Why Are We Learning About White America’s Historical Atrocities from TV?

How "Watchmen" and "Lovecraft Country" got stuck filling in the gaps in our education

Jurnee Smollett looking very focused and tense, driving an old-fashioned car
Escaping a sundown town in Lovecraft Country
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Black Americans have one hell of a story.

It’s a horror story. The 400-year-long exile of Africans in America started with slavery and shifted to slavery-in-all-but-name under private prisons. Meanwhile, blacks have been subjected to a genocide that over the centuries has never relented, only changed in regards to the tools used to kill us. The fact that white Americans would sooner surrender their own civil rights to authoritarians than allow a smidgen of humanity for blacks highlights the cyclical nightmare of anti-blackness. Erasure also figures into the horror story. Not only does the U.S. government enact violence against black people, they use the education system to ensure our story is hidden—both atrocities we have survived and our stories of heroism in battling white supremacy.

Growing up, I knew better than to trust my majority white school to teach me my actual history.

Growing up, I knew better than to trust my majority white school—where I was learning Confederate revisionism about happy slaves though we lived in 1990s Pennsylvania—to teach me my actual history. Instead, I learned the truth about the past and present of white terrorism from my parents, who grew up in the Jim Crow South and had firsthand experience. And I learned by seeking out black culture. Through novels like Beloved, movies like Rosewood, and Afrocentric books I was able to piece together the history of slavery and genocide in America. A terrifying lesson, but it prepared me for life as a black man. It still manages to upset me how little those stories are known to the general public. 

It wasn’t until graduate school that I learned about the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, now more accurately called the Tulsa Massacre, and this because I was researching Jim Crow pogroms. The information I found online was organized by black scholars from first-person accounts of the survivors, not sanctioned by any mainstream outlet. Thus I took interest in David Lindelof’s HBO series Watchmen, a sequel to Alan Moore’s game-changing 1986 graphic novel, when I learned the story focused around the massacre. 

The pogrom began like many American stories of racial violence—a black man accused of attacking a white woman. When black citizens of Greenwood, many of them World War I veterans, marched to the courthouse to prevent the young man from being lynched, white citizens seized on the excuse to attack Greenwood, known then as Black Wall Street for its many successful businesses. In a move that feels all too familiar for 2020, the National Guard joined with racist vigilantes in an assault on Greenwood that left between 75 to 300 black people dead—reports vary, but, given this is America, we can assume that it was closer to 300. Thousands of black people were displaced, their homes and property destroyed or looted. With a plot based around Tulsa, Watchmen became a touchstone of the 2019 television season and was nominated for 26 Emmys.

Many people I spoke had never heard of the Tulsa Massacre until they’d learned about it from a superhero show.

It is easy to be cynical about Hollywood’s new interest in black history. The Black Lives Matter movement has created opportunities for certain creators to tell their stories now that representation is a bullet point at quarterly shareholder meetings. Corporations are no more “woke” nowadays than when they were selling Elvis records to white teenagers while failing to cite the black artists who originally wrote the songs. In an age where Broadway has to turn the Founding Fathers black to make them seem cool—never mind they waged a revolution in defense of slavery—this could simply mean Hollywood is finally running out of stories to tell about white people. And it is certainly bemusing to find black stories told in the format of prestige television, a genre that has spent twenty years championing white maleness in the form of “antiheroes.” However, beyond cynicism, I was disgusted at how efficiently America has hidden its racial crimes, considering many people I spoke had never heard of Tulsa until they’d learned about it from a superhero show.

Tulsa was far from the only black neighborhood to be razed during Jim Crow. Like similar incidents large and small, it fit the pattern of white men using the “purity” of white women as an excuse for what were in fact economic attacks against upwardly mobile blacks. What makes Tulsa unique is that an atrocity of this scale—the thousand burning buildings, the mass graves—could be thoroughly censored by the U.S. education system, making it the Tiananmen Square of anti-black violence. In erasing the massacre, the government also erased the courage of the black population, who, not long after the invention of the airplane, were shooting back at whites firing on them from the sky.

As expected, the online chatter regarding Watchmen included complaints about introducing “politics” into Moore’s work, these complaints coming from white men who idolized the rightwing vigilantes written by Moore as villains and satirical figures. Moore is an anarchist who sought to deconstruct the fascist subtext in superhero comics, a fact that for decades has been misinterpreted by, well, fascists. Using Watchmen as a jumping-off point for exploring racist atrocity seemed more in line with the graphic novel than the hyper-violent fetishism of Zack Snyder’s inert 2009 film, or the endless nostalgic cash grabs from DC Comics. 

I yearn for a world where someone could present the Tulsa Massacre without sandwiching it in a story about an alternate reality where a giant squid got dropped on New York.

Watchmen is also a weird program. It is a vision of a liberal dystopia where the cops mask up for their own safety from rightwing vigilantes, rather than our world where police collaborate with them. Robert Redford is president and reparations have been made to the victims of Tulsa. It uses Moore’s mythos to explore racism in policing and the idea of vigilantism as black empowerment. However, the very real historical trauma of Tulsa, an event that long went unacknowledged without reparations, is interspersed with scenes of Jeremy Irons comically trying to escape a steampunk prison by torturing and murdering human clones. So weird. It makes me yearn for a world where someone could present the Tulsa Massacre without sandwiching it in a story about an alternate reality where a giant squid got dropped on New York. This very fact highlights how insidiously genocide has been erased in our collective knowledge. 

Lovecraft Country, the adaptation of Matt Ruff’s novel currently in its first season, also illustrates this erasure. The point of the book was to pay homage to the imagery while also critiquing the ideology behind the Lovecraft mythos. It’s a worthy premise. The idea of eldritch abominations with complete cosmic power over humanity loses its horror when put in the context of the black experience, where any mediocre white man can murder you and get away with it. H.P. Lovecraft was an unpleasant hypocrite who served up racism in a glossy sheen of faux-nihilism. “All life is pointless and the universe is cruel,” he would say, then turn around and say, “But these people’s lives are more pointless and we should treat them cruelly.” 

Lovecraft Country is a loving homage to the pulps, each episode referencing tropes from vampires to secret societies to Treasure of the Sierra Madre style adventure serials. I fully expect them to fit some Flash Gordon space opera into the story, and I am here for it. It is deliberately set in the 1950s, a period mythologized as a golden era in American whiteness while grotesque levels of racist violence were occurring; the Emmett Till murder that sparked the Civil Rights Movement happened in the ‘50s. What stands out to me so far in the show is its theme of the black family and reconciliation. Atticus (Jonathan Majors) wishes to become a Magical Negro, and use that magic in his bloodline to keep his family safe. Episode three features a seance that evokes Beloved, in which Leti (Jurnee Smollett) summons the ancestral powers of black spirituality to defeat the kind of antagonistic ghost common in European folklore, and blackness wins. I was especially thrilled in that same episode by a scene of black resistance: when a cross is burned on her lawn, Leti sets about smashing the white men’s cars while black men with shotguns flank her, the closest I’ve seen a mainstream show acknowledge armed black resistance like the Deacons for Defense and Justice.

The show found its way onto the pop cultural radar in the first episode with its most effective moment of horror. The protagonists are attempting to have lunch in a diner when they are attacked by a white lynch mob, and have a car chase out of town with a firetruck in pursuit. It is a terrifying use of the snub-nosed, blood-red fire trucks of old that calls to mind the role of fire departments in enforcing Jim Crow. This breathtakingly tense sequence leads into the final stretch of the episode, when the trio is terrorized by a racist sheriff and his deputies, who are intent on murdering them because they dared to exist as black people in a “sundown town.” As we see these days in Kenosha and Portland (and Minneapolis and Chicago and Baltimore and L.A. and Ferguson and…), police forces have always been active as white nationalist death squads, and Lovecraft Country provides a historical context often ignored.

Frustratingly, this show, like Watchmen, also has to serve as education. Following the premiere, I found much talk online about sundown towns, something that is not taught in American schools. The showrunners seem to be aware that they have the platform to make up for decades of propaganda, as within the scope of four episodes they fit in references to nickel rides, eugenicist experimentation on black subjects, racist hiring practices, rape of slaves, resistance to neighborhood integration, and the looting of colonized peoples among a litany of horrors black people endured and still endure. These efforts, however noble, are also late in the game, and should not be the burden of a horror series on HBO.

The time to teach these lessons was years ago, and in schools instead of on streaming services.

The success of Watchmen and Lovecraft Country highlights the erasure of genocide, and the disastrously belated moment in which America is having its racial reckoning. In 2019, Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series When They See Us provided a long overdue challenge to anti-black bias in the legal system, and it is hard for me not to think about how a certain man called for the execution of the Central Park 5. Maybe it would have been more useful to tell their story while The Apprentice was on the air. Recently a superhero show hinted at a villain being a Neo-Nazi by saying they came from Portland, a reference to Oregon’s Black Exclusion Laws that went over a lot of people’s heads. The time to teach these lessons was years ago, and in schools instead of on streaming services. 

The fact that history is now learned through the commoditized form of media and not presented in daily life has emphasized the intentional blindspot towards anti-black violence, itself proof of the swiftly eroding myth of American Exceptionalism. If another fun pulpy show arises that challenges white supremacy, I would watch it, but it would not make me happy. The concentration camps are already here.

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