By Roman Johnson
*Disclaimer: This essay contains show spoilers related to Starz’s American Gods, episodes 1-4.
“One of the things about writing the ‘Laura’ episode is that it gave a doorway into a world that was uniquely ours.” – Bryan Fuller, writer for American Gods
Anti-blackness is everywhere on television, and especially in superhuman-themed series like Starz’s American Gods and FX’s Legion. To me, Legion is a boring show which features people of color, when they actually appear, as sidekicks to white people. American Gods, however, is immensely entertaining, but the show’s anti-black–and sometimes contradictory–messaging still demands a side-eye.
As argued by Walidah Imarisha, co-author of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, “the imagination is political,” and any art diminishing black humanity should be challenged. Shows like American Gods get love because they are seen as giving representation. Black and brown people are portrayed as supernatural beings, and—gasp!—this black person, with god-like abilities, is the main protagonist. But where some people see colored representation really lies whiteness cloaked.
Wherever American Gods succeeds at representation, it fails at messaging. An example of its representational success is Anansi (Mr. Nancy)’s monologue in the episode where he tells a ship of enslaved, Twi-speaking Africans the future of their descendants in America. Mr. Nancy breaks the shackles off every enslaved person there and shows them the absurdity of a life enslaved which leads them to set the slave ship ablaze, and themselves, too. In this scene, Anansi, a trickster character in many Akan folktales, points toward the frightening reality that African-descended people will need to clench more than just truth to attain freedom.
But often when watching American Gods it is easy to see that the show was scripted by white people projecting anti-black notions on the screen.
The background story of American Gods is that the old gods (e.g. Mr. Wednesday/Odin, Bilquis, and Czernobog) are being forgotten and replaced with new gods (e.g. Mr. World, who represents global empire), which will lead to the old gods’ deaths. Odin is recruiting other old gods to battle the new gods, and also recruits Shadow Moon (Shadow), a black con man, as his servant.
According to the book of the same name that the show is based on, Mr. Wednesday and Shadow are heading to Wisconsin to convene and organize this battle of the gods. The show follows Shadow’s quest as he serves and fights for Odin. At every turn, we see that Shadow is doing labor (e.g. emotional, physical) for white people, but is not adequately reciprocated for that labor. This looks like slavery.
Throughout American Gods, there are times when the show rehashes racist tropes. For example, Bilquis, a black goddess, is hypersexualized and represented as a sinister, supernatural kind of Jezebel-figure: Her vagina literally devours people.
In shows like Americans Gods, The Originals, and others, black women are often reduced to their genitalia. In American Gods, many of the people of color are somehow criminal, orientalized, or hyper-sexualized, while white people are made their saviors.
Black women, because of their status in this patriarchal, white-supremacist imaginary, are mostly invisible and are not presented as complex and able to perform more than the material needs of white people either through their reproductive organs or physical labor itself. Bilquis’s hypersexualization is damaging because it mirrors the ways in which black women are stripped of their intellectual prowess and creative capacity in society.
To give an example of what I mean by white saviorism, I turn to the lynching scene in the episode “The Bone Orchard” where Shadow Moon is brutally beaten and almost left for dead. In the same episode, leading up to the lynching scene, Techno Boy, a personification of all things white youth culture––mostly appropriations of the aesthetics of indigenous people and other people of color, like platted cornrows and 90s hip hop wear––demands Shadow fall in line with what the new gods want. The new gods happen to all be white until at least the fourth episode of the show.
The fact that most of the gods are white is representative of the actual socio-political arrangement of the real world. White folk, because of their enslavement and burglary of Africa’s people and its resources for centuries, occupy the spaces of global privilege and power.
The white new gods want domination, and this is indicative in the characterization of Mr. World, leader of the new gods, and his personification of global white supremacy––clean in a suit and smooth-talking. Shadow shows that he is not interested in Techno Boy’s plans, and Techno Boy gathers his group of faceless (veiled) henchmen to brutalize Shadow and hang him from a tree in a cemetery.
Like every white-centered narrative, a white person then saves the day. For Shadow, it is in the form his zombie ex-wife, Laura. The lynching scene reinforces the idea that but for the omnipotence of white power, everything non-white would be destroyed if the white power structure is threatened.
A different vision of black humanity is possible if television writers would only reject white notions of humanity that dehumanize black people, and other people of color. Writers must engage the process of constructing what humanity looks like outside the constructs of whiteness, and deconstruct what it is they believe makes a character valuable.
They must answer the question of whether their media creations service white people’s thirst to feel good about themselves or does the vital work of allowing space to represent the fullness and complexity of black personhood.
Roman Johnson is a PhD candidate in Medical Sociology at the University of Alabama, a fellow at The Watering Hole, and loves to see black people alive. He knows your silence or educational attainment won’t save you.