Looking at Gambino’s video for This is America
By Kweli Jaoko
I’ve been re-watching Gambino’s video for This is America. In one way I am thinking of Saidiya Hartman’s refusal (in Scenes) to retell Fredrick Douglas’s account of Aunt Hester’s torture. A refusal that, as Fred Moten notes, reproduces Douglas’s account by stating that images of violence visited on black people are not only all too common; circulating them feeds a national psyche that both demands & relishes black pain.
In another way I am thinking about the optics of the video. I am thinking about its blackness. If what we talk about when we talk about blackness is anti-blackness, then what do we look at when we look at blackness—a question, perhaps, for Adrian Piper? & how do we look at blackness? Even further, how does one look at blackness when the one looking is also someone on whom blackness lays a claim? [When black folks return each other’s looks with “who you lookin’ at?”, what does that say about black looking?] Can sight, like speech, be intramural?
Part of the problem of looking at blackness lies in the problem of looking at the body. Which is the problem of how “the” & “black” & “body” go together, or don’t. Which is also body trouble. [“Who do you talk to when a body’s in trouble?”—M. NourbeSe Philip]
“The” “black” “body”
the black body
Black ¿body unconcerned
moving 6’4” 250lbs
into a mathematical exhaustion
sent as air
sent as (x) unknown
equals infinite risk
to mere co+incidence
“Martin’s dream has become Rodney’s worst nightmare”—Ben Harper, Like a King / I’ll Rise
Elizabeth Alexander writes that black people are known to each other in part through images of the violence perpetrated on our bodies. She recounts how, in the case regarding Rodney King’s torture by LAPD officers, the defense showed the footage in court not as a moving reel, but as a set of carefully chosen freeze-frames, which “distorted & dehistoricized the beating”. [what does it mean to take movement out?]
When Gambino sings “this is celly—that’s a tool”, I think about how cellphone videos of black people getting killed enter a visual archive that reads black movement as furtive, ergo suspect. A visual culture that wants blackness still, stilled. [How long was Mike Brown’s body abandoned on that hot asphalt on that hot day? Three hours, four?] A visual zeitgeist in which footage of killing black people is neither probative nor indicting.
Why is America so against black movement, black breath? [breathing is movement] What if we refuse the policing that sees all black movement as knowably & irrefutably criminal?
& yet this is not to claim that movement is necessarily redemptive.
[What is the relation between black bodies on the move & the technologies used to capture or move black movement?]
This is America is a video of black bodies in movement: dancing, rioting, signifying, lying dead—is that a movement?—running, escaping, racial uplift, & breathing. Movement all over, like that’s what it means to be black, to be claimed by blackness, a beautifully terrible thing—or terribly beautiful?
From the moonwalk (Michael reminds us that blackness needs, nay, inaugurates another plane of travel) to the running man (with its allusion to matter’s tendency to escape), black dance, as movement, as performance, as critique, has always been about another way of occupying space, traversing the colony, refusing fielding.
Black dance is how we get out from the outdoors when said outdoors is where white subjects go to continue their claim on stolen land through the “democratization of sovereignty” (Mitropoulos), which is the attempt to stabilize white subjectivity & state-making, which are always already unstable.
Furthermore, black movement, especially dancing, has a strange relation to the body that makes claim to able-bodiedness. Who exactly can claim able-bodiedness? I am not asking this to flatten disability (“everyone has disability”).
There is another way of not being able-bodied that is not precisely having a disability. & I think it is this other way that black bodies point to in dances such as the gwara gwara, which features in This is America.
With the gwara gwara I am concerned with the relation between blackness & the limp, with ambulatory trouble, with black stepping (arrivance on another plane of movement or slide), with non-alignment & radial centripetality, & finally, with falling.
To dance the gwara gwara is to make peace with falling. Graceful falling. If you can fall, you can dance to this. Because there is no ground to stand on, not here in this settler colony anyway. Falling to dance is bound up with falling in other ways, on stolen, occupied land.
Additionally, if, as Moten says, a body is the name we give to having a place in time, then black dancing often illustrates the attempt to enter or leave a body on our terms—something Luca Signorelli might know more about.
& perhaps the ambulatory difficulty of dancing the gwara gwara points to the difficulty of crossing a field while black. The attempt to shake fielding, & duck scoping.
We were promised
This would be a nigga fantasy
On the scale of Oz—Essex Hemphill
If, say, Hemphill is referring to Oz the magical land, I like to read it as Oz the prison from the TV series. It is in this way that I read This is America’s “get your money, black man”, which is #nothowitworks. [what is it to think of the promise of America, especially to black people, as a fantasy bound up in a totalizing carceral logic?]
How does the racial uplift Gambino sings about relate to the riot in the video, which is a refusal of the call to order, even & especially when propriety in America keeps black life at the bottom, in the subprime, under water, behind levees waiting to be breached?
How does “get your money, black man” rub against those old cars Gambino dances on top of, hazard lights blinking & all, signifying that racial uplift as black movement has been interrupted, stranded even? [An interruption that says there might be wealthy black people now, but we don’t have justice yet]
What does Tracy Chapman know about fast cars that Michael Jackson didn’t?
What does it mean when Gambino dances on those stranded cars, on the very grave of racial uplift? & how does racial uplift, which is a form of intra-racial violence, sit alongside all the other violences on show?
Racial uplift might have something to do with escape—in so far as racial uplift thinks one can get away without completely reinventing geography, which is to completely reorganize relations, which means old-new bodies put to “use” in new-old ways.
I’m thinking about the performance of escape at the end of This is America. What happens to escape when it is performed—a question for Henry “Box” Brown, who escaped slavery by shipping himself in a crate.
Finally, what happens to performance when escape is its object?
Kweli Jaoko is a writer who lives in Portland, Oregon for now.