Donald Glover’s visceral This is America has everyone talking, but as we elevate him, we should not ignore the other voices we deem less worthy. It is time to listen.
Donald Glover’s This is America is a blanket of richly interwoven imagery that details the frayed fabric of modern America. The symbolism is deep and nuanced. Like all art should be, it’s up for interpretation, but there are three narrative throughlines that speak throughout.
The past of the black man in America, the present of, and how the past influences the present.
All of which prompts us to think of the future.
But I will return to that. I’d like to quickly unpack a quick selection of the imagery, as it illustrates Donald’s point.
#1) The evocation of Jim Crow
In three hundred words or less, Jim Crow is a continuation of slavery. Predating the Civil War, Jim Crow was a theatre character, a caricature of black people, punctuated by a twisting dance, and boggled eyes. After the Civil War brought about the abolishment of slavery, the chains became invisible, as Jim Crow was reborn as the so-called Jim Crow laws, which drew the lines of segregation which lasted until the 1960s.
— Nichia (@nicky_furiosa) May 6, 2018
In the above and below image, Donald apes the movements of Jim Crow, planting a bullet into the head of a shackled black man. In other words, a slave.
The metaphor is obvious. Jim Crow is killing the black man. Jim Crow is still killing the black man. The long-held definition (even if it was originally incorrect), continues to have meaning. Black America is free, but it will never be free. It is still shackled to the past, and white American still holds the key.
Glover’s attire also echoes this. His trousers scream the hue of the Confederacy, as they wore the same tone of grey. In this case, he’s literally carrying slavery with him. Also, you could extend it further, as soon after Glover guns down the gospel choir (more on that in a second), he blithely strolls past a police car, he is not stopped, perhaps because he’s wearing the uniform of the ancient white oppressors, therefore, s’all good.
In fact, you could almost make the case that Donald Glover himself is a meta-representation of Jim Crow. He’s a caricature of that black America that entertains us so. He’s a funny guy, he’s the token guy in Community. He’s a great musician, and he’s entertaining. We laugh and clap when he appears, but prior to this moment, never have we really pondered on what problems he might possess. Why would we? He’s a character. He’s Childish Gambino.
See my point?
#2) His dancing
The idea of entertainment versus reality is a point that runs throughout. The problems of the black community are offset by dance, music and revelry. It works both ways. It is both how the black community deals with its problems, and indeed how white America sees theirs. We see the gun violence and the drugs and the unemployment. But we pay it far less attention that we do the music that comes from it. Theirs is a horror you can dance to.
The creator of Dear White People, Justin Simien illustrated on Twitter: “…this is America, Gambino tells us. It’s brutal, but either you participate in the space American culture has allotted you (even if only to play Jim Crow as many black entertainers have and continue to do since the country’s founding) or you perish…(that means) trap beats, gettin’ money, fun dance memes and a chance to survive long enough to enjoy America’s promise of freedom.”
Glover flits between moments of great violence and great revelry, echoing the vicious everyday. This is best illustrated at the moment that he brutally guns down the gospel choir (also a metaphor for the Charleston church shooting, where nine black Americans were killed), he does the act, then commences his step.
#3) Lady Liberty
After the chaos subsides, and Glover dances on the roof of a car (accompanied by the fingerpicking of a hooded figure – aka slave music), to the lyrics, get your money, black man (a takedown of the music industry, and again, the continuation of Jim Crow), the camera pulls away past a woman casually sitting on a bonnet, absent in the chaos at preceded it.
After the video dropped, the model who was that woman, SZA, released this image on Instagram:
Obviously, lady liberty is present, but she doesn’t care. She’ll be there only when you get that money, black man.
Back to my original point. We’re prompted to think of the black man in the future of America. What we’re clamouring for this morning, is a voice to lead. As an act of resistance to Trump, and the racial division he’s engendered. We’re looking for someone who is adequately woke. Someone to articulate the hugeness of the issue. Glover seems to be that man, and on the back of This is America, it seems that he is the Simba that we’re holding aloft on Pride Rock.
However, I suspect we’re doing this as a replacement for someone else. Primarily, one Kanye West.
Now, Kanye West has long stopped articulating the everyday issues of the black American and has long gone for himself. A self-proclaimed genius, one who sold out and married the Gold Digger. One who also has recently decided to jump into bed with the anti-christ. Glover is now our man, and how we miss The Old Kanye. I say it every time I listen to one of his old albums. This thought process is incorrect and inherently racist. The concept that there can only be one, and that person is interchangeable, is the problem, and indeed, is Donald’s point.
Elevating one as the definition and ignoring the rest is a flight powered by the wings of Jim Crow.
Whether Kanye West actually is part of the far-right, or whether it’s part of a marketing push for his upcoming album is moot. His is a voice we should not shut out. Donald Glover is not an anti-septic to Kanye West, nor is he the anti-Kanye, and nor is he is the highest choir to replace ‘Ye. He exists on the same plane, and it certainly isn’t White America/elsewhere’s place to organise the value of their opinion by our perceived worth. It’s also worth mentioning that we did the same with Kendrick Lamar’s album To pimp a butterfly, an album we lost our collective shit over, and particular, the track Alright, a black power anthem, which Kendrick himself was puzzled to see a predominately white concert audience sing the words of the hook back at him: Nigga, we gon’ be alright.
All white people, myself included, need to realise that we’re overdue to listen. Voices of complaint have long been shouted through music, however, that is Donald’s point. We only listen through the bars they speak through, but never to those behind the bars we placed there. We don’t listen, we dance. Tomorrow does not belong to the white man, and nor should it. America once again is a pivot point, it has a chance to redefine its racial borders.
The new version of America is fast arriving, and Plymouth Rock will again be struck. What we’ll have in our lifetime is the discovery of a racial Newfoundland, and voices will be required to carve out the features of. America needs more than one architect, and it certainly should not be a place designed by those who made the mistakes they fled from.
That should be America.