HBO’s Lovecraft Country presents a terrifying glimpse into the cultural landscape of Jim Crow America, focusing the audience’s attention on the tools of colonial oppression that defined the period. Drawing on the postcolonial work of Willinsky (1998), Mbembé (2003), Patterson (1982), and Fanon (2001;2017) as well as Wilderson’s Afropessimism (2020) and Womack’s Afrofuturism (2013), I engage with the productive tension between Afropessimism and Afrofuturism that pervades Lovecraft Country. This tension, between aspirational fantasizing about the future and the stark reality of social death that many still face in the present, is crucial to Afrocentric science fiction and a valuable point of focus for educators. Afrofuturists like Octavia Butler and Sun Ra aimed to create a space where “possibility permeates contemporary reality” (Paris, Forthcoming). Yet their work also takes seriously the Afropessimist concern that aspirational counter-storytelling is insufficient for genuine liberation. By drawing on these tensions in Afrocentric science fiction, educators can help their students to prepare for the complexities and challenges of living in a world shaped by ongoing colonial projects. Helping students engage with these tensions conveys honest uncertainty regarding the combination of hard and soft power needed to dismantle colonialism.
Using Lovecraft Country as a model for engaging with Afrocentric science fiction, I focus on two categories of postcolonial knowledge production highlighted by Willinsky in Learning to Divide the World: naming and geography. From the middle of the 18th century onward, the fields of naming and geography have produced key tools for constructing and maintaining the apparatus of colonial necropower discussed by Mbembé. These tools have allowed colonial empires to centralize their power while generating a permission structure for domination so that colonialism could survive attempts by social activists to widen the moral community and thereby demand social reforms. The work of scientists served to explain the success of colonial conquest and justify it as a natural and moral hierarchy between benevolent educators and uncivilized brutes, providing “linkage between structure
and representation” that short circuited human inclinations towards fairness or compassion (Omi and Winant, 1994, p. 56). Interpretation laden observation of group dynamics by biased colonial observers structured those relationships into narratives where meaning was assigned to difference: “The legacy of imperialism is about forms of knowledge that preserve and complete the hegemony of the knower” (Willinksy, 1998, p.74). Educators can illuminate these harmful uses of colonial knowledge production by analyzing their overlaps with the magic in Lovecraft Country, which also centers on naming and the control of weird geographies, and is used by the antagonists to preserve racial dominance.
Against the background of this colonial hegemony, we can then foreground the tension between Afropessimism and Afrofuturism in Lovecraft Country. In Afropessimism, Wilderson argues that the social death of Black people is either permanent or can only be changed through revolutionary violence. Wilderson’s pessimism is strongly echoed by many of the changes that Misha Green makes in adapting Ruff’s book. Yet Green also substantially develops the Afrofuturist threads of the book in a way that emphasizes the reclaiming of control over naming and geography as crucial to manifesting a more equitable future. Both elements are presented as crucial to the project of transformative liberation, yet the tension between them remains. The Afropessimist themes produce a healthy skepticism about interest convergence, but that skepticism must be tempered with aspirations to avoid the sort of spiral into nihilistic psychosis that Wilderson experienced while wrestling with the permanence of social death. Afrofuturism provides the positive obsession needed to keep moving forward, but it still leaves us like Dee, stuck with hard choice about whether change can really be achieved without violence.
While there is an understandable urge to try to resolve these tensions into a tidy conclusion, to summarize what the art “really says” about our reality, I think following that urge can be a pedagogical mistake. As a piece of fiction, Lovecraft Country can expose students to ideas in ways that argumentative prose cannot. For example, Lovecraft Country can end with an apparent endorsement of revolutionary violence without eliciting accusations of dangerous incitement. Perhaps that is part of how the possible permeates the actual through Afrocentric science fiction, through the reclaiming of necropower. Tic’s final plea to Montrose "to teach [his] son new ways of living, instead of repeating what we've been through” sits in stark contrast with having Dee kill Christina in the final moments of the show. The ending of Lovecraft Country is not tidy, because history and politics are not tidy. There’s no reason to believe that the end of social death in our world, if it ever comes, will be any more tidy. We’re left hoping that a better possible permeates the actual through the most peaceful means available, with a sober recognition of the challenges colonialism presents for achieving that dream. There is pedagogical value in encouraging students to sit with that disquieting reality.