In Defense of Waithe’s Nightmare: Notes on Black Horror, Gore and ‘Them’

We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.

Langston Hughes, The Negro Artist and The Racial Mountain

The cultural critics spot a repetition across Waithe’s ‘Them’ and Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ and ‘Get Out’ and this was the start of the outcry. Thou shalt not repeat. Yet? What this black horror cinematic imaginary unveils is an unconscious stream of a nightmare of which we are all too unwilling to face. Waithe’s production of a nightmare repeats Peele’s nightmare and this need not be a reason to dismiss the dreamwork. For our dreams, like our murders, repeat like nightmares with no end in sight. Therefore, if the black horror cinematic imaginary instantiates a scene of repetition one shouldn’t be surprised. Our murders repeat. The horror repeats. The nightmare repeats with slightly different angles, different takes, different visions, bodies, and experiences. Waithe ‘repeating’ Jordan Peele’s movie would not even be a concern if we were talking about white horror films since everyone knows that horror plays to a series of repetitious tropes that make the idea of a ‘slasher film,’ for example, coherent as a subgenre category at all. Yet, black horror could and perhaps ‘should’ (unspeakable ethics) have a repetition around the horror of proximity to whiteness which is not always something we overcome but still tends to be terrifying. This is a note about horror, Blackness and the imagination.

What nightmares are Black people allowed to share? And if nightmares are attached to trauma, or if what Black people find horrifying replays and reanimates what Black people experience on the daily then is the onus on Waithe to not share her ‘nightmare’ or is the onus on the World to not reproduce the scenes that make us oversaturated with the images of black death that condition the possibility of what Waithe considers to be horror? If there is something abominable in Waithe’s portrayal of Black horror, trauma and psychosis it cannot lie simply in the fact that it ‘repeats.’ Waithe’s nightmare (which repeats Peele’s nightmare) accentuates violence and terror in ways which cannot be found in Peele’s nightmare. This, too, has be taken to describe the difference between Waithe’s horror and Peele’s horror. The current uproar centers primarily around the grotesques depiction of black suffering. The historical ontological relationship between blackness and the grotesque – where the seeing of blackness has always been historically spectacularized into the very semiocorporeal embodiment of the grotesque -places all black horror into haste relations with “gore.” The cultural critic – always the humanitarian – raises the question of gore spectacularization in black horror precisely because the gore of black life in reality. The argument: everyday black experience includes the inundation of images of black gore, ‘we’ do not need to witness anymore black gore. Such a truth puts the black horror cinematic imagination – which repeats – into a hostile relationship with its reality and symbolic order. How to showcase black death in horror, or even better, how to portray the nightmares of black people without spectacularizing death? Waithe’s nightmare relies on the historical-racial schema of colorism as a visual grammar of anti-Black violence to produce a film which literally peels back Black flesh. Yet, rather than fall into the trap of optimism and representationalism that would make Peele this righteous counter to Waithe’s gory horror, I’d prefer to ask a separate question. What happens when we view these films as depictions of black nightmares? What if all these visuals consisted of storylines of the things that spooked the spooks? (see David Marriott, Haunted Life)

Black horror will range in its elaborations of violence starting from barely any violence to absolute gore. The decision is on the artist and the cultural critics will critique this decision as if they are food testing the amount of salt and pepper in a meal. Yet ‘Them’ is yet again another tale of how the horror of black life is not really anything other than a normal black life. ‘We’ assume a lot in thinking that ‘Them’ only refers to ‘Them’ as in not ‘Us’ whereas though ‘Us’ is thought to be the ‘Black community’ as this thing that agrees on how we should be represented and what representations are ‘positive or negative’ etc. Critics have made this assumption that Black folks do not disavowal and that the only ‘Them’ being addressed are White folks. This is neither true to Frantz Fanon nor do I see it as engaging with what I see to be a major theme running through the series. The question is not only: Why are white people so terrifying? But what are all the terrifying ways that Black people will contort themselves to disavowal the horrors that are happening all around them too? Or better yet, what are the contortions imposed upon the cortico-visceral flesh of the Black when structural adjustment becomes the highest horizon of livelihood? Lest we forget, Henry and Livia (and most especially Henry) face these terrors, with their children, precisely in and through their desire to move up the ladder of American civil society. This desire towards assimilation (which Livia resist most emphatically) lies at the roots of the terror of their experience in Compton. It is not that there was a way to get away from the threat from whence they came, it is that they remain in Compton and face the threat of annihilation and madness, madness and annihilation precisely through a ‘hallucinatory whitening’ (Fanon, BSWM) which comes to associate proximity to Whiteness with the fulfillment of a dream. Waithe’s production follows in the footsteps of ‘Get Out’ yet again in showing precisely how this wish-fulfillment is yet another nightmare for the Black.

Frank Wilderson writes in his “Social Death and Narrative Aporia in 12 Years a Slave” about how the normative flow of narrative goes from equilibrium, disequilibrium to equilibrium restored as the hegemonic model of narration. This reprieve is what Jordan Peele returns to ‘Get Out’ after eliminating the original edit of the film which would have ended with what every ‘Black’ and ‘White’ viewer unconsciously understood ‘would logically’ (prelogically) occur in the aftermath of the police arriving on the scene of a Black “defending” himself by murdering his white ex-girlfriend and her entire family at their house in a white neighborhood. Wilderson, however, claims that since “Blackness is coterminous with slaveness,” the narration of a Black story can only follow “a flat line that moves from disequilbrium to a moment in the narrative of faux-equilibrium, to disequilibrium restored and/or rearticulated.” What is going down in Waithe’s work is that the gruesomeness that goes down is following a narrative structure more in accordance to what Wilderson describes as disequilibrium-faux-equilibrium-disquilibrium restored. This is a structure that occurs in Waithe’s ‘Queen & Slim’ too. People often mockingly describe Afropessimism as being: “gothic political literature” and, it kinda is. However, Black existence is socio-politically gothic, and if you were to visualize and commodify (which is an always already to Black being) what Wilderson describes in black narration, it’d probably be a Lena Waithe movie.

In addition to this, a lot of what the cultural critics are making reference to in this regard is based on a premise of black authenticity that quite simply does not conceptually gel. Arguments about Waithe needing more Black people in the room as if that will ‘solve her’ – as if she’s not Black, as if Little Marvin isn’t Black, as if the characters on the series aren’t Black and as if their participation in these roles and storytelling somehow automatically secures the requirement of a more ‘authentic Black voice and presence’ conceive of a ‘Nigga authenticity’ (see Ronald Judy, “Nigga Authenticity”) of which I know nothing of. I have no idea what an authentic Black looks like and all of these versions of Blackness – (and Wilderson suggest this himself in his response to Patrice Douglass’ concern about Afropessimism being coopted by white people) – suggest that there is a whole community to address directly who will not only be able to be represented, but will be able to feel themselves as transparently portrayed in the images. The worst right-wing takes are the most explicit forms of evidence to the point. This is why engagement with the worst of the ‘right’ is not a dead-end, but an impenetrable occasion for example. The further right one goes, the louder the unconscious speaks. When I was a child, growing up in Klan (Cecil) County, Maryland, there was a white man in my rural neighborhood who used to scream at my older sister, younger brother, and I – almost daily – as we walked to the bus stop calling us ‘niggers’ and telling us to ‘go back to Africa.’ We, too, were one of the first Black families in the neighborhood. We were all only in elementary school at the time, and so, like ‘Them’ our childhood, our so-called innocence, did not protect us from the real violence, horror and terror of anti-Black proximities to Whiteness. My parents too, thought that moving us into this rural White neighborhood, will give us a better opportunity at ‘life.’ But, the cost of life was sanity and when the very same white man ended up committing suicide while in jail, his white family came and knocked on my mother’s door asking her to bake him a cake for his funeral. She denied the request at her own risk. This story does not serve to grant authenticity to Waithe’s nightmare, only to say that I’ve had them too. My story is much like Ruby and Gracie’s – I, too, was a child raised in a hydraulics of racial terror. I, too, have felt myself at the edge of sanity in facing it. I, too, have had many a day when I found myself tearing at the walls of the world, grasping for a meaning to the destruction, only finding answers in an anti-Black schema of the skin. I think ‘Them’ is actually providing an image for this, and when the Black characters start going crazy themselves … well … I’m working on it. Nevertheless, the Black artist and philosophers of horror need not shy away from gore nor violence nor bloodshed nor gruesome displays of the wildest imaginations for within these dreams are the truth of a violence which doesn’t end, which repeats, over and over, like a bad TV series.

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