In 2018 Donald Glover (Gambino Childish) came out with his music video “This is America”. A song and video perhaps not very relevant in our memory but a subject that I think is pertinent to talk about: the black body! I believe that the power of the musical theme, in its double dimension of video and song, is something very bodily true.
Rita Segato is an Argentinian anthropologist-feminist who conducted a comparative ethnography of what it means to be black in Argentina, Brazil and the USA. Part of her conclusions pointed out that it is not the same to be black in different regions of the planet, since each nation builds up around itself a national idea that unfolds the social places of all its members. In this way, the discrimination processes in each nation are also different.
In her research, Segato concludes that in each national myth, being “the other” goes through many processes, in particular focusing on the case of being black. Blacks are usually “other”. In Argentina, for example, the foundation of the myth has to do with the citizenship attached to the big European immigrant wave. The black had to be laundered, all their characteristics of being black had to be left aside (their religion, their language and their customs), which also implied that all blacks, coming from different parts of the world, should be read as equals. In that whitening process, they were exterminated (murders, torture, famines, exposure to diseases, etc.) and symbolically deleted (their practices, rites, customs, icons, etc.).
In Brazil, blackness was strongly associated with that other great culture that inhabits the nation. They are another group that has its own forms but that are different and inferior; they are “the other” who, due to their historical conditions, and their cultural conditions, cannot enter the development national plan. Updating the national myth, actually updates a vision where blacks move into subalternity.
In the US, the national myth was updated and organized into five ethnic forms, the so-called “racial pentagon” which includes the Euro-whites (which in a historical section were the Italians, French, English, Irish, etc.) the natives (all indigenous communities also discriminated and stereotyped), Asians (Koreans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Chinese, Japanese, etc.), Latinos (Latin Americans) and Blacks (Africans). In that racial pentagon, all the groups of Americans are located.
For us, in Colombia, that division may be a little strange because our national myth is different. However, a simile can be made with the regions in Colombia (vallunos, paisas, rolos, pastusos, coastal, llaneros, etc.) which is something that is always in the reading we make of the other and that “explains” their behaviors and shapes.
Gambino manages to convey some of that truth of being “the other” in the USA. Being black is biologized at all levels; everything related to it is printed in the DNA. Biological ontology: black is almost an animal. Gambino points out, and I think its power lies there, that the center is the body, presented as the channel through which all that racial difference that is experienced in the United States passes.
Gambino’s body is a portrait. The one who represents living and feeling being that other, being black. Dance conveys that racial difference. It is no coincidence that Gambino’s dance is spoken of as something particular, something of a difficulty of execution that only dancers can appreciate in its maximum splendor. Not because of its technical difficulty, but because there is something else. It reflects a cadence body, “strange” movements that evoke a tribal African past and represent a way in which the black body is expected to move in the USA. Because as Segato argues, being black in the country of the North (and perhaps we can project it to other realities) is something printed in biology, which implies that there are “natural” ways of moving the body, of moving the face, to dance, to speak.
In the music video the body associates sexuality and sensuality, carnival movements and the festive pop. All framed in violence. Gambino shows that being black has something to do with the body. Everything happens and expresses itself with and in the body. The black body that kills and dies, that dances and sings.
At the linguistic level of the song, words and sentences are intermingle, new associations and puns are formed that reinforce criticism but also the portrait of what it is to be black in that specific space. At that linguistic level that “doesn’t say much” it can be argued that being black is also that silence.
In summary, I think that “This is America” has something very true in relation to the body; both at the level of criticism, enunciating and denouncing a deplorable state of affairs, and at the level of portraiture, where you see the expression of a vision. In the video, Gambino demonstrates a capacity for synthesis of the vectors, not always complementary and even contradictory of the black man’s social place; being that “other” who lives in a low and inside look that racializes him, that is, that criminalizes him, biologizes him, foreigners him, infantilizes him, folklorizes him and animalizes him. A gaze that ends up murdering him.
Justice for Floyd!
Translation By Lehyla Calero, Columbia University
This entry was published in spanish in https://cuarentongos.com/2020/05/29/this-is-america/