Reading ‘Black Museum’ and ‘Get Out’ as comparative Afrofuturist zombie slave narratives
Can we just agree that Get Out is obviously a lost episode of Black Mirror?
This essay contains spoilers for Get Out and Black Mirror S4, E6, “Black Museum”
Can we just agree that Get Out is obviously a lost episode of Black Mirror? More specifically, it’s a companion tale to season four’s “Black Museum” (which feels very much like a series finale) that somehow found its way into Jordan Peele’s brain.
Advanced neurotechnology is used to zombify and enslave a Black subject—this is true of both of these narratives. I find the connections between them to be palpable, especially in reading them both as Afrofuturist narratives—with “Black Museum” being accidentally Afrofuturist—about rebelling against scientific racism and technologies intended to enslave Black bodies as well as Black consciousness.
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“Black Museum” opens with Nish, a young woman who we later learn is out for vengeance and determined to free her father, Clayton Leigh, a convicted killer who has become a fixture in the titular Black Museum run by Rolo Haynes. The episode is also itself a museum of the many horrors that have transpired in the Black Mirror universe, with various “authentic criminological artifacts” from past stories on display in the showroom. Clayton is hidden behind a curtain in the very back of this exhibit, the last stop and the main attraction.
After being tricked by the predatory Haynes who promised money to Clayton’s family in exchange for the rights to his digital consciousness following his execution, Clayton transitioned from imprisoned enslavement during his natural life to an enslaved ghost/zombie subject in his afterlife. Eternally trapped as nothing more than a sideshow attraction at the Black Museum—“Always on. Always suffering.”
Before Nish reveals her true identity, Haynes says that Clayton’s family abandoned him the moment he was arrested. Accused of killing a beautiful young white woman, his guilt was immediately assumed and Haynes refuses to acknowledge the possibility of his innocence, even when Nish brings up evidence of DNA tampering in his case. The reality is that Haynes does not care about whether or not Clayton is innocent. His only motivation is keeping Clayton’s consciousness imprisoned so that he can profit from his enslavement, mirroring the prison industrial complex which profits from the disproportionate incarceration Black people.
But Nish knows what the truth is. She knows that Clayton’s wife, her mother, supported him wholeheartedly. She came to see him, locked up in Haynes’ Black Museum, and was met with nothing but a hollow shell on the other side of the glass. Brokenhearted, her mother attempted suicide, and this seems to be where Nish’s thirst for vengeance begins.
Unlike other Black vengeance narratives that feel less satisfying to me, like The Birth of a Nation, Django Unchained, and even The Skeleton Key—yet another horror tale that involves the transferring of Black consciousness, but with magic rather than science—“Black Museum” gives us a Black woman at the center. Actually, it gives us two, as it is revealed in the end, highlighting Black women’s multi-generational Black liberation work.
With the guidance of her mother, who exists now only as a disembodied consciousness in her daughter’s head, Nish frees her father’s consciousness and entraps Haynes’ before burning his shit down, which makes Nish and her mother together an Afrofuturist Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner, seeking both escape and vengeance.
Nish does this work, carrying her mother within her as the voice of an elder and ancestor. By placing Nish’s mother inside of her daughter’s head, “Black Museum” seems to offer up and reframe a different kind of zombification than the one that Clayton experiences, recreating it as a catalyst for Black liberation. Contrast this with a different kind of narrative within this same story, which shows how a consciousness trapped inside the body of another could have devastating consequences.
Perhaps we might read this in the same way that I read drapetomania in Get Out: as caution and counsel from our ancestors that can help lead us away from the plantation. “Black Museum” gives us a vision of our ancestors existing as a consciousness transplanted into our brains through advanced neurotechnology, as literal inhabitants of our bodies.
It is indeed reminiscent of Get Out’s concept of a zombie. Chris Washington would have become a mere passenger in his own body which would have been piloted by a colorblind racist, achieved through the advancement of neuroscience. It’s also comparable to more traditional religious ideas of the zombi(e), as a body bound by something more akin to magic and without agency over itself.
There are multiple versions of the zombi(e) in original Haitian/African religious traditions. Western cinema chose to appropriate only one—a literal slave—and later perverted it by blending it with the concept of ghouls—the dead who return to devour the living. Other types of zombi(e) can actually serve as supernatural means to attend to the needs of the living.
The zombi astral differs from the zombi cadavre, in that the zombi astral does not require a corpse. Instead of a dead body being reanimated as it is with the zombi cadavre, it is the soul or consciousness of a person being captured in a vessel in order to enhance the power of the one who captured it.
What “Black Museum” does with Nish and her mother’s consciousness feels like a return to Haitian/African traditional religious thought before it was eroded by white colonialism and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, even though this very likely was not intended. In this way, this Afrofuturist narrative restores the past.
Afrofuturism is a concept and philosophy that centers the aesthetics, politics, identities, and cultures of Black people in storytelling. Often utilizing advanced technology, Afrofuturist stories combine “elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, Afrocentrism, and magic realism with non-Western cosmologies” while situating Blackness in the past, present, and future in ways that challenge white supremacy and colonialism.
But what if we think about Afrofuturism as also being something that combats scientific racism and the ways in which whiteness has used technologies towards anti-Black ends? It reaches beyond the obvious ways that we see Afrofuturism represented in Octavia Butler’s body of work and texts like the upcoming blockbuster juggernaut Black Panther.
Nish utilizes the very technologies that Haynes pioneered as a way to keep her mother’s consciousness, liberate her father’s consciousness, and entrap Haynes’ consciousness. She uses the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, you might say.
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And what if this is something Afrofuturism can works towards? What if, for Nish and her family, Black vengeance is a form of reparations? She does not say the following words to Haynes when she exacts her revenge, but I believe they were made exceedingly clear by her actions: “You owe me your freedom. You owe me your body. You owe me your life. Because you took all three from my father.”
As new science and technology grow and change, so too do white supremacy and anti-Blackness. There are those who like to point to the past and say that racism no longer has a hold on the U.S. because Jim Crow is no longer the law of the land for white comfort, we are no longer lynched as a public spectacle for white audiences, and we are no longer in chains for white profit. But our existence has never ceased being shaped by white comfort, white audiences, and white profit. This simply manifests in different ways, with advances in science and technology being continually exploited in order to meet white supremacist ends.
This episode of Black Mirror rings true in a way that its other episodes do not by calling up both historical and current racialized violences in the same way that Get Out does, using scientific and technological racism and the resistance against them to tell a story that I read as Afrofuturist, though I’m quite certain its white British writer did not intend for it to be. It imagines a future in which Black liberation, vengeance, and reparations are possible for Nish and her family through the very technologies that sought to destroy them.