This is America–We Watch the Dancers

This is America–We Watch the Dancers May 10, 2018

I was unfamiliar with the song and the artist before a friend posted it on Facebook. He prefaced his post by saying he and his wife had been talking about this video for two days and he’d just been sitting on it until he could think of something to say about it. Then he decided to just put it out there and see what his friends had to say.

So I watched.

The video in question is of a new song by Donald Glover, who goes by the stage name Childish Gambino. I was unfamiliar with his work until I clicked on the video link for his new song, This is America. For the next four minutes, I sat stunned. The video is gripping. Before we go on, if you haven’t seen the video, please take a moment to watch it. Actually, even if you have seen it, watch again–and again–and again.

The first time I watched, I was stunned. I knew, instantly, that this is an important work, even though there is no way to take it all in with one viewing. The second time I watched it, it was through tear-filled eyes.

I began to think long and hard about what was going on in this video. It occurred to me that this is a case of a song that needs the video. Had I just been given the audio of the song and told to listen to it, I would have thought that it was interesting, but I don’t think I would have gotten much of a message from it. The visuals tell the story.

Glover is brilliantly revealing America’s dirty little secret here. He strips bare what most of us try to ignore by showing us just how we ignore it–we watch the dancers.

Throughout the video, we see a type of sleight-of-hand illusion. Glover makes us focus on his captivating presence–gesticulating–dancing–exaggerating facial expressions–as he remains front and center, demanding our attention. All the while, the real story is happening in the background, except for a couple of times when he takes part in the action by pausing to coldly shoot people before continuing the dance.

In the background, chaos ensues–but, unless the viewer forces himself to take his eyes off Glover’s dancing, he is only vaguely aware that there is something going on in the background. It’s brilliant.

This is America.

We watch the dancers.

I’ve taken to social media to get a feel for what the public response is to Childish Gambino’s video. Predictably, there is a wide array of perspective about it. Many of the responses I saw were from white conservative Christian men who saw the video as a spotlight on the problem of the “thug life” mentality. When they took their eyes off the dancer, they saw people in the background who were behaving in self-destructive ways. To them, the video revealed the need for a dose of law and order, some good ol’ American gumption, and God.

In taking this perspective, I submit that conservative Christians are making the mistake of buying into the myth that the American Dream is equally available to everyone. Like Kanye West, who recently spouted off, foolishly, that slavery seemed, to him, like it was a choice. This viewpoint is only held by two types of people, those who have been born with the good fortune of privilege, or those, like Kanye, who have found the American Dream and suddenly seem to forget that they are the exception.

This is why the Childish Gambino video rings so powerfully. It simultaneously lays bare the endlessly recurring problems faced by those without privilege while exposing our national propensity to keep those problems as blurry background imagery while we focus on the dancer in the foreground.

The most arresting point in the video, for me, is the moment when Donald Glover shoots the guitar player with a handgun. Just before he commits this callous act, Glover strikes a seemingly bizarre pose. This is anything but random dancing. It is a very clear reference to the character for whom we named the post-Civil War era of discriminatory laws of segregation, Jim Crow. The artwork at the beginning of this piece shows a depiction of the Jim Crow character. If you missed it the first time, watch the video again and you’ll see Glover clearly mimicking this pose just before he coldly pulls the trigger. In his brief pause before resuming his dance, Glover is revealing to us that the very environment that gave birth to the “thug life” mentality was created by a century of government sanctioned discrimination and bigotry that we have only made illegal within my lifetime. And, truth be told, the system is still stacked against large segments of society, even if the playing field is more level on paper.

This is America doesn’t hide the fact that our inner cities are rife with problems. Instead, it shows us that we still don’t want to face the the real root causes of them. Too many of us sit on the sidelines and point saying, those people need God, instead of finding ways to be the hands and feet of God and doing something to help.

Too many of us think we are doing God’s work by pulling a lever in a voting booth and supporting policies that ultimately only further marginalize the people in the background as we watch the dancer.


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