Let me tell you a story… it's a bit of a long one, but please bare with me. But with the current controversy concerning Orlando Jones' firing after his amazing work playing Mr. Nancy (aka Anansi the Spider) on STARZ's American Gods, I was driven to get my thoughts out…
Anansi the Spider was the first Black god I ever knew about when I was a child. Mostly due to the book A Tale From the Ashanti by Gerald McDermott. For many years following, he was the only Black god I knew. I was more exposed to Hercules, Theseus, Perseus, Zeus, Athena, Aphrodite, and so many other mythological characters of Greek origins, and eventually would learn about Odin and his Valkyries, Thor, Loki and other Norse gods.
But even before any of those legendary characters, I was exposed to various European fairy tales, initially from Disney films introduced to me by my mother and then shortly thereafter the various adapted books of said fairy tales. I absorbed these stories as much as I could. Different interpretations of these same stories fascinated and excited me because I loved the variety of it.
It would be years when I realized that education saw fit to consider these European stories and legends to be classical and required education to the point of even testing me and my peers on them, yet these similar stories from the people of my ancestors and skin color were only really considered educational as an elective in college if I were interested in beefing up my credits before graduation. If not elective in school, then society would have us believe it's part of a culture that we should be worried about and speak whispers of and instead use as a source of horror.
In the traditional stories of Anansi the Spider, Anansi is the god of Stories, a title and position granted to him by Nyame, the Sky God who ruled and oversaw everything. As I reached adulthood, while still loving my Greek myths and European fairy tales, I finally grew interested in learning about Black myths, folklore, fairy tales, figures of Black spiritualities, and so on.
All that said: Anansi the Spider may possibly be the most well known and most popular Black god. His stories are popular and well known in West Africa, the stories lived on through various countries in the Caribbean due to the passing of oral tales during the slave trade, and even in America, his stories would be adapted into a more "modern" version where he would take the form of Br'er Rabbit. Black people who were kidnapped and forced into slavery in America would use Br'er Rabbit as stories of wish fulfillment.
They saw themselves as the titular and small frame with less power Brother Rabbit, while his enemies such as the predatory Fox, Bear, and/or Wolf were the stand-ins for the white men and masters who help more status. Rabbit was filled with trickery and wit and although despite never fully having more power in the end of his enemies, he would have little victories where he'd escape due to his mind and cunning.
Other characters such as John the Conqueror (or Conjurer) were also used as wish fulfillment: a Black man who was a slave who used his mind and sometimes magic to overcome and fool his white master and in some stories fool the devil (or white devil, you pick the meaning of said interpretation).
As I was gradually learning more and more about these Black characters, some from my own research, others from college courses (classes I only took for fun because I was already WAY over my credits but wanted to take advantage of particular courses), my mind began formulating ideas of my own. See, Anansi the Spider I knew since I was a child and I was also knowledgeable of him due to having seen the characters adapted in a few stories and TV shows over the years.
Static Shock was one, Reading Rainbow, and even as a villain on Gargoyles. Oh… and let me not forget! Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods and the follow up spin-off Anansi Boys! Yet, more often than not, when I would ask a lot of my peers, mostly Black people if they knew about Anansi the Spider, the response that would be followed was, "Who?" Internally I sighed every time. To me, Anansi being OUR god, OUR Black god and the god of stories, what does it say about our stories if we don't even know HIM, our most well known of them all? Thus began my journey of creating my comic book series Is'nana the Were-Spider.
In the very first page of Is'nana the Were-Spider, a Black comedian with a spider for a shadow attempts to tell his final joke. But before he can tell it, he needs to know if the audience knows who Anansi the Spider is to properly set up his joke. No one raises their hands… the joke is on him. The way I see it: if this continues to be a thing, then our stories – Black mythological and cultural stories – just may die.
Is'nana the Were-Spider is my attempt to help change that narrative by introducing readers to various characters and figures from the Black diaspora. Is'nana, being the son of Anansi, would be the next generation reclaiming his roots while also moving towards the future with his own perspective and direction, meeting and interacting with characters like John Henry, fighting against Osebo the Leopard from West African or Rawhead and Bloody Bones from the South. Or having to match wits with Ti-Malice and Bouki from Haitian folklore and so on.
So many of our cultures as Black people are rooted in these various stories and characters, from all of our various countries, be it in the Caribbean or in Africa… Hell, even America! Which brings me to this next topic… American Gods. I was obsessed with this book when I first read it. Gaiman is one of our greatest treasures, having written so many amazing stories, a few which have been adapted into movies such as Coraline and Stardust.
When I saw the name Anansi pop out in his words in my book, "Holy shit!" came out of my mouth. Imagine my delight when I learned there was a follow up called Anansi Boys! I've read Anansi Boys so many times and in my excitement lent it to so many friends (and is now missing, of course). When I found out after all these years Starz! Was planning to do a live action adaption, you bet your ass I was excited.
American Gods is one of my all time favorite books, when of the few where I've read multiple times but I was particularly excited to see who was going to be cast as my man Anansi the Spider. It ended up being Orlando freakin' Jones, who surprised the hell out of me on Sleepy Hollow after only knowing him prior from MAD TV.
On Sleepy Hollow, Jones blew me away with his performance as the sheriff's captain, Frank Irving. So I was pumped to see what he'd do with this role even though he wasn't who I imagined. Nowhere near it. But the minute he walked into that slave ship on American Gods with them spiffy shoes and suit to his catchphrase, "Let me tell you a story…" to the second of causing a race riot telling his people who prayed for his guidance to burn that mother fucking boat down after informing them of the pain and tragedy that will befall the following black men after them… I knew… I knew… our stories were back.
Jones' rendition of Anansi the Spider is a more "angry" version of the trickster story god. Heck, it became one of his most popular lines on American Gods: "Angry is good. Angry get's shit done."
After years of being kidnapped and forced into slavery, beaten and killed for the color of our skins, our cultures and religions bastardized into horror stories and devil worship, riots and uprisings and "winning our freedom" only to be punished with Jim Crow laws and poverty, drugs planted into our communities, lack of funding in our schools and education, police brutality and Stop and Frisks, various sex trafficking and harvesting our organs, fetishizing of our skin and body parts, appropriation, trauma implanted into our DNA, massacres being wiped out from the history books, illegal drug testing and experiments… all the while being told that our anger is unnecessary and our need to acknowledge all that we have and have had stacked against us is a thing of the past and that we're playing a race card and need to get over it… oh, you damn right we're angry and for the Black people who tuned into American Gods, Anansi (or Mr. Nancy as we know him) would be our "wish fulfillment."
Jones' Mr. Nancy is a Black god pissed that his people would be subjected to all the pain and misery they have faced in the world and now America. Yet he holds no huge power as we have grown over the years to not know our stories. When Black people were taken as slaves, one of the strategies to make us obedient was to tell us our source of power, our gods, were devil worship and we needed to turn away and be obedient to our slave masters in order to go to Heaven and not go to hell. We had power in our stories, in our various religions and gods… and Mr. Nancy, similar to my version of Anansi and his peers in Is'nana the Were-Spider, represents the power that we're gradually losing.
So yes, he was angry, but every line that was spewed out of Nancy's mouth was a truth that we Black viewers knew and have tried to acknowledge. We took his words and they gave us pride. And the character would continue to give us pride. Come season 2, Jones was asked to write a character bible for Mr. Nancy. According to an interview he did with theBlerdgurl Karama Horne, the show runners had no idea what to do with Anansi nor many of the other characters of color on the show.
Jones was promoted to Executive Producer after having written scenes in the last minute for these characters and thus more scenes with Anansi expressing his feelings bout Black America would be written. One particular scene has Anansi discussing the various issues Black people face to two other Black gods sharing space with him, wondering why they can't seem the have the power to do what they need to to protect their own.
"Slavery is a cult," Mr. Nancy says and follows with a speech just as powerful as his season 1 debut. Over time the clips of these monologues from our Black god of stories would hit the internet, drawing more and more intrigue from Black viewers who had no prior knowledge of the show as more Black viewers posted through social media and blogs that their love for the series having been introduced to Mr. Nancy.
I myself was excited because FINALLY people were starting to know who Anansi the Spider was again. Our cultural hero was becoming real again, acknowledging our presence and history by being a spokesperson for how angry and bewildered we felt having to live in a country founded by white supremacy and white privilege. But alas, it was not meant to be. Season 3 coming forth, Jones would be fired from the show with no announcement from the show runners. And boy was the marketing of the series slick…
In the past few years, more Black Americans have started to take more of an interest in religions such as Vodou or Orisha worship. Since the time of slavery, many have been forced to believe that any type of knowledge or worship of the like, as mentioned earlier, is akin to devil worship and evil. But to many of us, this was our strength, our passion and pride, and it is time to reclaim what was ours: our spirituality. Towards the end of Season 2, we were introduced to Baron Samedi (Mustafa Shakir), the Vodou Loa, God of the Dead, and his wife, Maman Brigitte (Hani Furstenberg).
Come Season 3 announcement, the series would reveal various Black gods of the Orisha faith such as Oshun and Chango, while casting rising star and fan favorite actresses like Pose's Dominique Jackson as a new version of Mr. World. While many of us are excited to see more of our Black performers and gods on the show after the amazing writing of Jones' as Anansi, along with great writing for the other Black gods, you damn right we're excited to see more Black gods… only to learn a few days ago from the man himself: Jones' was fired from American Gods.
And it seems the showrunners were doing a great job keeping it under wraps while people recently made Mr. Nancy's scenes and speeches go viral while praising and expressing their excitement for Season 3. Apparently, the creative team (led by Charles Eglee) believe that, "Mr. Nancy's angry, get shit done is the wrong message for Black America."
While Black people are not a monolith and we come from various backgrounds and upbringings, different countries and nationalities and have experienced life differently… who the fuck are these white people to believe that they know what message is good for Black America when they've never fucking experienced what it is to be Black?! Even after seeing the huge draw the pro-Black Mr. Nancy was pulling in from outside Black viewers because of the message HE was sending!
One of the reasons a spokesperson for American Gods claims (after Jones' finally made the announcement of his firing), "Mr. Jones' option was not picked up because Mr. Nancy, among other characters, is not featured in the portion of the book we are focusing on within Season 3." Yet various characters and gods were added into the series who were non-existent within the book as well as the series having gone off and done their own thing, straying from the books in the prior two seasons while developing the series' fan favorites (in season 2, fan favorites such as Nancy, Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), Salim (Omid Abtahi), and the Jinn being written by Jones himself – while Jinn actor Mousa Kraish confirmed yesterday that he was not asked to return).
The people behind the scenes of American Gods were doing well with their bait-and-switch tactic. Marketing still showed Jones as Mr. Nancy while his scenes began to go viral in preparation for the new season while announcing even more Black gods for us to faun about and get excited for. Before Jones' made his announcement, when the hell were these showrunners planning to let us in on this little switch-a-roo? Were they just going to keep this a complete mystery to warrant their Black viewers to tune in in droves in an attempt to keep their numbers up as Mr. Nancy and the other Black gods became more popular and knowledgeable within the Black audience?
Since the news broke, fans from all over have expressed this anger of the news as more news outlets picked up the story. The news trended on all social media, and the more the news spread, the more anger was expressed, especially from Black viewers. I can only hope that our anger leaves a mark on American Gods because it really is time for us to stop hoping for the best when it comes to us being represented well instead of being pandered and catered to on a superficial level for our viewership and dollars while we're mistreated in the background (Jones' and Gabrielle Union as current examples).
In the meantime, I'm glad Jones' made his mark on this character and I'm glad Mr. Nancy has boosted the popularity of Anansi the Spider, bringing him more into the mainstream limelight – and I would love to extend HUGE applause and "thank you" to Jones for his work as Anansi, from his performance to his writing and finally to his announcement of his firing and departure. But with all the uproar happening, with more of the knowledge of our mistreatment behind the scenes, with the knowledge that white people think they know what we need as a people better than us, with more interest in our various spiritual figures… what are WE going to do with it?