Childish Gambino: This is America

Donald Glover’s new music video feels iconic and is understandably receiving a great deal of attention.

Why does it feel so iconic? And what is it about?

To me, it feels iconic because of its simplicity, depth, and universal archetypal themes grounded in a specific time and place. There is a strong contrast between the violence and the joyful song and dance. There is a simplicity in that it’s in one setting and mostly shot in one take. It has sincerity, depth, and urgency. The theme is clear but it leaves the interpretation and reflection up to the viewer.

And what is it about? Most obviously, both the violence and the joyful song and dance reflect Black history in the US, and also the current Black experience in the US. Both are part of their history and lives. Beyond that, it’s part of the US culture as a whole, human civilization, and each of us as individuals. It reflects our human experience. We contain and experience both.

It’s interesting that the sequential nature of the video suggests different ways of relating to this. We can bring fleeting attention to the drama of violence and then move on as if nothing happened. (As US society and media seem to do with the current gun violence, and as we as individuals sometimes do in our own lives.) Or we can acknowledge both as part of our history, our lives, humanity as a whole, and us as individuals, and engage with it more intentionally and responsibly and do something about it. Both of these are relatively privileged ways of relating to it.

There is also a third way of relating to it, which is – I imagine – is the reality of many black people in the US. They live with both and compartmentalize the violence and pain so they can move on with their lives.

Again, it’s a very simple theme. We all know that humans are capable of terrible things and wonderful things. We know both are part of our lives collectively and individually. We know that we often ignore the unpleasant things and move on to the pleasant ones. We know that can be fine in the short run but it creates problems in the long run. And yet, we often act and live as if we don’t quite know. And that’s why these reminders are so important, especially as they ignite reflection and discussion as this video is doing right now.

We can also go further with these topics.

For instance, violence comes in many forms. Our modern western(ized) culture has a good deal of violence inherent in it. This is violence towards ecosystems and nonhuman species. Unintentional violence towards future generations. There is often violence – explicit or structural – towards minorities and out-groups. And most of us are trained to have a violent attitude towards parts of ourselves. Specifically, those parts that our culture and we judge as undesirable, bad, wrong, or unpleasant. And this violent attitude is expressed through avoiding these parts of ourselves, trying to getting rid of them, or trying to change them without first finding genuine allowing and appreciation for them. Gun violence is just one form of violence, and it is born from this inner violence we are trained in through living in this culture.

I assume most or all human cultures have some violence inherent in it. A basic purpose of culture is to help people survive, and that means keeping individuals in check to some extent, the way cultures do that often involves some violence, and growing up in a culture we internalize that violence towards ourselves and others. That’s how cultures operate.

How can we reduce the more obviously harmful types of violence? We know that trauma is often behind violence. At a social level, societies with more trauma tend to have more violence. Examples here are the US (founded on genocide, large gaps between wealthy and poor, lacking in good social safety nets, suffering from the violence inherent in being an empire), war-ridden countries, and any place where there is systemic violence (discrimination, wealth gaps etc.). Violence, including structural violence, tends to fuel more violence. Hurt people hurt people.

And unsurprisingly, societies with less trauma tend to have less violence. These are societies where people’s needs are met, that have a good social safety net, and where there is not so much difference between the more and less wealthy. (The Nordic countries are examples of these types of societies, although there is room for improvement even here.)

So reducing trauma, and the causes of trauma is a good start. This, by necessity, includes social justice and sustainability.

Another approach is to identify and name forms of violence and own them as they operate in our culture, in our interpersonal relationships, and within ourselves as individuals. Awareness and honesty is a good start in finding new ways that are less violent, and find healing for that in us – collectively and individually – that fuels violence.

Note: Violence is a big topic and something that needs to be addressed at all levels and areas of life, and addressed differently in each of these. For instance, at an individual level, violence often comes from our reactivity to our unhealed trauma and unloved, unmet, unexplored fear. Violence is one way we cope with our pain.

Note 2: The video has a lot of intentional – and probably some unintentional – symbolism in it: Jim Crow, white horse, old car and so on. This adds to the richness and depth of the video but I won’t go into it here since many other articles have.

Note 3: I know this post, and most of what I write here, is very “politically correct”. And yet, what’s called political correctness is often just caring about people, Earth, and future generations. It’s just about having the big picture and the well being of individuals and the larger whole as an alive concern. It’s just being a decent human being. And although much of this can seem obvious, it’s an important reminder, especially in our current political climate.

2 thoughts to “Childish Gambino: This is America”

  1. I know this is not related to this post, but I’m really trying to find the version in Persian of the Hafez poem “This place where you are right now, God circled on a map for you.” – Hafiz. Please, help me!

  2. I can’t help you directly, unfortunately. But you could post your question in an online forum, for instance:

    Here is a site with both language versions of his poems. If you know the ghazal number (which I unfortunately don’t) you could find it there:

    Also, I love the Daniel Ladinsky translations but they are very free so the original may be a little different.

    Hope that helps!

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