Childish Gambino’s video release for “This is America” is a visual statement on being black and on the perception of being black in America. It is important, strategic, and unfortunately not new. Gambino’s dancing declaration is a reminder of the constant tension of otherness/blackness imposed on the black image in America. In the time when Kanye West has been renamed “Kyle Billy Westford” because of his outlandish commentary, abrasive Trump support, and disregard to the severity of slavery, Gambino couldn’t have arrived at a better moment.
Gambino begins with the singular, slightly awkward but raw black body, in all its magnificent multitude of expressions. It has a tone of almost an homage to the black man seen throughout media and marketing, all in one. He creates a visual timeline of sorts where we are confronted with the beloved musician, a hateful attack, killings; unjustified and never punished, the exposed skin, and the vulnerable disposition. Let’s add the dancing children and eerily joyful presence they bring. This shows glimpses (or maybe it’s a mockery?) of the black man in performance art: the smiling, the frightened, the angry, the flamboyant, thuggish, educated negro... Indeed, what else are we allowed to be?
With all things considered, this is an exceptional performance from Gambino and should receive many praises. Gambino manipulates movement in the starkly grey parking lot that continues to give us complimentary images of the black experience in America in the back and foreground. The gospel choir plays a number and the children’s dance begins to make it rain. It’s a compilation of the blackness in media, culture, the clubs and we are here for it. Because blackness is American.
A century earlier a female writer announced as much:
“I have no separate feeling about being an American citizen and colored. I am merely a fragment of the Great Soul that surges within the boundaries. My country, right or wrong”
- Zora Neale Hurston, “How it feels to Be Colored Me”
What is Gambino saying? One and the same as Hurston, yet it simultaneously feels like a challenge. He wants us to push back on this black image, to see it as a mirage of the blurred realty social media imposes on our views of ourselves, and our ethics.
But is it different? I visited a plantation last weekend in Louisiana; one of the things the tour guide mentioned was public violence. Specifically, how violence was carried publicly as a warning not only for the individual but for the community as a whole. Some of the harshest punishments were reserved for those who tried to escaped or rebel against the crop owners. The narrative may phonetically sound different but the voice is the same throughout the entire period of our truths (370 people have already been shot and killed by police in 2018). Let’s examine history: in 2015, 99% of cases that involved an officer being convicted of a crime were not resolved, there was no accountability. Gambino is shedding light on a repeated offense: black bodies being shot and nothing is changing. Indeed, this is AmeriKKKa.
Perhaps what Gambino proposes is a new vision of the black individual; not Kanye’s absurd colorblindness but one where there is no fear, no running for ones’ lives; a declaration of dance, yes, a new revolution on running shoes, but more importantly, a space to analyze these repeated caricatures found in media and see their influence for what it is. We need to find a new look for them and a new outlook for ourselves. And ultimately love in justice.