by Rylan Higgins
On May 5, 2018, when actor and musical artist Donald Glover released “This is America” under his musical performance name Childish Gambino, it garnered an astonishing amount of attention. Soon after its release, the powerful and, for some, controversial music video became a global sensation. Its impact was especially explosive in the United States. None of this likely caught anyone who was paying attention to issues of race or racial violence in North America off guard. Even so, I was somewhat surprised, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I live, when I tuned into CBC Radio One and heard a lively discussion about the video’s content and meaning — and its potential societal impact. When artistic expression goes viral, you never know where it will turn up. With the many possible interpretations of its meaning and the various takes on its possible impact in mind, others on Anthropology Now’s editorial team and I decided to highlight “This is America” in this issue’s Books and Arts Review section. Reviewing a music video is a first for our publication, and we are excited about the outcome.
Five contributors signed up for the task of reviewing and reacting to the video. Critical ethnographer Lidia Marte from the University of Puerto Rico offers two sketches that express her complex reaction to it. Sherina Feliciano-Santos is an anthropologist at The University of South Carolina and focuses her review on personal experience and media responses to the video. Deborah Cohan, who is a sociologist from The University of South Carolina-Beaufort, turns her attention toward rage and gender as she sees them connecting to “This is America.” Anthropologist Kimberly Simmons from The University of South Carolina highlights race and racialized experience in her response. And anthropology/psychology student Renbourn Chock from the New College of Florida brings the concept “carnivalesque” to bear on Childish Gambino’s art. These five contributions interpret and reflect on the meaning and impact of an important piece of contemporary Americana. We hope readers agree that their efforts help us all think more clearly and critically about the complex relationship between art and social life. “This is America” will surely not be the last time that relationship encounters such a burst of influence and interest.
What is America? Graphic Impressions
by Lidia Marte
When I answered Anthropology Now’s call for images relating to “This is America,” I was not sure what to expect. I just wanted to draw and respond. Eventually, I began to see this as an opportunity to expose myself to the contemporary rhythms of pop and YouTube culture. I watched the video three times and listened two more times without watching. It was cinematically powerful and disturbing in many ways, and maybe that is precisely the point. There were hints to current racial violence in the U.S., and even Apartheid in South Africa. And past and present references to recurring themes of a planet on edge, especially the numbing to violence. Yet it also presented reasons to sublimate or ignore violence and even the need to create alternative balancing acts just to stay sane. The video came across as a carefully scripted production, and the choreography was enticing, which made it all the more disturbing. I noticed in it and the clothing choices a celebratory homage to certain ’70s music and to dance as a form of resistance, creating briefly liberated spaces of humanity and dignity. I got an impression of an indirect or even covert gesture of solidarity to queer ways of expression, precisely in Gambino’s dance moves. I then continued watching on YouTube other links about people’s responses and analysis of the video, its metaphors and references. Many were very sharp and aware of contemporary issues. Somewhat unexpectedly, the television series Eyes on the Prize came to mind. Clearly, I needed to digest what I watched and read and consider the many associations that kept coming.
The following graphic impressions represent a quick response to “This is America.” It is unclear whether they convey echoes from Childish Gambino’s art. I made some sketches that were initially too flat and literal, showing either historical and current US internal struggles, and by way of empire, or the diversity that I wished to celebrate and protect. Comparing four different versions of each, only these two sketches truly intrigued me. I did not want more so-called raw sufferings, but rather to focus on critical hope? Yes, with a question mark. Can we be hopefully engaged with transformations we envision, while being critical of what is? Acting in the now and nurturing the future? And getting to know the layers of contextual ethnohistories that chain and liberate us? I chose two examples that resonate with me because they were responses and questions. Responses from the current uncertainty, yet hopefully focusing on what we can actually begin doing, feeling, relating, expressing NOW, and less focused on what we oppose or do not want…
Lidia Marte is a critical ethnographer who loves learning from and creating “comix” — an excuse to just draw. She is an assistant professor of sociocultural anthropology at the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras Campus. Her research is framed through food, place and memory, in particular in the Caribbean and their Afro-diasporic experiences in the US.
Visibility and Agency: An Analysis of Media Responses to Childish Gambino’s “This is America”
by Sherina Feliciano-Santos
Released on May 5, 2018, alongside its performance on Saturday Night Live, Childish Gambino’s (Donald Glover’s musical stage name) “This is America” was certified platinum by the end of the month of its initial release. According to Billboard, as of June 1 it had 147 million track streams and 216 million video streams, as well as over 2.6 million track equivalents sold worldwide, with half of these sales being in the U.S. Almost instantly heralded as a “cultural phenomenon,” a number of news outlets wrote analyses of the song’s video, of the reasons for its success, and within days the video had become iconic enough that several recreations and mashups of the music video ranging from Carly Jepsen’s “Call me Maybe” to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” had started to circulate on social media.
Later that week, on May 10, as I was walking home from the University of South Carolina campus in Columbia, I encountered in front of the State Capitol several (at least 17) confederate flags. I also saw several people dressed in confederate army gear and one woman dressed as a widow in black. It was Confederate Memorial Day. The same flag that was taken down in the summer of 2015 had suddenly multiplied. I walked by in my nonwhite Puerto Rican skin and very curly hair and took pictures from afar, hoping for a second to not be seen and wondering what I would say if confronted. Worried that I would be seen as instigating by taking a picture, I looked at the nearby police officer, wondering whether I would be ignored, protected, or something else. Momentarily fearing for both my visibility and my agency, I wondered whether interpretations of me as I am embodied are impacted by my motivations and actions. As I thought about issues of visibility and the stories that try to contain minority agency, “This is America” popped into my mind, and I found myself singing the song to myself as I waited for the traffic light to signal that it was okay for me to cross the street.
Like most everyone I spoke to who saw the video, I deliberated on its layers, its musical and visual foregrounds and backgrounds, the visual symbolism embedded in the video. I found several outlets, including the Washington Post, which posted “break-downs” of the video’s references, and others that offered to elucidate its “hidden meanings.” As suggested in several mass media articles, I watched the video while trying to focus on the background and found myself overwhelmed keeping track of all of the blurred events, getting drawn into the sharpened performance in the foreground, thinking about the performance art at play. Is the experience of watching the video meant to force its audience into a more empathetic understanding of the black experience in America? If so, then how?
YouTube videos of people reacting to “This is America” started to circulate on social media as well, with titles such as “White Guys react to,” “black youtuber reacts” and “Dad reacts to Childish Gambino.” Users could reflect on their shock or their discomfort or realizations by watching and commenting on others’ reactions. Twitter users and several op-eds questioned its portrayal of black pain, some calling it “trauma porn,” questioning who will materially benefit from this video, asking how white audiences might interpret their watching of the video.
Donald Glover has recently been contrasted and compared to Kanye West, whose recent comments regarding slavery and Trump have stirred pointed controversy. In fact, on Glover’s May 5 guest host appearance on SNL, one of the skits was called “A Kanye Place.” Its premise was five friends in the middle of a cornfield who must keep quiet or be taken by monsters (a play on the recent film “A Quiet Place,” which itself had been criticized in the media for its whiteness). The Donald Glover character kept checking his phone for updates on things Kanye West was saying, and one by one, friends’ loud reactions to the news of Kanye supporting Trump or Kanye saying that “slavery is a choice” leads to their demise. One of the character’s comments held a pretty explicit message: “Kanye is a distraction.”
On May 11, Donald Glover was interviewed regarding his upcoming Star Wars film and was asked what the final scene of his video means. His response was “No.” He answered that it was not his place to explain it. Leaving the video’s visuals, dance moves, lyrics and musical styles open to interpretation was described by several journalists as a Rorschach test of sorts, open to the assumptions, concerns and biases of each audience segment, of each individual doing the interpreting. Seeking to posit or find the “right” interpretation, people went on social media, tried to find the meaning of the dance moves. Some attempted to provide historical imagery or evidence for one symbolic reading over another.
The debates ranged on whether the material of the pants worn by Childish Gambino was a nod to confederate soldiers, whether the stance he took upon his first shooting was meant to represent a minstrel figure, and whether the red carpet/red blood color of the handkerchiefs used to carefully hold the guns after a shooting was meaningful. Others remarked on the unnerving choreography and violence and its emotional impact upon the viewer/listener. Many asked: was this about the modern-day minstrel shows that distract from the everyday barrage of violence inflicted upon black bodies? Is hip-hop the minstrel? Is it Kanye West? Is it all of us? Others asked: who is the intended audience? Who benefits from the pain portrayed in this video? Why provide such imagery to the white audiences who may miss the message? Who is the video meant for? Has it been translated for white audiences? Is it meant for them? The questions asked, as much as the music video itself, reflected important questions and anxieties of our time.
In a United States context where school shootings, racial bias in policing, gun violence, hate crimes and the showcasing of violence against black bodies are constants in the news media, the music video’s symbolism offered a site for many Americans to reflect upon and consider some of the complexities of the American experience for different bodies. In a context where the current president ran on a campaign of making America Great Again, Childish Gambino’s video presents a retort by saying that “This is America,” and if we take the lyrics and symbolism seriously, it also seems to mean, “This is what America has been for a while” as well.
The mainstream and social media responses mirrored the varied responses of the general public and often sought answers in Donald Glover’s artistic motivations. But, I think, taking an analytical step back could be a useful exercise in making sense of the video and its political-cultural moment. In some ways, the video also forces us to ask ourselves what kinds of visibility are available to different bodies. In the music video, as long as Childish Gambino dances or commits violence, he is allowed to continue on his way, playing a role, fitting a stereotype. It is only when he stops, takes a moment, and shows his own agency that he awakens, in the so-called sunken place. His face, full of terror, is shown running away from several blurred chasing bodies. What does this all tell us?
For me, I saw a narrative regarding what kinds of visibility, belonging, experiences and possibilities are afforded through the gaze of a white America that has historically held most political and economic power since the nation’s founding. I saw a narrative of who and what is protected, of who can choose to see and not see. While the audience is able to choose what aspects of “This is America” to focus on, those who are backgrounded and unfocused are not given the same choice. The invisibility of Childish Gambino within his frame is only obtained through making himself a spectacle, which many have compared to becoming/being a minstrel. In some ways, I don’t necessarily think the video is meant to be a mirror of black experience, but a reflection of how media and stereotypes try to contain blackness and the impact of those pressures on black representation and experience.
In any case, regardless of my own readings and the problems pointed out by scholars and social media citizens regarding the video’s representations (Where is the resistance? What of black agency? What other roles are there? Whose vision is being represented?), the real strength of the video is the conversations that came up around it. I taught a class on race and racialization in the spring of 2018, and one thing I constantly tried to have students articulate is how (a) representation matters and (b) racism is not just about individual motivations, but about the scripts, structures and institutions that uphold certain ways of being above others, that distribute resources inequitably. Racism is also about the systems of value it produces. In this way, the media response was in itself a site for conversations that helped people think critically about how racism and inequality are reproduced — be it within the frame of the video or outside of it — by asking what and whom it includes or excludes.
The media flurry around “This is America” diminished over the past months, as usually happens even from the media who interpreted “This is America” as being about how dance and musical trends distract us from the pressing issues of gun violence, police brutality and racial inequality. However, today, as I walked to campus down Main Street toward the State Capitol in early June, I saw two young black men driving and playing “This is America.” I wondered: what do they hear in the song? Was it a call to action? A meditative space? A critique of how they become positioned/read/heard/seen in our society? I do not know. What I do know is that in a context where young black men are arrested for waiting at a Starbucks, where a black female graduate student has campus police called on her for falling asleep while studying at a dorm, where two young Native American men’s supposed quietness on a campus tour made them suspect enough to warrant a call to 911, and where the act of barbecuing while black has been understood by some as sufficient reason for someone to call the police, “This is America” has continued a conversation that has not been a distraction from these issues. Rather, it has allowed the focus, if only for a hot minute, to stay on the issues that surround some of the main problems in the U.S. of America.
Sherina Feliciano-Santos is an assistant professor of Linguistic Anthropology at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Her current research includes race relations, communication and policing in the U.S. South; ethnic and racial formations and language practices in Puerto Rico; and schooling, language ideologies and Puerto Rican migration. She is generally interested in and has published on the related roles of language and historical understandings in mediating expressions and interpretations of identity and senses of belonging.
Considering Rage and Gender in Donald Glover’s “This is America”
by Deborah J. Cohan
I had a most interesting introduction to Donald Glover’s video “This is America.” A former student, now friend, sent me a Facebook message and the link to the video. It read “Watch this!” and urged me to pay attention to various details of the video. Intrigued, I decided to watch it, wanting to understand more about why my student found it so compelling. I have long trusted in the perspective of this student-friend and wanted to love “This is America.” But, the truth is I did not. I was conflicted. And I still am.
Immediately, I googled and read numerous reviews. And then I shared the video link on my Facebook timeline asking friends and colleagues what they thought about it. I received only positive comments — people were wowed, blown away, and overwhelmingly, they referred to the video as brilliant. I worried I had missed something big. Truthfully, I still worry about that. As a white viewer of the video, I most likely did. I am aware that privilege affects our angles of vision.
The reality is that Glover’s video is art, and there can be many interpretations of the same piece. We have to consider the intentions and the effects, the vision and mission of an artist as well as the outcome for viewers. On the one hand, Donald Glover, whose stage name is Childish Gambino, is an abstract painter; on the other hand, he is more like a realistic printmaker. Imbued in the video’s images are nuanced abstractions and metaphors combined with grotesquely vivid realism. Glover’s video serves as a mirror forcing viewers to see ugly images, ones that both reflect the violently racist society we inhabit and shape and mold the values and norms that maintain violently racist ideology and action.
Glover’s video resembles relief printing. Art gets much of its power from the negative space around the image to give the image its definition. The rest in a piece of music serves as the interval of silence; the caesura in poetry functions to break up the poem. In the same way, the richness and meaning derived from conversations emerges from pauses. Most viewers of Glover’s video understand that he is allowing for the most painful and vile aspects of our society to remain in the negative space, symbolizing how racist America dismisses that which is the most significant and turns its gaze elsewhere. Like much other art, there is a constant juggling in “This is America,” as Glover decides what is in each frame, what shifts out of the visual field and why.
Whites have wrongly commodified, fetishized and appropriated elements of black culture they desire, crave, want to imitate or hope to colonize while simultaneously dismissing, degrading and dehumanizing the parts they choose to discard, all the while ignoring the trauma and pain inflicted on black people. Some have suggested that the intelligence in the video lies in how this contradictory reality is illuminated so that the viewer is lulled into noticing and consuming Glover’s dance moves in the foreground while remaining complacent about the haunting depths of pain in the background.
Glover plays with viewers, zooming in on certain things and then pulling back, both challenging our ways of seeing and urging us to finally learn how to look. Perhaps this is Glover’s place of greatest dramatic strength, yet it is also where I believe the video comes up short. We are appropriately challenged by ideas of who and what is the subject, and of who and what is the object in the video. Is black culture subject or object or both? Is compulsory whiteness and violent white racism subject or object or both? If the point is that black culture has been thoroughly objectified and needs to become front and center as subject, that makes sense. But when black culture and community is limited in the video’s framing and thus by extension in the viewer’s imagination, to be centrally about black men, we are missing something vitally important. And this potential omission is what in part motivates this review.
The issue of audience is important and not entirely self-evident here. Is this a video intended for black people, for white people, or for both? If it is for black people, I am not clear as to how producing and reproducing trauma on black bodies by a black man is helpful. Instead, I wonder whether a video like this contributes to black self-actualization and self-valuation and to what extent it should. On the other hand, if the video is for white people, I am not understanding how a black man killing black people shifts white people’s assumptions about the black community hurting itself while actually still having more to fear from whites. If it is for both, does the video itself and the rendering of such graphic images provide for the incentive for allying across race, building bridges and fostering dialogue? Will white people step up to this urgent invitation or drop the ball once again?
After all, black people’s efforts to get white people to understand the context of their rage and distress is nothing new. Fifty years ago, William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs wrote about the context of black rage as a response to racist conditions, arrangements and practices. They explained that “the hatred of blacks has been so deeply bound up with being an American that it has been one of the first things new Americans learn and one of the last things old Americans forget.” They acknowledge that black rage is threatening to white America . Rage from those who have been oppressed is seen as threatening when it disrupts the social order built and kept in place by those in positions of greater power. There can also exist the fear that the enraged person will become extremely violent. However, if rage really had no positive merits, no noticeable traces of power for personal change and social change, then it would not be regarded as being as threatening as it is.
Glover’s video strikes me as a moving manifesto of rage, one that highlights the positive functions and outcomes offered by rage. If a central purpose of the video is to build greater understanding of, and compassion for, the context and legitimacy of black rage, then we need to be exposed to the rage of black men and women. Obliterating black women’s lived experiences and black women’s necessary rage, and making the black man the violent one, undermines crucial and life-affirming possibilities of the video. Consequently, the video perpetuates some of the internalized oppression already plaguing the black community.
Black women’s legitimate rage against racism, sexism and violence does not figure into the video. Many black women have long felt that black men do not sufficiently acknowledge or take adequate responsibility for the sexist oppression lodged against black women. And in showcasing gun violence, Glover neglects to simultaneously expose the harsh realities of gendered violence, including sexual and domestic violence. If part of the purpose of Glover’s video is to call into question how we come to see what we see and know what we know, the omission of gendered violence is problematic. The video stands in as a visual representation of the Black Lives Matter movement and reproduces for the public the irony of a movement established by three black women who have been rendered virtually invisible by a culture that regards black lives as being first and foremost about black men’s lives.
Regardless of how beaten down and disenfranchised Glover depicts the black man to be, the invisibility of black women — both their vulnerability and their strength — remains glaring. There is something narcissistic about this, and his repeated, clichéd crotch-grabbing further reinforces this hypermasculine stance. The debilitating effects of marginalization and invisibility and the need to nurture one’s sense of voice have been well documented in work by black women. For example, in 1991 Patricia Williams wrote about the societal denigration of Black women and the effect that has had on her and on the black community:
There are days when I feel so invisible that I can’t remember what day of the week it is, when I feel so manipulated that I can’t remember my own name, when I feel so lost and angry that I can’t speak a civil word to the people who love me best. These are the times when I catch sight of my reflection in store windows and am surprised to see a whole person looking back … I have to close my eyes at such times and remember myself, draw an internal picture that is smooth and whole. 
This makes it clear that it is the burden of structurally oppressive conditions that leaves Williams feeling fragmented, isolated, obliterated from the social landscape and cut off from herself rather than her anger, which is a response to these gravely unequal arrangements. The violent sort of rage that fuels the hatred and hostility toward people of color is quite different from the legitimate response and experience of anger and rage to imposed silence, marginalization and invisibility such as that described by Williams.
There is something extremely powerful about anger in the processes of excavation of the self, for self-valuation and social change. Jill Nelson, in 1997, wrote about the use of subversive language by African Americans to rename oppressive conditions and to reclaim their identities. Specifically, she reflects on the inner revolution she discovered when the term niggerbitchfit was offered to her by her friend as a viable way to rethink her rage:
A niggerbitchfit is what happens when a nice colored girl, having exhausted all possibility of compromise, communication and peaceful conflict resolution, turns into everyone’s worst nightmare, a visible grown-up black woman mad as hell and with nothing to lose, and opens her mouth… 
Nelson’s description demands that we see the psychic damage that is done when Black women are disconnected from their own righteous rage with the end result being extreme and desperate isolation. Nelson clearly illustrates that when black women’s rage is misheard and not heard, the result is internalized racism and a turning inward against the self. Consequently, I would be most interested in listening to a passionate conversation among Nelson, Williams and Glover for example.
Glover’s facial expressions and gestures often look maniacal and reinforce myths of the out-of-control, crazy black man, out to hurt people on a wild rampage. In those moments, I worry that it stirs up unnecessary and unfounded fear in the eyes of white viewers who arguably are most in need of shifting their perspectives, attitudes and behaviors. While Audre Lorde once said it is not the job of the oppressed to teach the oppressor, this video seems to have been made with the hope and intention of a black man to persuade viewers, especially whites, that their way of seeing has been deeply flawed.
In a conversation with a dear friend who is a psychoanalyst and sociologist, I brought up the issue of Glover depicting himself as a madman. My friend astutely observed that the point of that was likely to reveal how such entrenched oppression can quite literally make someone crazy and thus explains the facial expressions, gestures and harm to oneself and others in the video. While there is no denying that, it is also not clear to me that the video accomplishes certain things that still seem necessary. It does not seem to expand one’s visual field of the black community to be about more than black men or help viewers understand the powerful role of black women in the black community. I do not think it speaks to the ways that interpersonal and institutional oppression have created and deepened chasms in the black community between women and men.
Drawing connections between emotion and social structure could have provided a context for understanding the legitimacy of black rage, fear and vulnerability and how this pain has provided a pathway to positive aspects of the black community not celebrated here. Knowing how the church is a pillar of strength in the black community, we see one brief moment in the video in which 10 black people are singing in a choir, a nod to the nine people murdered by white racist, Dylan Roof, at the AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina; yet the affirming power of the church in black’s lives is not conveyed and experienced enough through this scene.
Art as activism, as is the case here, fuses justice, injustice and politics with new visions of humanity, morality and the future. Activism works by sustaining individuals and by altering, disrupting and shifting social structures and arrangements. Rage can be the lifeblood of activism. The redress of grievances — which activist work has at its center — involves a certain amount of rage, outrage and courage. Not so incidentally, rage is the root word of courage. Courage is what we have when we take risks, sharpen our authenticity, speak from our own true voices and respond actively to social situations and conditions, often marked by a response to injustice. Further evidence of the role of rage in activism can be seen in the powerful mission statement drafted by the group African American Women Are for Reproductive Freedom in 1999. Indeed, Glover is working with many of the same issues identified in this mission statement:
We are still an embattled people beset with life and death issues. Black America is under siege. Drugs, the scourge of our community, are wiping out one, two, three generations. We are killing ourselves and each other. Rape and other unspeakable acts of violence are becoming sickeningly commonplace. Babies linger on death’s door; at risk at birth: born addicted to crack and cocaine; born underweight and undernourished; born AIDS-infected. An ever-growing number of our children are being abandoned, being mentally, physically, spiritually abused. Homelessness, hunger, unemployment run rife. Poverty grows. Our people cry out in desperation, anger and need. 
While I appreciate the complex, layered symbolism in Glover’s work and the juxtaposition of foreground and background imagery, I find myself less riveted by his dance moves and his lyrics, both of which lack richness and depth. By contrast, I tend to favor the less is more approach of Janelle Monae’s somewhat lesser known but equally powerful protest song, “Hell You Talmbout,” (2015) that serves as the musical embodiment of the #SayHisName and #SayHerName projects. It is also a rageful meditation on racist violence and police brutality that has a straightforward, chant-like, marching band quality as it gives voice to naming black people murdered at the hands of racist people and racist systems. “Hell You Talmbout” demonstrates both the power of understanding the inter-connectedness of racism, sexism, poverty and violence and the power of naming as a form of resistance. It is precisely this rageful naming in the face of invisibility that black women writers, artists, musicians and poets have so artfully done and that would enrich Glover’s work.
The strength of Glover’s video lies in its potential to cultivate dialogue. The video demands acknowledgement from viewers, pleading for genuine recognition of the value of black lives. Will the video mobilize people, especially indifferent, apathetic or even hateful whites, into new ways of being and knowing? Could a video even be capable of doing such a thing? That is yet to be determined. James Baldwin is often quoted for saying, “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” Perhaps, Glover’s “This is America” extends that line of thinking, attempting to wake up whites, stirring their consciousness, calling on them once and for all to share in the rage and to wake each other. Thankfully my student helped to do that for me. And I hope readers will take it further still.
1. William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs, Black Rage (New York: Basic Books, 1968), 204.
2. Patricia J. Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991) 228–29.
3. Jill. Nelson, Straight, No Chaser: How I Became a Grown Up Black Woman (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1997), 200–02.
4. African American Women Are for Reproductive Freedom, 1999. “We Remember: A Mission Statement,” in Still Lifting, Still Climbing: African American Women’s Contemporary Activism, ed. Kimberly Springer (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 40.
Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of South Carolina- Beaufort, identifies as a public sociologist and publishes both creative nonfiction and academic research. One chapter of her forthcoming memoir about abuse and caregiving is featured in a collection with Vanderbilt University Press, and Utne Reader selected it for reprinting: http://www.utne. com/mind-and-body/dementia-and-the-gold-pen-ze0z1604zsel.aspx. Cohan’s writing regularly appears online for Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/social-lights. Her work has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed, and she has been quoted in Teen Vogue, Slate, Vox, Vice News, Romper, Bustle, The Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Race and Racialized Experiences in Childish Gambino’s “This is America”
by Kimberly Eison Simmons
“This is America” is a powerful representation of race in the United States . In this widely viewed music video, Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) explores gun violence, black oppression, joy and pain in a complex and fast-moving sequence of events that left this reviewer with mixed emotions as well as questions. The music video is a self-reflexive exploration of race and racialized situations in the United States with a spotlight on gun violence and police brutality. The symbolism is strong; the black body is front and center as a shirtless Gambino moves through the scenes bringing attention to his body through his dance moves and contorted gestures. In this way, he uses his body to offer social commentary on the policing of black bodies — black men in particular — focusing on police violence, the sense of entrapment and the need to escape.
This film review focuses on some of the key images and representations in the video beginning with the warehouse setting and considers the different situations involving guns, violence, the police and the community. The video begins with a view of an empty chair and a guitar in a large stark warehouse. As the music plays, a tall black man (Calvin The Second) sits down and starts playing the guitar. The South African–inspired music at the beginning of the song is upbeat and joyful; this musical style is interwoven throughout the song and video as a way to introduce new scenes. As the music plays and the camera shifts, a shirtless Childish Gambino enters the frame. As he turns and faces the camera, he starts to dance, flex and contort his face, drawing attention to his upper body — his Black body and natural hair. As he moves behind the man in the chair, he pulls a gun from the back of his pants and shoots him execution-style. “This is America” is spoken for the first time in the song.
While the execution is shocking, what follows is one of the first social commentaries in the video — the man’s body is dragged away while the gun is carefully handed to someone and wrapped in a red cloth for protection as “this is America” is heard again in the song. Gambino seems to suggest that there is more regard for weapons than for victims of gun violence. This scene ends, and dancers wearing school uniforms move into the frame. It is clear that the social commentary surrounding “This is America” is just beginning.
At this point in the video, Gambino starts his critique of policing and police violence while simultaneously supporting the right to bear arms. As Gambino dances, he speaks these words :
This is America
Don’t catch you slippin’ up Look at how I’m livin’ now Police be trippin’ now Yeah, this is America
Guns in my area
I got the strap
I gotta carry ‘em
“How I’m living” and “Guns in my area” speak to communities of color, lack of resources, policing and violence. “I got the strap … I gotta carry ‘em” is a statement in support of self-defense and the right to carry a weapon. “Police be trippin’ now” points to the ways in which police are ever-present and confrontational and violent in some situations.
While the video tells a powerful story, it is through the lens of African-American performance that viewers come to contemplate these complex issues. African-American music and dance, combined with South African music and dance styles, captures the joy and pain of the African-American experience. While the camera is focused on the performance, a lot is going on in the background. It is difficult to focus on or even notice everything — which is the point. No matter what is taking place in the background, the focus returns to Gambino in the foreground. It is not that the situations surrounding Gambino are less significant. His performance is attention grabbing and becomes a distraction even though it points to significant issues facing African-Americans and other groups in the United States. Everything in the foreground and background is central to the “This is America” story. From people running, people chasing each other, the person riding the white horse, the person falling from the beam onto the car below and the people filming what is taking place on their phones, to the police cars and other cars moving in and out, this part of the video moves quickly and reflects the rapid pace of news and events flooding television and social media.
The white horse has different symbolism. In urban contexts, “riding the white horse” refers to heroin. Today, the white horse could represent the current opioid crisis and deaths resulting from overdose. The running and chasing scenes represent the business of life, rushing to get from place to place, running away from something or someone (i.e., police), while the person falling from the beam is hardly noticeable. This seems to suggest that suicides go unnoticed or do not receive much attention in society. The people sitting on the beam above the floor, looking at their phones, accurately portray the present-day obsession with cell phones, social media and recording events as they happen.
All of these competing scenes take place in the warehouse. It is striking because a warehouse represents confinement — the limited and bounded space that African-Americans find themselves in when they are racially profiled and approached by the police and where they are sometimes racially read as criminals, thugs and a threat to society. The warehouse is the societal structure that contains everything. It is within this space, this structure, that people are running, living and being — exercising their agency. All of these movements and actions during the video scream “we are here,” and in some ways that is what a shirtless Gambino represents — humanity. His body cannot be ignored; he must be seen, not in a sexual or sexualized way as with other sexualized images of black and Latino men in the media and film, but in a raw, naked, “here I am” human kind of way.
Even though the warehouse is a confined space, it is large and has different doors and passageways. Gambino is adept at moving with ease through the warehouse. Later in the video, someone who resembles the man who was executed is playing the guitar as Gambino dances on top of a car in a James Brown–like fashion. By this point in the video, several scenes have passed, leaving lingering thoughts and questions. Historically, African-Americans have been “the entertainers” providing comic relief and theatrical escape during turbulent times in the United States.
After the Great Migration, black entertainers performed in northern cities such as New York and Chicago against the backdrop of racial inequality and racial tensions. Their performances provided an escape from the everyday realities much like Gambino’s performance is an escape from all of the things taking place in the background. W.E.B. DuBois’ idea of double consciousness is applicable here and captured in Gambino’s dance performance and facial expressions. At different times, Gambino’s face reflects a sense of joy, pain, anger, frustration, fear and bewilderment. He glides to the music, is on step with the beat, and at other times, he has a hobbled walk where he stumbles. On one hand, these facial expressions and movements represent double consciousness and duality of being black in America with the realities of racism (feeling conflicted, wearing a mask, navigating different terrains fraught with competing feelings and emotions). On the other hand, Gambino’s crippled dance hints at the notion of Jim Crow, the racialized image and the dance (shuffling and gliding of the feet). And of course, Jim Crow brings to mind segregation, black oppression and struggle.
Throughout the video, Gambino navigates the space to highlight some of the most horrific and heartbreaking events that have taken place in recent years. From school shootings (represented by the dancers wearing school uniforms), to the Charleston massacre (represented by the church choir and shooting scene), to the police presence, gun violence, racial violence and black oppression, Gambino tells a powerful story on the current state of America. At the end, Gambino highlights the horror surrounding racial profiling and policing of black men as he runs away from a mob with a look of terror on his face with the lyrics:
You just a Black man in this world You just a barcode, ayy
You just a Black man in this world
Overall, I think Gambino offers a powerful critique of the current state of America in this video, and it is very effective. The images are intense and represent some of the most recent headlines, current events and American cultural symbols and values. Importantly, the spotlight is not on what is good about the United States but rather on what is bad — the things that make people feel uncomfortable, vulnerable, fearful and disconnected. Many of the issues in the video involve taking sides — from gun control to drug intervention programs and policies. These are difficult conversations and divisive issues all across the United States. Because of how the issues are presented in the video, they become front and center and provoke different thoughts and feelings/emotions.
This type of critique –—focusing on what is “bad” or “wrong” — has the potential to spark conversation and dialogue about the issues with regard to what is detrimental in society. That has happened with this video. Gambino performed the song when he hosted SNL on May 5, and the video was released at the same time. Soon after the video’s release, several talk shows had segments on the video’s content and meaning, often focusing on the violence and competing scenes in the foreground and background.
In many ways, “This is America” highlights the evils plaguing society and has prompted other versions. Nicole Arbour focuses on women’s/feminist issues and experiences while Nigerian artist Folarin “Falz” Falana focuses on Nigeria in “This is Nigeria.” Arbour’s version was highly criticized because of the sense that she rendered invisible the issues and circumstances that Gambino made visible in “This is America.” “This is Nigeria,” on the other hand, has been well received as it mirrors some of the social commentary and raises parallel issues to those highlighted in “This is America.” These two versions highlight what is “wrong” in their particular gendered and national/cultural contexts circling back to Gambino’s spotlight on societal ills. Interestingly, in interviews, Gambino refuses to offer explanation of the video, stressing that the viewers should interpret its social/cultural significance.
Without doubt, the video is having a major impact. Conversations are taking place, and people are thinking about the issues. Contemplating the issues in a meaningful way could bring about change. With self-reflection and monitoring, implementing policy (i.e., gun control), cultural sensitivity, understanding and awareness (regarding implicit bias), and community-partnered policing, change could occur. Is this what Gambino intended? Will actions follow the conversations about gun violence, racial terror and black oppression? Time will tell. This is America.
1. While America often refers to “The Americas” in anthropological and historical works, Gambino uses it to refer to the United States. For the purpose of the review, I will use both depending on the context to refer to the United States.
2. https://www.lyrics.com//lyric/35045438/ Childish+Gambino/This+Is+America Written by: Donald Glover, Ludwig Goransson. Lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. Lyrics Licensed & Provided by LyricFind.
Kimberly Eison Simmons is associate professor of anthropology and African American studies at the University of South Carolina (USC). She previously served as an associate dean in the South Carolina Honors College and director of the Latin American studies program at USC. She is the author of Reconstructing Racial Identity and the African Past in the Dominican Republic (University Press of Florida, 2009) and co-editor of Afrodescendants, Identity, and the Struggle for Development in the Americas (Michigan State University Press, 2012). She is working on a book project focusing on the natural hair movement in the Dominican Republic and beyond.
The Continued Relevance of the “Carnivalesque” (“This is America”)
by Renbourn Chock
Though it should not be claimed as a universal, the concept of the “carnivalesque” is among the phenomena that appear again and again in cultures separated by both time and space. Originally applied to the works of 16th century French writer François Rabelais, the carnivalesque remains a valuable frame of social reference for even the most recent events, including the music video release for the song “This is America” by artist Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) and directed by Hiro Murai . The aspects of the carnivalesque that are most salient in “This is America” are the mingled rejection and desire of the low by the high and the use of minstrelry, black art styles and black skin to both silence and bring to light black issues.
The concept of the carnivalesque was first introduced in 1965 by Mikhail Bakhtin in Rabelais and his World and has since been adapted widely as a tool of anthropological analysis. Peter Stallybrass and Allon White use it to conceptualize binary extremism, focusing on the societal divide between the “high,” which is powerful, aesthetic and hierarchically superior, and the “low,” which is considered to be populist, crude and hierarchically inferior . Stallybrass and White contend that this binary opposition is one where the two ends of the spectrum are constantly mediated by each other, rather than exclusive categories. Thus the carnivalesque is a form of transgression in which the power structures of the high are destabilized or inverted by the low, exemplified by the traditional carnivals held in Rabelais’ Europe.
Though many scholars have worked to determine whether such transgressions use difference to disrupt or to reaffirm the status quo, Stallybrass and White reject attempts to classify the carnivalesque’s purpose. They recognize that the same framework may be put to either use, depending on the context in which it occurs. The carnival as an event existed outside the realm of politics but was co-opted by certain zeitgeists for political purposes. The carnivalesque may embody several meanings but is always the site of interplay between the low and the high.
Stallybrass and White note an odd relationship between the high and the low. “Again and again we find a striking ambivalence to the representations of the lower strata … in which they are both reviled and desired.” The high, in particular, wishes to reject the low, because the coarse nature of the low is viewed as debasing, yet is unable to because it is both dependent on the low and because the low is the subject of the high’s fantasies. This revile/desire dichotomy is almost perfectly exemplified in the music video for “This is America.” Throughout the video, a shirtless Gambino dances in the foreground, using exaggerated movements and wide eyes to draw the viewer’s attention to himself. Meanwhile, the background is rife with symbolism depicting racial violence that the first-time viewer is almost unaware of apart from certain moments in which Gambino himself commits the shootings. In this interpretation, black people are undoubtedly the low, while the viewer seems to take the role of the high, at least initially.
This portrayal reflects the dominant cultural focus on the black man’s performance rather than the conditions of his everyday life. The modern American high wants to see black men’s bodies, to hear their music, to focus on distractions that commodify black people rather than address the rampant violence directed toward them. A jab at this fetishization of black performance is evident in Gambino’s dance moves; at the moment when he is about to shoot an unarmed guitarist, Gambino assumes a pose used by the character Jim Crow from blackface minstrel shows. This fetishization of the low by the high is common within the carnivalesque, but also with regard to black art in general. Countless white artists, notably including Elvis, have mimicked black speech, music and dress to advance their own careers. Although black people themselves are rejected and ghettoized by the high, white people are more than willing to indulge in a fantasy that incorporates the art forms of the low.
However, though the dominant cultural norm is to silence the plight of the low while fetishizing them, Gambino is able to expose this state of affairs with his lyrics. The verses repeat the phrases “We just want to party” and “Get your money, black man” in a beatific manner, inviting the black man to receive material rewards for his performance reminiscent of the American Dream ideology. The title of the song appears in the refrain after each shooting, reminding viewers that what they have witnessed is “America” also. Each shooting startles viewers out of complacency and reminds them that Gambino’s performance is not the entirety of the message. The real “America” is invisible, hiding within the background, appearing only in the shocking moments of death that disappear far too quickly.
The shootings themselves are reminiscent of actual events, most notably the Charleston church shooting in 2015, in which a white terrorist opened fire in a black church in hopes of inciting race riots. These events were moments in which the everyday gun violence experienced by black people appeared before the eyes of the public, before being once again submerged by the deluge of commodified black art symbolized by Gambino’s eclectic dancing. This artistic choice invites the viewer to look closer; to rewatch the video and examine the true conditions underlying each episode of violence.
A second viewing reveals a multitude of previously unnoticed symbols. Numerous black people flee the police and men with guns. Cars are set afire and a hooded figure on a white horse, reminiscent of Death, rides through the frame. These are the everyday experiences of the low that the high glosses over in its portrayals. In the video, kids with their mouths covered pull out their cell phones to film events around them. Combined with Gambino’s lyric, “This a celly, that’s a tool,” this imagery represents the use of mobile phones to document incidents of gun violence toward black people, when their verbal accounts were minimized and disregarded by the high. The background in the video gives witness to the aspects of blackness that have fallen out of the white high’s narrative.
While his character in the video embodies the high narrative, Gambino himself is able to use the moments of violence strong enough to appear in the foreground to cause the viewer to dedicate more attention to the background. This reveals the existence of a second narrative that goes mostly unexamined in the larger cultural context. That he addresses this silenced narrative in such a public format as a music video with 133 million views within two weeks of its release constitutes an act of transgression that should be characterized as carnivalesque. This video is essentially destabilizing to the high narrative by its very nature, illuminating a horrific state of affairs that America would rather forget and forcing acknowledgement with the phrase, “This is America.”
Furthermore, even Gambino’s character, though an embodiment of the high, cannot escape the reality. The video concludes with a terrified, sweating Gambino fleeing through the darkness, chased by an unknown enemy. This is an inversion of the high narrative of which he has previously been a part. Instead of drawing interest with his performance, he falls victim to the very low culture that he had been silencing. Such is the chaos present in the carnival.
The carnivalesque is an unpredictable space where the high can be derided and criticized by the low, and hip-hop as a medium is quite similar to the carnival in its blending of influences. Where carnival served as an eclectic gathering of the populace where restraint and dignity were forgone in favor of debauchery and excess, hip hop is often filled with inherent excess in the form of sexual imagery and visible monetary wealth. Gambino also chooses to convey his message in the “trap music” style, which layers several types of synthesizers and often contains samples of other recordings. This amalgam of influences recreates the “world of topsy-turvy” described by Stallybrass and White, if not the “heteroglot exuberance.” This lack of unbridled cheer, however, is to be expected. As the authors state themselves, nostalgia and uncritical populism are weaknesses of Bakhtin’s interpretation. In their words, “carnival often violently abuses and demonizes weaker, not stronger, social groups.” This chaotic tendency can hardly foster the constant exuberance demanded by Bakhtin. The sadness within trap music, then, is not inconsistent with the analytic framework of Stallybrass and White.
A final element of the carnivalesque as described by Stallybrass and White is the body. The classical body is based upon the Neoclassical conventions of statue, depicting a single central pure figure, whereas the grotesque form is impure and arranged eccentrically. The authors draw particular attention to this method of analysis, stating that “discourses about the body have a privileged role, for transcodings between different levels and sectors of social and psychic reality are affected through the intensifying grid of the body. It is no accident then, that transgressions and their attempts to control them obsessively return to somatic symbols, for these are the ultimate elements of social classification itself.” This statement cannot help but be applied to the racialized issues inherent in “This is America.”
Black skin is characterized by society as grotesque, a symbol of impurity used to denigrate black people. This denigration simultaneously elevates white people to the central, pure, classical form of high society, creating the system of social classification that is currently in place. Gambino’s odd dancing is eye-catching, not only because it is good, but also because of the eccentric configurations of his body and the disruptive, syncopated flair of his movements. This calculated lack of flow is a perfected portrayal of the grotesque, a style that was created as a rebellion against classical flowing dance. These movements put viewers in a state of unease, even as they draw them in, hinting at the ominous nature of the message they hide. The grotesque nature of the dance combined with the reference to social classification inherent in the display of black skin firmly establishes the relevance of the carnivalesque framework to contemporary social understanding.
The carnivalesque, a conceptual framework developed to understand the writings of the French Renaissance, can be equally applied to contemporary hip-hop. This issue of gun violence, as addressed in the music video “This is America,” contains all of the elements of the inversion of high and low, destabilization of the high, fetishization and silencing of the low, and social classification through grotesque and classical bodies that are discussed in the anthropological framework. This both lends perspective to the current struggle over racial gun violence and reaffirms the importance of the carnivalesque as a recurring cultural theme. Whether the transgressive nature of Gambino’s work can cause actual change, only time can tell.
1. Childish Gambino and Hiro Murai, “This is America,” music video, 4:04, May 5, 2018. Accessed May 17, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYOjWnS4cMY.
2. Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, Introduction to The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), 1–26.
Renbourn Chock is a fourth-year student at New College of Florida, the state’s public honors college. He studies Anthropology and Psychology with an interest in the mechanisms of interpersonal deception, a phenomenon he considers a true universal of human experience.