The Black God: American Gods and the Racism of Old White Men

Even before it aired on Sunday, Orlando Jones’s brilliant monologue about racism in America as Mr. Nancy in American Gods has been generating buzz. Rightly so. It’s a beautifully delivered gut punch about the harsh reality of race. “The Mythology of the Black Man in American Gods” over at Black Nerd Problems has been my favorite read on the topic, but all of the praise has been earned. What I haven’t seen is commentary on how American Gods follows up this speech with an object lesson courtesy of Czernobog. If you haven’t seen the episode yet, know that from here on out there be spoilers.

Neil Gaiman chose well in picking Czernobog for one of the first of the old gods to introduce Shadow to. Unlike Mr. Wednesday who hides his name to obscure his identity, most folks I know had to google Czernobog to find the Slavic god’s origin, and then the search results turned up the evil mountain from Fantasia (there spelled Chernabog), not much in the way of actual mythology. He’s as much a mystery to us as to Shadow.

When it comes to personality however, Czernobog is all too familiar. He’s an angry old white man of the kind I have known all my life. Men like him are at my work and at my family reunions with threadbare clothes and dirty jokes. His anger at the world feels righteous. His life has been hard. He’s fighting a losing battle to keep his livelihood against automation, and he has been trod upon for simply being himself. Certainly Czernobog’s distrust of “Wotan” feels legitimate for we know that Wednesday is a con man. But his anger is also terrifying because it lacks focus or purpose. He lashes out at everyone, not just those who have wronged him. Peter Stormare does a brilliant job with this push and pull. He lets us be drawn in with sympathy for the plight of a man who has lost his pride and then frightens us off with Czernobog’s dinner table talk of the details of slaughtering cows.

It’s also at the dinner table that Czernobog pulls the tired line of how there were no black people where he came from. He asks us to consider his status as the black god (in contrast to his brother the white god) as if it holds some relevance to Shadow’s experiences of racism in America. But Czernobog still holds the power in relationship between he and Shadow, so when he offers to play checkers, a game where each piece is supposed to be equal, it’s with a growing sense of unease that we see Shadow accept. We know that the supposed equality is an illusion. And the game itself is played for odds that seem so miserably out of favor for Shadow. His winnings would go to benefit Wednesday, but when he loses he bares the cost alone. And that cost is his life. I remember being shocked that Shadow lost when I read the book, but the show gives us a glimpse that perhaps this was inevitable.

“The Tragedy of Spoons” opens with Mr. Nancy telling us that, “Once upon a time, a man got fucked.” When Czernobog tells Shadow, “It’s a shame. You are my only black friend,” we see exactly how that happens.

Miz Opifex is a union electrician by day and a champion of feminine geekery by night. She lives in the American Rust Belt with her cat and a staggering amount of books, movies, and albums on vinyl.