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A Racial Analysis of Childish Gambino's "This is America"

The choir scene does not only mean what you think it does.

Childish Gambino's This is America offers a welcome reprieve from the most recent Kanye controversy, but Donald Glover's (the artist's real name) new song and video are themselves provocative, inspiring (requiring perhaps) multiple commentaries on their meaning.

Rather than writing an analysis of the whole video, as others have done, I want to instead do a deeper dive into one small part: the scene with the choir. I do so in the hope that understanding the nuances of this scene will help us better understand the video as a whole. If you happen to be one of the few who hasn't yet seen the video, you can find it below.

Other commentators (e.g., this NPR story, this Time article, this Atlantic piece) have generally focused on how the choir scene recalls the 2015 shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. This seems likely. Dylann Roof, a self-proclaimed white supremacist who was apparently radicalized by the shooting of Trayvon Martin and reports of so-called “black on white crime,” killed nine black people during a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. In This is America, ten members of the choir are gunned down, not nine, but Roof actually hit ten and one survived.

Even so, the church scene is not only about what happened in Charleston. This part of the video, like the earlier portion, intended to juxtapose happy and positive aspects of African American culture (in this case the Black church) with the violence that surrounds and impacts the black community. Roof and other white supremacists may be part of this violence, but the threat is more pervasive and more insidious.

Rather than focusing on one tragic incident, I believe this scene, like the entire video, is intentionally ambiguous in order to invite a variety of different interpretations. Consider, for example, three very different interpretations, among many other possibilities.

  1. It is a criticism of the black church for focusing on materialism ("get your money, Black man") while the community is being ravaged.
  2. It is a criticism of black men (if you interpret Glover's character as a representation of black men, which I personally do not) whose violence fails to adequately discriminate between those who would do them harm and those who try to lead righteous lives, including in their own communities.
  3. It is a criticism of America (if you interpret Glover's character as a representation of America, as I do) for not valuing black lives, even when those lives are innocent and righteous, as represented by their participation in the church choir.

So, which of these, if any, are right? That is, which of these meanings did Glover intend to convey? It's tempting to ask this question, and then try to answer it, but I think it's the wrong question. As is always the case with ambiguous stimuli, what the viewer or reader thinks is happening has much more to do with their life experiences and beliefs than with the stimulus itself.

Donald Glover, This is America
Source: Donald Glover, This is America

There is no point in asking what Glover intended the scene to mean. If he intended to present an unambiguous narrative, he would have done so. The ambiguous symbols suggest that he wanted multiple interpretations. Perhaps he wanted people to do some personal reflection on the relationship between religion and violence. Perhaps he wanted to invite dialogue. Maybe he just wanted people to watch his video over and over in order to figure it out. Either way, there is no one right answer here. The question is not what is it that Glover intended but rather what is it that the viewer takes from it.

There is, however, some context – the name of the song, the lyrics, the rest of the video – that suggests some interpretations might be more accurate and truthful than others.

This is America. That this is a commentary on the United States might seem obvious to Americans (isn't everything always about us?), but the music has South African influences and the clothing seems culturally ambiguous. The title provides important information.

Black men are the focus. The word "Black" appears as a racial signifier 28 times in the song. All but one of those times it appears as "Black men." If this seems a tad overdone, consider how common it still is for white Americans to assert that race isn't important and that we should all focus on our shared humanity, even as black men and women continue to experience disproportional access to education, health care, and justice.

Donald Glover, This is America
Source: Donald Glover, This is America

Glover is America. In the church scene, just as in the earlier scenes, Glover is self-assured and brash. He kills multiple people (including the choir) and afterward continues to dance and mug for the camera, seemingly without a care in the world.

On a literal level, it is hard to make sense of this juxtaposition of violence and dance. But as I mentioned in #3 above, I think Glover's character is intended as a representation of America. As such, it is not Glover (or Black men) doing the killing. It is not even white men. Rather, it is the country itself. It is America, with its racist history and contemporary disinterest in black lives, that takes the lives of black people, even innocent, church-going black people, and continues to smile and dance as though the violence was unworthy of notice.

Yes, some of this violence takes the form of self-identified white supremacists but other violence is systemic — racially biased school discipline, racially segregated low-income housing that isolates those living in poverty, subcultures that glorify guns and value them more than people. This systemic violence can be just as deadly. I think it's part of Glover's commentary.

What does the church scene mean? To me, it is all of the following:

  1. It is a criticism of America for not valuing black lives, even when those lives are innocent, as represented by the church choir.
  2. It is a criticism of the pro-gun lobby for making guns so accessible that there is no place that black people are safe, not even a church.
  3. It is an observation that violence is unpredictable. A man entering a church with hardly any clothes could be looking for shelter or for God. But he could just as easily be looking for vengeance.
  4. It is an observation (criticism?) that Americans seem content to consume popular culture (as represented by the choir and his own dancing) while people (specifically black people) around them are getting killed.

Again, I don't assume the above is definitive. Earlier, I wrote that what the viewer or reader thinks is happening has much more to do with their life experiences and beliefs than with the stimulus itself. I am not immune from this tendency. As readers of this blog know, much of my writing and community work focus on racial justice and restorative responses to acts of injustice. Like others, I am interpreting this work of art through my own personal filter. As such, it is not the truth but rather my personal truth.

There is room for other truths.

There always is with art.

More from Mikhail Lyubansky Ph.D.
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