OK, let’s talk about Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’

Doug and Norm were talking about Childish Gambino’s “This is America” video. So I made my usual joke about “What’s a Childish Gambino?,” and then I went to look at it. (I had recorded SNL over the weekend, but hadn’t watched it yet.)

Apparently, this is the “I Am the Walrus” or “American Pie” of the moment, with everyone trying to interpret the references. So I went and watched it. And I didn’t find it to be all that mysterious, although I’m sure I missed a lot on that one run-through. I felt like I “got” what I saw, but I’d need to watch it a few more times to catch things I missed, and wonder about things I don’t get.

This was my stream-of-consciousness reaction, which I’m rethinking even as I post it here, but this was the way it played for me as I watched:

I watched it. I get it.

It’s about reparations.

And it’s also about a whole lot of other images and ideas from the black experience in America, spanning centuries. You have the references to “contraband” all the way through apparently random gun violence, and life going on around it.

The care of the guns just refers to the way we cherish them in America. We have another shooting, and elected leaders sort of close ranks in making sure nothing changes and the holy gun is protected.

He also runs through various caricatures of the Dangerous Black Male that white society has traditionally feared — the sexualized dancing, the violence, the drugs. His mugging facial expressions, some of his dance moves, the whites of his frightened eyes being the first thing you see in the darkness when he’s being chased at the end — all those things make cultural references to the black man as a ridiculous figure of entertainment for whites. So you have this jarring, sudden, back-and-forth going on between a minstrel show stereotype and the dangerous stereotype.

And the old cars remind me of the days of Hollywood’s blaxploitation fad, although they may be a little more recent than that.

The kids are in school uniforms, which seems a reference to the way people think one way of addressing social ills is to put kids in such uniforms. Yet the chaos goes on around them.

It’s interesting. I like that the music has a Caribbean feel to it (at least to my ears). After all, the black experience in America largely came first through the West Indies. South Carolina, the most pro-slavery state in the Union, was initially settled by people who had practiced a particularly brutal form of chattel slavery in Barbados.

And on and on.

Doug thinks I’m clueless. I’m not. The old guy who’s out of it is just a character I play on TV. Or on social media, anyway…

That’s first-blush, without looking to see what others thought of it.

Thinking back, I’m not sure I should have said “Caribbean.” It sounded exotic to my ears, and for whatever reason I thought “Caribbean.” Maybe it’s the way the guy’s dressed, as a combination between a slave working in cane fields (the American form of slavery got its start with sugar cane cultivation) and a Calypso dancer. Wait… I searched on that, and it seems calypso dancers aren’t as a rule shirtless. Don’t know why I thought they were.

Anyway, there’s a lot to unpack here…

Oh, and Childish Gambino? It’s Donald Glover. The guy I keep thinking is related to Danny Glover, but isn’t….


34 thoughts on “OK, let’s talk about Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’

  1. Norm Ivey

    I think you’re right on target in much of what you see. I really like your explanation of the DBM vs. Minstrel Show. That puts much of the foreground action in context. Still much I don’t get in the chaos around him. And it doesn’t explain the final scene where he’s running in terror.

    And I don’t get reparations. The references to money strike me as pointing out the economic inequality in the country right now, which disproportionately affects African Americans.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Reparations? That’s the one most overt thing in the lyrics:

      Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh, tell somebody
      America, I just checked my following list and
      You go tell somebody
      You mothafuckas owe me
      Grandma told me
      Get your money, Black man (Black man)
      Get your money, Black man (Black man)
      Get your money, Black man (Black man)
      Get your money, Black man Black man)
      Black man (one, two, three, get down)

      Grandma heard about the 40 acres and a mule, and told him about it…

      As for the running in terror… That runs the gamut from lynching through the comic depictions of the frightened Steppin’Fetchit figure in old movies through Driving While Black through Black Lives Matter… there’s just all sorts of imagery going on there….

      1. Norm Ivey

        I see that now. In another stanza he says:

        Hunnid bands, hunnid bands, hunnid bands (hunnid bands)
        Contraband, contraband, contraband (contraband)

        And I think “hunnid” means hundred, like bands of hundred dollar bills, but in the next stanza, he talks about being a barcode. That part of it to me seems to have an economic message.

        That’s also the scene with all of the older cars, which seems to play into the same idea–we use cars as symbols of wealth.

  2. Dave Crockett

    I must confess that I read the lyrics to the piece elsewhere before I viewed the video here. Clearly (to this old man), this is far more of a visual message than a written one….as the lyrics, when read literally, are nearly gibberish. And to my tin, white ears, very little is communicated to me, either (I hear “Laurel” and not “Yanny” in the other hot Internet meme) . But I take a lot of the same messages as Brad VISUALLY and I can see why it is generating a lot of chatter on the ‘Net.

    How do I FEEL about it? I don’t know right off. But I’ll watch it a few more times to see what emerges to my newly minted Medicare brain.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      It’s “Laurel.” It’s clearly Laurel, with no ambiguity whatsoever. There’s not the slightest hint of anything that sounds remotely like “Yanny.”

      I can’t imagine what started the “It sounds like ‘Yanny'” nonsense…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          LaurelHere’s how far I had to go before it switched to “Yanny.”

          But the tool is flawed. If I then slide it back to the left, it will still sound like “Yanny,” unless I jump a space, then it’s back to being absolutely, definitely “Laurel”…

          1. Scout

            My point is similar to yours but a little bit more to the right.

            I don’t know if it is flawed though. I think it is probably just a function of the way the auditory cortex processes sound. Once your brain has heard it as Yanny then you can still pick out those frequencies a long as the frequencies are still strong enough to be discernible to you. You can’t unhear it once you’ve heard it. If I start listening for Laurel again, I can find it in the signal and then my Yanny point will seem different. We can predispose our perceptions in the range where we can perceive both – kind of like the optical illusion of the old and young woman – they are both there and it will switch back and forth.

          2. bud

            Maybe this and the blue/gold dress thing help explain our polarized politics? I have probably had more than 100 people explain why people had a rational reason for voting for Trump. I still don’t see it.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Neither do I, because not one explanation I’ve heard for voting for Trump adds up. There’s no logic to it.

              The most persuasive explanation comes not from the people who voted that way, but from other observers: Specifically, that his supporters wanted to “blow s__t up.”

              Only a deliberately destructive, negative, here’s that word again… nihilistic… explanation seems to fit the available facts…

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    Then there are “errors” a pedantically critical eye will spot that don’t mean a thing.

    For instance, it slightly bothers me that he kills ten members of a choir with, near as I can tell, about six rounds. The burst is just too short for all those people to be falling down.

    It jumped out at me and distracted me enough that I wondered if the supernatural EASE with which he killed those folks was itself part of the message. Like “I don’t even have to shoot ALL of them to kill them.”

    But it probably means nothing. I feel silly mentioning it.

    But I bet Bryan would notice it, too…

  4. Brad Warthen Post author

    Here’s a modern mystery: What does YouTube keep telling me that this is the next video I’ll want to watch after that one?

    Do y’all get that to, or is it just me? — because after that one, the videos it shows are more obviously based on my watching history. Postmodern Jukebox, Monty Python and the like…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      The one commonality between the two is that I hear “Gucci” in both. Well, that… and heavy-handed social commentary.

      By the way, how does that Amy Winehouse song’s title play in our #metoo times? It’s dead-on — that IS the signal men receive from such shoes, whether we have a right to or not. And the thing is, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard women use that term more than men. So it’s out there in a very matter-of-fact way, and yet respectable women wear them in public anyway, including to business meetings.

      So, what are we all supposed to make of that?

      Sex is a minefield, and often every bit as hard to talk about as race. Which seems so obvious I feel stupid saying it…

    2. Norm Ivey

      Not me. I get various explications of This Is America. And then SNL skits. But then, I don’t think I’ve ever viewed an Amy Winehouse video, so YouTube probably thinks I wouldn’t like it.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Neither had I, although my wife liked some of her stuff.

        I’ve decided there are two commonalities in the lyrics — the F word, and “Gucci.” And YouTube was also offering Radiohead’s “Creep.” So, ditto on the “F word”…

        But now I see it’s offering “Strawberry Fields Forever” first. So now we have to argue whether it says “I buried Paul” or “I’m very bored”…

          1. Bill

            To set the historical record accurately,the tape was slowed down and Lennon says,”I’m very slowww”.

  5. Claus2

    So this is a whole show? How did anyone make it through this clip… it’s like a bad music video.

  6. Larry Slaughter

    It’s an ambitious piece. That’s what I say about anything I don’t understand. But that has more to do with my hearing loss; gotta find some printed lyrics and take another swing at it.

    Only obvious thing to me was “Contraband, contraband. . .” then the music stop and he tokes a joint. Guns are a dime a dozen in the video; the weed is contraband. Funny.

  7. Brad Warthen Post author

    Not only is Donald Glover not related to Danny Glover, I don’t think he’s kin to Crispin Glover, either.

    So wrap your head around that…

  8. JesseS

    Guess I’m in the minority on this one. A few days after it came out friends were going wild about it. I was expected an atom bomb to go off and when I finally got around to checking it out I was a bit underwhelmed. I’ve mostly just held my tongue on it, just to keep from alienating myself.

    The video is very well done (and must have been very difficult to shoot even with digital composition), though I don’t think it says anything that hasn’t been said better elsewhere. I guess I was expecting something totally new and unexpected. When I saw him shoot the first guy in the head I thought “Well that sets the tone. I bet this is gonna end with lynching imagery”. So the only part that really felt biting was the pot stuff. At least contextually that felt new.

    The song is about the same. Lyrically I could see it coming from someone with a lot less talent than Glover. I could just as easily hear it coming out of the mouth of one of the more recent mumbling rappers who are constantly derided talentless hacks.

    Dunno, I must be getting old.

  9. Doug Ross

    If Glover is talking about reparations, it’s quite ironic coming from a multimedia superstar who makes millions of dollars a year thanks to young white kids voluntarily handing over their money for his various products. But then I think that he calls himself Childish Gambino is part of the shtick.. he’s an actor playing a role.

  10. Norm Ivey

    I’m re-watching the French Connection with Roy Scheider and Gene Hackman. In the first ten minutes they’re chasing a guy, and the look on his face is much like the look on Childish Gambino’s face as he flees from those chasing him in this video. When they catch him, they beat him up pretty good. I don’t know if it’s referential, but it’s pretty striking if it’s just a coincidence.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Yes. But I Googled the phrase to make sure I had it right.

          I saw it shortly after it came out, and probably once since then.

          “you ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?” is a pretty memorable question. To me, anyway…


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