Burial rites have occupied a central role in human civilization from the beginning of time. The funeral, and the honoring of the dead, is perhaps the cultural norm that spans the human spectrum: we are all alike in that we see it fitting and proper to acknowledge the dignity of all persons by providing for them their rites upon death. For Homer, this occupation was central to the text, providing pauses in the action of his poems while also spurring the story forward. In Books VII and VIII of The Iliad an accord of peace takes place only in order that the Achaeans and the Trojans may retrieve their dead in order to bury them. At the end of the poem we witness Achilles’ fullest descent into the realm of the human as he tearfully yields the body of Hector to Priam in order that he may bury his son. Odysseus is only able to meet the prophetess Tiresias in the underworld once he has provided the seemingly foolish and insignificant character, Elpenor, a proper burial; this acknowledges even the debt owed by a hero of time past to the lowliest of citizens in the rites of burial. What is most significant is the meaning of the burial rite: the funeral is important because it honors and lays to rest the human soul, bringing to a close the discord and tragedy that is human life, and reconciling that human soul with what lies beyond, severing it from the pain and suffering of this world. As Americans, we are increasingly acting as Achilles did, dragging the body of Hector around the walls of Troy out of hubris and rage in order to flaunt our political triumphs. We are therefore increasingly avoiding the rites due to our dead and the peace and catharsis that ought to accompany the end of human life and the tragedy that it entails. Childish Gambino’s recent video “This is America” touches on this tragedy, but I am afraid we are refusing to learn from the poet’s message.
The visual effects of Donald Glover’s masterpiece are undoubtedly essential to the music that he has composed. Throughout the video, Glover dances at the center of a group of children as he murders eleven bystanders, he ironically iterates the lines that reverberate from the popular songs that occupy hip-hop culture, and reminds his audience “don’t catch you slippin’ up” and “get your money, black man”. Not only do his antics distract the audience from what lies at hand in the video, but his lyrics emphasis that which distracts us from achieving the progress that we so desire.
The story told by the video progresses in a linear fashion, and the music moves in accord with the linear fashion of story told. We begin in a warehouse, and the entire story takes place in that warehouse. Only near the end of the video does Gambino run down a dark corridor toward the light, followed by the masses, attempting to escape. The warehouse emphasizes the central contrast of the work: although we are all connected by culture, we are isolated by experience and opinion. The great paradox of America is that we are all united by very fragile bonds of the internet and digital media, but we utilize these tools in order to draw us further apart rather than emphasize our common humanity, our common creed, and our common aim. We enclose ourselves in the echochamber that is the warehouse of our own thought, using the tools that could strengthen the ties that bind for evil and dissolution rather than peace and concord. In an interview with The New Yorker, a reporter asks Glover if he “looks up to anyone”. He responded “I don’t see anyone out there who’s better… Maybe Elon Musk. But I don’t know yet if he’s a supervillain. Elon is working on ways for storytelling not to be the best way of spreading information (Musk’s new company, Neuralink, intends to merge human consciousness with computers, allowing us to download others’ thoughts) It will turn us into a connected macroorganism, but it will make our individual desires seem trivial… Sometimes I get mad at him—‘You think people are insignificant!’ But we probably are at the end of the storytelling age. It’s my job to compress the last bits of information for people before it passes”. Gambino’s newest release has in mind the goal of overcoming this empty connectedness that Musk’s Neuralink, and the most degrading forms of technological innovation, hopes to accomplish. In “This is America”, he captures us as we are, all too human and unable to escape.
The video begins with a man playing a peaceful melody on his guitar, seated on a chair, alone, with no audience. The first time we see Gambino he has his back to us, emphasizing the difficulty of a people to understand an artist. This difficulty mirrors the difficulties of the several sub-cultures to understand one another. What is lost in translation is not only lost between people of different cultures and colors, but meaning is also difficult to convey for the poet who shares the same skin color with his audience. It becomes clear that “this is America”, and nobody understands anybody. He proceeds to dance in an erotic fashion, we see his face twist as he hopes to conjure the courage to do what he must, he puffs his chest out, and proceeds to shoot the artist in the back of the head. He hands the gun to a young man holding a red rag, who carries the gun off in haste, and he proceeds to march forward, again dancing. A group of teenagers join him in his dance while abandoned cars and groups of people fill the background.
The second homicide takes place when Gambino enters another room. He slips through the door, as a choir sings. When they begin to sing “Black man, get that money”, he is handed an ak-47 and mows all ten of them down. The gun is again carted off by a young man with a red rag.
It would appear that Childish Gambino is voicing his thoughts on the Charleston Church shooting, where Dylan Roof killed 9 victims attending a bible study on June 17, 2015. Many have even asserted that this is precisely what Childish Gambino is attempting to do; however, such an interpretation would undermine the entire thrust of his work. It is a great disservice to dig up the dead bodies in order to make a contemporary political statement, and it would undermine what Childish Gambino appears to be interested in doing in his video.
If we are to consider the Charleston Church shooting the subject of his video, we either have to write Gambino off as a lax observer of the facts of the case (he included ten victims in the video rather than nine), or we have to charge him with inconsistency. In his video he wants to show how quickly we turn to chaos and mob rule in the wake of tragedy, rather than seek consolation and unity. His video is diligent in attempting to draw the attention of his audience away from victims and towards popular trends. As a protagonist he acts as a villain and a distraction, hoping to embody the character of the contemporary hip-hop artist who places the guns in the hands of the community of which he is a part. After Gambino’s first murder he remarks “guns in my area… yup, I gotta carry ‘em”. He’s showing that, although the community understands that gun violence undermines the sanctity of the community and progress, yet all feel compelled to carry them because they are so emphasized by our music and our media. Thus in our attempts to rectify injustice, we proliferate the problems that agitate the community itself.
Many have used the video to emphasize the care for the guns rather than the care for the dead; they employ this analysis in order to highlight the problems of guns within society and emphasize that all-too-many of us put guns on a pedestal at the expense of human life. What they do is commit the misjudgment that Gambino hopes to highlight. They themselves refuse to do diligence to the dead that lie in the background directly following the murders. Central to their focus is the gun, not the dead. They would much prefer to focus on the gun as the problem rather than come for the murderer; they thus act just as the mob does in the video as they run past and ignore the singular guilty party in the wake of the crime. All forget about the victims and leave the bodies to rot. Those of us who still refer to the crime of the Charleston Shooting as an act of racial prejudice, and hope to indict the many for the crime of the one, fall victim to the same folly. We dig up the bodies of the victims and parade them around for a political victory- we thus do them a great injustice rather than give them their rest.
Dylan Roof has been convicted and indicted upon nine counts of homicide and nine life sentences. He has been condemned to death, yet we want retribution in tenfold and we thereby express our forfeiture of our own humanity. We want revenge, not justice. Perhaps the addition of the tenth member of the choir is the addition of Dylan Roof. In taking the lives of nine, he has stripped himself of his humanity. Although he has murdered many, he as the murderer has suffered the worst fate in degrading his own human capacity, and acting as the antithesis of man’s highest end: to love his neighbor despite color, culture, or heritage. The best that we can do in this tragic, all too human, life, is have faith in, and strive for justice. We ought not place center stage the villian that is the murderer, for often this is precisely what white-supremacist, terrorists, aim for. Our attention to their villainy affirms the success of their deeds. Rather we must “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations”.