Recently, actor and singer Donald Glover also known as Childish Gambino, released a music video on YouTube to his new single titled “This is America”. The video has created buzz regarding the complex messaging on socio-political issues of Black America portrayed in the video. I watched the video and like many was at first distracted by the dancing and movements that reflected traditional African dances but caught the allusion to gun violence that plagues the black community and the American culture today overall. This is by no means a critical analysis of the video or the messaging, but it is intending to share my perspective on the subtle issues that plague our country. There are two things that stand out to me in this video commentary of America and they are: distractions and glorified violence. Because the video is quick moving and engaging on Glover, it can come across as if he is nonchalant about the things happening around him. This was very crafty of the video creators to reflect that visually along with his lyrics.
His first verse is all about partying and money. These two concepts are the best distraction America faces today. We do have to tendency to party a bit much and there’s nothing wrong with that by any means. But there’s a racial disparity that comes with that to some degree. We know that in many communities of color, excessive partying leads to calamities that make headlines and contribute to the biases many non-people of color have towards them while at the same time, excessive partying among non-persons of color such as riots after a team wins a championship, or binge-drinking filled college parties are mere celebrations that get out of hand. While the latter sometimes make the news rounds, it is often only in passing without any critical denouncing unless a death is involved. With the former, whether a death is involved or not, it tends to receive more critical denouncement simply because of who it involves.
The second theme I see regards the embracing of glorified violence in this country. When I was coming to age in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s I saw a trend of gun violence among black males across communities of color simply due to the color individuals chose to associate with. Bloods, Crips, Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords, and Pirus (and all variations of these gangs) were only a few that inflicted countless acts of gun violence on the streets of LA, New York, Chicago, and even small cities like my hometown in Louisiana. Glover sings about America’s complicit relationship with gun violence inflicted by individuals and police. It’s a powerful statement on how much more the country seems to value protecting gun rights (of which I am very much a supporter of even while being a gun violence prevention advocate) than the lives of people of color losing their lives in communities daily plagued by gun violence (including the one I live in). It’s a relationship of convenience that he puts out there with the refrain of getting money as a driving factor in the depth of our disparity. The fact that he uses young black children as the imagery for the complicity of gun violence and our silence in communities of color is powerful. The dancing, the covered mouths while sitting with their phones in hand and the jubilant movements of the dancers all direct attention to how distracted we truly are to the issue of violence in communities of color and America in general. We are swift to move from a massacre in a black church to the next shooting of an unarmed person of color by police to the next headline of crime that is common. This again relates back to the undertone of getting money. Black men have historically been limited in their means of acquiring wealth but have managed to accumulate it and in some cases preserve it for following generations. However today, it seems the primary means of acquiring wealth for black men is through entertainment as entertainers or professional athletes (which could fall under the category of entertainment). This wealth is intentionally distributed to not be shared with community. It comes with the fine print of staying in that role alone. If black men in these roles step outside of them, they are quickly demonized and despised by their once adoring white fans (and there are far too many to name who have been affected by this).
It’s as if Glover realizes that even in his role, he can use his medium to bring attention to the plights of communities of color, even while being criticized by that same community. It may be that the dominant community would see such imagery censored than allowed under the banner of free speech, yet Glover puts it out there for the entire country to indulge him. It is this complicity from wealthy black men that I think this entire video is really addressing. While the complicity of all America is presented, complicity within the community of black men is the most dangerous. As black men we have the power and the means of impacting and changing the course of our communities. Glover sings “you’re just a black man in this world, you’re just a barcode…driving expensive foreigns, you’re just a big dawg. I kenneled him in the backyard, no probably ain’t life to a dog, for a big dog.” Black men are metaphorically kenneled to a life that doesn’t truly empower the community. The lyrics imply that even with material success, full viability of life is unachievable in the larger world. For this writer, it is a very scary notion. The insistence that just being a black man is limiting is telling the social palette of the “American Dream”. It is a fraudulent acclaim that repeats itself throughout generations. In this political climate, it is even more amplified when political leaders speak with intense pejorative concordance when black athletes, entertainers, and even politicians (both liberal and conservative) remember they are part of a lingering systemic oppression (even if they are only on the fringes of it). This speaks loudly to the idea that no individual, no matter how wealthy, or how expansive their possibilities, even as big dogs would prefer to not be confined to one condition indefinitely.
While the video will go on to have millions of likes on YouTube, be shared across the depths of the interwebs, and have plenty of commentary from conservative and liberal pundits, and while Glover’s star in Hollywood will continue to soar, there is one thing that can be inferred from the entire thing. America will go on being America. We will continue in the complicity of our lives so that we can boast in the greatness of an imagined America that may never come to fruition.