Hasn’t reality always been a kind of horror for black people? Hasn’t the world, in very blatant and very subtle modes, always worked to lobotomize us, to take the best of what is ours, and claim it as its own? Even the frequency of reality is a kind of deception: there is nothing subtle about the way racial horror consumes otherness. True horror has no one shape — it is chameleon-like, always present in one form or another, seemingly the biggest and scariest thing in the room one moment, then suddenly something so commonplace that one begins to wonder if it even exists, and, if it does, if it will ever go away. To be black sometimes requires one live in a state that borders on a constant, creeping paranoia.
White supremacy in the modern world has worked in this manner for centuries. It has adapted better than any living organism, and persisted longer. It has overpowered, outsmarted, deceived, and cheated just about everything that has tried to dismantle its structure — from the application of voter suppression laws, which remain an impassable hurdle for citizens despite the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to the narrowing of women’s rights, which have come under an increased threat since President Trump was elected into office. In one of its most cunning propositions, in the early days of our democracy, white supremacy assured Americans the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But even that was a lie, intended exclusively for a chosen class and color of people. We are a nation built on contradiction: the land of the free and not free. In place of the country’s presumed morality — a narrative white supremacy has continued to tell itself despite the liberties it denies certain citizens — there has existed a bloody catalog of indifference, subordination, and depravity as the sole evidence of social ordering.
So how does one escape this? How does one, as it’s often phrased in the black church, get over this reality? In Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out, the answer is as plain as the California sky is blue in summer: You kill it. That sounds extreme, but consider the lengths to which white supremacy has gone to maintain its chokehold on the political, social, and economic pillars of society. Ridding the world of white supremacy is the only logical option.
“White supremacy is not something that can be avoided; you can’t just ignore it. It doesn’t work like that.”
In a radical riff on Stanley Kramer’s 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Peele introduces us to a young, black photographer named Chris Washington (played with ample doses of naivete and distrust by Daniel Kaluuya) who journeys with his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), to visit her parents in the suburbs for the weekend. Here, white supremacy takes the form of elite liberalism — the kind that says “I would’ve voted for Obama for a third term” (as Rose’s father eagerly admits) but only as a performance of allyship. Which is to say, it is the kind of white liberalism that is not to be trusted. In the course of the ensuing 48 hours, Chris’s misgivings — and the reasoned suspicions of his best friend Rod — prove true: for decades, Rose and her family have kidnapped black people, sold them to the highest white bidder, and implanted white brains into black bodies. James Baldwin’s line from his landmark essay “Stranger in the Village” seems especially significant here: “There was no suggestion that I was human,” he wrote of his blackness. “I was simply a living wonder.”
In Peele’s world, like in the real one, black people are hunted down, lied to, made powerless, and robbed of their cultural identity. Again, I ask: how does one escape this reality? How does one, as Ta-Nehisi Coates termed it in Between the World and Me, outlast the “terror of disembodiment”? Because white supremacy is not something that can be avoided; you can’t just ignore it. It doesn’t work like that. White supremacy will seek you out in whatever form it can. In his escape from the Armitage house, perhaps it’s best to take a cue from Chris. The only way out — the only way to survive — is to trust your gut and fight your way through the darkness.