George Washington’s Teeth: “Sleepy Hollow” and the Monsters of History

(Note: This post is in partially response to Orlando Jones’ call for discussion of Sleepy Hollow and how it treats issues of American racial history.)

I have two rules about television. The first rule is: Life Is Too Short To Watch TV Shows Where Aliens Speak English But Can’t Use Contractions. The second rule is: Life Is Too Short To Watch TV Shows Where It’s Just White People Standing Around Talking To Each Other. Achromatic casting annoys me for much the same reason too-formal alien English does: It’s hokey. It reminds me that I’ve agreed to watch a story that unfolds in a fake reality. It makes me overly aware I’m participating in a contrivance.

That’s why I was so happy to see Sleepy Hollow appear on my screen this fall. When Orlando Jones’s Captain Irving introduced himself to Nicole Beharie’s Abbie Mills in the pilot, I about fell over. A show with two black characters who weren’t blood relatives? Who – HOMG – didn’t even know each other? Sign me up!

Of the main characters, in fact, only two are white, and one of those two is (or was?) dead, so most scenes show either a single white dude surrounded by people of color, or just people of color. This is something I don’t think I’ve seen on a genre show before; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show with such a chromatic cast that wasn’t either an all-black sitcom or an earnest PBS drama about Race In America. Sleepy Hollow isn’t about race. Abbie doesn’t exist in order to demonstrate something about the Plight of the Black Woman. She’s just black, the same way she’s smart, or short, or a good shot, or an orphan.

Right?

But.

If Sleepy Hollow is about anything, it’s about America. Its primary subject is the origin myths of the United States – the Matter of America, as the King Arthur myth is the Matter of Britain.* And America is about race. The founding paradox of this nation are the words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” penned by a man who owned his own children. And our history has been a long, difficult contortion to deny or reconcile that paradox. It’s unclear if the show’s writers think of themselves as having a mandate to address this paradox of race in American history. The writing on the show, in general, and its handling of race, in particular, has been wildly uneven.** Damaging inaccuracies and stereotypes abound – as has been elsewhere noted – and the show’s tone sometimes seems to contradict itself wildly even within a single episode.*** But whether or not there is a consensus in the Sleepy Hollow writers’ room about overtly addressing race, the matter is unavoidable, given the show’s subject matter and its diverse cast.

The show is facing a dilemma similar to that faced by the showrunners of Doctor Who when they introduced Martha Jones, the first black main character in the 50-year history of the show. The Doctor travels in time and space, fighting monsters; yet he never seems to lift a finger against the particular monsters of the British Empire – colonialism, racism, and oppression. The addition of a black woman should have forced the show to confront those omissions. Instead, the showrunners went out of their way to whitewash the racism of the times through which Martha Jones traveled. Elizabethan England? Integrated! Depression America? Colorblind! Kindred, this was not. When Martha departed the show, it lapsed with palpable relief back to an all-white main cast.

So far, Sleepy Hollow is not quite as retrograde as Doctor Who. They’ve made a few gestures toward addressing the monsters in American racial history: In the pilot episode, Crane is less surprised that Abbie is a police lieutenant than that she’s emancipated; In “The Midnight Ride,” Abbie and Irving educate Crane about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (though this scene has also been rightly critiqued by P. Djeli Clark for “also revealing [the show’s] limits“). And in the otherwise problematic episode “For the Triumph of Evil,” Crane shows real horror when he learns about the Native American genocide – a beat another show might not have included.

But these gestures have been mostly superficial. In a show dedicated to the premise that the American Revolution was a Good Thing not just because it established a representational democracy with term limits, but because it was allied with God to prevent the Christian Apocalypse, there are going to be some much more uncomfortable collisions with historical reality. Take for example the finale episode, in which Ich utters a throwaway line about George Washington’s teeth.

“Nice teeth,” he comments. “Gold, Ivory, and lead. They were the envy off all in colony. I’m not sure Martha appreciated them.” Is this a detail someone on the writing team turned up in their research? If so, it seems ignorant of something many fans knew, and tweeted in response to the line: Besides wearing false teeth, George Washington had his slaves’ teeth drawn to be implanted into his own mouth.****

This is a grotesquerie right up there with Nazi lampshades, but it’s a part of our heritage as Americans; as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote recently in an essay about the murder of Jordan Davis: “I insist that racism is our heritage, that Thomas Jefferson’s genius is no more important than his plundering of the body of Sally Hemmings, that George Washington’s abdication is no more significant than his wild pursuit of Oney Judge.

Sleepy Hollow’s audience contains a large number of vocal, mediasavvy black fans, who  know their history. The show is not going to be able to get away with painting Washington merely as a Founding Father, the hero of the nation, Crane’s personal idol and a soldier of the Lord.

I hope that the writers embrace this ambiguity as an opportunity. So far, the show’s moral universe has been, well, black and white:  the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad.  But shows like Supernatural – clearly a model for Sleepy Hollow – have delved far beyond Manichaen morality as they developed. Sleepy Hollow could, and should, do the same. Any show that depends on end-times prophecy for its main plot beats will eventually have to leave that behind. Prophecy is boring, frankly. Mulder and Scully never knew who the good guys were or what the right action was; Abbie and Ichabod would be a lot more interesting trying to figure out their own path than just dutifully clipping plot coupons out of Washington’s bible.

There’s a lot of opportunity for drama in moral ambiguity, too, and a much richer landscape to be explored once the show starts to take the painful paradoxes of American history – what Coates would call our full heritage – more fully into account. Why are all the keepers of Sleepy Hollows’ secrets – Masons, witches, priests – white? Black people have been in the town all these years (one of Abbie’s ancestors, we learn, was Crane’s contemporary). What have they been doing this whole time? What about Native Americans like Seamus Duncan – how did they parse the very Christian, European spiritual warfare playing out on their turf in the 1790s, and what have they handed down over the past 200 years?

However the writers choose to handle it, they’ve taken on a difficult task and they better be up for the job – because ignorance is not an option here. Monster-of-the-week is not going to cut it when the real monsters are woven into the very fabric of the show’s source material; they’re going to be there, breathing down your back, until you turn to face them.

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*The myths of America’s founding have recently been under some serious stress. On the one side, the religious right – lead by David Barton and his mendacious WallBuilders,Inc – is busily rewriting history to present Founding Fathers who were born-again, divinely inspired and devoted to building a theocratic Christian state (and, in the case of Washington, bulletproof). On the other side, Azie Dungey’s “Ask a Slave” webshow pushes back, using comedy to unmask the depth of the founders’ hypocrisy.

**One week Ichabod’s witch-wife Katrina is a devout, penniless Quaker in a plain apron; the next week she’s a society lady in a bejeweled dress no Quaker would be caught dead in. Which is it, guys?

***Case in point: “For the Triumph of Evil,” in which the writers invent a “Native American” myth out of whole cloth (gross), ascribe it to a real tribe without, it seems, consulting the real-life members of that tribe (super gross), and send Abbie and Ichy searching for a “shaman” to heal them (I can’t even). But when you’re finished barfing over that, you get the pleasant surprise of the shaman they come up with, the perfectly-named Seamus Duncan of GeroniMotors, a used-car salesman who is not here for your lazy racist stereotypes. Seamus even gives Abbie & Ichy the side-eye for implying that someone of Native descent must automatically be some kind of woo-woo medicine man – ok, he does work a little magic on the side, but he wishes people would stop assuming shit about him like that.

Still, it’s really hard to tell what this episode is trying to do – whether it’s unthinkingly perpetuating appropriation of Native cultures, or trying to call out and subvert those appropriations. Seamus (tragically) did not become a regular, which doesn’t bode well for the future treatment of Native Americans. Without a Native recurring or main character, the show is free to handwave that history and keep it in the background. It does not have that luxury, however, with regard to African American history and slavery.

**** He is said to have paid them for their teeth – less than a third the market rate. This does not make it better.

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