The following contains spoilers for Lovecraft Country.
We first meet the body that’ll come to be known as Hillary Davenport in “Whitey’s on the Moon”, the second episode of Lovecraft Country. The woman, Dell (Jamie Neumann), guards Ardham’s village
jail food storage with two aggressive hounds, while waxing poetic about those meddling “Blacks.” We only see her for a brief few minutes but her disdain for Tic, Leti, and George is clear. The next time we see her in episode 5, she’s waking up in William Braithwhite’s bed, scared, and confused. When she looks in the mirror, she doesn’t recognize herself. She’s Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku).
At some point in the night, William (Jordan Patrick Smith) dosed Ruby with a magical potion that allows her to transform into a white woman. The transformation is purely physical, and utterly painful—”like being unmade”—so she retains all of her memories and all of the baggage she carries around as a Black woman. What is first a frightening literal out-of-body experience for Ruby, becomes an exploration of identity and a chance to walk in someone else’s shoes.
When Ruby first gains access to Whiteness, she wants to assimilate into it. She spends a day in white spaces, surrounded by white people, completely unassailed. This, for her, is the epitome of white existence, peace. In her white form, she takes on the identity of Hillary Davenport. Hillary applies for a position Ruby has been continually denied, and not only is she hired on the spot, she’s offered a higher position. The pain of transformation is worth the access being Hillary gives Ruby.
Ruby takes to her position with ease. She is comfortable in it, because she knows she deserves it. Even if she knows Hillary didn’t get it for that reason. Whiteness serves her in that body, so she forgives the harm it perpetuates. Hillary does not treat Tamara, the only other Black employee at Marshall Fields, with a modicum of kindness. And she doesn’t use her newfound power to make life easier for Tamara, or the next Black girl.
But being Hillary Davenport also gives Ruby a peak behind the curtain. When she’s kiki-ing with the white girls at work about Tamara, they make casual disparaging comments about all Black folks. Ruby is fine with the idea of making fun of Tamara, who she views as someone undeserving of her position (she only has a 7th grade education, after all) but is triggered when that same language is used to make blanket anti-Black statements. It’s maybe the first time Ruby fully realizes that to white folks, there are no “good ones.”
Those same women then express a desire to go to the southside, like an urban “safari” where they can gawk at coloreds in their natural habitat. After a particularly nasty blow up at Tamara, Hillary volunteers her to bring all of them, including their male boss Paul, to the southside. Paul eventually attempts to assault Tamara, which Ruby witnesses. Ruby is disillusioned, and she is furious.
White folks are able to occupy Black spaces in the Southside and participate in Black culture —food and music, particularly— then shrug it off when it no longer serves them. They can vacation to the Black part of town, but Black folks can’t do the same in theirs. They can trespass, and transgress against Black bodies with no repercussion. Ruby allows the Hillary shell to slide off of her, perhaps fed up with the double alienation of being a white person in a Black space and a Black person in a White body.
The first time Ruby emerges from her white body, she is literally cut out of it by William. She’s both the newborn and the mutilated uterus that housed it, ripped, and ripped from. It should be noted here that William, who has likely been Christina for at least the time Ruby has known him, does not do this delicately. While the opposite is true about the shoggoth Christina delivers in Ardham, which she gently pulled from the cow’s womb.
William tells Ruby the transformations will get easier, and they do, but each time, her body rips itself apart. It’s not just her skin, it’s muscle and bone, it’s all the structures that shape a person. Hillary is smaller than Ruby, her eyes are blue, the metamorphosis happens at a cellular level and every time Ruby transforms, she feels all of it. This is testament to how big the divide is between the Black and white experience, one would literally rather unravel time and again, be unmade, just to experience Whiteness.
Christina tells Ruby that William’s invitation is not about being a white woman, but about “doing whatever the fuck you want.” Hillary Davenport is Ruby’s way of performing Whiteness, of blending into it, but pantomiming Whiteness does nothing to challenge Whiteness. The power Ruby has at her disposal is bigger than what she can gain as a white woman, the power is in what she can use Whiteness to gain for herself.
A common thread in Lovecraft Country is the idea of using the master’s tools. Tic wants to learn the language of Adam so he can use that magic against the Braithwhites, to protect his own. Montrose uses violence to inhibit Tic’s ability to do so, another tool of his oppressors. “It’s this. It’s the devil’s tools, it’s corrupting all of us.” Leti tells Tic. “Look what your father did to protect you.” The Freeman men want to burn down the house from inside it, but there is no way to do that without getting burned.
Ruby is able to shed her white skin, and with it, remove the part of her that gets too close to the flame. And there is a wicked delight in the fact that Dell is racist and would (or does) abhor her visage being used by a Black woman. Ruby, as Hillary, is able to trespass into white spaces, and transgress against white folk, and walk away from it unscathed—the same way they are able to. Ruby’s revenge on Paul is but a morsel of what she is capable of, and of what she can get away with cloaked in the power and anonymity of Whiteness.
Ruby, like Tic, sees magic as a tool for self-empowerment, and she played nice long enough to know that that isn’t the way to utilize the power she was given. Hillary Davenport is Ruby’s tool, and with it, she can become a power player in Lovecraft Country.