Lovecraft Country and the Great “I Am”

HBO’s Lovecraft Country, based on Matt Ruff’s provocative novel, is not for the faint-hearted. Part sci-fi, part horror, it features savage monsters and a copious spilling of blood. But its plot, its cast, and its exposé of America’s horrific racism are gripping!

One of the characters is Hippolyta Freeman, a brilliant woman adept in mathematics and astronomy. She is also a devoted mother and wife to her late husband George, having worked with him to produce The Safe Negro Travel Guide, a fictional counterpart to The Negro Motorist Green Book.

After George’s death, Hippolyta embarks on a multidimensional voyage of self-discovery. She unlocks the secrets of an orrery, takes the key it offers, then travels to Mayfield, Kansas, the place where George died. There, within an observatory, she finds a machine right of out of H.G. Wells that fits her key. It launches her to what seems like a space ship, where a towering black woman looms above her.

“Who are you?” asks Hippolyta. The woman answers, “I Am.” “Am I in prison?” asks Hippolyta.  “No, you are not in a prison,” responds the woman. “Name yourself! Where do you want to be?”

What follows is a beautiful journey of a soul becoming unbound. Hippolyta first goes to Paris to dance alongside Josephine Baker, letting the sisterhood and bohemian nightlife unwind her. She tastes new freedom, and at first it angers her. She describes it this way to Baker:

“All those years I thought I had everything I ever wanted, only to come here and discover that all I ever was was the exact kind of Negro woman white folks wanted me to be. I feel like they just found a smart way to lynch me without me noticing a noose … Sometimes I just, I wanna kill white folks. And it’s not just them … I hate me, for letting them make me feel small.”

Hippolyta then zooms to a dimension where she learns swordplay, preparing her to command a band of Amazons (fitting given her name). She leads her sister warriors into a savage victory against Confederate soldiers. Finally, she revisits George in a touching bedroom scene, this time confronting him with an awareness that she diminished herself by always putting him and his activities first.

In each of these realms she connects with an essential part of herself, naming it, giving it flesh, setting it free in the constellation of her personality. And each time, what sparks the transition is her acclamation of “I am Hippolyta. I am Hippolyta. I am …HIPPOLYTAAAAAA!” 

Yes! I am!

Discovering the sacred nature of our own humanness is at the core of our planet’s best spiritual teachings. This dawning realization awakens our unique identities. We learn to cast off shackles, employ our gifts, actualize our destinies. It is from this sacredness that we come to cherish and protect the Imago Dei, image of God, in other human beings. Symbolically, this clarity arises as we voice the name of God given to Moses at the burning bush, claiming it for our own lives: I am what I am!

Part of the blasphemy charges leveled at Jesus in the Gospel of John came from his well-known “I Am” statements. We usually translate the Greek words ego eimi as “I am,” but they carry the connotation of “I am what I am.” One of my favorite professors, Herman Waetjen, often said that Jesus was not only intentionally voicing the name of God; he was calling each us to say “I AM” with power and dignity.  

On this level, Episode 7 of Lovecraft County, speaks to all of us in our struggles to rise above the acculturation that clips our wings and does violence to our personhood.

May we all learn to say with Hippolyta, “Now that I’m tasting it, freedom, like I’ve never known before, I see what I was robbed of back there.”

May we all learn to say with Jesus, “I am what I am!”

(For further reading, I wrote a poem called I AM that you might find interesting)

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