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.

Advertisements

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

So Long Sabon: Perfume and Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

ZOHAR

The best Musk fragrance ever

I discovered Sabon about five years ago while aimlessly wandering the streets of NY. I was coaxed in by the beautiful smells and the floor to ceiling wood paneling filled with artisan soaps, body butters, and fragrances. I was invited to stay by the store clerks who guided me to the trademark stone sink in the middle of the store where they exfoliate, wash, and moisturize customer’s hands with a variety of sumptuous products. My first time in Sabon I tried a daily perfume called Zohar, a musk fragrance. If you know anything about musk, you know that the fragrance can be hit or miss. But the store clerk encouraged me to try it out for the day and see how I liked it. After an entire day with it just spritzed on my wrists, I loved it. It was fresh and persisted through the heat of a NY summer without ever faltering. A few days later I returned to the store and bought a bottle of Zohar. Since then I have regularly ordered Zohar online or visited the store in NY if I’m in the area, but for the last six months or so, Zohar has been out of stock online. I was in NY a few weeks ago so I figured I’d visit the store and buy a bottle as I had in times past, but such was not the case.

“We haven’t had any shipments come to the store in about six months,” the store clerk said. “Six months?!” I responded in exasperation. A first world dilemma was upon me for I was about to be without my favorite fragrance for an indefinite period of time. She told me to put my name on the waiting list and she would let me know when it came back in stock. That store was at 70th & Broadway and I walked down to the 57th and 6th Avenue location to see if I would be met by the same fragrance-less fate. I was.

“We haven’t had it for a long time, matter of fact, we haven’t had any perfumes for a long time.” At this point I had to ask, “Why?” The store clerk told me that the fragrance ships directly from Israel and sometimes the shipment gets held up in barrels at customs. My mind flashed back to the boxes the perfume comes in and the writing that indicates the manufacturer location in both English and Hebrew characters. Of course. Why didn’t I think about that? Who has time to deal with your exports when you are in the midst of a crisis such as is occurring now? Then the reality set in. It’s made in Israel. What then is my ethical responsibility? Do I continue to patronize Sabon assuming it means nothing in the grand scheme of things? Or do I stop patronizing Sabon until there is a lasting end of the violence and a return of the land to Palestinians–or an agreement to the two-state solution? Some might think these are big questions to pose over a little bottle of perfume but, to me, they are important to how I place my stake in the sand on this issue and they stem from a longer personal connection with the region.

westbankwatchtower-resize

West Bank Barrier watchtower

In the summer of 2012 I traveled to the Middle East as part of a travel seminar for seminary students and lay leaders. We traveled to Jordan, the Sinai-region of Egypt, Israel, and Greece. During that trip we went to the West Bank along the barrier that separates Israelis from Palestinians. As our guide told us, Palestinians are shuffled through the barrier like cattle, sometimes people are arrested, and all the time Palestinian people are made to feel less than human so that the Israelis can maintain their sense of peace and security during the occupation. Hearing the stories about how people’s houses are demolished on a moment’s notice–and within moments of that destruction they are given bills to pay for a destruction they didn’t order, seeing the barriers and the water towers that are controlled by Israelis, and the graffiti painted on the walls with outcries for return, redemption, and a sense of freedom, it was hard for me not to choose a side. After all, I’m a black person in America who isn’t too far removed from the enslavement of my ancestors and the daily systematic oppression of darker people. I say this not to compare the struggles but to make an empathic connection. I know it’s not a black and white issue–in terms of simply marking one side good and the other bad–but I can’t ignore the overwhelming power one side has over the other and the ways in which that power usurps one very important dynamic, love.

 

lovewinspalestine-resize

West Bank barrier in Bethlehem

This picture has been my Facebook cover photo for the last two years because it represents the one thing the IP conflict and the world needs, love. I don’t care how cliche it sounds, it’s true. You can’t say that the Israel, a nation of people who live under the belief that they are God’s chosen people, are acting out of love. How does love order the destruction of people’s homes, kill women and children and hundreds of civilians, and cling to selfish desires? How does love see violent retaliation as a reasonable response without recalling that an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind? Love is missing. Love of the land which would require gracious stewardship and sharing. Love of humanity which would demand an interest in the preservation of lives in general but especially those of children, our future. I see love missing on both sides even though I am also clear about the position that I am taking. I have a heart for Palestine–DO NOT READ THIS AS “I HAVE A HEART FOR HAMAS.” I take seriously what it means to speak of this conflict as a “humanitarian crisis” and watch the bodies–largely Palestinian and children–pile up. As a Christian I can’t idly stand by and say I believe in what or how Israel is fighting to not share land. I won’t be scared into the silence that many have taken up on this matter. I’ve seen too many Christians and people of color stay silent when they have more in common with Palestinians than not. I know no one wants to take sides because people are scared or they feel they don’t now enough about the conflict but I implore everyone to arm themselves with wisdom, knowledge, and most importantly, love. Maybe the loving way is not to choose a side–or to stop buying perfume–but it is to do more than sit idly while lives are being taken and communities are being destroyed on the daily. And this brings me to my concluding point, the point that started all of this.

My decision to stop buying Sabon products is what I feel I can do at the moment–aside from prayer and staying abreast, it’s my version of divestment. As Americans we know how to pour into our leisurely and luxury goods without much thought as to where they come from, who it supports, and who that money can help–and chances are most of us can only afford to buy our luxury/leisurely goods or donate to charity, not both. It’s true that I don’t know if Sabon has a vested interest in the conflict in Gaza but as long as it remains an Israeli-based business–with more stores in Israel than anywhere–I can no longer be a patron. We vote with our money even when we remain silent and on this day I choose not to remain silent and personally divest from Sabon. Instead I will look toward donating money to causes supporting Palestinians and Gaza because however this conflict ends, Gaza will need to be rebuilt; Palestinian women, children, and family will need resources to start over again; and some semblance of peace will need to be restored. (Shout outs to a friend who compiled this list, it’s not exhaustive and as she suggested, everyone should do their own research, but it’s a start to putting our dollars in the places that need them most over putting them toward the things we want the most.)

Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund

ANERA-American Near East Refugee Aid

United National Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East

Muslim Aid: Gaza appeal 

Medical Aid for Palestinians UK