In May of 2018 Childish Gambino put out his video for “This is America,” in which he danced alongside school children, made some weird faces, and gunned down an entire church choir with a semi-automatic assault rifle. The video immediately made waves across the internet for its blatant, and shocking displays of violence, but it wasn’t the violence itself that racked up fifty million views on YouTube in just a few days, it was how that violence was depicted. Gambino used dancing and strange faces to draw the eye away from that violence happening in the background of the video, and somewhat conceal his true message, which is a criticism of the media’s treatment of gun violence and mass shootings in the United States. In an article in The Washington Post on May 9, Sonia Roa pointed out that much of this subversion draws direct parallels to the minstrel traditions of the early 1800’s, the comic enactment of racial stereotypes that whites used to dehumanize through racist cartoons and blackface, which black performers then adopted as a means of keeping white audiences tuned in to subversive messages. This of course prompts the question of how Childish Gambino, more than two-hundred years later, used the same minstrel tradition as a subversive act. This essay will seek to explain how this was done through sound and visuals and what such an act means from a cultural standpoint.
Houston Baker, in his 1989 essay collection titled Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, examined Booker T. Washington’s 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery, and discussed how Washington utilized minstrel tradition for a greater reach within white society to promote his message of racial advancement. Baker describes a “mask,” a term oft used in black literary studies and perhaps best described in Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “We Wear The Mask.” In Dunbar’s poem the mask is a means of coping with the harsh realities of slavery and racial discrimination:
We wear the mask that grins and lies…
We smile, but oh great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise (906).
In the time of slavery as well as post-Reconstruction, blacks in America experienced a reality not only of discrimination but of torture and lynching. In the face of this slaves pretended to not be affected. Dunbar says they wore a figurative mask.
The term in Dunbar’s poem has a negative connotation but with Baker’s use the mask takes on a new meaning. Baker discussed how during the time of slavery white society created for themselves a schema of what “black” meant “by misappropriating elements from everyday black use…and fashioning them into a comic array, a mask of selective memory” (21). It was never an accurate depiction of black society and it quickly became the minstrel tradition of black face and the racist cartoons of the early 1900’s that the United States often tries to forget. Booker T. Washington, in Up From Slavery, adopted that minstrel tradition and used it as a mask to promote his message of racial advancement without white society realizing what was happening, for, as Baker noted, “there can be no worry that the Negro is getting out of hand” (31). Baker, in his essays, highlights three main components to Washington’s subversive utilization: the sound emanating from the mask, the visual of the mask itself, and “the nod” (40).
Firstly, the sound of the mask. Washington, in Up From Slavery often utilized a “black dialect” and whether or not the content of the language was subversive, white readers only heard the dialect they knew from minstrel tradition, for, as Baker noted, “the sound emanating from the mask reverberates through a white American discursive universe as the sound of the Negro” (22). The best example of this would be the sorrow songs sung by slaves on white plantations: those songs were of freedom and emancipation, but all white slave owners heard were contented slaves singing as they worked. Like viewers of Dunbar’s version of the mask only saw the “smile” and “lie,” so Washington’s readers only saw an uneducated black man speaking in dialect.
Second, the visual of the mask itself. In only the first few pages of Up From Slavery, Washington introduces his mother as “[a] chicken stealing darky” (Baker, 27), a familiar and comforting image to white readers. Minstrel tradition depicted blacks a very particular way, with strong stereotypes. One need not look far to find the racist cartoons of the early 1900’s, heavy in stereotypes and riddled with wildly exaggerated features. The Sambo, the Mammy, the Uncle Tom: these images were easily recognizable within society and Washington’s chicken-stealing mother fit right in. These images pervaded white society as minstrel jokes and Washington employed them as a means of keeping white readers entertained.
Lastly, “the nod.” The language Washington used very notably wasn’t accurate to him as a writer: he was totally and very obviously, “capable of standard English phraseology [and] crafty political analyses…” but he could employ minstrel tradition whenever it served him, and he used it to keep his message of racial advancement hidden quietly behind the mask white society had created for him (Baker, 30). It was a “nod” to those who knew what was happening, and an unnoticed gesture to everyone else. This is what Baker calls the “mastery of form” (15). Washington very clearly knew the “game,” as Baker describes it, and he was a master player.
The sound, visual, and nod are the means by which Washington was able to be subversive towards white audiences and this is where Childish Gambino’s video becomes so fascinating for all three can be very clearly seen within his 2018 music video “This Is America.”
Firstly, the sound of the mask: rap music is the black genre of today, well known for its lyricism, rhyme schemes, and inventive word play, but interestingly, Gambino’s “This Is America” lyrics are choppy, more of a collage-style:
This is America/
guns in my area/
I got the strap/
I gotta carry ‘em.
These are some of the most narrative lines in the song; many don’t even make logical sense, as a following verse neatly demonstrates:
This a celly/
That’s a tool/
On my Kodak/
Ooh, know that/
Illogical or not, these lyrics act much like the freedom songs on white plantations: a white audience hears the catchy tune, but they don’t quite pick up the message. This can be seen through the Billboard music charts. “This Is America” spent seventeen weeks on the “Billboard Top 100,” and two weeks at number one; it even won Song of the Year at the Grammy’s. Musically “This Is America” was successful; it is a catchy song, but the true message of Gambino’s video is lost because it isn’t in the lyrics.
The visuals of Gambino’s video are what caused such a viral spread across the internet and spurred examinations by The Washington Post and Time Magazine among many others. The dancing that takes up most of the video is composed mostly of hip-hop and African moves, Mahita Gajanan of Time Magazine notes, and like the protest songs in the time of slavery, what looks like simple dancing to whites, to blacks represents an embracing of African roots and a very non-white culture. In addition, behind the dancing is a plethora of violence taking place: a car is being set on fire, police cars are shining blue lights across riots, and people are constantly running across the screen carrying pipes, hammers, and weapons of all kind. There is even a suicide that happens mid-video, in which a man jumps off a ledge to his death on a concrete floor. In front of all that the dancing takes center stage, draws all eyes, and more than likely, on an initial watch of the video a viewer wouldn’t notice anything but the dancing. The happy, smiling, dancing black man holds all the attention even with a violence of riots and death happening very clearly in the background.
More striking, after he dances and makes a few weird faces at the beginning of the video, Gambino shoots an innocent guitar player in the back of the head. Here he appears to be adopting the subversive “mask” Baker talks about, for the strange contortion of his body as he takes the shot mimics almost exactly the strange pose of the black man in the infamous Jim Crow poster. The pose, in Gambino’s video, becomes infused with murder, not of a white man, but of another black man, who is dragged off screen while the gun Gambino used is placed into a red velvet cloth and carried away much more ceremoniously. This points to the United States’ treatment of black on black crime versus guns: very little care is given to the first; they’re statistics, but guns are precious, and they must be protected.
This brings up last point: the nod. Dancing, singing, and strange faces lull viewers into a head-nodding enjoyment before—BOOM church choir massacred. Rao pointed out that the second shooting scene represents Dylan Roof’s killing of nine black people in a church basement in 2015. Here we clearly see mimicry, and indeed, mockery of the media’s treatment of the shooting. Quickly moving back to dancing represents the media’s reaction to the mass murder, and really any killing of a black man in America. It’s reported on, then in a few days the media moves back to cute puppy videos and Donald Trump.
Then, at the end of the video the brightly lit warehouse setting disappears and, in its place, comes a dark, nearly black hallway and Gambino is no longer dancing, but running. Many across the Internet drew parallels to the Sunken Place from Jordan Peele’s2017 horror film Get Out, “a mental prison where the Armitage family matriarch sends black people” (Rao). But whether the hallway is a reference to Peele’s film “the video makes clear how black people have been trapped and/or harmed by American culture” (Rao). Gambino’s dancing, his strange faces, his playing so strongly to a white audience is indeed subversive, but at the end of the video the darkness crowds in and for just a moment all that can be seen are Gambino’s wide, terrified eyes, bobbing back and forth as he runs for his life. Here there is no mask, and the message appears to be that successful or not, wearing a gold chain around his neck or not, promoting such an incredibly subversive message with a high-budget music video and impressive choreography or not, white America still hates black people, still kills them, still treats black on black crime as statistics. Rao makes note of the end of the video, saying Gambino “keeps the darkness at bay by acting within white-imposed boundaries…but [the violence in the background] eventually catches up to him.”
Gambino knew exactly what he was doing in every facet of the video. Like Washington, he knows the “game,” and like Washington he is a master player. Gambino’s use of sound, visuals, and the nod serve to keep a white audience listening to an argument that they typically pay no mind; criticisms of gun violence and mass shootings fall routinely on deaf ears in America but Gambino’s video went viral, it was studied not only by hip-hop connoisseurs, but by scholars, reporters, and articles were run in both The Washington Post and Time Magazine. Gambino’s use of the mask directly mimics Washington’s 1901 use that Baker laid out in his essays, and his success is a mirror image as well. The cultural implications of this are shocking, for all three of Baker’s techniques, it must be repeated, are drawn directly from, the now culturally condemned, minstrel tradition. Gambino’s use of them in 2018 America can be best summed up in one word: horrifying, and it draws two critical implications.
First, in demonstrating the absurdity of gun violence and mass shootings in the United States, Gambino meant for his video to actually do something and be picked apart by news sites, but at the end of the day the track was still a catchy radio-hit, Song of the Year at the Grammy’s. People took the video and created parody songs with Black Panther and Kermit The Frog taking Gambino’s place. The video was indeed studied, but the music was what the public paid attention to. No matter how subversive Gambino’s message was, nothing in the way of gun violence and mass shootings changed; to the public, Gambino had created something for entertainment. More than a century after Booker T. Washington used it in his autobiography, minstrel tradition is still very much alive in America and blacks are seen, to this day, as simple entertainment.
Second, Gambino highlights the dehumanization of black Americans. By continuing to normalize minstrel tradition, the U.S. creates for itself a reality drawn directly from the minstrel era, in which the black man was not only entertainment, but enslaved. Today, reality for blacks is job discrimination, a complete disregard for black on black crime, and the mass incarceration of black men. Mass incarceration has been labeled by Michelle Alexander as “The New Jim Crow,” which makes Gambino’s blatant imitation of the poster that much more fascinating. Gambino isn’t just saying America is racist. This is still a slave nation.
In sum, Baker’s minstrel “mask,” can still be used, not only to promote a message, but to go viral. The success of the video and the public’s focus on its entertainment means that society still views blacks in that light of the minstrel tradition: as subhuman. More than one-hundred and fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, This Is America.
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Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2012.
Baker, Houston A., Jr. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. University of Chicago Press, 1987.
“Black Panther – This Is Wakanda (Childish Gambino “This Is America” Parody).” YouTube, uploaded by Azerrz, 26 May 2018. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbJvPrd-Pq8&t=52s.
Du Bois, W.E.B. Excerpt from The Souls of Black Folk. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Vol. 1.
Dunbar, Paul Lawrence. “We Wear the Mask.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Vol 1, 3rd ed., edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Valerie A. Smith, Norton, 2014, pg. 906.
Gajanan, Mahita. “An Expert’s Take on the Symbolism in Childish Gambino’s Viral ‘This Is America’ Video.” Time Magazine, 7 May 2018, time.com/5267890/childish-gambino-this-is-america-meaning/. Accessed 2 Nov. 2018.
Get Out. Directed by Jordan Peele. Performances by Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, Catherine Keener, Universal Pictures, 2017
“Kermit’s America – This Is America PARODY (Childish Gambino).” YouTube, uploaded by Akeem Lawanson, 25 May 2018. www.youtube.com/watch?v=9GAYHSYZ3js.
Rao, Sonia. “This Is America: Breaking Down Childish Gambino’s Powerful New Music Video.” The Washington Post, 9 May 2018, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2018/05/07/this-is-america-breaking-down-childish-gambinos-powerful-new-music-video/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.b767a509bc37. Accessed 2 Nov. 2018.
“This Is America.” YouTube, uploaded by Donald Glover, 5 May 2018, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYOjWnS4cMY.
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“‘This Is America’ by Childish Gambino Chart History.” Billboard, http://www.billboard.com/music/childish-gambino/chart-history/hot-100/song/1077555. Accessed 2 Nov. 2018.