This is America: Childish Gambino’s Uncomfortable Portrait of Us

This is America: Childish Gambino’s Uncomfortable Portrait of Us May 10, 2018

If you don’t have a neighborhood joint where you can go be Among The People, you ought to find one. Stat. These are the places where life happens, where you can tap into the zeitgeist, and where, hopefully, you can also caffeinate. In the interest of being a functioning human for the day.

My place, if you don’t know, is a coffee shop that is distinctly not-a-Starbucks. Where the morning scones are always warm, and sometimes the owner puts glitter on them “because life is just too hard.” Where the noise level is just-right-for-writing, where the people-watching is prime, and where community is authentic and organic.

Out of these authentic, organic places, important conversations happen. Today’s topic: things that make people uncomfortable. (Unfolding from some initial inquiries about how my book was doing, because I wrote much of it here). We got from feminism to white privilege, and the owners were talking about “this new video we’re obsessed with,” and I was all “Childish Gambino!” and they were like “YES!” And the baristas are here for it but “we still haven’t watched it yet! Can we watch it right now?” Etc.

The consensus: if it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, you aren’t paying attention. But if it makes you ONLY uncomfortable–and thereby offended–then you are part of the problem.

The video in question, if you haven’t seen it yet, is “This is America.” In it, Donald Glover (who performs under the name Childish Gambino) dances through some deeply unsettling scenes of violence. While also smiling, dancing, and generally presenting an image of …

… you know what? Just watch it because I’m sure I won’t do it descriptive justice.

Controversial. Deeply uncomfortable. And very intentional.

It is meant to be unsettling. It portrays a tension between the “America” we want to think we are—happy, beautiful, dancing, successful—and who we more accurately, actually are: with all our entitlement, rage, and recreational violence. If it sets white people’s teeth on edge, it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. Yes, it is disturbing to see him blithely execute a hooded figure in a parking garage. To witness the casual gunning down of a happy church choir. But these scenes allude to real life occasions in recent American headlines. And, more to the point, they invite us into the horrific places of violence and potential violence where people of color exist daily. In our midst, in our own communities, but sometimes a world away.

Of course, there are other tensions in play here too. For instance, to some members of the black community, Glover is playing into white assumptions about black America; creating what some have called “black trauma porn for white people.” That view has its merits. I will not try to speak to the black experience of this song (or of anything). But I will reference I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye, a stunning article in which Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about the phenomenon of artists of color essentially “erasing” their blackness in order to appease white popular culture. (Read: Michael Jackson). If you read nothing else this week, power through this long but important article. And then watch “This is America” again and draw your own connections. And deal with your own stuff.

My main takeaway is this: the discomfort this video is MEANT to make me feel is a different discomfort than what a person of color might feel by extension. And recognizing the discomfort it causes them makes me even more uncomfortable.

That is good art.

Anything that sparks so much reaction, such good conversation, and such a varied response from the broad corners of human experience is, if nothing else, important. This is an important piece of the discussion in a critical time in our history.  If nothing else, we need to be creating space in public forums to talk about it. Even if it’s a morning chat with your baristas, in a place where people come to be different, together.

That’s my America. What’s yours?

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