“This is America:” Movement, Joy, Suffering and Distractions

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while but you know me—when I’m at a loss for words, sometimes writing is difficult.

To date, I’ve seen Donald Glover AKA Childish Gambino’s video for “This is America” three times. Before writing this blog I’d initially planned to watch it a fourth time but it’s so difficult for me to get through and I don’t have the emotional energy.

As many of you know, dancing is probably the main focus of this video. Whether it’s Glover’s improvisational movement at the beginning and near the end or his gleeful celebratory dance with the school children as chaos ensues behind them, viewers of this video are meant to focus on the bodies in motion.

But what I’ve struggled with, since watching the video for the first time, is WHAT the dancing is supposed to mean.

In general, I’ve tried to avoid most the think pieces and articles I’ve seen reacting to “This is America.” This is mainly because I knew eventually when I was in the emotional space to write this piece, I’d write it and I wanted to make sure my opinions and reactions were my own. I broke this rule to read one article from Glamour where the choreographer of the video, Sherri Silver, shared a bit more about her inspiration for the movement. Silver now lives in the UK but is originally from Rwanda. In watching videos by Silver where she is dancing in Africa, I couldn’t help but notice how her dancing was an unapologetic expression of joy juxtaposed amidst poverty and third world conditions. The parallels between this visual and the one presented in the video where dancing and expressions of joy occur in the midst of suffering were abundant and hard to miss.

I get something new out of Silver’s work in this video every time I view it. First, there’s the fact that much of the choreography (largely influenced by viral dancing trends that have happened on social media) happens as Black people behind Glover and the dancers are terrorized and flee death. Many people, including me, picked up on the idea that social media, trends and the viral-ness of our lives can serve as a distraction from bigger issues.

But I can’t find it in myself to think about Silver’s choreography in either medium as willfully distracting people from what’s going on in the world. That seems too one sided. Instead, part of me feels like both Glover and Silver’s outward expressions of joy are in protest to what’s going on around them. Black joy is revolutionary in a world where many institutions and rules are meant to help us fail and to punish us for “not knowing our place”

At the same time, on Glover’s part, this joy is also a reflection of the capabilities of the Black body as an embodiment of religion, music, and happiness. Instances like the scene where the church choir is gunned down and at the end where Glover is chased by an angry mob after throwing all of his cares away in one final dance phrase show how even in our joy we are still perceived as threats and unsafe from violence and death.

What freaks me out the most about this video is the fact that no matter how much I unpack, I still feel like I’m missing something. I talk about the video but continue to feel like the one revelation that will give the visual a definitive meaning is still right at the tip of my tongue. I’d probably have to watch the video a dozen more times just to glean everything I possibly can from its many explorations of corporeality, liberation through motion and analysis of Black dance.

And even then, I’d probably still be missing something.

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