02 May American Gods and the Realities of Race
Written by Jonita Davis
On April 30, the moment I had been waiting for since my 2005 introduction to the novel came to fruition. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods became a television series thanks to sweet baby Jesus and Starz. The very next day, I was greeted by a review that knocked the wind out of my high over the show.
The final scene of this episode is far more serious, but it doesn’t earn the gravitas it so clearly intends to evoke. The image of a noose does appear at different points in this episode, but a visual motif isn’t enough to make sense of a scene that plays like an unnecessary attempt to add shock value. If a Black character is going to get lynched, American Gods better have a good reason for bringing that disturbing act to the screen.
There is no way that I could let those words stand about my beloved American Gods, at least, not without a response.
The original novel was released in 2001, but I wouldn’t hear about it until four years later when my husband Don, a truck driver and audiobook junkie called me from the road to discuss this new story I must read. He described the character Shadow Moon, a man desperate to get out of prison, only to find once he is free that his wife is dead, his job is gone, and his is life upended. He meets a mysterious Mr. Wednesday on the way home, who ropes him into one of the oddest promises and jobs of the century. The two of them traverse the country rounding up “old gods” for a battle with the new ones. The new ones are like the Internet god, an arrogant teenager who uses his henchmen to beat on Shadow in their first meeting.
“This book is like nothing you’ve ever read,” Don would tell me. And, it was written by Gaiman, the author of my favorite comic series at the time, Sandman. I had to get a copy.
I was instantly hooked on the multitude of themes that swirled together to make the story, like religion, and faith, and assimilation and cultural death. Oh, my! I was mesmerized by the character’s stories like that of Bilquist, Queen of Sheba, who devoured men with her vagina.
(Spoilers: When I saw the “Somewhere in America” subtitle during the show, I gave a little squeal. The showrunners hadn’t shied away from her story. Instead, they had superbly depicted the mahogany maneater in her full glory!)
Years later, Don would find a first edition, first print run, signed a hardcover copy of American Gods. It is the greatest gift I’ve ever gotten.
You can imagine how eagerly we awaited Sunday’s show. Years of watching every mention of a comic or movie were rewarded that day. It was our holiday. In the week leading up to the premiere, I was a kid waiting for Christmas. We cleared the calendar for the evening and made plans for the kids. Then, on Sunday, Amazon Prime granted us an early gift—Starz subscribers got to see the premiere episode hours before everyone else. (I heard that the premiere was on Starz On Demand early as well.) The visual rendering of a novel we both loved so much did not disappoint.
I guess that’s why Oliver Sava’s words on Vulture pissed me off so bad.
Sava does okay to describe the rest of the show, but he attacks the final scene as if he were a bulldog slobbering over a bone. Calling the scene gratuitous racial violence? Really? As if that isn’t enough, he attacked the scene as unnecessary and posited to exploit current racial tensions in the country. The typical supremacist term “race baiting” is distinct at the tip of his tongue.
However, Sava’s words only work first to mirror the majority of Americans who are still living in this country with heads in the sand concerning race. They then dismiss a vital component of Shadow’s purpose in the story as both a dark-skinned character in modern America and as a bearer of an important Norse tradition. Sava mostly tries to whitewash the importance of the scene, which is worse than a Texas school board on an American history book.
Many Americans in this country will read the Vulture review and agree that the show is “stirring up” racial tensions with the lynching of Shadow by white-clad and faceless minions of the Internet god. These people are missing the connection between the modern depiction and the link to the KKK lynchings that are a reality in American history. These are probably not people of color either.
In fact, I dare anyone to try and kick over a stone in this country’s timeline and not find the violent oppression of a person of color. So, why not mention this in a movie about culture, assimilation, and the dangers of forgetting where you came from, huh? Racial violence is a vital part of the historical narrative and depicting it in any form in any culture-themed project is not gratuitous. It’s just the truth.
Furthermore, Shadow in the book (and probably later in the show) takes on the promise to serve, protect, and honor Mr. Wednesday in the form of a Norse vigil. This vigil is a looming presence over the character throughout the book, so why not have the first episode kick off with a foreshadowing of the events to come?
Now, before some of you chime in that the actual vigil involved tying Shadow’s full body to a tree, I must add that the lynching motif is much more than a connection to the vigil itself (see previous paragraphs). The lynching is charged imagery that for POCs is much more haunting and loaded than a vigil that few people can remember the importance of. By loading the vigil with foreshadowing of lynching imagery, the writers ensure that the brutality of the vigil itself is not missed. Now, remember that Shadow doesn’t exactly know what the hell a vigil is until late in the book. It’s Mr. Nancy who tells him exactly what he is in for as they are driving to the world tree…located in Virginia…the South. Thus, the imagery of the worst-case scenario also works to build the tension.
Despite the review and its misguided musings, the show does give fans the satisfaction that we all have waited years to experience. It should be reasonable to assume that the story is updated for its visual debut. During the filming of the show, the country was immersed in debates over Black lives, the alt-right, and pussy-grabbing. Ignoring these themes for a more sanitized view of the world is not only a mistake—it goes against the raw, reality that American Gods is created to comment on. Accusing the project of “baiting” or exploiting matters is nothing more than ignorance, if not outright whitewashing. That’s a topic for another day, though.
For now, we wait for episode 2.