Over the weekend, Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, dropped a video for a new song called “This Is America.” You are reading this, which means there’s a better than 90 percent chance that you’ve both seen the video and had a discussion about it already. Probably several.
I assume, based on the imagery and visuals of the work of art, that the point was to force you to have to see it and discuss it. Full disclosure: I’m still not entirely sure what’s happening in it or what I’m supposed to take away from it. I’ve had so many conversations at this point and heard so many disparate opinions on its goals and purpose that I’m just going to stick with what I know: Donald Glover made a video in which he dances a lot and some folks die and others don’t. Because this is America.
Because we, the people, like to project our issues onto people who create—fight your mom, bro; all of us who create deal with other people’s bullshit in the interpretation of our works—the fact that Glover’s longtime partner, with whom he has two children, is white has come into play in determining both his right and ability to craft and tell such authentically black stories.
I’m not sure just how “black” the video for “This is America” is, but his hit television show, Atlanta, and his last album, Awaken, My Love!, are steeped in traditionally and authentically black voices and culturalisms. Atlanta, in particular, is hardbody when it comes to this facet-of-black-life shit. Glover also, perhaps accidentally, created the most consistent musical rally cry among black folks with “Redbone,” a song that most people probably think is called “Stay Woke,” and in which many, many people have no clue what he’s saying after he sings “stay woke.”
What I find interesting about these discussions is that Glover has been doing all of this with a white partner. And it wasn’t an issue until the fact that she’s white re-emerged into the picture. Now it’s a thing.
A few important things of note here: Glover, white partner or not, is perfectly qualified to speak on the black experience; he’s black. We are long past the days of the “monolithic black experience” that we so fervently protest whenever alleged groupthink enters the picture.
There are many ways to be black. Glover, from Atlanta (well, Stone Mountain; my zone folks know what I’m talkin’ ’bout), has a version of his experience that he’s familiar with, and he’s creative enough and has the outlet to share it in a very expansive way. Also, he’s black in America. White partner or not, he has to deal with the same shit everybody else does.
We love to argue that no amount of attempting to cloak that blackness—whether it be through financial excess, material possessions, who exists in our bedroom, our environment—will ever provide immunity from the unfair and unequal treatment and narrative of the country in which we live. If we hold that truth to be self-evident, and I think we like to, then somebody who clearly dabbles in as much current black cultural relevance as Glover does also knows this. He isn’t with that woman as a status symbol and thinking that it changes the game; he very likely loves her and the family they’ve created.
Plainly, I think you can love being black—as I’m sure Glover does—and still be with a nonblack woman (or person). It would be impossible for somebody like Glover to write those pieces and deliver those messages from an inorganic, inauthentic place. It is possible to walk and chew gum.
But there is a question that nags at me when it comes to dating and marrying outside your race (I’m not opposed to this, by the way; I’m the product of one of those unions): How much influence and impact does your spouse have on your work, especially when it’s couched in extreme racial observation and display?
Glover (and we can even throw Jordan Peele in here for now) work in a space that is heavily inspired by the world around him. It’s not a bird’s-eye view or navel-gazing; he’s doing very nuanced, informed and intentionally complex work about black culture. His show Atlanta, for instance, takes the black experience and shows it for all it can be.
At its core, the characters on the show are folks trying to make it; these characters happen to be black, so the language, cultural references and context from which they engage is all black. And it’s set in Atlanta, the Motown of the South. Everybody goes to jail, but in season 1, Earn and Al (Paper Boi) went to jail in Atlanta. Within the larger context of each episode is a ton of commentary and social analysis of the conditions that exist in each place. Even if it’s not “black” to be in jail, they’re in a black jail.
Each episode has a similar feel. Nothing about the show is inherently only black, but all of it is black as fuck. Michael Vick competing in foot races outside a strip club in Atlanta is ATL as fuck, but it’s also “some black shit.”
I wonder how those conversations about the execution of art that centers blackness and interacts with whiteness as, at times, a goofy, ignorant and uninformed barrier happen in Glover’s household. From personal experience with my white mother, I’ve had to defend blackness. I’ve had to point out things that I feel shouldn’t have to be pointed out. I indulged those conversations because it’s my mother. I imagine that a life partner would have to be indulged as well. And I know nothing of his partner at all (I haven’t so much as looked up her name), but I imagine that being with a creative means lots of conversations about art and the implications of it.
Am I to believe that he never uses her as a sounding board or asks her for her opinion? And if he does, how does that opinion seep into the art? Does it? I struggle with the idea that it doesn’t; that a person who works in such a racially rich context manages to create in a silo where the person he loves has no bearing on his creative decisions. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but your worldview is your worldview, and when you see something that is the opposite of your own, you are likely to question and offer an alternative view.
I imagine that the give-and-take would go both ways. Again, I don’t know. But art is so subjective and opinions are so frequent. And his art, at this point especially, is so primed for discourse that I can’t imagine it’s created in such a vacuum that she sees it and interacts with it when we do.
I brought up Jordan Peele for a reason. One of the criticisms of Get Out was that the white women got off “easy,” so to speak. For whatever reason, the death of Rose’s mother wasn’t shown, just implied in the background. The gory deaths of others, the black bodies especially, were present. Even Chris couldn’t close the deal on Rose. White women were, somehow, spared.
Are we (well, am I) reading too much into that? Maybe. But it’s noticeable. What was that decision-making process? Why were they spared? Peele is biracial and has a white wife. Does that matter to him? Is he worried about his children seeing somebody like Mommy killed on-screen?
Remember that projecting thing I said earlier? That’s me right now. But if Peele said that was the case, would I be surprised? No. He has to go home to his woman every night. That’s his kingdom to protect. I wonder about that with artists who work in black spaces with nonblack spouses. Sure, all black folks are different, but there is a certain commonality that I think we all (well, most) share, and that is our common history with whiteness in this country, which has been largely negative.
How does that play into the creation of art that is pro-black and extremely critical of whiteness, in part? Because most of Glover’s art—the stuff we have latched on to, anyway—has existed primarily in a pro-black world where whiteness is secondary, maybe those convos haven’t been as necessary. It ain’t like he made Black on Both Sides 2 or anything. So maybe it’s much ado about nothing—in his case, anyway.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that I also think this largely goes one way and it might be hypocritical. I don’t actually think that a black female creative with a nonblack partner would even consider dampening her message for the sake of her partner’s feelings. Maybe it’s because most of the black women I know seem so steadfast in their resolve and dedication to blackness that a partner more or less has to fit into that narrative, as opposed to creating a new one.
Again, I’m not sure it happens at all, but I do think it’s possible to have your own art’s impact stunted by the messaging that your white partner feels is unfair to your own relationship and the life you’re creating together. I’m Sway. I don’t have the answers. I think you can be pro-black with a white person on your arm. I also think that the work we do can be affected by the people we choose to love. And when it comes to racialized art, all of the complexity and nuance we deal with publicly exists privately. How does it all work?
I guess you just have to hope that folks can stay woke.