Uneasy SpiritsBlack Vengeance in Supernatural Pop Culture

Illustration by Daiana Ruiz

This article was published in Revenge Issue #78 | Spring 2018

FEAR IS NO STRANGER TO ME. I wouldn’t say we’re friends, but we’re intimate. I know that fear tastes like a dry mouth and a wired jaw when police eyes linger on my Black body. I know that fear feels like tensed muscles when street harassment is a constant lived reality. I know that fear, like trauma, is something carried and used by communities raising their young in hope that they will survive the dangers of the world. Without fear, how would we be rightly aware of the systems of domination—capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism—that target us? But it’s also been my experience that fear can be more traumatizing than instructive, especially since there’s been little effort by others to acknowledge the inherent violence of these oppressive systems, let alone contextualize them as the reason for Black folks’ resistance.

There’s a specter in our midst, and it’s white people’s projection of their own guilt and fear onto the Black search for justice. Whether Black people are fighting the colonizers of their homelands, mobilizing political movements, or organizing against police brutality, their resistance threatens white supremacy. From legal systems and market exchanges to sociopolitical relationships and mass media, the United States harbors deeply embedded white fear of what is often perceived as Black vengeance, but is in fact Black liberation. This fear is the ghost of the historic white violence cultivated under slavery, when white slave owners committed unforgivable crimes while socializing themselves and others to believe that Black people were naturally violent, inferior, and less human than whites. The specter of Black people rising up as one and wreaking vengeance is an ever-present fear held in the white psyche, unspoken in public but nevertheless reproduced throughout media and popular culture and embodied by folks like Colin Kaepernick, Kanye West, and those to come. Of course white people fear Black vengeance: They know how well deserved it is.

It’s not within darkness that an evil phantasm lurks, but within the fragility and whiteness of unaccountability. My own childhood fantasies of magic, obsession with folklore, and interest in anything and everything supernatural helped give me the space to conceptualize the vengeance of the “other” because in those myths and stories, “inhuman” (vampires, shape-shifters, demons) doesn’t necessarily mean “subhuman.” My understanding deepened as I became intimate with Afrofuturist texts, which assert that not only is time nonlinear and fluid, but so is Blackness itself. The point, I realized, is not to rid ourselves of the ghosts that haunt us—to do so would be to rebuke both history and memory. The point is to lay uneasy spirits to rest by acknowledging the past and changing the present as we create the future.

In narratives about being both other and supernatural, I found the most freedom for my imagination. Toni Morrison’s seminal, spellbinding Beloved always astonishes me for the way it dances effortlessly with metaphysical extensions of Blackness in the forms of hauntings, ghosts, and unknown memories floating in a sea. But even this is soured for me by pop culture’s adamancy in treating supernatural Black women characters as disposable. These same tired, hegemonic Western reproductions that mistreat Black rage, vengeance, and liberation leaked through to the pop culture I consumed as a kid, and still do in what I consume to this day. Growing up, my hyperactive imagination was easily captivated by the mythology I encountered when consuming everyday movies and tv shows. I grew up on Sabrina the Teenage Witch, but soon moved on to Charmed and Supernatural, accepting that they were what was available at the time, even though these shows didn’t come close to touching the themes of Afrofuturism that I now seek out everywhere.

I was fascinated with what seemed to lay just beyond the fluttering veil of this world’s defined limitations, but now I also have the framework to understand how much of these Western media works miss the mark. It’s not just the lack of representation of diverse communities within Hollywood—it’s that narratives like these center whiteness, demonize Black rebels, and play on those historic fears of Black liberation. Both current and past pop culture (2013’s American Horror Story: Coven, 1996’s The Craft) use the supernatural as a frame for the belief in Black people as vengeful spirits who never find peace precisely because they seek both vengeance and freedom. In American Horror Story, Angela Bassett’s Marie Laveau is a Black voodoo priestess whose lover, along with her larger community, were enslaved, tortured, and murdered by white slaver “Madame” Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates).

The two characters—both drawn from real-life New Orleans lore—are placed antithetically together by the show, but the narrative allows LaLaurie the entire season to pursue a redemption arc bolstered by the show’s only other predominant Black character, Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe). The writers of the show give LaLaurie more screen time than Laveau—in addition to multiple scenes where she holds complete power over Black people and their bodies, graphically mutilating them and spreading Black blood on her skin in the hope of gaining the power and youth present in her slaves. Even in indicting LaLaurie’s horrific real-life deeds, AHS prioritizes her humanity over that of the Black folks she terrorizes—to say nothing of Black viewers living with the intergenerational trauma of centuries past. The violence of white supremacy matches nothing but the powers that allow for its continuation.

Furthermore, the fates of both women are inextricably tied to another Black character, the Haitian Vodou spirit Papa Legba. Laveau, we eventually learn, has been indebted to Papa Legba for decades, but thanks to some weakly exposited, last-minute loopholes in their agreement, Laveau is sentenced to the same harsh fate as LaLaurie. It’s meant to be a sweet irony that LaLaurie’s eternal soul ends up belonging to a vengeful Black spirit, but even that falls short when she gets to continue tormenting Laveau in their after-afterlife in hell. AHS: Coven does little to explain the depths of Indigenous African spirituality while being quick to exploit and manipulate Vodou history to disrespect the very Black folks who honor those spirits. A white woman who thoroughly enjoyed destroying generations of Black people has the same afterlife as a Black woman who spent her almost-immortal life protecting her community from white supremacy? I’m calling bullshit.

The point, I realized, is not to rid ourselves of the ghosts that haunt us—to do so would be to both rebuke history and memory. The point is to lay uneasy spirits to rest by acknowledging the past and changing the present as we create the future.

AHS: Coven’s treatment of Laveau nods to a fear of Black liberation that stretches back as far as the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), which showed French colonizers that Black masses were willing to burn plantations, kill their masters, and root their destruction of an enslaving society in an Indigenous African spirituality. Just as Haiti’s revolutionaries sought not simply revenge but the destruction of the conditions of their slavery, Coven’s Black characters do the same. But instead of honoring these struggles, the show offers them death, acquiescence, or—in Laveau’s case—an eternal afterlife with a white supremacist archnemesis. AHS cocreator Ryan Murphy described Coven as “a meditation on race relations in this country…an allegory for any minority group living in our country,” but the show’s ending suggests that the narrative of a vengeful Black woman going to hell was more palatable than one in which Black existence, culture, and resistance were truthfully honored.

The cult-classic teen drama The Craft portrays a group of high-school witches who deal with the trials of adolescence by joining together their magical powers. The central Black character in both the coven and the movie itself, Rochelle (Rachel True), hexes a racist bully for tormenting her and calling her “Negroid.” The coven’s three other members, all white women, cast spells as well: Sarah casts a love spell on a jock who betrayed her trust; Bonnie casts a spell for beauty; and Nancy casts a spell for power. The plot proceeds, predictably, to show the ramifications of their witchcraft, but also pushes the conclusion that the repercussions of Rochelle’s use of magic as payback against racial terrorism should match the consequences for spells cast purely for individual enrichment. Not only is Rochelle’s bid for freedom from white supremacy equated to her coven sisters’ vainer desires for power, she quickly turns evil and is eventually stripped of her supernatural powers as punishment for “abusing” them.

By movie’s end, the only member of the coven who keeps her powers is the lovelorn nice girl, Sarah; the others must spend the rest of their lives atoning for their actions—like AHS, suggesting that a Black response to violence is no different from the violence itself. Defeating a single racist bully was the catalyst for Rochelle becoming power hungry and evil and eventually losing her magical powers? Sounds like narratives of white folks who don’t want to give “too much” to Black people looking for justice and reparations. Sounds like the co-optation of West African spirituality in creating Western gothic imagery while treating Black characters within the production as disposable. Both AHS: Coven and The Craft communicate to Black viewers that using the means we have to stop our oppression—whether via direct state upheaval or vengeful spiritual invocations—is what will doom us.

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Ultimately, Black characters like Marie Laveau and Rochelle are created with white consumers in mind, made by non-Black creators who spotlight the fear of Black revenge and bastardize the inherently revolutionary nature of Black spirituality that has historically accompanied Black resistance. AHS: Coven inspired numerous critiques of Murphy’s sympathetic writing of LaLaurie, noting that he was more than willing to write characters who enact vengeance on the villains in previous seasons of AHS, but couldn’t seem to drum up the same energy for a nefarious character whose evil was shaped entirely by her hatred for Black folks. The fear of Black vengeance in so much pop culture exposes an ahistorical understanding of Black lives and struggles, from the claim to “not see color” in a supposedly postracial society to questions like “Why seek reparations now that we’re all equal?” But history is central to understanding just how monumental a vengeance would be required to even match the level of violence first enacted by white colonists but stretching well into the present with police violence, overt discrimination, and more.

By contrast, films directly produced by Black folks—for instance, Jordan Peele’s striking Get Out—are phenomenal at inciting true and lived fears of white supremacy. When I first saw the movie, with a group of Black students at my college, we were shook from the start, as we watched Chris Washington (Daniel Kulaaya) get profiled by police on his way to his girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) parents’ house. As the plot progressed, I found myself on edge and fearful, though my natural reaction and that of my friends was to cheer Chris on as he fought for his life. Meanwhile, so many white moviegoers scoffed at the film’s over-the-top characterization of whiteness, and soon began policing our response, calling theater security, complaining about our “inappropriate” reactions, and, eventually, contending that the movie was racist against white people. But even if Get Out was inflammatory for many whites in the audience, it portrayed an incomplete freedom that still necessitated violence against Black people.

The success of the movie has created a new standard of what a “good” Black horror movie looks like, but we should strive for more. With 2018’s promising lineup of Black-directed and -produced movies (Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, Babak Najafi’s Proud Mary, and, of course, Ryan Coogler’s much-anticipated Black Panther), we will certainly see media outlets deploying fear of Black liberation to cast these stories as divisive and militant. Other onscreen debuts, such as Marvel’s new Runaways and Syfy’s Superstition, look to be promising for people of color and specifically Black folks, but will they, like so many narratives before them, mistreat the very characters that are drawing us into watching? What would it look like for white people to actively insert antiracist nonviolence into their creative processes, instead of being afraid of the threat of Black backlash? What would it look like for media and pop-culture creators to understand that there is really no such thing as “violent” self-defense in response to white supremacy? These are questions that creative productions must consider as they create products that serve a future we have yet to imagine. We absolutely must work to deconstruct white victimhood and concretely support the freedom of all Black people—both in and out of our imaginations and material lives.

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by Sela Gebre
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Sela (FKA Bemnet Gebrechirstos) was born in Ethiopia, raised in D.C., sometimes lives in Maryland and is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree from Scripps College in California. They write both fiction and non-fiction that is always about womanism, radical love, accountability, and resistance narratives. 

When not reading, writing, or working towards societal liberation, they’re watching Steven Universe, collecting existentialist memes, and exploring various forms of art.

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