Lovecraft Country’s ‘A History of Violence’ and segregated libraries

“The existence of the Southside Colored Library in Lovecraft Country speaks to the segregation prevalent within the American Midwest”

One of my favorite TV series last year was Lovecraft Country (2020), a horror drama series developed by Misha Green, a Black American screenwriter, producer, and director. This Emmy-winning series, based on the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff and produced by Jordan Peele, was one of the most innovative, compelling, and groundbreaking TV shows I’ve seen in awhile. It wasn’t a perfect series — the pacing was all over the place, for one — but watching this show was an exhilarating experience! And I’m not the only one who loved it. The show earned 2 Emmys this past September: Courtney B. Vance won Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for his role as George Freeman, and the series also won for Sound Editing. Among the show’s 16 other Emmy nominations: Outstanding Drama Series, Writing for a Drama Series (Misha Green), Lead Actress in a Drama Series (Jurnee Smollett as Letitia “Leti” Lewis), Lead Actor in a Drama Series (Jonathan Majors as Atticus “Tic” Freeman), Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (Aunjanue Ellis as Hippolyta Freeman), and Supporting Actor in a Drama Series (RIP, the iconic Michael K. Williams as Montrose Freeman).

And although it was reported in February 2021 that showrunner Misha Green was working on a second season, HBO (inexplicably) cancelled the series in early July 2021. Worst of all, they cancelled the series shortly before the show earned the 18 Emmy nominations that I mentioned above. For shame, HBO. For shame. We need innovative, creative, diverse shows like Lovecraft Country!

As detailed in a Rolling Stone article:

“The series follows Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) as he joins up with his friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) to embark on a road trip across 1950s Jim Crow America in search of his missing father (Michael Kenneth Williams),” HBO said in its synopsis for the series, which premieres in August [2020]. “This begins a struggle to survive and overcome both the racist terrors of white America and the terrifying monsters that could be ripped from a Lovecraft paperback.”

From “‘Lovecraft Country’: See First Trailer for Jordan Peele-Produced HBO Horror Series” by Daniel Kreps, Rolling Stone, 1 May 2020

Here’s a look at Episode 4, “A History of Violence,” which includes a scene in a library!

Lovecraft Country: Season 1 Episode 4 Promo | HBO” video uploaded by HBO, Standard YouTube License

Library scene in Episode 4, “A History of Violence”

There are a LOT of different threads and characters in this series, so I’m not going to be able to summarize this episode very well. I mean, I’ve watched the entire series, and even I found the recap of this episode hard to follow! Before this episode, we had earned that Titus Braithwhite, a slave trader, had founded a secret occult society of (White, male) wizards called the Sons of Adam. In the beginning of this episode, Montrose learns where some pages from the Book of Names are located, and Tic does some research on Braithwaite and the Sons of Adam.

At 6 minutes into the show, Leti — having learned some startling news about Tic — stomps up the stairs to the Southside Colored Library to confront him. Although this part of the episode is set in Chicago, we know that this is a segregated library by the sign and name. Again, this show finds ways to reiterate that segregation and racism extended beyond the American South.

The exterior of the Southside Colored Library, as seen in Episode 4 of "Lovecraft Country"
The exterior of the Southside Colored Library, as seen in Episode 4 of “Lovecraft Country”

The outside of the library looks very traditional, with the red brick and white detailing. (I was not able to find out where this scene was filmed. If you know, please leave a comment and share!) Inside, the traditional feel continues, with dark wood tones, book-lined walls, and a fireplace. A portrait of Carter G. Woodson, a well-respected Black American historian, author, and journalist, watches over the library from its perch above the fireplace.

In the screenshot below, we can see a “Quiet Please” sign by the door, and we also glimpse the back and shoulders of a Black woman librarian at the central wooden counter, checking out books to a young Black man. (Both seem to be uncredited in the cast list.)

A bird's-eye view of the library and reel librarian
A bird’s-eye view of the library and reel librarian

As Tic comes back to a table loaded with books, Leti confronts him — and earns the ire of a young boy (Ian McKay as “Cute Kid in Glasses”) who’s reading Journey to the Center of the Earth, a classic science fiction novel by Jules Verne.

Leti: Answer me.

Young boy: Shhhh.

Tic: Could you calm down?

The young boy shushes them!!! And the book he’s reading? It totally foreshadows the adventure we’re about to see in the rest of the episode. It’s too cute — I’m dying, y’all! 😀

As film critic Steffan Triplett wrote:

Give the boy in the library a YA spinoff!

Lovecraft Country Recap: Disappointment Above, Disappointment Below” by Steffan Triplett, Vulture, 6 Sept. 2020
A young boy shushes Leti and Tic in the library
Shhhhh! I’m reading Journey to the Center of the Earth, which foreshadows the rest of the episode!

Ok, back to the episode!

Tic takes Leti to the stacks so they can talk. (We can just spy the young boy seated at the table in the background. I feel that both he and Carter G. Woodson are keeping a watchful eye on them!) Tic and Leti discuss Christina Braithwhite, a descendent of Titus Braithwaite, who is protected under a spell of invulnerability.

Tic and Leti converse in the library stacks
Can you feel that kid’s eyes on me? He’s gonna shush us again!

During their heated, yet hushed, conversation in the library stacks, Tic reveals why he’s at the library — that through research, he’s trying to figure out a way to stop Christina. Leti then stalks back to the table to look at the books that Tic has gathered.

Leti: All right. So what’s all this got to do with her? Go on, tell me.

The young boy then scrapes back his chair, stands, and throws his book down in disgust as he rolls his eyes and walks off. EPIC. This kid knows how to steal a scene. He says so much without saying a word.

Leti and Tic continue their conversation, as she picks up books and looks through them. They discuss the lost Book of Names and a vault that Titus Braithwaite kept his pages in.

Tic: If I can get my hands on those pages, I can learn the Language of Adam and start casting some spells of my own to protect us. 

Leti: Okay. So where’s this vault?

Tic: I don’t know. I’ve been reading everything I can on Titus to try and find a clue. [Leti starts looking through the books on the table.] I might have to go back to Ardham.

Leti: And what? So you can excavate something out of the rubble? They teaching colored boys paleontology in the army now? You need to talk to your father.

Tic: No.

Leti: He probably did all this research and more once he got wind of your mama’s connection.

Tic: I don’t want him involved, or you either, for that matter. [He takes the book out of her hands.] Go home.

Leti and Tic discuss research leads in the library
Leti and Tic discuss research leads in the library

Leti leaves, and Tic looks at the book she was holding. That’s when he spies the check-out card in the front, where “Montrose Freeman” name is written. He then checks other books, and sure enough, Montrose’s names is in those books, as well.

How does Tic react to the realization that Leti was right, and that his father, Montrose, has done all this research already?

Tic: Shit!

Cute Kid in Glasses: Shhh!

I was laughing so hard, y’all! I mean, can’t a kid just read a book in peace?! I know it plays into stereotypes that libraries are quiet tombs, rather than the not-so-quiet centers of community they are in real life, but it’s. just. too. cute.

And the production design and cinematography in this show is top-notch excellent. This boy and his book, set against the backdrop of these card catalog drawers? Chef’s-kiss perfection!

The young boy shushes Tic for a second time in the library!
I said, Shhhhh!

This library scene ends at 9:43, so the scene lasts in total for 3 1/2 minutes. And it is an efficient 3 1/2 minutes, as they cram in a lot of exposition — and humor!

Although we only see a glimpse of the reel librarian from behind, it’s clear that this library serves the role of Information Provider, as she helps establish the library setting. The role appears to be uncredited in the cast list.

Although we don’t see this reel librarian doing much — I mean, the patrons are shushing each other! — I loved this critic’s take on this scene and the library’s collection:

In a whirlwind of world-building and backstory downloading, Tic and Leti meet up in the Southside Colored Library underneath a portrait of Carter G. Woodson to do some research on Titus Braithwaite and the Sons of Adam. I love the idea that this random Chicago library has a huge, extensive section on White Magical Racism. Look, I love libraries and librarians but I do have some questions about the idea that Tic just rolled up to the information desk and was like “Good afternoon, I’m looking for any journal articles or published works relating to a secret society of white men who are trying to destroy the Black race through time travel” and the librarian was like “Oh, that again? There’s a whole shelf dedicated to it next to the Farmer’s Almanacs.”

But, libraries are magical in their own right and Tic and Leti get the information they need.

A Scaredy-Cat Recap Of Lovecraft Country Episode 4: ‘A History Of Violence‘” by R. Eric Thomas, Elle, 7 Sept. 2020

A history of segregated libraries & what this scene reveals

Although I found this scene quite humorous — the rest of the episode gets real dark, real fast — it’s important to note the serious undercurrents this scene reveals and reiterates.

As Sabrina Reed points out:

Lovecraft Country has unrelentingly made the point that Jim Crow’s reach went further than the South and actually encompassed the Midwest and the Northeast as well. […]

The existence of the Southside Colored Library in Lovecraft Country speaks to the segregation prevalent within the American Midwest … Here, Black library patrons can access information or read at the leisure. While the building is not spacious and the collection isn’t vast — Leti makes a quick circuit of the library in mere seconds before finding Tic — the Black citizens of Chicago’s Southside are fortunate in that it they at least have a library. […]

The history of libraries is one rife with a continuous reckoning and evolution stipulated on who has access to information, who is allowed in the room, who is allowed on the stacks, and whose work is displayed, recommended, and purchased for distribution. It’s a history that moves toward increased equity even if progress is slow or hampered by old schools of thought. But, like American history overall, racism and racist practices under the guise of betterment still permeated library institutions.

Lovecraft Country fact vs. fiction: Segregated public libraries” by Sabrina Reed, Fansided, 8 Sept. 2020

While thinking about and writing this post, I couldn’t help but also think back to a post I wrote earlier this year, about the ‘The African American Struggle for Library Equality: The Untold Story of the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program’ video lecture presented by Dr. Aisha M. Johnson for the Augusta Baker Lecture Diversity Series. In this lecture, Dr. Johnson detailed how “Being a librarian was something of honor for the African American community.” Again, a reminder of how much representation matters, onscreen and off.

Have you watched Lovecraft Country? Did you remember the library scene in Episode 4? Did the “Cute Kid in Glasses” make you smile? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used

Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

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