Chances are by now, you or someone you know has been talking about the video for “This is America” by Childish Gambino. Childish Gambino is the musician alter ego of black actor Donald Glover and the song was performed earlier this month when Glover hosted Saturday Night Live and performed as the musical guest.
The video, which premiered as a tie in to the performance, has been a hot topic of conversation as people try to understand the meaning of the video and decode all of the hidden symbols. One thing everything can agree on is that this video is striking a chord with all those who watch it. It is full of juxtapositions, an homage to blackness while tackling the conversations surrounding gun violence in our country.
In the first minute of the video, Gambino shoots a man point blank in the back of the head. The gun is then gingerly placed in a red cloth and whisked away. Before shooting the man, whose head is covered with a burlap sack, Gambino strikes a pose similar to one commonly seen in old pictures of Jim Crow, a slavery-era minstrel character.
As the character’s popularity waned, the name “Jim Crow” was used to describe Reconstruction era laws in the United States. The Jim Crow era of segregation lasted from the 1870s until the 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement finally grew legs and forced many of those laws to be overturned.
It can also be said that the man playing the guitar with the sack over his head before being shot ties into the slavery era imagery, because it was common practice to put a sack over black men’s heads before hanging them from trees, so they could not be easily identified.
One of the things that is important to note is the use of dance throughout the video. It provides a jarring contrast to the often alarming imagery portrayed in the video.
Glover knew what he was doing.
In the video, he performs several styles of black dance, including South African Gwara Gwara. Throughout history, black artists have had to use their art as a means to make the struggles of the Black community more palatable to white mainstream audiences.
Some have said that the stylistic choice to have Gambino clad in nothing but gray pants was a nod to Nigerian musician/activist Fela Kuti. Black American artists have long woven the threads between art and politics; comedian and activist Dick Gregory used his comedy to make white audiences understand the importance of the Civil Rights Movement, and rap has deep roots in the power struggle of Black America.
Glover deftly weaves these threads together, stunning the audience into silence with a wry smile on his face.
The most jarring and evocative imagery in the video is the portrayal of gun violence. Gambino handles the gun with ease, never hesitating to fire the gun in his hands, whether it’s a pistol or a semi-automatic rifle. The gunning down of the singing choir in church robes is obviously a nod to the South Carolina church shooting, where nine black men and women were gunned down by a white man during their Bible study class.
The gun is always handed off with care, symbolizing that we put more value in the wellbeing of the instrument used to kill than in those being killed by the instrument.
Gun violence has been an epidemic plaguing the Black community for many years. It is often tied to the notion of “black on black crime,” a phrase white people love to throw around when black people are killed. It paints a false, harmful narrative and stunts valuable, important discourse.
In the last few months since the issue of gun violence has finally become a larger part of the national conversation, we’re still not seeing gun violence and the Black community brought to the table outside of Black communities.
“Guns in my area, I got the strap, I gotta carry ‘em,” Gambino raps.
Society cannot truly talk about gun violence until all facets of the problem are brought together. We shouldn’t have to pander to the white community’s humanity to protect us. The scene where Gambino is surrounded by empty cars is an homage to people like Philando Castile and Sandra Bland, who were murdered by police during “routine” traffic stops. Police violence against the black community is an important part of the gun violence debate, and yet, it is rarely discussed.
“Police be trippn’ now, Yeah, this is America.”
The America portrayed in “This is America” is the one that many people want to pretend doesn’t exist. The graphic imagery is meant to hurt, because white people only take notice when Black people operate at extremes. This America is the one built on the backs of Black pain and Black trauma. Glover is here to tell that story.
Within a week of the video’s release, white people were already trying to make their own because Black artistry is always stolen by white society. These painful truths are the ones that people would rather sweep under the rug, and then turn around and throw it in the garbage when they think no one is looking. It is the one used to allegedly create division amongst Americans. A disruptor to the “why can’t we all just get along” school of thought. The one meant to make those who “don’t see color” finally sit up and take notice.
This is the uncomfortable truth many Americans still won’t acknowledge no matter how many times it is handed to them on a silver platter. Maybe now you’ll finally take notice? We can only hope.