Analyzing the discourse surrounding Donald Glover’s “This Is America”

Screencap from “This Is America.” Illustration: Monique Jones

By now, everyone and their mother has dissected Donald Glover’s “This is America.” The common threads have been reiterated over and over again; how Glover is imitating Jim Crow minstrel movements, how his facial expressions mimic minstrel propaganda, how his dancing (particularly his miming of creating new dance trends with the uniformed kids in tow) references how America relies on distraction to keep people from focusing on the country’s broken systems and how America constantly relies on black Americans to create pop culture even though the country still runs on the idea that all black people are dangerous, an idea we’re often killed for. There have been tons of articles written about this (some of which I’ve linked below).

But what has really annoyed me over the course of this week is how the social media conversation devolved from discussing the inherent meanings in the work to dissecting whether or not Glover is the “right black person” to speak about black issues. It was annoying and in large part, reductive, since it left me feeling like many were just spinning their wheels. Ironically, a music video about how America distracts itself from discussing important issues was the victim of distractions.

To be clear, I’m not here as Glover’s lawyer so don’t read this as some type of doe-eyed defense for him; I can’t say I’m a die-hard fan, but I am an admirer of his work and his ability to make his weirdness be his money-maker. I like Atlanta, I’ve liked his stand-up comedy and his work on Community; I like the majority of his albums. But there was a time when Glover seemed like he lacked enthusiasm for the black community, shall we say. As The Ringer’s Justin Charity said on an episode of the podcast “Damage Control” (featured below), Community era Glover focused on white and Asian women and seemed to have nothing to do with black people period.  As Charity said, it’s interesting to see how Glover has changed his tune to something this radical. A lot of this past ire folks have with Glover has dominated a good portion of the discussion about “This Is America;” a lot of people are conflating his relationship with his wife, who is white, with his ability to discuss issues facing black America.

I think it’s one thing to discuss if Glover has grown, if at all, since his Community days, but it’s another to say that he can’t speak on black issues from his perspective because of his white wife.

Let’s suppose he has grown. If so–if he’s taken himself out of the sunken place he once might have been in and now wants to own his blackness in a more overt way–then fine. I can’t say what his psychology was like in those days, but it could be that, over the course of his life and career, he found himself stuck in trying to fit in over simply being true to himself. That kind of inner racial tension is something I feel like a lot of people of color can identify with, since we’re always in a “code-switching” mode from the moment we enter kindergarten. Some people cope with the internal racial tension by just making themselves blend in to the mainstream culture as much as possible, to the point where they lose touch with themselves. The journey back to the self is something a lot of people of color have had to do, and nowadays, it’s not always kosher to admit that since you open yourself up to be called “problematic” or somehow not “woke.” But if that’s what Glover has had to overcome, then that’s what we will have to eventually accept.

The wife, for many, has become the embodiment of the aforementioned frustrations with Glover. I don’t think  his wife, as a person, has anything to do with discussion surrounding “This Is America.” As Panama Jackson wrote in his Very Smart Brothas article about the subject, Glover can speak on his experience as a black man because he is, in fact, black. I think what the wife symbolizes, however–the phenomenon of certain black men idolizing white women as currency that buys them into white America while putting down black women–is something that could be discussed, but discussed on its own, since it really doesn’t play into the narrative of “This Is America” at all. If his wife comes into play with the music video at all, it might be in the form of what questions or input she had while he was writing and creating. As Jackson wrote, drawing from his own experiences:

“I wonder how those conversations about the execution of art that centers blackness and interacts with whiteness as, at times, a goofy, ignorant and uninformed barrier happen in Glover’s household. From personal experience with my white mother, I’ve had to defend blackness. I’ve had to point out things that I feel shouldn’t have to be pointed out. I indulged those conversations because it’s my mother. I imagine that a life partner would have to be indulged as well. And I know nothing of his partner at all (I haven’t so much as looked up her name), but I imagine that being with a creative means lots of conversations about art and the implications of it.”

We don’t know if she had any input in “This Is America,” or even if their conversations sparked “This Is America,” but on the whole, focusing on Glover’s wife doesn’t help much when analyzing the music video, especially since the music video isn’t meant just to teach his wife stuff she might not know; the video was made to provoke all of us to talk about race’s position in America.

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From what he utilizes in Atlanta and the themes he draws from in “This Is America,” Glover recognizes the importance of understanding and exploring the universal aspects of the black experience, even if our individual experiences of blackness differ. We might come from different backgrounds and different upbringings, but most, if not all black people know what it’s like to be discriminated against in some form or fashion by America. It’s sadly part of the deal.

But what has interested me the most out of these arguments is how people immediately wanted to put Glover on a hierarchy of black entertainers. Is he on the same level of Beyoncé and is it sexist to call him a genius? Is he the new Kanye now that Kanye’s been deposed from his throne by his own doing? How should Glover be categorized?

Maybe it’s because I’m still reeling from the fallout from Universal FanCon, but I’m loathe to call anyone an out-and-out “genius” as if they are the only person worthy of the title of genius out there. To be honest, I’ve always been loathe to be a part of the stan culture anyways, since it’s just gross to me. There are plenty of geniuses that are worthy of our respect, including Beyoncé, Janelle Monae, Kendrick Lamar, and others. Instead of us trying to figure out which person deserves the title of “The Only Genius Ever,” maybe we should welcome them all as black creatives commenting on the state of black life in America.

Each artist has their own viewpoint and provides something meaningful to the conversation. Beyoncé talked about how a black woman’s love is largely disrespected in this country, but even with everything coming to tear her down, she came out on top by accepting and releasing her rage to find a place for forgiveness. Monae gives hope to black LGBTQ+ youth who don’t typically see themselves and their inner lives explored; by showcasing her own inner life, Monae has given voice to those who felt like they were voiceless. Lamar discusses the pressure he feels as a black man to succeed and the personal pressure he puts himself to become a better, more open person than he was before. Glover, by extension, uses his personal brand of humor and horror to discuss the duality of life for the black American who is trying to make it, yet constantly feels like he’s being pulled back by forces beyond his control, both within and without.

Also, Glover is just as problematic as everyone else. As I’ve written on The Huffington Post, all faves are problematic, and the sooner we all recognize that fact, the better off we’ll be. Glover has said some stuff in the past that people didn’t like. He’ll say some stuff in the future people won’t like. Why can’t we just like the thing Glover has made now?

If it could just be accepted that Glover made something he wanted us to think about, then a lot of the pressure to call or not call him a “genius” would disappear. He’s a smart man who used his creativity to comment on events around him. That’s it. I’m sure a statement like that doesn’t sound very congratulatory, nor is it completely damning. But it’s the truth; he made something to challenge the status quo and get us talking.

The other argument, however, is just what is he saying? What are we supposed to take from This is America? I could write a post about all of the things I saw in it–the Jim Crow references, the seemingly clear allusion to the Ron Clark Academy in the form of those uniformed kids, the dancing-as-distraction, but if I’m being honest, I don’t know the true meaning behind the video. I know there are things that are overtly referenced, such as the minstrel poses, but there’s so much symbolism in the music video that isn’t explained, and will probably never be explained by Glover, who refused to let TMZ in on the secrets behind the video.

In short, Glover wants us to make our own meanings. We have to do the work of figuring out what “This is America” means to us.

To me, that’s a really interesting concept. To others, it might be maddening, since no one will ever be truly right or truly wrong, and if there are two things social media can’t accept well, it’s nuance and uncertainty.

Take for instance this moment when I referenced the Ron Clark Academy. I made the same reference online, and explained that I saw the uniformed kids as representing those schoolchildren, who often become both the symbols of black excellence and American tokenism. Is this the schoolchildren’s fault? No. But it is the fault of America, that still exists on the notion that all black people are criminal-minded and idiotic until proven otherwise. Personally, I have nothing against the school, the kids, and even Ron Clark himself. But in every video featuring Ron Clark Academy children dancing or doing something else entertaining, it’s hard to tell the lens viewers are seeing them through.

I came up with this meaning for those kids in the video because tokenism is a part of many black kids lives; if you go to an all or mostly-white school system, grow up in a white neighborhood, or are into things deemed “non-black,” or if you’re a at a school like the Ron Clark Academy, which is all black but seen as an exception to the rule, you will be turned into a token black friend at some point. That was my experience at a point in my life, and that’s what I saw in those dancing kids behind Glover. While others agreed with my sentiment, some didn’t. However, instead of simply disagreeing, they felt they had to go out of their way to prove I was somehow wrong, when the video doesn’t give any indication as to which viewers’ opinions would be right or wrong.

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“You never know what’s in the head of an artist unless they tell you. So we have to interpret and sometimes we get it right,” said Jim Crow historian David Pilgrim in an interview with The Huffington Post’s Julia Craven. “…He’s given a canvas that people can finish and use symbols that have multiple interpretations.”

Within the interview, Pilgrim and Craven started talking about the dancing kids. Both of them had different interpretations. While Craven thought it was symbolic of the school-to-prison pipeline from his recollection of a story about a black Chicago school in which the kids had to be chaperoned to the bathroom, Pilgrim said he thought it was about how minorities are always forced to conform, bringing up the Native Americans’ forced conformity by being kidnapped and taken to boarding schools to be “civilized,” even though regardless of how much they dressed or talked like white Americans, they would still be regarded as inferior.

This is the type of discourse “This Is America” is bringing up. It’s making viewers think about their own knowledge of American history and is forcing them to put the dots together, leading to many different realizations about how race is weaponized and used to marginalize and kill.

“…I like it,” said Pilgrm. “I like it because, quite frankly, I like any art that pushes intelligent discussions about racism. Any art that pushes that is good for this country.”

Just like how it’d be great if we allowed ourselves to learn from the messages presented by Glover and other black entertainers equally, it’d also be great if we allowed ourselves to learn from each other equally. There doesn’t have to be just one black entertainer to rule them all, and there doesn’t have to be one interpretation to rule them all either. In some ways, it seems like we’ve forgotten that art is supposed to make us think. It’s not supposed to give us the answers all of the time. Art asks us to figure out where it stands in relation to the world around it, and by doing so, art forces us to understand more about ourselves–our positives and our shortcomings.

Sometimes art can also showcase the artist’s own shortcomings as well. How do women feature in Glover’s video? We see SZA in a non-speaking cameo; what does her character mean with regard to black women’s struggle in America? Who is Glover in the music video? Is he a constant minstrel character, or is his character ever-changing? Is he at one moment a minstrel, the image America perceives blackness as, and is he another moment America itself, which hunts down its own? By killing the church choir–largely thought to be symbolic of the 8 parishioners and their pastor killed in South Carolina–is Glover making a commentary on the loaded concept of “black on black crime”? Or is the minstrel America itself, since the character is one of American origin and has been used to demean, hurt, and even kill flesh-and-blood African Americans? Is Glover making bank off the repeated images of black pain and black death? All valid questions that we should consider just as much as we should consider the meaning of the actual music video.

My hope is that “This Is America hits the people I feel it needs to hit the most: fans who still don’t recognize there’s a race problem in America. Glover is one of those rappers who, before Atlanta, was considered “safe” to white America (and non-black America, if I’m being honest). He was on Community with Chevy Chase, for crying out loud! In the eyes of some, that means a lot. For his white and non-black fans, “This is America might be their fist time seeing one of their idols speak so openly about racism and discrimination. I hope that for them, this music video makes them want to know more about the references others are bringing up. I hope it sparks an intellectual journey for them to better understand the pain Glover is only hinting at in this brutal music video.♦

More on This Is America:

This is America: 5 powerful messages that will stay with you long after your Donald Glover hangover| The Grio

Childish Gambino’s ‘This Is America’ video, explained| The Huffington Post

Donald Glover’s ‘This Is America’ Is a Nightmare We Can’t Afford to Look Away From| Rolling Stone

Making Donald Glover the ‘Anti-Kanye’ Is Gross and Wrong and Will Backfire, so Please Don’t| Very Smart Brothas/The Root

Childish Gambino’s complicated, catchy ‘This is America’ music video is downright Shakespearean| NBC Think

(Donald Glover talk starts at 12:06)

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