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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Why the Nate Parker Case Matters Now

Over the weekend old news about Nate Parker surfaced. 17 years ago Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin, who he co-wrote The Birth of a Nation with, were involved in a rape case while they were roommates at Penn State in 1999. The victim said that she was raped by the two men after passing out in their room following a night of drinking while Parker and Celestin said that the sex was consensual. Parker, who had consensual sex with the victim on an earlier occasion was, somehow, acquitted and Celestin was convicted and then had it overturned in an appeal. The victim, whose name we don’t know, dropped out of Penn State, attempted suicide twice, and committed suicide in 2012 according to recent reports. Fast forward to 17 years later…

Parker is at the height of his career with his film The Birth of a Nation being talked about as an Oscar contender. But now his past has come back to haunt him and some discussions of it are inordinately focused on how it may affect his chances at an Oscar:

Fox Searchlight, Nate Parker Confront Old Sex Case That Could Tarnish ‘The Birth Of A Nation’

Nate Parker’s College Rape Trial Raises Questions for ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Release

Is This the First Controversy of the 2017 Awards Season?

The industry is concerned that they may not see a return on their investment and their rising star might fall. This feels kind of familiar to me, as familiar as a father who, during his child’s sentencing for raping an unconscious woman said, “That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” Turner was convicted on three counts of felony sexual assault, sentenced to six months in jail, three years on probation, and will have to register as a sexual offender. His lenient sentence was attributed to his whiteness and privilege and his people’s desire to see him flourish after this hard time in his life. In many ways, Parker’s case reads the same.

There seems to be a need to protect men in power or on the brink of power in sexual assault cases. Parker is joining a line of men in Hollywood–and other men in power–with sexual assault cases on their personal resumes: Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby, and the scores of others we don’t know about. I’m reminded of a story I pitched a year ago on Bill Cosby, rape culture, and Christian silence only to have a man in a position of power tell me that “outing” Cosby at the time–which was around the time of the South Carolina confederate flag debate–would be a distraction. As if we couldn’t address both. I was discouraged and felt like this man also shared a part in rape culture by keeping silent and trying to keep me silent–don’t worry, I did end up writing about Cosby, Christian Silence and Rape Culture on my personal blog. But this is just another example how men in power protect other men in power. (Want another example, check out this season of Orange is the New Black.) Hollywood’s interest is to protect these men because of the investment they made in them and Parker is just the latest. This isn’t an attack on him because he’s a black man on the come up, it’s par for the course for his position in the industry and for this day and age when talk of sexual violence is becoming commonplace. Given this, Parker’s PR has clearly been on their grind if his mealy-mouthed statements are any indication:

“I stand here, a 36-year-old man, 17 years removed from one of the most painful moments in my life. And I can imagine it was painful, for everyone. I was cleared of everything, of all charges. I’ve done a lot of living, and raised a lot of children. I’ve got five daughters and a lovely wife. My mom lives here with me; I brought her here. I’ve got four younger sisters.”

“The reality is, this is a serious issue, a very serious issue, and the fact that there is a dialogue going on right now around the country is paramount. It is critical. The fact we are making moves and taking action to protect women on campuses and off campuses, and educating men and persecuting them when things come up. … I want women to stand up, to speak out when they feel violated, in every degree, as I prepare to take my own daughter to college.”

Maybe “mealy-mouthed” isn’t a fair description of his statement, it’s more than a mealy-mouthed statement and yet it is still less than what is necessary at a time when narratives of sexual violence are still more determined by men than they are by the women who are most affected by it. Parker tries to pay general attention to those affected by sexual violence, but in his particular role in enacting violence he, nor Celestin, take explicit responsibly for their actions and that feels violent to me.

I have a problem with the fact that the discussions of this are being couched in terms of how this will affect The Birth of a Nation‘s chance at the Oscars or its general release. That ought not be the issue and Parker’s deflecting from the problem of that framing is disheartening. I get it, Parker wants to tell Nat Turner’s story and wants America to face the truth of its history. But this encounter with his own part in the history of sexual violence is also an opportunity for him and America, particularly American men, to face the truth of the role they play in normalizing sexual violence. Parker’s statement turns away from the gross reality of how sexual violence narratives are scripted for men in positions of power. They are swept under the rug and a “not guilty” sentence is interpreted as innocence while the victim suffers in silence. Their stories can be revised and edited in such a way as to make the men the victims and cancel the real victim out. In this case, the spotlight is on Parker and Celestin but they are using it to focus on the wrong thing, themselves, their project, and their families as some kind of scapegoat that absolves them from anyone ever thinking they could do harm. All of this is the result of failing to recognize how easy it is for sexual violence narratives to be minimized and how they–Parker and Celestin–are a part of the problem.

17 years later this still matters because the effects of sexual violence have no statute of limitations, not for the victim, not for the suspect, not for anyone involved. We need a different word from Parker and Celestin, one that doesn’t deflect to their project and who they’ve become before it takes a long, hard look at the effects of a crime they committed 17 years ago and how the stories we tell about rape always matter. An accusation of rape always matters. A rape case always matters. The victim of rape always matters and Parker and Celestin seem blithely unaware that, 17 years later, this still matters as if it happened yesterday because rape matters.

 

 

 

Why I’m Not That Into the 4th of July

Today I have no “Happy 4th of July/Independence Day” in me. For the past few days I’ve felt I have no lot in this day and I’m not the least bit compelled to sing “I’m proud to be an American,” because I’m not sure that I am. I was raised in a Jamaican family that wasn’t the least bit interested in waving an American flag, so I feel more Caribbean than I do American. Aside from that, as I reflect on this day, I see no merit in it from both a historical and current perspective.

The signing of the Declaration of Independence changed nothing of the Negro’s status–I’m channeling a little Frederick Douglass here. It secured the independence of white men and women by way of allowing them to live and move in an independent nation but black people were still enslaved. It would take nearly a century for black persons to taste freedom and even then that freedom was limited and subpar. The self-evident truth of equality and the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness didn’t apply to people of color, and, as a friend pointed out, still doesn’t. We may be equal–and that’s arguable–but we lack the equity necessary to secure success for the greater community. We still suffer from disparities in access to employment, education, economic resources and daily struggle for independence in a society that runs on the power of the patriarchy and privilege–white or otherwise. I see nothing to celebrate. As I’ve said on numerous occasion, “If one is not free, none are free.”

I’m not the most militant person but on this day I feel this way because I don’t think there is a reason for me to wave any flag aside from a Jamaican one or Somalian, Eritrean, Ethiopian one–I’ll explain the latter three in another post. This will probably be the way I feel for an indefinite amount of time until I believe AND see equity–not equality–and the true extension of the unalienable right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all people.

Frederick Douglass’s speech “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” captures precisely why I have no spirit for this day. His words are not just about history but our current moment in time. They are full of the frustration I and many like me feel, but he also has hope for the future. A hope not yet realized but hope required nonetheless. Below is an excerpt from his speech that resonated with me:

 

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the “lame man leap as an hart.”

But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!