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Childish Gambino: A History Lesson On America

Childish Gambino: A History Lesson On America

Before we allow our love for beats that slap and dance moves that hit to only appreciate the superficial beauty that is Childish Gambino’s, “This is America,” let’s pause for deeper understanding.
The lyrics, scenes, and body movements play off of each other to tell the story of black life and reflect the evolution of the slave narrative. The video opens with an empty warehouse. Right away the symbolism begin. The entire video takes place here. A warehouse; where commodities are stored before being shipped for sale. But the only commodities stored in this warehouse for the entirety of the video,are Black people. The music begins. It’s a song that sounds like a spiritual from the enslaved ancestors repeating,
“Go Away.” This is likely the first of two nods to Jordan Peele’s horror thriller, “Get Out,” that we see in the video. Get Out also begins with a song from the ancestors entitled Sikiliza. The lyrics of Sikiliza also issue a foreboding warning to run away.

Listen to the ancestors.
Run!
You need to run far! (Listen to the truth)
Brother,
Listen to the ancestors
Run! Run!
To save yourself,
Listen to the ancestors.

While the ancestor’s sing, guitarist/actor Calvin the Second, dressed plainly without shoes, sits and begins to strum his guitar, while Glover, dressed in pants, shoes and “two chains,” stands still
nearby…until the beat drops and the lyrics of “we just want to party,” come in.

When Donald Glover comes alive with the beat, he is moving almost involuntarily as if hypnotized by the beat of the drums, another Get Out reference. He invokes the spirit of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Bojangles, a popular dancer/actor who started his career in minstrel shows was famous for his “educated feet,” which made him move when he heard music. When the beat drops Glover begins to move. His expressions and movement begin to change reflecting conflicted emotion as two sets of lyrics are competing; One telling him to leave, the another telling him to dance and
party. Enter the theme of American minstrelsy.

 

 
In the 1840’s, troupes of white Americans from the northern states performed plays about slaves and plantation life in what was called minstrel shows. White actors painted their faces black using burnt cork and dressed in ragged clothes, depicting Blacks as lazy, ignorant fools who loved to sing and dance. Although Blacks had no power to change these negative depictions, black actors, comedians and dancers looking to get into show business to make money and transcend slavery and the negative stereotypes, joined in on the parody themselves; a confliction Glover expresses as he begins moving to the music. This is also a theme present throughout the video symbolizing the how Blacks associate money with freedom and utilize entertainment in order to achieve that freedom, but never really transcending bondage… never leaving the warehouse, never escaping plantation or being emancipated from the micro and macro forms of oppression that prevent ascension.
The lyrics of the bridge begin, and we hear Glover and Young Thug singing the stereotypes used in the minstrels and perpetuated in Black music and Black culture. The minstrels used characters like Bojangles, Zip Coon, and Sambo to characterize Blacks as lazy, ignorant people who “just wanna party…just want the money,” and dance with women, “…dance and shake the frame.” And while these inaccurate depictions were intended to degrade Blacks during the 1800’s, Glover shows that these lyrics are now the mainstay of Black music, and likely the truth of our existence; that partying, dancing, money and women/lust are the things that “move us,” today.
 

If Glover were to represent the Black man moving about the space/warehouse as the Black journey through American life, we can correlate Glover’s adoption of this carefree song and dance attitude  throughout the duration of the video, spare a select few scenes, as representative of Black culture’s acquiescence to negative/degrading stereotypes.
Glover captures the essence of minstrelsy and the sinister intent of Jim Crow as he nears the guitarist. He appears to succumb fully to the hypnotic beat and lyrics, which had
drowned out the ancestor’s warning. He morphs into full minstrelsy recreating the expression of a popular minstrel caricature known as the “Coon.”

 
While white companies were performing “coon songs” in blackface, Blacks were being lynched by the hundreds in a period we now know as Jim Crow. But, before Jim Crow became a sinister system of laws, social norms, and lynchings, Jim Crow was a minstrel character played by white and Black actors in blackface, used to degrade Black people.
Glover depicts the evolution of Jim Crow from the shucking and jiving minstrel character to the genocidal killer Jim Crow we know today.  When he reaches the guitarist Glover strikes a Jim Crow-like pose before firing a bullet into the head of the, now hooded, guitarist. The ancestor’s choir, which seemed to represent purity and connection to the ancestors, dies with the guitarist as Glover proclaims, “This is America.”

 
Glover introduced the theme of American gun violence as children gingerly usher the guns away after Glover uses them correlating America’s care for guns rather than human life. In each instance of gun violence, the children bear the responsibility of the effects of gun violence. In the first instance, the children also drag the body of the guitarist away indicating the great responsibility and trauma of Black death and gun violence children are grappling with.
A group of carefree Black children quickly gather to dance shortly after the shooting, reflecting the (almost requisite) desensitization of today’s youth. Glover, the Black man of today, acts as “interlocutor,” amidst the children. An Interlocutor was a blackface actor who performed in the center of a minstrel troupe. He engages the talented children in creative dance, much like a minstrel play.
 

 
 
The minstrel theme continues through Glover’s portrayal of the Charleston church shooting.  Glover leaves the troupe, perhaps in search of substance, although never leaving the warehouse, but encounters the jubilant choir singing “get yo money, black man.” Juxtaposing this choirs lyrics to those of the choir of the ancestor’s at the opening of the video, we see that the message has changed. Whereas the first choir advised the stagnant Black man to leave, seek freedom, this choir encourages the Black man to “Get yo money.” Again, reiterating the confusion of freedom being money. Glover enters the room and begins to perform dances moves that mimic those of James Brown and minstrelsy.
It’s important to note that James Brown was a man that supposedly transcended the Black condition of oppression through his talent and artistry. However, James Brown’s addiction, womanizing, run-ins with police, drug addiction and depression prevented his full ascent to that of a free Black man.
Glover appears to have a moment of clarity and stops dancing. Perhaps he realizes the choir’s message was limited to “getting money” rather than moral salvation, or he is too conflicted to agree with religious ritual after so many traumas. Without much effort, indicating the easy access to guns (when in a warehouse), he is given an automatic rifle and kills the entire choir. Again, he says, “This is America,” and the song of the choir dies.  Glover highlights the death of the black church as not only an effect of domestic terrorism, but as a result of the Black church’s disregard for the problems plaguing the black community.

Again, a child comes to carefully collect the gun, but this time no attention is given to the victims. The rioting immediately ensues. A direct result of recurring violence and injustice is the rage and protest. Glover highlights the rush to respond without honoring victims, which has become common practice in Black communities that experience tragedy without justice. As chaos circles around the space, Glover walks away, passing the police without consequence, a nod to the State’s passive response to gun violence and black on black crime.
 
Once Glover is rejoined by his dancing troupe of children, they resume dancing, unbothered by the tragedy or turmoil all around them. The video continues with themes of police violence against black men and women, labeling cell phones as tools to record violence, or, as in the case of Stephon Clark, tools that can be mistaken for weapons. There is a suicide that goes unnoticed in the chaos, representative of our disregard for mental health, and a biblical reference to the pale horse from the book of Revelations.

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat upon him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with the beasts of the earth. Revelation 6:8.

While preoccupied with their dancing, Glover, the troupe, along with everyone in the background running chaotically, a white horse with a police officer sitting on top of it, was followed by a police car. This is a direct correlation to the officer as death, or one who brings death and the cop car, which represents incarceration, as the hell that follows death. This is strong symbolism reflecting the lawful power of police to kill and criminal justice system’s influence to oppress, starve, and disenfranchise Black people.  
They continue dancing around Glover as he raps about money and drugs. It is not until he references drugs and pretends to hold a gun that the children scatter. The warehouse becomes empty and Glover seems at peace as he smokes a joint. Perhaps the most interesting aspect here is the fear attributed to the joint rather than the guns.
 
The adlib at the beginning of the refrain referencing social media follows is a jab at America’s infatuation with self-promotion. It is, perhaps, the first obvious jab at the Kanye and society’s attitude entitlement for validation. Interestingly, what best captures the attention of people today is the commentary of celebrities who only serve to distract from the chaos (in the warehouse).
 
In the following scene, Glover is seen dancing atop a car in the middle of several older model cars while the lyrics of the choir encouraging the Black man to get his money returns. He throws away the joint before switching between dance moves from James Brown, Michael Jackson, and minstrel shows.  He is joined by the guitarist, who is still hooded, and R&B singer SZA. While the artists present and channeled in Glover’s dances moves can be identified as artists we associate with “authenticity,” they are all commodities, all trapped in a warehouse, all existing in a space where the message is to “get money,” but the reality is extreme poverty.
 
Glover seems intentional with every dance move, which is why it’s important to understand why he chose to bring Michael Jackson into this context. Michael Jackson was also seen as someone who had transcended oppression like James Brown; however, Michael Jackson was an artist who seemed to be trying to transcend race. Never successful, Michael was a black man, a commodity, whose talent afforded him fame, but not freedom. He too could not escape the reality of his race, the scrutiny of black celebrity, or the ills of addiction.
Eh hem, Kanye.
Young Thug’s outro is a reminder to Kanye, to Black celebrities, and to the people who idolize them, that being able to attain money isn’t freedom. The lyrics “You just a big dog…I kenned him in the backyard,” speak to the reality of money for Black people. Even the wealthy entertainers who drive “fancy cars” are just a “barcode,” commodities who are subjected to racism, oppression, and incarceration. Even those who believe themselves to be “free thinkers,” cannot escape racism or the threat of slavery through incarceration. Profiting off of the stereotypes that made minstrels so popular is, in and of itself, bondage.

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1 comment

  • Anonymous

    Excellent explication of this essential American poetry and visual artistry.

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