by Joelle Monique | AV Club
Every once in a while, an episode of television will transcend its series. Think of how “Ozymandias” fundamentally changed the trajectory of every main character in Breaking Bad, or how “The Extraordinary Being” put into perspective the driving force behind every cog in the Watchmen machine. Since Lovecraft Country’s only reached its halfway point, it is technically too early to label “Strange Case” the breakaway episode. But I’m going to do it anyway, because tonight’s episode, directed by Cheryl Dunye, is radical. I’ve never seen the trials of a single, fat, Black woman on screen—until now.
Like the unique depiction of righteous rage from Black men, or the desire for power within white men, the plight of the fat Black woman in America often gets portrayed as an internal issue. Black men get saddled with the image of being inherently violent, while white men default to the most powerful person in the room, leaving fat Black women with the ideal of caretaker thrust upon them. Enter Ruby Baptiste: eldest sister, rock guitarist, blues singer, hard worker, and a woman who’s stood mostly on her own her entire life.
At the outset of tonight’s episode, Ruby finds herself alone—and in Hillary’s smaller white body. Half-mad with confusion, she stumbles out into her neighborhood. Back in episode one, at Ruby’s city block performance, everyone in the community knew her name and her music. A stranger to her neighbors in Hillary’s skin, Ruby becomes a source of confusion and danger to the citizens. A half-dressed white woman, screaming hysterically, pushed patrolling officers into a hero mindset. A child tries to help Hillary up after she trips over her own feet, and he winds up accosted for his trouble. Ruby shakily finds her voice and unlocks her first white superpower; the ability to get cops to listen.
The 1965 bubblegum pop hit, “Tonight You Belong to Me” by Patience and Prudence, plays over the car stereo as the police drive Ruby back to William’s house. William holds ownership over Ruby, even in her white body. He lied, telling police dispatch that Hillary was his wife. Without bothering to confirm that information, they lock Hillary in the back of a car and haul her to someone who may seriously wish her harm—a subtle commentary, and the police’s ability to handle domestic violence cases.
When Ruby arrives back at William’s house, he explains she’s going through a metamorphosis. In serial killer fashion, he lays her out on a sheet of plastic, turns up the television, and begins to rip her outer shell to shreds. In a truly brilliant and disturbing moment of gore, Ruby’s eye appears inside of Hillary’s throat as she begs William not to kill her. The sequence nods to the reality that Black folks who pass for white might be met with murder if caught in the wrong space at the wrong time. This is the first destruction of the Hillary body. On the television, a reporter explains the molting stages of 16 million Kenyan locusts. They’ll go through five stages of metamorphosis before they get their wings and become sexually mature, where they’ll devour everything in their path.
Later, after William disposes of the bloody husk, he explains to Ruby how he became involved with disgraced professor Hiram Winthrop. Hiram wanted to understand the universe, William held a bit of Adam’s original language, and together they unlocked the secrets of metamorphosis. Now, Ruby faces the ultimate question: Would you choose to be Black?
I love my Blackness. The answer to this question seems simple. Of course, no self-loving Black person would choose to shed the visual links to their ancestry, the key to our community. But, the truth is, there isn’t a viable way to rid a person of their Blackness. Bleached skin looks bleached and does not allow an individual to hide amongst white people, the way many white people have over-tanned their way into Black spaces. Plastic surgery can narrow a nose and file down cheekbones, but for the most part, Black heritage is extremely difficult to mask. So we must accept and love ourselves to survive.
Ruby gets to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the difference of walking around in white skin. “Most days I’m happy to be both,” Ruby says of being both Black and a woman, “but the world keeps interrupting. And I am sick of being interrupted.” When she’s told she can do anything she can think of, her thought is to spend a simple day in the park. That’s her radical idea of freedom because that small peace would never be within her reach as a Black woman. She’d always have to keep her mind on escape, of not embarrassing the race, of frightening a person who walked into Ruby’s path. Decisions outside of her control may still leave consequences at her door for which she would be responsible. That’s what it is to be a Black woman. Ntozake Shange captured this reality perfectly in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. In a segment entitled “Dark Phrases,” Outside Chicago speaks of the unkept promise most children receive but skipped her because she’d never been allowed to be a little girl.
sing a black girl’s song
bring her out
to know herself
to know you
but sing her rhythms
sing her song of life
she’s been dead so long
closed in silence so long
she doesn’t know the sound
of her own voice
her infinite beauty
she’s half-notes scattered
without rhythm/no tune
sing her sighs
sing the song of her possibilities
sing a righteous gospel
let her be born
let her be born
& handled warmly.
As Hillary Davenport, Ruby strolls into Marshall Fields to “Money” by Cardi B. Financial freedom looks extremely different for Black women, who make less than their white female counterparts and Black male co-workers. Using the same resume, now with her fancy white name, the five numbers courses and six typing seminars catapult Ruby past sales associate to assistant manager. In her interview with manager Paul, she reveals that after her mother got her heart broken, she’d take the girls to Carson’s and window-shop. The glamorous women behind the counter made heartache bearable, and Ruby longed to be the one to solve the world’s problems—a burden too many Black women wear.
Click HERE to read the rest of the recap.