The cable television adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” has it’s share of issues when it comes to depicting people of color.
I thought the days were gone when I had to suffer through television writers and producers creating shows that make artistic commentary on black experiences and narratives without our input. But then I watched the first few episodes of “American Gods,” and it would appear that I am very, very wrong.
Starz’s “American Gods” is a fantasy television series which chronicles the life of African-American Shadow Moon, an ex-convict fresh out of prison. *Side eye.* He links up with Mr. Wednesday, a.k.a. Odin, and is caught in the middle of an ongoing battle between the old gods — such as Anubis and Jesus Christ — and new gods like Media and Technology for the fealty of mankind. The series is based on the critically acclaimed novel of the same title by Neil Gaiman, and the plot, dare I say, is a pretty good.
Decent plot aside, the television adaptation of Gaiman’s novel has its share of issues when it comes to depicting people of color. There is Bilquis, or the Queen of Sheba, who gets her life force from consuming her sexual exploits through her vagina. Bilquis has been depicted in Christian, Arabic, and various other African narratives as a beautiful African queen. Never in any of these interpretations of the mythical character has she ever eaten anyone with her vagina.
Other legends are represented with accuracy. For example, Odin and his naps and Mad Sweeney and his gold coins. Nonetheless, I am perplexed as to who found it okay to arbitrarily place trumped up narratives on women of color without explanation.
I was really excited about the character Mr. Nancy, a.k.a. Anansi. He shows up on a slave ship, another image deserving of side eye. I grew up with Anansi the Spider tales. He was a trickster. Orlando Jones personifies the god. He appears on screen in a three piece checkered suit and wing-tipped shoes. However, the speech he delivers to enslaved blacks was devoid of the inspiration and motivation which are characteristic of Anansi and actual black leadership. He tells the slaves, “You’re fucked! You are already dead,” and offers dark predictions about slavery, Jim, Crow, and police brutality. Someone has been watching the news.
While these warnings are true, they are in no way a summary of the black experience in America. Believe me, I am black and American, and my life is by no means “fucked.” We have had our struggles for sure, but hope for the future is what is characteristically us.
If you examine African American folklore of Anansi, you would find that he motivated us to endure, to be creative and utilize our families strength to manipulate our world to be of service to us, not the other way around. So Anansi’s prediction and the show’s interpretation of him is wrong.
Black Americans thrive in multiple fields, from medicine to politics. And, we also write amazing television shows. Creating a show without this truth of the black experience at the core exposes the fact that there are no self-loving people of color who had anything to do with the writing on this project. And IMBD backs me up.
Most problematic is Shadow Moon, an ex-convict and the main character of color. In the first episode, Shadow finds himself lynched by Technology, who is a white boy, and his techno goons. Not only does the narrative of the freed black convict tire me, the depiction of a black man being lynched by Technology personified offends me.
It was just July of 2016 in Texas where a young black girl was dragged by a noose while at camp. This story rocked the black community. Everyone knows the symbol of the noose is not something black people play with, and yet somewhere students believed they were “just playing around” with a weapon of oppression. We do not live in a time where people of privilege understand the grave nature of the plight of African Americans, and this is not the time to make light of the hanging of black people from trees.
Watching a careless adaptation of a lynching for no other reason but entertainment is not something that should be on television. There were so many other ways we could have understood the power and influence of technology other than to make light of the tool white supremacists used to keep black people in their place. By using this as a part of Shadow’s narrative, the creators are clouding the narrative of black pain and sensationalizing the experience of a lynching. It is irresponsible.
According to the IMBD page, “American Gods” has an all white writing and directing team, and it shows in the emptiness of which they handle black narratives. Anansi the spider depicted as a stereotypical pimp from Harlem; a Black woman using her vagina to eat people; and the arbitrary hanging of a black man. This is what happens when outsiders attempt to represent for others — they miss the target completely. Even more dangerous, this is what happens when white creatives do not value black interpretations of their own experience.
With the success of shows with diverse writing teams, I was confident in thinking that Starz had turned the corner. However, this television show is a reminder of how far they are behind the tide. Do better.