Characterizations of violence and blackness have complicated American minds for centuries. From the immensely popular industries of minstrelsy to a tacit reclamation of media by the black community, there’s a lot to dissect in “This is America.” From the outset, it’s quite clear that this is a work meant to be both seen and heard. The song itself is almost meaningless when viewed apart from the music video.

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Experiencing both together, however, produces a medley of experiences that present the duality of living while Black in America. There is always tension between the way Black bodies exist in the world of perception and or identity. Oftentimes, the media, markets, and attitudes our own cultures embrace reflect differently from the outside. Simultaneously, aspects of others function differently across various ethnicities and identity groups.

These differences are ontological or dealing with the nature of being. How individuals ‘exist’ in American politics is at the center of the video and song. I’ll be breaking down “This is America” on a few levels. For one, it’s important to draw up a framework for even examining the video. Following that, I’ll explain some of the more powerful motifs in the work, and finally talk about the public response to the video.

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Important to note in all of this is that my commentary on “This is America” is by no means axiomatic. There is no one individual who can speak for entire communities. But what I can do is reveal aspects of the video that hopefully assist you in forming your own conclusions.

Defining the Veil

For those of you unfamiliar with the symbol in this article’s title, the Veil comes from one of the most influential Black sociological texts. W.E.B DeBois’ The Souls of Black Folk describes the Veil as existing between Black and white existence. Black individuals experience suffering within the Veil and encounter spatial guidelines for their oppression. However, their knowledge of the world is not confined to the oppressive structures they often exist within.

In the context of oppression, minority individuals are often in a rather precarious but useful vantage point. Because of the nature of oppression and otherization, the person within the Veil is intimately aware of their oppressor; their ‘dominant’ culture permeates every facet of life and acts as a threat. The Black individual within the Veil must thus understand themselves authentically and understand what statuses are forced upon them.

This is America
The previously bright expression of the guitarist is obscured in ways metaphorically similar to the Veil | Image: Youtube

This idea, which can broadly be termed as Double Consciousness, is important to conceptualize before embarking on this journey of understanding within “This is America.” In order to truly view the work, one must understand its duality. There is a contemporary commentary on racial issues, sure.

But there is also a critique of how Black culture has reacted and was forced to react. Within the Veil and modern notions of politics with regard to race, this basically concerns voluntary and involuntary reactions.

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Broad Strokes

In this sense, “This is America” presents viewers with a different narrative of racial oppression. The video begins with a black man (Not Trayvon Martin’s dad) strumming a guitar followed by a dancing Donald Glover dressed in Confederate soldier’s pants. Not even a minute into the video, Glover shoots the guitarist, who now has his head covered. This is the first nod to violence within the video.

It provides some insight into how Glover is framing Black identity within said violence. In case the exaggerated movements didn’t make it clear enough, Glover is evoking a style of dance commonly used in minstrel shows and blackface performances for decades. The gyrating, twisting movements and facial expressions were all aspects of images of literal Jim Crow, a symbol of the de jure segregation of the same name.

This is America
A depiction of Jim Crow | Image: Clicker

With the various shootings in the video being performed by Jim Crow itself, Glover is linking the laws that oppress black communities and the literal guns that mow them down. The tools of violence in the hands of this contorted view of blackness is at risk of use against true Black expression.

Keep in mind that the two types of people gunned down were a choir and a guitarist. While the former is an explicit reference to the Charleston Church shooting, it in combination with the first shooting demonstrates the killing of true Black expression by stereotypes and racist, institutionalized law.

Although, the video uses subtle imagery and detail to try and take this a few steps further.

‘Hidden’ Motifs

You may be asking yourself why ‘hidden’ is in quotation marks. It feels wrong to use words like hidden to describe these details because, truthfully, every little symbol, detail, or hint is right in front of us the entire time. Glover’s minstrel strut distracts us from the massive chaos and destruction occurring in the background, and this is precisely the point.

The only moments where Glover’s Jim Crow isn’t dancing across the screen are when he’s killing other Black people, capitalizing on modern — and often white — fetishization of Black violence. The narrative behind police brutality often has to take a backseat to its tabloid appeal. Rather than starting a dialogue, we consume media and protect that which causes tragedy.

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“This is America” points that out too, with guns handled gently following their use in shootings.  This is the component of cultural response that I’ll peg as involuntary. Black communities can’t make the NRA stop valuing guns. Interestingly, the riots and wild rushes that follow Glover’s shooting of the church quire happen around him as he strolls and gets back to dancing.

Jim Crow takes no responsibility for the charges and simply moves along. Lines like ‘I’m on Gucci’ or “We just wanna party” draw an inextricable link between the culture of consumption often superimposed onto issues of violence. Consumerism and materialism are the points of the video that I believe are implied to at least be semi-voluntary responses to the issue at hand.

Glover indicates that rather than create structural change, we have a habit of focusing on the glamour and appeal of simple pleasures. This is a fair, albeit base level point. Interestingly, Glover seems to indict the Black community here somewhat, not placing blame for the shootings on them but critiquing their materialism nevertheless.

Symbolic Saturation

In articles and videos discussing hidden symbols, there’s more identification than explanation. While not a rejection of the entire video, this is one of the issues I have with it. “This is America” acts as a massive dump of symbolism and references only organized with slight consistency. Given time, you can read something into it. Unfortunately, most don’t. The volume of symbols nods to so many things at once.

Due to that, the viewer tends away from the individual meaning behind small details. Instead, curiosity becomes a hunting mindset seeking to identify just what everything is and not much else. One of the most important parts of the video is the role of ‘respectability politics.’ This term generally refers to Black Americans who ‘conform’ to ideas, cultures, dialects, and even outfits that are generally thought of as white.

Those practicing respectability politics are often not as outspoken on issues like police brutality. They often lean more conservative than most Black voters in most elections and are more concerned about fiscal and economic policy. In “This is America,” those dressed well in collared shirts and pleated skirts go unharmed in the same way Glover did. They appear to be students, and this may be part of the depiction.

This is America
Glover dancing alongside the well-dressed students | Image: Youtube

Not only that, but they are generally absent from the clamoring and continue to jovially dance alongside Glover’s Jim Crow. They are only present outside of the danger. The closest they come to direct involvement is recording the action with their cell phones. This is a link to an incredible dialogue, but the scene is so wrought with imagery, like Death on his pale horse, suicides, prison allusions, and riot police. The sum of the saturation dilutes each of its parts.

Violence and Dialogue

The second level of critique I have for the video builds from the first. Generally, for media to functionally create dialogue, it needs to have an ideological foundation. That foundation doesn’t need to be incredibly complicated, but it should be consistent and clear.

The foundation I’m tempted to draw from this video is one I draw from plenty of other music about oppression. I think of verses from Kendrick’s “Institutionalized” or “DNA,” Beyonce’s “Freedom,” or elegant critiques of unintentional manslaughter from Nas’ “Accident Murderers.” The difference here is simple. Doreen St. Félix of the New Yorker described it quite succinctly: Glover “inculpates himself.”

The violence in “This is America” doesn’t seem to further dialogue in any real way besides how we consume it. But by replacing the white perpetrators of violence with a Black caricature, Glover ignores positive, radical response to oppression. We became the objects of oppression and the indirect supporters of it. It functions as a critique with no counterfactual, and in one fell swoop, the conversation is confined to the killed and the commodified.

This is not to say that Black issues regarding material wealth aren’t worthy of discussion. It is not a statement of rejection of the premise of the video. But I fail to see how the shock value with whiteness absent from the equation has real probative value. The motifs that really speak about racial dynamics and the positive qualities of Black response are so invisible beneath everything else that I doubt most even detect them.

The violence steals too much of the stage.

White Response

This section is mostly about meme culture, but I hesitate to even think of what I’ve seen lately as memes. Memes are (ideally) funny, and drawn from content in ways that are at least clever. But once again, just as white America gleefully picked off their favorite screenshot of GET OUT, threw it in a bowl, added some raisins, and feasted, we’re seeing more instances of ‘digital blackface.’

This is something that I personally don’t usually think as super well defined. In the context of memes using “This is America” as a template, however, most can see how problematic digital blackface is. Whites in America are constructing this saturated depiction of Black oppression as a metaphor for generic struggle.

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This alone is a testament to the danger of this sort of work. On the one hand, there is some ability to dissect and glean meaning. But white audiences reduce the hyper-pessimistic statement even further into mere entertainment. The violence spreads via mediums that don’t even recognize its importance. Over the past few days, scrolling past memes embossed with ‘haha’ reacts, it felt like a dog whistle.

Those within the Veil would recognize this, those from without would not. Eventually, I began to find the memes not only lacking in humor but just extremely un-funny. I won’t reproduce these memes here. This is in part because I don’t really want to spread them any more than necessary, and partly because what I’ve described as digital blackface is the least negative response.

Plenty of racists are having a great time adding to their edgy arsenals with screenshots from the video. Not even music is safe colonization.

Efficacy of “This is America”

Ultimately, despite the bulk of possible critique, “This is America” is still something. Many Black Americans questioned Glover’s affinity for rapping at all after “Awaken, My Love” developed his…let’s just say ‘unique’ stylings. ATLANTA restored the bulk of my faith, but this video and song have again complicated my opinions of Glover.

Even in its deficiencies, “This is America” denotes what future performances like it need to be wary of. I struggle to identify a single point the video is trying to make, however, and that is worth considering. But even then, the reactions to it, both good and bad, align with points about commodification in roundabout ways. “This is America” both builds itself up and contradicts itself, but maybe even that confusion is part of the point.

Featured Image from Youtube.

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