Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey is an interim member of The Charlotte Observer editorial board and the 2016 James K. Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow and is the author of the forthcoming book “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Midst of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South” (Other Press). Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.
The horror of a bullet to the back of a man’s brain came during a celebratory song with lyrics that include “we just wanna party” and “we just want the money.”
The bullet is delivered from a gun fired by a shirtless, dancing Donald Glover, the genius who performs as Childish Gambino.
“This is America,” Gambino says, looking toward the camera as the man’s body, whose head is covered by a bag and ostensibly symbolizes a prisoner in solitary confinement or in a CIA black site, is dragged away. The scene illustrates the cruelty of the criminal justice system, or maybe is meant to shatter the myth of a carefree America in which life is easy and stable, even though violence claims too many lives – too many black lives in particular.
Or, perhaps, the artist meant none of that and wants to leave his music video for the audience to interpret.
Either way, it is the latest salvo in a growing racial reckoning every bit as important as #MeToo’s long overdue reshaping of gender dynamics. Monuments to men who raped and robbed and murdered are being rethought. Artists are using their talents to force the country to think about race in ways it has long refused.
Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” is among the best known, tackling the issues of police violence and inequality. The Equal Justice Initiative’s recently revealed National Museum for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, challenges the country to look back in order to better understand the present to shape a better future.
It features a sculpture of men and women and children in chains and shackles, with desperation on their faces, as well as memorial panels documenting the more than 4,400 lynchings that occurred in the United States from the late 1800s through the mid-20th century. The memorial makes you want to absorb it all – and then run and hide.
Many of those public killings were more graphic than Gambino’s video. Black men and women were literally burned alive in terroristic acts that stemmed from false claims of black men raping white women, or black people daring to exercise their constitutional right to vote, or for demanding justice in disputes with white people.
It’s a period the history books used to teach most public school students did not grapple with. This is why most Americans have never heard the name Mary Turner, who in 1918 was hung from a tree in Georgia by her ankles, her clothes set afire, her 8-month-old fetus cut from her body by an angry white mob – all because she wanted the white men who lynched her husband held to account.
Gambino’s video grabs you by the throat because it intersperses joyful scenes with scenes of senseless violence. One second a black choir is rhythmically swaying side-to-side and singing “get your money, black man,” the next they are dead, mowed down by an assault-style rifle. It conjures up an image of Dylann Roof praying and sitting through Bible study with a small group of black people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, three years ago, before slaughtering nine of them.
“Police be trippin’,” Gambino sings while dancing.
“Guns in my area.”
“I got the strap; I gotta carry ‘em.”
“This is America,” he repeats.
If not for the violence and allusions to the gun, policing and Black Lives Matter debates, or the references to the corrupting, evil effects of money, Gambino’s “This is America” video would be considered nothing short of beautiful.
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Gambino’s dancing, his easy glide from scene to scene, evokes memories of Pharrell Williams’ iconic “Happy.” His dance moves on top of a car are a cross between James Brown and Michael Jackson. Instead, the video’s graphic violence makes it hauntingly engaging and more effective.
What Gambino put together is a true picture of America, where so many of us get to dance and sing and laugh and create. All the while others are largely ignored and trapped in the background, struggling and sometimes dying in a sea of ugliness that many of us would rather not acknowledge, knowing it would ruin the pretty pictures we’d rather focus on.
By the end, Gambino’s carefree dancing becomes a full sprint from the madness. He couldn’t escape the reckoning. Neither can America.