Panel 1: The African American Body

 

Southern Gothic and the Grotesque Body in the Works of Jesmyn Ward
Katerina Psilopoulou (University of Cambridge)

The grotesque has had a peculiar relationship with the Southern Gothic, and is particularly identified with the works of Faulkner, O’Connor and Carson McCullers. Many definitions have been proposed for this exceedingly slippery term, yet what is consistently repeated is an emphasis on the physically or mentally deformed figure, of a body of excess that challenges the world’s limits and hierarchies. In the Southern context, grotesque bodies are often condensed symbols of issues plaguing the South such as oppressive ideals of womanhood and the lingering trauma of slavery and racial violence. In Ward’s work, the grotesque is often represented by a physical state that is interpreted as deformity, such as an unplanned teenage pregnancy or drug addiction, problems that indeed plague the South but which are also figured racially and morally; that is, they are displaced onto poor Black communities and deemed problems specific to them as a race and class rather than a widespread social phenomenon. However, Ward destabilizes this association by expanding on the idea that the true grotesque is found in the social conditions that disenfranchise African American Southerners and other minority communities. Focusing on Ward’s novels, specifically Salvage the Bones (2011) and her memoir, Men We Reaped (2013), I argue that she uses the conventions of the grotesque to challenge the problematic idea that physical or mental disability is an indicator of either childlike innocence or moral corruption. Instead, her characters are victims of an environment of sustained structural violence which deems their bodies grotesque and morally reprehensible while ignoring the history of systemic racism and disenfranchisement that drove them to the margins of society.

 

Ethnic Negotiations in Lovecraft Country: Using the Gothic to Discuss Systematic Racism in the US
Alejandro Batista (Universidad de Sevilla)

That H. P. Lovecraft is one of the greatest minds in the gothic genre is a widely known fact. His imagination and his capability to design new worlds, dimensions and creatures earned him the category of master of the horror and early science-fiction. Therefore, when HBO advertises a brand new series with the title Lovecraft Country, you just need to watch it. The intention of this presentation is to analyze the series as a whole as a discussion on the systematic presence of racism in the United States and to point out the different uses of the Gothic as a means to represent the evil of racism and to comment on racial and gender quandary. Gothic models and representations are employed throughout the episodes, as well as the incorporation of various Lovecraftian inventions — such as the Shoggoths or the fictitious city Arkham — and references to other Gothic benchmarks such as Dracula. Apart from the clear-cut literary references, there is an element which dominates the whole story and which is the conductor of the plot in general terms: The Book of Names; a book which was written and kept by the all-White, all-male group that goes by the name of “The Sons of Adam.” As inferred in the series, this spell book is what grants the members of this organization political power and supremacy. Used correctly, its magic could even bestow immortality, which is in fact what Christina Braithwaite — the daughter of the headmaster of “The Sons of Adam” — ultimately seeks. However, what I argue is that magic itself, embodied by this spell book which resembles Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, is the main Gothic element and the key to reverse the ethnical code in this Jim-Crow-period series. Thanks to the legacy which runs in the protagonist’s veins, this African American can subdue his white opposites through the use of magic, for he is the last descendant of the founder of this powerful Order. In general terms, and besides the different additional Gothic features which contribute to the criticism of systematic racism in the US, it is this supernatural magic which is the catalyst for the turn in racial roles and for the confirmation of the Black characters as ultimate victors of the series’ racial negotiation.

 

Race, Metamorphosis, and Body Horror in HBO’s Lovecraft Country
Elena Apostolaki (University of Cologne)

Lovecraft Country is based on Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel and explores the weird and horrifying world of H.P. Lovecraft and the very real Jim Crow-era racism that plagued the U.S in the 1950s. The series, developed by Misha Green and produced by Jordan Peele, places Black protagonists at the center of a Lovecraftian horror story. The show’s commentary on social horrors of racism also uses the powerful sub-genre of body horror to address whiteness, privilege and class division. In “Strange Case,” Ruby Baptiste is subjected to a potion and wakes up as a White woman. She soon discovers how much easier life is as her fabricated alter ego “Hillary Davenport.”  This transformation allows Ruby to gain agency and the social protection whiteness can offer. After being “rescued” by a couple of racist White cops who assume she is in danger among her Black neighbors, Ruby in the form of Hillary is treated with respect, before being taken back to William’s house. Meanwhile, her borrowed body begins to crackle and break as the spell wears off. Her skin crawls and Ruby screams in panic, followed by William dragging her to a rug on the floor, plunging a carving knife into her chest and grotesquely cutting her out of the White body. After William makes what it is later proven to be a Faustian bargain with her, Ruby takes advantage of the potion and feels a sense of liberation and joy in the disguise of a White woman. Ruby starts working as an assistant manager at Marshall Fields and explores the privileges of life as a White woman. Ruby’s view of her own superiority compared to her Black co-worker, Tamara, with less experience is heightened when she is in the body of white Hillary and surrounded by white co-workers who accept her. However, her initial joy quickly vanishes as her resentment over racial disparities grows. Ruby’s transformations back and forth are full of grotesque imagery—and seem quite painful—, which indicates just how badly she wants access to the privileged world of whiteness. Her desire to simply have security in her daily life is so strong that she is willing to go through this horrific process. Reflecting on horror transformation found in Stevenson’s novel Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Glazer‘s film Under the Skin, “Strange Case” is all about metamorphosis and provides a refreshing take on race, agency, authority, and privilege.