Wrestling with “This is America” Through Black Genius on the 4th of July

Note: I wrote this when “This is America” first came out and didn’t publish it out of fear. I had one person approach me about publishing a version of this but time lapsed and it became untimely–and also, the world needed no more thinkpieces about it. Yet it came to mind today, on this fourth of July, so here I am letting these words come to light. 

It has been almost a week since the release of Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” a video that is as polarizing as it is profound. The first time I watched “This is America,” I sat in a state of paralysis as Gambino transitioned from a shirtless Black man happily dancing to sounds that reminded me of the Soweto Gospel Choir—albeit a choir aided by the voices of Gambino and Young Thug—to the dark turn that took us from our African diaspora origins to our tragic American home. For four minutes and five seconds I watched Gambino’s convulsing body shift from happiness to homicidal, revealing what I viewed as the tragicomic existence of Blackness in the public sphere. As the video concluded with a sweat-drenched Gambino running down a darkened hallway only lightened by the bodies of the white people chasing him, I was breathless and on the verge of tears. I had no clear words for what I had watched but what I did know is that I needed to see it and thus I took to social media to say one thing about it, “We needed this Childish Gambino in so many ways.” After that post I said nothing in public spaces about it, instead I discussed it with a few friends and observed the reactions to the video on social media. It turned out that the video was polarizing, either celebrated as a work of Black genius or decried as a poor meditation on Black death. In the cacophony of voices that took offense to it, I didn’t want to be an outlier, so I remained quiet. Yet I kept feeling the tug to respond with something more than, “We needed this…” and that more came in the form of reflecting on the video through the work of two Black geniuses who, though they are not talking directly to Gambino, have given me a lot to think about in regard to the tone and takeaway of “This is America.”

“Blackness, in all of its constructed imposition, can tend and has tended toward the experimental achievement and tradition of an advanced, transgressive publicity. Blackness is, therefore, a special site and resources for a task of articulation where immanence is structured by an irreducibly improvisatory exteriority that can occasion something very much like sadness and something very much like devilish enjoyment.” Fred Moten

A friend from Emory shared this Moten quote with me in a helpful, reflective conversation about the video. Her sharing this quote came on the heels of me sharing my read on the video, particularly how taken aback by Gambino’s somatic performance. Never static, his body transitioned between dancing and feet shuffling to a destination unknown. What we did know is the body was always in motion, so much so that I wondered about the Black person as moving target, one who creates out of the tragedy the body is steeped in, in order to free itself, if only for a moment. Thus our viral dances are not tools of distraction but resistance and recovery, a way to shake off the threat of danger that awaits us. My friend then layered my reflection with her remembrance of the aforementioned Moten quote, which, in its opaqueness, can communicate something about what could be seen in the video. It traffics in the dynamism and layers of an artist who is performing an understanding of being Black in America, part of that experience being contingent upon the ability to transgress boundaries—there is that moving target—and improvise through the body in ways that can read as BOTH sadness and happiness. There are levels to Gambino’s video and any point made about it that falls under the banner of a certain obviousness belies missing the point altogether. This is why I have sat with Moten’s quote and have been reading it alongside Gambino’s creation to gain insight into that which is complicated.

“Are we witnesses who confirm the truth of what happened in the face of the world-destroying capacities of pain, the distortions of torture, the sheer unrepresentability of terror, and the repression of dominant accounts? Or are we voyeurs fascinated with and repelled by exhibitions of terror and sufferance? What does exposure of the violated body yield? Proof of black sentience or the inhumanity of the ‘peculiar institution’? Or does the pain of the other merely provide us with the opportunity for self-reflection? At issue here is the precariousness of empathy and the uncertain line between witness and spectator. Only more obscene than the brutality unleashed at the whipping post is the demand that this suffering be materialized and evidenced by the display -Saidiya Hartman

This quote from the introduction of Saidiya Hartman’s book Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America has also helped me think more and deeper about “This is America.” It beckons me to think about a phrase that I’ve seen bandied about during it’s release, “Black Death.” This is also the phrase that once I saw it one too many times I became paralyzed and afraid of offering another interpretation lest I seem to have turned my back on my people. Yet I need to say that, for me, “This is America,” is not making a spectacle of Black Death–that feels too reductive–but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still some meditation to be done on the death of Black people at the hands of a state and a racist people who honors their weapons more than their people.

Hartman’s quote pushes me to consider my position in “This is America,” the song and the actual space. Am I witness or a spectator? Witnesses see and then give an account of what they saw—or as Hartman states, witnesses confirm the truth of what is happening. Spectators watch with fascination and then walk away, or, if spectators do give an account, it is of the spectacle of the situation because of how it titillated them, not how it convicted them about the brutal truth of a situation. Here I wonder what rattled so many about the video, is it that they saw themselves as the distracted—another response I saw to the videos utilization of viral dances? Hartman also bids us to consider what the exposure of many bodies violated by a racist state (and racism in general) yield. For me, it is hardly about Gambino but about a larger media project outside of him that depends on video footage taken by camera phones that is then embedded on news sites that broadcast Black death for traffic–and remember in the video how there were people above Gambino standing there recording the pandemonium below them. As we bear witness to various shootings of Black people and, in the instances where there is someone there to record it on their cellphone, that person becomes a de facto producer in an industry that sells Black Death back to us under the guise of making us aware. Black Death has been packaged and sold to us in far more deleterious ways than Gambino’s video. He, unfortunately, is art imitating life, the life that some of us haven’t skewered nearly as hard as we are skewering him.

In the end I think “This is America,” opens up a discussion of the “both/and” sometimes tragicomic existence of Black people in America. We can dance the Gwara Gwara and be keenly aware of our mortality in one fell swoop that really is the state of being black in America right now. We don’t have the luxury of the either/or but the both/and. Blackness is complex, as complex as all the things thrown at us in Gambino’s “This is America,” and complex beyond all the things it didn’t throw at us.

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Wined and Dined: A Fairy Tale

Last night a man wined and dined me, treating me to the most sumptuous foods and waiting on me hand and foot. This was our first time out but he was at ease in spoiling me, calling me “My Lady”–the way that British people say it (Mehlady). He had his finger on the pulse of everything this epicure enjoys, from mushrooms stuffed with shrimp, crab meat, and spinach to steaming hot paella chock full of fresh seafood such as lobster tails, scallops, and Mahi Mahi. He anticipated my every need and met it while being so careful not to overstep boundaries, after all, this was only our first time out. He even brought dessert, a selection of six decadent treats from Tiramisu to Pecan Pie of which I chose only one for fear that I would explode in delight with anything more. I exploded anyway. We kept things fairly light throughout the meal but by the end he asked me about what I was reading. I responded in the way one responds when they assume that someone won’t know who they are talking about.

“City of God, by this guy Augustine,” I said. His eyes lit up when I said Augustine and I realized that he knew him as well as I did–or at least as well as I was hoping to know Augustine.

“I recently started reading a book on Plato, even though I haven’t read much of that nature since my theology class,” he responded. I lit up at the sound of the words “theology” and “class.”

“Did you attend a theology school?” I asked, beaming in excited anticipation of his answer, hoping we shared a similar path.

“It was while I was at Xavier,” he said.

Now I was really lit.

“Are you Catholic?” I asked.

“I am,” he said. Inside I felt like the 4th of July, all fireworks and Katy Perry singing, “Baby You’re a Firework.”

“I am Catholic too,” the words spilling out of my mouth.

He smiled wide, put his hand over his heart, and extended his other hand in what felt like some secret greeting between people of the faith. I smiled on the outside but inside I was bursting with desire to know this person better, bursting out of desire because I finally found what I was missing, a man who shares my faith tradition and knows a little about Augustine and Plato. All of a sudden the wasteland I had been walking through evaporated and I was in a promised land.

We both smiled at one another and then he excused himself to get something in the back.

He walked away but then turned on his heels swiftly and said, “I’m sorry, I digress, what’s your name?”

As if we hadn’t already greeted one another with hands I extended mine for a chance to meet his again and said, “Nicole.”

“It’s really nice to meet you, hopefully I’ll see you again so that we can talk about Augustine’s City of God. I’m here every day,” he said in earnest as he walked away from the table.

I smiled at my good fortune on this evening. I wasn’t expecting to be wined and dined and treated like a queen. I expected a perfunctory dinner, but this was different, I was unprepared for this difference. I said farewell to this man and took leave of the place where I was wined and dined, walking past table upon table of people enjoying their sumptuous meals and decadent dessert. I squeezed past large groups awaiting seating and finally reached the doors to the exterior of Seasons 52.

As I walked toward my car I exhaled. I’d been waiting for this feeling, waiting to feel something more real than I’ve felt in a while and I finally felt it. I smiled. I got in my car and exhaled again, reaching into my wallet to pull out my receipt so that I could look at his name. He told his name but I hoped that I’d have more than his first name, unfortunately it was not to be. All I had was his first name and, of course, his place of employment, Seasons 52. Far from being in despair at this Cinderella-like fate, I was hopeful. Not because I was planning to make a habit out of going to Seasons 52–because that’s an expensive habit to sustain–but because that chance encounter restored my faith in something like love even if just for a moment.

I sit here now with the only memento from that night, a symbolic glass slipper that belongs to a Prince Charming-prototype. I wonder if he too feels like his only memento of the night is holding a symbolic glass slipper, a receipt with my signature scribbled on it and the last four digits of my credit card number. If I’m lucky he’ll use those two things to track me down and save me from this evil spell called living in this crazy world without a romantic equal. Alas life is not a fairytale, and he probably gives impeccable service to scores of people at Seasons 52, after all, it is his job.

At Home in Aloneness…

As I looked out the window to the ground being pounded by droplets of a downpour I thought to myself, “I can’t believe I’m here.” The world around me is moving swiftly. People’s relationships are evolving or shriveling up and dying and here I sit, in the same place I’ve always been, and it’s sort of unbelievable to me. As I watched the concrete grow slicker with each drop I tried to feel something different, but my heart wouldn’t budge. I conjured thoughts about people in love with one another, about sitting on a couch with someone doing the proverbial “Netflix and chill,” about having someone to share the end of my busy days with. I tried to conjure some sense of disappointment about not having that yet, about not having a prospect, about not even having the person who I know is a complete waste of my time but I persist because I figure it’s better than being alone. Amazingly I felt no sense of disappointment, no wistfulness for all I’m supposedly  missing at this moment in life. For the first time in a while, possibly in my young adult life, I’m romantically alone with nothing on the horizon, and I’m not scared of it.

For the first time in my life that I can fully sense, I am at peace with being alone. I’m 36 and single and I actually feel satisfied. Not in that cliché, “I can do bad all by myself,” way but in a rewarding, “There is richness, possibility, and hope in this space of aloneness.” This aloneness is not pejorative or stigmatizing for me. I don’t seek to be uprooted from it by busying myself with ways to not lean into this feeling. I’m not compelled to jump on a dating app to busy myself with “in the meantime” men. I am content. This takes me by surprise because for so long I’ve been compelled to mourn my singleness for every year that passes by and I remain so. But I’m 36 and single and I’m compelled to lean into this. I’m no longer willing to create a narrative for my singleness save for the one that tells the story of a woman who has chosen this for herself not as a lot I’ve settled on by circumstance but as a choice.

Just a few weeks ago a man asked me why I’m single given my beauty and intelligence and, initially, I regurgitated the script telling him, “Talk to your brethren.” But a moment later I said to him, “I’m sorry I take that back, it’s not on them, it’s on me. I haven’t found what I’m looking for and I lead a rich and fulfilling life that someone must be compelling enough to be a part of.” I’ve reached that sweet spot that Warshan Shire put words to when she wrote,

My alone feels so good, I’ll only have you if you’re sweeter than my solitude.

As I’m bombarded with engagement announcements, budding relationships, breakups stories, and dating app disasters, I stand still in this world where everyone is searching for someone while I am  finding myself and satisfaction in me. I have hit my own sweet spot, a place where I am building a sense of contentment not as a placeholder until someone else comes but as my home, my strong tower. I am cherishing what I have in this life in walking in a purpose, in my wonderful family and friends who are like family, and in a faith life that I am only beginning to discover the extraordinary riches of apart from anything I might gain from it. It is with slight incredulity that I occupy this space because I am not supposed to be here. The world wants me to mourn my singleness, the barrenness of my womb, the emptiness of my bed, the space between my fingers, the holes unfulfilled…But I am truly, finally, at peace with where I am in that perceived lack because I’ve found my fulfillment.

My aloneness, that presence, fullness, aliveness, joy of being, overflowing love is home. In this place I am complete. Nobody is needed, I am enough.[1]

 

[1] Inspired by the definition of aloneness by Pragito Dove, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pragito-dove/loneliness-v-aloneness-wh_b_8032702.html

 

Nothing’s Changed But We Must: An Election Results Reflection

I wanna know who my enemies are so that I can look them in the face when I kick their ass. 

These were the words of my professor on what it means to have a president-elect who brings to the surface and legitimizes the hatred and ignorance we’ve seen in the last year and reveals the true colors of America. We had an hour-long discussion in class about the election, one of the most rich discussions I’ve had since the results. It indicts both sides and issues a clarion call to those of us who are truly committed to change. Below is my synthesis of our discussion:

 
One of the most powerful things she said is that with Trump nothing is different, it’s that everything is revealed and heightened. We now look each other in the face knowing who we are. It’s not that Clinton or a third-party candidate would have abolished the issues now brought to the forefront, it’s that everyone would have remained polite and shrouded in the process of procedurals. But the masks are off now, the racist, sexist, xenophobic, bigots, who always were are now empowered to come out of hiding. As she said, “Culture doesn’t change, it distracts us by pretending to change.”
 
I asked her what it means to “kick their asses” and she suggested that kicking their asses resides in the work of being broadly and deeply read on the issues, not just the glamorous ones that the media disseminates but the ones no one is talking about that has the most impact on lives. The work of kicking asses is unglamorous and won’t be anything the media wants to write about– which signals that everything the media writes about and packages to us represents very little of what we ought to be concerned about. 
 
uburoiiidayk_905Trump’s ascent represents a country taken in by the spectacular, the spectacle and, I think the grotesque–think Ubu Roi for those familiar with Jarry’s work.  But we have to move away from that and begin extremely dirty work that we won’t even be able to talk about for a while—this is important, reminiscent of Gil Scott Heron’s “Revolution Won’t Be Televised. The work we need to do is heavy, we all have to become students and read, comprehend, and synthesize the system more deeply than we have ever. This will be unglamorous that we won’t be able to hashtag, but it will be necessary to dismantle the power currently in place, Trump, Clinton–yes Clinton had the kind of power that must be dismantled too, it wasn’t so obviously insidious but it would have still ensured we didn’t tackle head-on what is ailing this country–and others. The work of resistance and revolution that will get us over in the next four years ain’t gonna be for or on social media. It’s going to be on the backside of the mountain studying, strategizing, and executing plans. It’s the kind of work no one will pat you on the back for because they won’t even know your name. It’s the kind of work that will necessitate we sacrifice our comfort en masse as some of our sisters, brothers and others have already been doing. It’s the kind of work that will require collectivity and building together, no independent rogues and cliques, but cooperatives across communities, cities, and states. This is anti-absorption, anti-visibility, anti-legibility work. And it starts with getting your political weight up and learning how to read this system.
Here are a couple of places to start, as a warmup to the much heavier lifting to come:
 
The people must know before they can act.
Ida B. Wells