Updated: Jan 3
Cicada Migratoria By Jaimie K. Wilson
A reaction to HBO’s Lovecraft Country SEASON 1 EPISODE 4: A History of Violence and EPISODE 5: Strange Case
By the start of Episode 4, A History of Violence, our protagonists finally start making some offensive moves instead of just playing defense. Leti exorcised a racist poltergeist and freed some tormented Black souls. Atticus decides to find Titus Braithwaite’s translated pages from the lost Book of Names in the hopes of using magic for protection. And Monroe – poor, mean Monroe – attempts to protect Atticus by burning the wizards’ book of bylaws and precepts, destroying one of the only clues that might aid them in their search for the lost pages.
This episode focuses on their search for those pages, taking viewers on an Indiana Jones-inspired treasure hunt through subterranean tunnels, complete with booby traps and dramatic escapes. It’s a fun romp that turns the storyteller’s lens to North America’s indigenous peoples. The secret vault containing the translated pages is hidden beneath a museum which holds artifacts “given in exchange” to Titus Braithwaite for “teaching the savage tribes civilized ways.” After accessing the hidden vault, Atticus and company discover artifacts aren’t the only things entombed within the museum’s grounds.
The pages were originally translated by a Two-Spirit, a hermaphrodite capable of piercing the veil between the world of the spirit and that of men. When she/he realized Braithwaite was evil and refused to translate anything further, he captured and killed the Two-Spirit’s family, eventually sealing them in the vault with her/him indefinitely. When Atticus, Monroe and Leti find the vault, the Two-Spirit’s corpse reanimates and tells her/his story. They free the Two-Spirit, but escaping the vault triggers an old Braithwaite spell, turning her/him into a siren and effectively rendering the Two-Spirit speechless. It’s a setback, but they have the translated pages now and a small spark of hope.
The episode ends with Monroe opening the Two-Spirit’s throat with a razor blade. White folks aren’t the only killers among us.
While Atticus and company are off searching for the lost pages, Leti’s sister, Ruby, has been feeling down and out. She discovers the local Marshall Fields, where she hoped to work, has hired its first “colored girl.” Feeling jealous and bitter, she allows herself to be drawn in by William and although she assures him, “It ain’t gonna happen, white boy,” Episode 5 begins with Ruby waking up in his bed. Thing is, Ruby wakes up in a different body – and it’s white.
Episode 5, Strange Case, is a tale of metamorphosis. For Ruby, a taste of magic allows her to literally shed her skin for a new form for a short while. It’s an intoxicating brew for Ruby, granting her the freedom and power she desires and a temporary escape from the pressures of being both Black and a woman. There is a brilliant section where Ruby stretches her white legs, enjoys a cone of vanilla ice cream at a parlor and reads a newspaper on a park bench. All the while, a piece from Ntozake Shange’s play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” is narrated over her actions. “LET HER BE BORN,” cries the narration, while the visual we see is a rich, white woman. Yet, inside that white cocoon is our Black Ruby, and Ruby is starting to have a good time. She wears a black and white dress, reading a black and white newspaper, but the gloves on her hands are blood red.
As Ruby embraces shedding her skin, she finds herself slipping into the oppressor’s role. She lands a position as the assistant manager at Marshall Fields and begins sniping at the Black girl who was hired there. But when Ruby spies the manager assaulting the same girl, she decides to use the currency of magic in a different way, sodomizes the white manager with her high-heeled shoe. She sheds her white skin over his body and walks out as a Black woman, leaving bloody gobbets of flesh on the floor.
Ruby isn’t the only one transformed. Monroe is the true star of this episode. After being badly beaten by Atticus for killing the Two-Spirit, Monroe retreats to Sammy’s apartment. Sammy, a bar owner we met early in the season, turns out to be Monroe’s LOVER. BOOM. And suddenly, everything we dislike about Monroe makes a sad kind of sense. Monroe isn’t just a broken, middle-aged Black man in the 1950s, he’s a GAY middle-aged Black man in the 1950s. And as much as we are angry at Monroe for his lies and violence, we suddenly understand the alcoholism, the venom and self-hatred. And after a forceful sex scene with Sammy, all the air and bluster seem to seep out of Monroe. He sits quiet and shy in a room full of loud drag queens preparing for a show. Sammy courts him as he dresses for his new performance, “Cicada Migratoria.” We see Monroe as a murderer, as a harsh broken man. The queens see romance and desire, hurt and need. And in the following scene, we are shown it is the queens who have the right of it.
In some anonymous, underground gay club, Monroe is surrounded with acceptance. Even with an eye swollen shut, cuts and bruises, the drag queens still take his hands to dance, to welcome him into the fold. He is made to feel beautiful and cherished and it is enough to crack Monroe’s tough exterior and let his true self out. I wanted to cheer when he kissed Sammy on the dance floor, when he allowed himself to be embraced and held. And when the queens lifted him into the air and he smiled like a child as glitter rained down, I forgave him everything. Like a cicada, Monroe’s spirit was trapped in darkness. Sammy pulls him into the sun.
Despite the deliciousness of white racists getting their comeuppance, Monroe’s metamorphosis is the most honest and moving moment the season has offered so far. Because racism and oppression didn’t just restrict our freedom and rights within society; sometimes it left scars on our hearts, hampering our ability to love our own selves freely, without restrictions or hesitation. Monroe’s healing is a different type of redemption and one we sorely need.
The first child of a white mother and Black Japanese father, Jaimie K. Wilson felt she grew up in the margins of mainstream society. A sense of displacement fueled the search for her own identify, which is why her writing often centers around the quest to know oneself and how strongly someone’s history – when not taken from them – can guide their future.
Jaimie became a newspaper reporter after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 1998 and won several SPJ awards for features on race, culture and family. She was also the recipient of an artist residency for poetry at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. A single mother of two, Jaimie now works as a freelance writer, contributing articles, essays and features to a variety of publications both for herself and various clients. Jaimie is currently working on her first adult fantasy novel, which she hopes to complete sometime before her children drive her completely insane.