An open letter to Donald Glover, Childish Gambino, and his anti-Black “This Is America” video

Watching Childish Gambino’s new video for “This Is America” ruined my entire day. It wasn’t because my mind was preoccupied with trying to decipher his symbolism. It wasn’t because his imagery opened my eyes to aspects of this country that I was previously unaware of. No, this video ruined my day because it was another instance of a Black man utilizing Black death as a platform for his artistry.

So I wrote this letter to him.

Dear Donald Glover,

I remember who you used to be. You were an icon for being Black, nerdy, and popular at a time when it was hard enough to just be either Black or nerdy. The intersection seemed exponentially more difficult. It was from this that you built your core fanbase. Still, I was never much of a fan because, for all of the Black praise you received, you seemed way too preoccupied with whiteness. I mean, you starred in a “comedy” short entitled “Bro Rape”, and it somehow managed to end up being worse than that title suggests. Still, your core fanbase rocked with you as you grew in popularity on NBC’s Community and forged a music career under the moniker “Childish Gambino.” You were an example of finding success from being yourself, even if your “you” is different. I could always respect that.

That’s why it’s so difficult for me to watch you now.

Your new video for “This is America” has been hailed as such an artistic masterpiece that Justin Simien declared it compelled him “to stare deeply into the dog and pony show of black popular culture.” But all I see is that same fanbase you cultivated years ago blindly supporting their mascot and legions of white people jumping on the bandwagon.

True, there were some things you got right.

As The Atlantic‘s Spencer Kornhaber describes your video, you depict America as:

a place where black people are chased and gunned down, and it is a place where black people dance and sing to distract—themselves, maybe, but also the country at large—from that carnage. America is a room in which violence and celebration happen together, and the question of which one draws the eye is one of framing, and of what the viewer wants to see.

All of this is true. On the surface, you held a mirror up at America and put many of its darknesses on display. Mission accomplished.

But who do you trample, silence, and (re)traumatize in the process?

In your video, you take on the role of a modern-day Jim Crow, at times gleefully dancing with Black youth and at other times gunning down Black bodies. All the while, tremendous atrocities take place in your background. Embodying a character meant to paint us as “lazy, stupid, and inherently less human” in this way could only be meant to indict us in our own killings, right? In effect, you are portraying us, or at a minimum our youth, as easily distracted by popular culture and fame to the point that we do nothing to combat that which harms us. It’s a simple yet harmful anti-Black message. It’s also a lie.

Every day, in communities across the country, Black folx are working tirelessly for our justice. In ways both big and small, we are doing anything and everything we can possibly think of, in most cases, to our own detriment. And yet, the overarching narrative about our youth is that they are apathetic, unaware, or desensitized to these horrors. Why would you echo this same falsehood?

I spent more time than I’d like to admit trying to come up with an alternate understanding of this video that wasn’t so sinister. The best I could do was to see “This Is America” as a depiction of how America looks upon us. They keep their eyes focused on our appearances in the foreground and neglect that which is unseemly. They are comfortable with using us and Black pop culture at large for their entertainment but have zero concern for our actual wellbeing. By proxy, I’d assume that this video is also an expression of how you feel on the daily.

But to follow this logic and link it to the very images you portray, you are saying that this is what is killing us. That our complicity in this system is what snatches our lives away. Again, all roads lead to us being at fault and white supremacy being left blameless. Or worse, not a part of the conversation at all.

And that, obviously, is an artistic expression that I cannot support.

I’m sure this is an unpopular opinion. The majority of Black fans and platformed folx have already anointed your video as the top wokest video of the entirety of 2018, and it’s only May. But I have to ask you, what is the point? Is it to change minds? If so, creating a video that is meant to demonstrate how bad things are in America without explicitly painting them as wrong is only doing half of the work, and arguably, it’s the “easier” half. Is it to express a sentiment Black folx feel? If so, that’s nothing new and this doesn’t particularly add any specific depth to the narrative that’s older than the Jim Crow body contortions you strike.

In fact, the one thing I can say that this video is successful at is once again sensationalizing Black death.

Platforms have power. And as a Black man seemingly fully accepted into Hollywood, yours is arguably one of the biggest a Black man has at the moment. I’m a Marvel kid, so when I think of you, the first thing I think is “With great power comes great responsibility.” Even more ironic that you actually appeared in a Spider-Man movie and still haven’t grasped the concept.

At the end of the day, the people who should be indicted in this video don’t even make an appearance until the closing moments. From what I can see, there are no white people present in “This Is America” until the final seconds of the video. And for the life of me, I can’t understand why any “woke” video about the plight Black Americans face could have such a passive, passing critique of whiteness. Because if you aren’t setting your sights on the real villains in this story, your critique has no teeth.

Ironically, as quickly as this video has become a cultural touchstone, it will fall into the same cycle that it portrays. There will be a lot of discussion and praise and hashtags and more, but in the end, all we will get is another artistic portrayal of how we are being indiscriminately killed every day. And here I was thinking that exploiting Black death for financial gain was the white man’s game. If all of this avant-garde artistry doesn’t even end up being truly disruptive, I can only conclude that the only person that stands to gain anything from this whole affair is you.


A Tired Black Man

Photo credit: YouTube

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Daren W. Jackson

Daren is one half of the Water Cooler Convos team. He's a writer, music connoisseur, and comic book geek who spends his free time working on his novel and other short stories.

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