Donald Glover, also known as Childish Gambino, shook the Internet with his music video titled “This is America.” It is a telling piece of art that inspects the contrast between culture and violence, and between the past and the present. How far have we come from the evils of our ancestors? Although Gambino has allowed the world to take from this piece whatever it pleases, he is clearly criticizing our glorification of the latest “fads” and dance crazes while injustice is happening all around us, almost as if we cannot be multidimensional beings and recognize both.
I could fill a book with all the symbolism in this one video and what I think they mean, but it makes more sense to talk about them as a composite, to highlight what I perceive to be the greater purpose of the song as a whole.
The juxtaposition of black culture in American society is apparent: The violence and chaos are covered up by dancing and music. We see the schoolchildren laughing and happily mimicking viral dance moves like the “shoot” (ironically) while people riot and wreak havoc behind them. The children are positioned in such a way that they almost shield Gambino (who represents America) from the discourse as it is happening, as he moves through the abandoned warehouse in which the video is set. The only time he is not shielded is when he picks up a gun and kills someone. This represents the moments, however fleeting, that America pays attention to real issues after they happen, mass shootings like the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and the tragedy at the school I call my second home, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., to which he pays homage with 17 seconds of silence before casually lighting a cigarette and walking away. In that pause, all we hear is the footsteps and soft screams of the schoolchildren and doors slamming, and I must say that the allusion brought me to tears. After each shooting scene in the video, Gambino always hands the gun he uses to a child, who handles it with great care and runs away with it; then they all go back to dancing as if nothing ever happened.
My biggest concern is what Gambino’s critiques of young Americans’ priorities insinuate. Are we not allowed to use our culture to cover our pain, even for a moment? To assert that we as Americans must constantly have the ails of our society at the forefront of our minds is insensitive. Yes, the newest viral dance craze does distract us from the violence happening around us, and our music can even contribute to it by its glorification of guns and gang culture, but sometimes a distraction is exactly what we need to stay sane in a world where we are used as target practice for deranged, falsely entitled individuals. The solution, then, is to be able to balance both our acknowledgment of reality and our desire to escape, a paradox that especially affects black society by forcing us into stagnation. No matter how much progress we make, we remain dormant in our social mobility as a race because our oppressors want us to completely forget about the ills of the past (even though they continue to affect us), and our own people assume that if we do not speak about those issues all the time we’re not “woke” enough.
Gambino through this video becomes America’s conscience. The images depicted are being shown through unobscured lenses and are indicative of what takes place in societies across the nation daily. Regardless of differences of interpretation, Glover has managed to create a modern classic and a testament to our past and current culture as Americans, black Americans in particular. I must say I have immense respect for the care with which he crafted this piece. By refusing to provide the world with neither context nor any further explanation, he allows us all to assess our understanding of systemic oppression and violence — and he does so without inflammatory rhetoric or fallacies.