Childish Gambino’s (b. 1983) Hiro Murai-directed music video This is America captures almost the entirety of the American zeitgeist. Within the confines of an industrial warehouse, Gambino creates multilayered imagery that adumbrates a psychic, social and material picture of America. The setting seems prison-like, yet also light and open. In the first few moments, death comes as Gambino pulls out a handgun and shoots a man in the back of the head; the man, who opens the piece, had been playing the guitar, yet when he’s shot he’s sitting with his head covered. The shot ushers in the line “This is America.” Gambino floats throughout the video, as though he exists in some liminal space between spirit and flesh. His facial gestures have been widely remarked upon; some critics have observed that he is inverting racial stereotypes about Black performers. The Guardian’s Ben Beaumont-Thomas writes,
“In the opening scenes, Glover uses grotesque smiles and exaggerated poses, with some on Twitter suggesting this is an invocation of the racial caricature Jim Crow. Another suggested Glover was accusing black performers – even himself – of “coonery”, or saying they are still made to feel like minstrels when they go out to perform their “black” music. One of the lyrics is ‘Grandma told me: get your money, black man.’ Commenters on the lyric annotation site Genius have asked whether Glover feels that he has to take on stereotypically black performance roles (rapper, soul singer, comedian) to be able to earn money. His gunning down of the gospel choir singing the lyric suggests that he’s tired of the pressure to accumulate wealth, to be performatively black, and stay spiritually uplifted in an age of gun violence.”
The lyric “Grandma told me: get your money Black man,” comes to be central, after Gambino lights a joint and stands atop a car, at the near the end of the video. Here, near the end, is a potent reminder of inter-generational reparations owed for the Holocaust of slavery and Jim Crow, but still not paid. In fact, the ending of the video features a horrified Gambino being chased by a white crowd, which is anonymous and obscured by partial darkness.
In an earlier part of the video, a church choir happily sings the tunes of the song, and Gambino uses a semi-automatic weapon, shooting them all. The viewer is reminded of the racist, white nationalist Dylann Roof‘s shooting Black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. Gambino continues, after shooting, saying This is America. And so it is. Roof, profiled in the 2018 Pultizer-prize winning article “A Most American Terrorist” by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah,
“[B]elieved that, as [B]lack Americans, they were raping ‘our women and are taking over our country.’ So he took out his Glock handgun and calmly, while their eyes were closed in prayer, opened fire on the 12 people gathered in the basement of Mother Emanuel AME Church and shot almost every single one of them dead.
Almost every white person I spoke with in Charleston during the trial praised the church’s resounding forgiveness of the young white man who shot their members down. The forgiveness was an absolution of everything. No one made mention that this forgiveness was individual, not collective. Some of the victims and their families forgave him, and some of them did not. No one acknowledged that Dylann Roof had not once apologized, shown any remorse, or asked for this forgiveness. Or the fact that with 573 days to think about his crime, Dylann Roof stood in front of the jurors and, with that thick, slow tongue of his, said without any hesitation whatsoever, ‘I felt like I had to do it, and I still feel like I had to do it.”
This is America. This is America. This is American.
The entire feel is one of the 1950s meets the 1980s, as Gambino’s backup dancers are dressed in typical 1950’s office wear, and many of the cars are from the 1980s.The 1950s in the US was a time of conformity, sexual repression and racial segregation. Self-assured, the white-middle classes ‘fled’ the cities for the suburbs, and a certain type of white-picket fence respectability became moored into the entire culture. A great many (white) Americans nostalgically long for a return to the post-WWII era. Recalling good paying jobs, stronger unions and Jim Crow, the beaming 1950s are part and parcel of the white American wet-dream. Gambino adds a man on a white horse, also recalling periods when the KKK ran rampant, and lynching was an enjoyable past-time for white Southerners. Some have speculated the white horse is a Biblical reference; Revelations 6:8 (KJV) reads: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and the name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” Highsnobiety writes, “According to the scripture, the appearance of four horsemen signifies the oncoming apocalypse – with death represented by the final, white one.” The video is perfectly timed for both a global apocalypse and renaissance.
Throughout the video a reckoning with death is palpable, and one is reminded of the recent opening of the long-needed National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama. The Memorial is “dedicated to the thousands of African American lynching victims since the Civil War.” Rolling Stone’s Jamil Smith describes his visit,
“When you reach the top of the hill overlooking the Alabama state capitol, 805 rectangular metal slabs – each about six feet tall – are waiting for you. Some have thin streaks of orange against their dark exterior. Others seem to be eating themselves from within.
As you walk through the labyrinth, the memorial’s wooden floor begins to drop, and the columns rise like hanged women and men above you. They each represent a county or state where these murders occurred, and, during my visit, many attendees were looking for the names of family members who had been previously lost to history.
I looked for the Mississippi column on which my great-grandfather’s name may have been listed had he not fled north as a teenager after a lynching threat. Thankfully, John Johnson made it to Pittsburgh, and, generations later, his great-grandson was born on his birthday. I soon found the column with Washington County, thankful that I was alive to do so at all.”
Indeed, for white America these things are in the past, yet they are living realities for Black, Latinx and Native Americans. Gambino manages to remind, testing the bounds of acceptability, and he also works to shake. Each dance move pulsates with meaning; every flip of the hip swings off another layer of traumatic detritus for the audience to consume. And in a nod to the tragicomic, the police run around the riot scenes mindlessly, like they are chasing nothing.
Diversion is the name of the game in This is America, with an almost unseen cameo by the musician SZA. Black female power and beauty is gracefully featured among the chaos, although one needs to look carefully to see it. There are a plethora of messages in this music video, from the imagery and lyrics meaning unfolds geologically. Like examining the earth’s various strata, the viewer becomes a digger, closely looking for every clue, reference and guiding symbol. Noting that cellular phones are used as tools to monitor the actions of a police State, and also as dangerous if held by a Black man, Beaumont-Thomas adds, from his article in The Guardian above,
“The line “this a celly / that’s a tool” has a powerful double meaning. Fans have pointed out that on the one hand it refers to the case of Stephon Clark, shot dead just weeks ago by Sacramento police, who assumed he was armed, but only had an iPhone on him. Glover distils the distorting way black men are seen by police with “tool”, meaning gun. In the video, the camera pans up to black men filming the chaos on their phones. As other commenters on Genius have pointed out, Glover could also be saying that phones can be actual tools for documentation.”
Quite, and what a revealing documentation This is America is!
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[Featured image courtesy of Slate’s Hate in America, here.
Slate’s goal, in the curated feed below, is to present individual incidents of racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigrant sentiment as we see them reported. We will update this feed frequently, and though our list is not comprehensive, we aim to make it as complete as possible.]