Claudia M. Allen is a writer based in Maryland, MD.
Red, White, and Blue – the American Trinity. These colors breathe into our values, our laws, our culture, and our religions. Coursing through the veins of our nation, these colors pump life into the heart of what it means to be American. They are not just abstract colors, nor are they simply ethereal ideas. Citizens, immigrants, dreamers, and the children of former slaves experience these colors in very tangible ways every single day. In fact, Charles Thomson, the Secretary of the Continental Congress when the colors were officially adopted in 1782, explained that the original purpose of the colors was for them to serve as representations of our character: “White signifies purity and innocence. Red, hardiness and valor, and Blue…signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice.” In other words, these colors represented our bravery, signaled our sacrifice, and emboldened our democracy. They are the tones with which we praise America for her courage, respect America for her strength, and award America for being a beacon of liberty and justice for all. For many, this is America.
It is this perception of America that lured me to my laptop. As the great-great-great-granddaughter of an enslaved African, the great-great granddaughter of a Tuskegee graduate, the great-granddaughter of a murdered black man, the granddaughter of a World War II veteran, and the daughter of a man born and raised on the Southside of Chicago, these colors symbolize a very different American experience than the one I had just previously mentioned. Every time I think of America’s whiteness, I can’t help but picture white sheets washed by black hands; white sheets cut to cover white faces; white sheets propelled by the hate of a knight eager to burn black flesh. I can’t help but cringe as I think about motionless Native bodies whose blood stains America’s soil. I can’t help but flinch as I recall the whips that drew red stripes into the backs of enslaved Africans. I can’t help but become enraged when I hear the tears of mourning mothers sing the American blues accompanied by the sirens of cop cars whose flashing blue lights silhouette the dead bodies of black children. For the descendants of the exterminated and the exploited, these colors- Red, White, and Blue- symbolize bloodshed and hate, terror and cowardice, tears and injustice. With great intentionality, this country has never been the land of our freedom, and it has never been a safe haven for our brave. Instead, for Native and African Americans, this is a land that was built off our dreams and serves as the home for our graves. This is our America.
Published on May 5, 2018, Childish Gambino’s “This is America” rebukes the illusion of white America’s perception of the U.S. by spotlighting the violence faced by many African Americans within this country. Gambino begins by rendering a disturbing performance that channels the blackface acts of 19th-century minstrelsy, contorting his face and body to replicate the exaggerated expressions seen in shows like Jump Jim Crow. While such minstrel shows used song and dance to mock and perpetuate racist ideas about African Americans, Gambino uses the choreography to lure white viewers into the nightmare of the black American’s practice of dancing around death.
Shooting an unarmed black man within the first several seconds of the video, Gambino triggers memories of victims such as Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, and most recently, Antwon Rose Jr. Watching Gambino shoot this man in his head, I was immediately jolted, cringing both internally and externally as my mind remembered the close range shooting of Philando Castile. Gambino takes no time to even acknowledge the dead corpse. He simply continues singing and dancing away from the body until it is completely out of focus. Keeping the camera focused on Gambino, director Hiro Murai, simulates the social media scroll effect. Just as the viewer watches Gambino sing and dance until the dead body fades into the background, many African Americans continued scrolling down their Facebook timelines seeking a distraction from the imagery of Castile’s jolting murder at point-blank range. As his body faded into the recesses of newsfeed history, we watched standup comedy clips, tasty cooking videos, and reacted to photos of friends and family not yet snuffed by the hands of law enforcement. In so many words, many of us virtually danced away from Castile’s dead body, doing everything we could to avoid the viral video of his murder.
“This is America” demonstrates just how brief our scrolling reprieve was when Gambino simulated the brutal killing of the Charleston 9 in the very next frame. Taking an automatic rifle and killing a ten-member choir, Gambino reminds viewers of the frightening reality that in America, blacks aren’t even safe in a prayer service, nor better yet, in a church whose very name means “God with us.” When faced with the massacre at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, I and other believers were found questioning how a loving and sovereign God could allow African Americans to not noly simply be oppressed, not only just be exploited, but to also allow us to be murdered on the street, in our homes, in schools, and even in churches. The unsettling battle between faith and forgiveness and doubt and belief drove many of us back to the distraction of social media’s latest viral video. And again, just like Gambino danced away from their lifeless bodies, we scrolled away from the Charleston 9 and soon found ourselves distracted by more videos of dancing African children.
Alternating between death and dancing, Gambino does not simply challenge his viewers to come to terms with the reality of violence against black bodies, but also confronts us with the correlation between that violence and the enjoyment of black cultural expression as a distraction from it. Living in a society where blacks are killed by police officers for no other reason than the illegal act of living while black, African Americans know that white supremacist violence is an unshakable reality that comes with American citizenship. Gambino’s “This is America” rebukes the illusion of safety and security by bringing the white viewer into the African American mind for a simulation of our attempt at coping with racial violence. Gambino shows how with every killing the black psyche is startled, and with every album release, we are serenaded back into avoidance. Through organizations like Black Lives Matter, we’re willing to fight the issues, but we struggle to face the hurt. We’re amped to protest and organize, but we’re afraid to process and open up. Gambino shows how sometimes we distract ourselves with dancing and demonstrations because we’re ill-equipped to face the American demons that haunt us. I’m reminded of MarShawn M. McCarrell, a 23-year-old black man from Ohio who fatally shot himself on the steps of the Ohio State House after posting on Facebook, “My demons won today. I’m sorry.” This young man symbolizes an entire generation of African Americans who are constantly fighting the demons of white terror and racial violence, both socially and mentally. His death reminds us that living while black in America is to be in a constant state of mourning. His death teaches us that if we aren’t intentional about processing racism, then it can drag us into a deep depression that will cause us to seek all kinds of distractions. And when the dancing and the demonstrations can no longer distract us from our demons, we are faced with the dilemma of either processing our pain or giving in to a more permanent escape.
Gambino’s dance around death rebukes our tendency to avoid grief and calls us to confront how we often use our art to avoid our pain, anesthetize our anguish, and distract ourselves from the trauma of Black Death. The power behind Gambino’s work is that he challenges African Americans to notice the chaos within their communities. With so many things happening in the background, Gambino suggests that there is value in shifting our eyes from the dances that distract us. He insinuates a need to refocus on and process the violence in our cities so that we are better able to grieve the deaths of our brothers and sisters and properly heal from the traumas of racism.
But Gambino does not simply challenge us to confront our use of dance as a distraction. Many times throughout the video, Gambino is seen dancing with a group of people, particularly children, and smiling while he dances. He does this to show that African Americans also dance as a means of maintaining hope and joy even when we’re experiencing unimaginable grief. Gambino demonstrates how we dance around death not in disregard for the lives lost but in celebration of the joy their lives brought to our cultures and communities. In this sense, our dancing also serves as a form of resistance to white supremacy’s attempts at stealing the joys that come with the dance of life. Gambino’s dance around Black Death says: yes we are persecuted, but we will pacify ourselves. Yes, we are slaughtered, but our art will soothe our hearts. Yes, we live in a society that works to surround us with death, but we have hope because history reminds us that from slavery up through state-sanctioned violence, not even death can stop our dance.
This is America.