. Uncle George has the field guide to gather new information for a new release date, and since he is the publisher, he jokes that he knows that his boss, himself, can be a bear. Leti is riding along until she arrives at her brother Marvin’s home, knowing that Ruby said she could stay with her for only two nights, in other words is unwelcome. 

As Leti turns up the radio and sings to B.B. King causing Uncle George and Tic to laugh; our protagonist Tic turns to look outside of window. We pass a fire station with three men watching Woody pass, their dog in a maddening attack mode. Uncle George states he has a tip on a diner he wants to possibly add to the driving guide. It is a red brick building called Ms. Lydia’s, and though the name on the building they find is different, Uncle George says the location is correct. Ever the book lover, he then instructions Tic and Leti to never judge a book by its cover.Tic responds, “A book can’t refuse you service,” and Leti adds, while staring down two older white women gawking at her, “Or spit in your water glass.” 

Inside the diner, a man stops eating to stare at our heroes, and with a look of disgust, he quickly exists the diner. The teenager working behind the counter seems terrified, and as he hands them menus states, “Let’s start with three coffees” and quickly walks to the back of the diner. Leti and Tic joke about how it doesn’t look like the Simmonsville Diner will be making it into the guide book. Uncle George tells them that they are citizens and their money is just as good as anyone else and reminds Tic he is a veteran for God’s sake! They have every right to be there. Leti excuses herself to go to the restroom, and while walking to the back, she stops and listens to the kid on the phone. He seems very scared and alerts the caller that, ‘No I didn’t serve them…they just walked in and sat down…no I would never. Not after what y’all did to poor Ms. Lydia.” Concurrently Uncle George is taking menu notes for the guide anyway, and Tic is quietly examining the intense white paint of the walls. If you recall, Uncle George stated the diner was called Ms. Lydia’s and was red brick. Tic then ask Uncle George to remind him why the White House is white. Uncle George stops and answers his nephew that in the war of 1812, the British laid fire to the Executive Branch, and when the slaves rebuilt it they painted it white to cover…He does not finish his sentence, because Tic interrupts him. Tic slides a floor tile and says, “The scorch marks!” Just then, we see a running Leti exclaiming, “Move y’all’s asses. We gotta get the fuck outta here!” 

Leti starts the car and brings it to meet Tic and Uncle George who, if you remember, was attacked and had both knee caps shattered. Uncle George tries to get Leti, who he annoyingly refers to as girl, away from the wheel so he can drive. Leti ignores these and does some of the best driving I think Uncle George has ever seen. Though as a civil rights activist I do not think this is Leti’s first time outrunning monstrously racist white people. No sooner are our heroes make it safely in the car than the firefighters come speeding at them in a black truck with one man standing in the bed shooting at Woody. The idea of feminism was not a truly an ism in the 1950s, but in true black women’s legacy is punched into the story through Leti driving. When the three initially head out, she mentions that since she is not allowed to drive she will claim control of the radio. When Leti drives away from the firefighters in Simmonsville who decide to chase our heroes out of town shooting out Woody’s windows, she shows that a woman can drive, and drive like the untraditional civil rights activist she is. And remember that mysterious foreign silver sedan that drove Montrose away from Sammy’s bar? It suddenly appears speeding down a road that is quickly merging onto our own. Once between Woody and the monsters, it turns to its side, and without touching, causes the truck to crash as if there was an invisible barrier, and flip over the sedan due to the speed at which the truck was following Woody. Magic creeps into the story. 

We see later at Marvin’s house how much Leti has altered Uncle George’s mindset regarding his wife. He sees now that she is more than capable of doing a field guide while not on her own but with him, and he tells her that when he speaks to her on the phone. Leti knows how to stand up for herself. She and Marvin get into a heated argument the night they arrive at Marvin’s house, and Leti refuses to back down. I mean the best line of the entire show is “My names not girl! It’s Letitia fucking Lewis!” Leti and Marvin will have further family strife as they hold various past family history against each other. Leti is seen the next  morning silently placing her bags back inside of Woody to continue her journey with Tic and Uncle George as she is unwelcome at her brother’s home. We will discuss the differences between true feminism and White feminism in an upcoming essay, when we will also discuss colorism. There are a lot of important issues surrounding colorism hidden in the argument between Leti and her sister Ruby. Leti does not want to clean the homes of white families, and thinks she can so easily gain employment in a department store when Ruby had been rejected for that very job several times. This subject could honestly be an essay of its own, and we will discuss it more when we arrive to episode 5, “Strange Case”. 

 We end the episode in danger once again in a fight between two monsters. Here, the real monster is the sundown town concept and historical legacy of considering Black people as animals. While Tic, Leti, and George are trying finding the bridge that leads into Ardham, a cop stops behind them on the road in the woods and claims the sun is going down in ten minutes. He informs them that this county is a sundown county, and if he catches them here after sundown, he will lynch them all, including Leti. We begin to visually see the brutality to Black women that is often romanticized or sexualized. Here we see the police act brutally to all of our heroes. We see the concept of psychological abuse of Black Americans as Tic calls the white cop harming him “Sir,” and when asking if they can make a u-turn the cop forces Tic to say, “Pretty please will you let this smart nigger make a u-turn here?” so they can get out of the county before sundown. The cop also informs them that if they speed he will pull them over and then kill them all. However while literally racing the sun and maintaining the 25mph speed limit the same cop speeds behind them ramming the front of his cruiser into Woody’s bumper. This is his intimidation tactic to edge them into speeding so he can pull them over and kill them all. 

Once across the train tracks designating the county line, Tic, Leti, and George think they are safe. Then, a group of cops pull them over again, falsely accusing them of burglary. We heard from Marvin about how horrible the police in this area are and that Black people have been going missing. We are led to believe that this is due to animals in the woods, but once the police force our heroes into the woods completely off the road we are introduced to the concept of monsters being not simply being racism in the North or Jim Crow in the South, but actual Lovecraft blob monsters, Shoggoths, with one thousand eyes. The monsters attack some of the police and chase everyone else into an abandoned cabin. George realizes that the Shoggoths hate the light, and suggests someone gets the car to use its headlights. The power-hungry über racist sheriff suggests that Tic would abandon his family to save himself, which is a common narrative that Black men are not loyal and abandon their loved ones to save themselves. This leaves Leti, our former high school track star, to save the day by running through the monster-infested woods to Woody and bring light back into this dark moment since the fairly useless police only had flashlights. The power is rebalanced. The Black heroes have the power. The Black woman saves the day. We then hear a high pitched whistle and the Shoggoths are called off. 

While we find this intense saga of monsters attacking humans in the woods  so stereotypical, and something that can be found in any horror novel or film, the true monsters in this attack are the White police officers. For the racism never ends; they continue to minimize our heroes with violent language and weapons. They continue to only care about their own safety over anyone else’s. Their humanity is never found. There is no uniting as humans against the beasts. To the white policemen Tic, Uncle George and Leti are also the beasts to be survived. 

With the peace found in the aftermath of all this trauma, our heroes have to do what Black Americans are forced to do every day—solider on. The heroes make it to Ardham and the house from Montrose’s letter, and we find the silver sedan out front. We learn further about Atticus’ sacred secret birthright from his father’s letter that brought him back to Chicago from Florida. We end with a very Nordic pale blonde blue-eyed white man opening the door in a subservient manner and addressing Atticus with respect saying, “Welcome home Mister Freeman, welcome home.”

Further Readings: 

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