If you are Black, then all of these heroes are villains, capes soaked in our blood: On Lovecraft, artists and our perceptions of such
He was always a villain, you know, Surely, you understood it in some way, and you have read many a tale from others, rather like him, wondering how they created such dark, rich antagonists, and heroes so pure and virtuous and frail. Surely, you wondered quietly, as you had retreated to him, and others like him, inside of yourself, often from a world round you that made you feel other, and profoundly Black and alien. Still, somewhere and somewhen, you knew. You felt that coiling bit of unease strike when you noticed how many of those characters were described as semi-human, and dark, and savage. You wondered, somewhere, about the hero, and their second, and the leaders and voices of reason, and everything good in these stories, often being so unlike you, and others of your tribe, and your reality. You tamped down the flames of those wonderings, and closeted many of those inquiries. We all understand it, all of us, in some way, from our own somewheres and somewhens.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a gifted author of horror. Full stop, without qualification. He is arguably the best that the genre has ever produced, and influenced many of the horror worlds, themes and universes produced by authors who came behind him. Again, full stop. I first came across “The Rats in the Walls” during one of my forays into the library, and worked my way around to many of his other books, not quite believing that I hadn’t found him sooner, and that no one had seen fit to put me on to these worlds he had made. I wondered at moments about what I took to be the brilliance of his mind, and the poetry with which he painted horror, and my reactions to it, so visceral. I had been a child of the 80’s , where horror and gore were meant to be experienced as camp and obvious. In meeting with the works of Lovecraft, my somewhen being near middle school, I had been exposed to the genre being elevated to near high art. While I never quite feel in love with all of the genre writ large, I could appreciate the symphony of as told by Lovecraft.
I found a community, wherever I traveled, that expressed some fondness of his work, and in my home, many were dedicated as they too felt so Black and different, and for their first were, like me, meeting with horror, and fantasy, and steampunk, and science fiction, and speculative fiction, and space opera, and were given worlds so unlike our own, and a place to ascend to, as oppose to retreat from. I, we, all of us who had come to think of ourselves as nerd, geek, misunderstood children dropped here by the Dogon on their way elsewhere, had found writers and characters and stories that drew us in. We did wonder why so few of the places and spaces crafted anything resembling us, we were too often preoccupied with bits of self-hatred and quietly punishing those who rejected us and silently agreeing that erasure in our fantasy spaces was palatable.
Then, while a college student in Atlanta, I found myself, like so many others, visiting the histories and humanity of so many of our heroes and titans. Lovecraft’s name was whispered among the worst of these often, and I winced, shook away my doubt, wondered if he were misunderstood in any real way, and went on ahead and researched him. One of my first finds was “On the Creation of Niggers”, a poem which he crafted around age 22 or so. Short, brutal, lived in. I first tried to imagine that he was a racist living in a time when racism was widely accepted, and this may not have spilled into and polluted his art, but how could it not? I was forced to double back to “Dunwich Horror” and “Call of Cthulhu” and deep dive into characterizations and turns of phrases, and wonder aloud, and in private, about this author, and man, his mind, and the works that I had so elevated, even in debate with others.
This would not be the last of those times when I would need to confront myself and my beliefs about art and those who live in our world and the spaces from which they give us the work they produce. I would be confronted later with the realities of Miles Davis and Eldridge Cleaver, and others like them, who had visited traumas on Black women, and I would have to wrestle with where to place them in my beliefs about their humanity, and I had to decide how much of that bleed into my thinking about their art, and determined for myself that there would be no separation.
I would demand of myself that I would struggle with my profound sense of disappointment, and know that I had wanted Lovecraft to be some hero out of his time, understand him to be one floating above the reality of his race and privilege, and context. He was never these things, none of them. He was both a gifted writer, and unrepentant racist. I refused after so many of these battles with the self, to allow Lovecraft to rest where he had chosen. I allowed for the understanding that, given his position and access, even in the time where he had lived, he could have chosen differently. He need not have adopted such insidious views, and he need not have used his not inconsiderable voice to create such a piece about me, about us. He was guilty of being who he was, and I eventually became comfortable convicting him of such.
Ultimately, artists bring parts of their humanity with them as they explain the world to us. They bring that terribly muddled and cloudy lens of their understanding forward for our review and enjoyment, and their human failings are tethered to that stream of consciousness. There are realities there, that should not be excused, and should be, rightly, interrogated. So often, those worlds they build, so far away, but often in a pocket dimension right next to ours, are fueled by the death and blood and erasure of Black people. So often, those worlds and heroes have been elevated on the misery and abuse of women.
Imagine how, years from now, children will view “The Avengers”, seeing how Black Widow, a particularly powerful woman character, presented with a fair degree of agency and purpose, is so often reduced to the sexual or love interest of so many of the male characters which she has teamed with to save the world, and…we must come back to that later you say? Is that because we have not the courage or the energy to assess those supposedly benign pieces of art for the bits of shard and poison they might be for others? Understood. And what of that absurd three minutes in Avengers: Endgame, and having to now correct comics to include women and women of color in spaces where they historically had always been, and explaining to children of color why superpowers and mutant genes would be gifted to White people in such numbers when you would assume that these anomalies would be equally divided and…forgive me, back to the matter at hand.
These slopes aren’t slippery, and the connections to the wider world remain obvious. White Supremacy existed within all spaces, so why not in fantasy, science fiction and horror. These were speculative spaces, so it became ever easier for authors, those given access to the means for producing and distributing their work, to muzzle Black voices, fly away from a world which housed Black bodies, and to give us entire galaxies where life carried on without consideration of Blackness. To sedate that ever present racist fix, artists allowed themselves, perhaps obligated themselves to create savage, subhuman species and lifeforms which so often smacked of references to Black people.
I continue to wonder what my White neighbors think of these works, but realize that many refuse to interrogate these. I wonder how many of those young, and Black and different and alien will stumble across Lovecraft now, and his poem years later, and what their awakening will be, and what can we, I, do now to prevent the coming wave from crashing over them.
I imagine then, that what I needed as a child, what we as a family always needed, were tales that fully represented us. We needed horror, and fantasy, and speculative fiction, and steampunk, and afrofuturism, and cyberfunk, always. We needed to always have heroes and villains and dimensions and operas focused on our lives and ways, entirely, and free of spaces trying to oppress us into self-hatred and isolation.
We, with all of this Black skin and hair, and these strange and lovely ways, belong in every space, every when, and across all dimensions. We Godly out here, and that is what the tales should include.
It is why I have taken to creating works that speak to this issue, and my own battles with the history of the art and artists that I have loved. I have been building a full length novel, “A Gun, to a God’s Head” and a companion short story “A Blade in a God’s Hand”, which focus in total on Black universes, dimensions and characters. I want for you, for children, for my own jostled mind, to know that our voices, heroic and richly villainous, anti-hero and monster, all of the spectrum of personhood, and tales and presences can and should be amplified.
At the same time, I want for us to continue to interrogate our artists, and their art, and their impact. We cannot move humanity forward in any other way, and we can maturely take a balanced view of humans if we struggle with them, and remove their capes and rescind their status, returning it from hero to human, and observing the villain they were for parts of the grand story.