227 Why is this America?

Sarah Irving

“This is America” is both a statement and the name of a song by Childish Gambino aka Donald Glover.  If you are within my generation, you have most likely heard the song if not read/watched videos interpreting the meaning and subliminal messages behind both the lyrics and the music video.  When it first came out, it blew up on social media because it was a full-on, no-punches-pulled interpretation of America today and especially the treatment of the African American communities.  It is still a very controversial song since it was a celebrity highlighting the deep-seated inequalities and racism within America than many choose to ignore. The song broke the image of America, the land of the free, and revealed the shattered truth of our country.

This relates back to early American literature in multiple ways with the most blatant one being a reference to Jim Crow, a racist caricature of a slave that catered to black stereotypes at the time.

This was later used to name the Jim Crow laws which were racial segregation laws that varied locally from state to state within the south.  Glover brings up Jim Crow at the start of the song. Within the music video he walks up to a man with a sack over his head, takes the position Jim Crow has in the caricature and shoots the man in the head.

Image credit: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/donald-glover-this-is-america-jim-crow-history_n_5af31588e4b00a3224efcc40 

He then goes onto do jerky dance movements similar to those in minstrel shows, a type of popular entertainment in the early 1800s.  These shows mocked black people within America and employed blackface (the practice of white people putting paint or soot on their face to appear as if they were black). Sometimes there was an all-black cast who worked under someone who was white, for similar reasons to why slave narratives had to be introduced/certified by someone who was white.

The song’s lyrics are as follows:

You just a black man in this world

You just a barcode, ayy

You just a black man in this world

These lines reference slavery and the fact that the world still holds its old prejudices.  Racism occurs within everyday life and the treatment of minorities.  Even through slavery is abolished, white America stills “rules” and puts down minorities. We cash out on stereotypes in movies, books and even everyday life. Glover even says so when he calls a black man “just a barcode.”  

 Racial inequality is also shown through the subliminal message within the age of the cars in the music video.  It contrasts to most other music videos, especially within the same genre, that use the newest and flashiest cars today. These cars are from the seventies and eighties, all run-down and some are just abandoned in the background, with trash and belongings hanging out the window.

Image result for this is america cars

Another instance within the song that proves my point is the lyrics:

“You just a big dawg, yeah

I kenneled him in the backyard

No proper life to a dog

For a big dog”

In slave narrative and other texts about slavery, enslaved people are often referred to as property, dogs/animals and even furniture. While we could look at this snippet as Glover talking about actual dogs, he specifically used the spelling ‘dawg.’ This brings attention to the fact that he is talking about putting a man in the backyard and treating him as if he was a dog just like a slave-owner would do.

I think the biggest statement and connection to early American literature is actually the last four minutes of the song when Glover is running from an angry mob, a horrified look on his face.  This perhaps references the terror and mobs that followed runaway slaves and any black man after the Emancipation Proclamation when the south was in an uproar and even for long after that.  The specific image is of a black man running from a lynch mob is repeated over and over within American literature.

In the background of the music video, we can see black people getting shot, beaten and brutalized. The fact that this happens in the background suggests that this violence is minimized and pushed aside in American society. This is similar to what happens in early American literature where the suffering of slaves and even freed slaves is only briefly touched upon.  Even in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, this brutality occurs so often that it sometimes seems to be happening in the background. It makes one think of the normalization and pervasiveness of racial violence both then and now.

Lastly there is the connection between the authors of early American literature, especially slave narratives, and Glover. While written in a different time and context, slave narratives critiqued the brutality of slavery and highlighted the humanity of enslaved blacks. Glover is doing the same thing just in a different age and on a different platform. He is a young black artist who is calling attention to the racial inequalities and the violence falling on the black community through his forms of media as an actor, singer, and writer.  Through all these connections and references, it is clear that the ties to early American literature still stand strong and help the authors of today bring emphasis to their own platforms and purpose.


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The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project Copyright © 2016 by Sarah Irving is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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