Recently, we’ve been reading and discussing Greg Anderson Elysée’s Is’Nana The Were-Spider in my “Monsters, Race, and Comics” course. Over the course of the semester so far, I have referenced “Three Slaps,” the first episode of Atlanta season 3. I’ve referred to this episode specifically because it, and the series as a whole, addresses a myriad of concepts and themes that we have been covering throughout the class. When we finished Is’Nana The Were-Spider Volume 1, we watched “Three Slaps.” I hadn’t watched the episode since it first aired back in the spring, but rewatching it, especially in the context of the class opened up a lot of important moments for conversation. Here, I want to point out a few of those moments.
The first moment comes at the opening of the episode with a white man, played by Tobias Segal, and a Black man, played by Tyrell Munn, fishing on a lake that resembles Lake Lanier in Georgia. The white man talks about the social constructs of race and the malleability of whiteness, and he tells the Black man about the Black governed town underneath the lake’s surface that the government flooded to form the lake. This narrative is connected directly with stories about Lake Lanier and the flooding of Oscarville. The stories, while not totally factual as Jewel Wicker points out, add to the thematic tone and narrative thrust of the scene and the episode.
The white man begins by stating, “White is where you are. It’s when you are.” He ends, after talking about the flooding of the town, by talking about the psychological impact of racism on the perpetrator. He states, “The thing about being white is, it blinds you. It’s easy to see the Black man as being cursed because you’ve separated yourself from him, but you don’t know, you’re enslaved just like him.” At the end of his monologue, he turns around, absent his eyes, and tells the Black man, “We are cursed too,” before Black hands raise up from the water and pull the Black man underneath the surface. The white man’s comments drive home a few things that we have looked at this semester.
First and foremost, his concluding statement about being cursed relates to Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark where she points out the need to examine the impact of racism on the perpetrators of such actions. She writes, “But the well-established study [of racism on those oppressed] should be joined with another, equally important one: the impact of racism on those who perpetrate it. It seems both poignant and striking how avoided and unanalyzed is the effect of racial inflection on the subject.” Morrison echoes countless others, including Lillian Smith, who call upon us to look point out the effects of racism on the perpetrator. When the white man turns around, he is blinded, signifying the dangers of refusing to see the ways that whiteness affects the oppressor. When we begin to examine its impact on us, then we will remove the scales and regain our sight. Morrison asks us to do this, just as the white man does, just as Smith does, just as countless other do as well.
Along with the focus on the oppressor, the white man also points out, from the outset, the ways that whiteness works. One can move into whiteness, but that superficial whiteness will not necessarily protect them. Here, I think back to Michael Collins in Deathlok. When Collins and Misty Knight talk about their experiences, Collins tells her that when he was a Black man, before Ryker placed his brain into the Deathlok machine, he tells her about living a “comfortable” illusion. He tells her how he “was pretty assimilated,” being the only Black person at his office and one of two Black families in his neighborhood. He also tells her about his best friend in college being a white guy; however, “there were places [their] friendship couldn’t go.” Even though Collins gets close to whiteness, mimicking its characteristics to fit in and hopefully be safe and secure, he can never be white. It exists out of his reach. He lived within an illusion that he could access whiteness.
We see this because his white boss, Ryker, shoots him, removes his brain, and implants it into a cyborg. Collins exists, for Ryker, as nothing more than a cog, a tool that he can exploit. Collins doesn’t escape oppression or racism, even though we do not see his white college buddy do anything or his neighbors. He is a Black man, and white society will not let him forget that. This is partly what the white man in Atlanta gets at. He tells his companion that whiteness is a construct that moves and shifts, depending on the whims of those who wield it. They provide semi-access to its power, but they will never let a person forget who can enter and who is denied access.
This last point, as well, reminds me of how Donald Glover explores these similar topics in his hip hop career as Childish Gambino. We see this in a lot of his lyrics. In “Backpackers,” he raps, “Black male in short shorts, I’m double suspect.” Even though he may approach whiteness, by wearing “short shorts,” he will nevertheless be viewed as a suspect, a violent, hyper sexualized Black male. Likewise, he points out that people in his own community view him as suspect because of the way he chooses to dress. This comes up again in “Bonfire” when people say he should rap about “the realness,” and they tell him, “First of all, you talk white!” Here, we see Collins again and the malleability of whiteness but also the inaccessibility of whiteness for individuals who are not phenotypically white.
Watching the opening of “Three Slaps,” all of this comes to mind. Whiteness works as a myth. It’s the American Dream, the myth that everyone has the same chance of success, no matter race or ethnicity. However, once someone reaches that success, whiteness rears its head to protect itself, making sure the person knows their place within the social hierarchy. Likewise, whiteness blinds. It causes the oppressor the ability to see their actions and to recognize the ways that they treat others. It says, “Everyone can achieve the American Dream. My ancestors did. I did. Why can’t you?” It blinds people to the systems that deny access to the dream and to success.
There is more I can say, and I will pick up this discussion in the next post as I get some into Loquareeous story, the main story in “Three Slaps.” Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on twitter @silaslapham.