Childish Gambino’s “This is America”, and the Importance of Burying the Dead

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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”.

 

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“You Can’t Die if You Don’t Give Up”

So now it was all over, he thought. So now he would never have a chance to finish it. So this way the way it ended, in a bickering over a drink. Since the gangrene started in his right leg he had no pain and with the pain the horror had gone and all he felt now was a great tiredness and anger that this was the end of it. For this, that now was coming, he had very little curiosity. For years it had obsessed him; but now it meant nothing in itself. It was strange how easy being tired enough made it. 


He was nineteen days shy of his sixty second birthday: prematurely old, multidiseased, mentally bewildered, delusional, slurred of speech, in exile from Cuba, from the Stream, unable to compose so much as one true sentence a day, or so he’d wept on a sofa in his living room. Is it any wonder the most imitated writer of the twentieth century rose sometime after seven o’clock that morning, moved past the master bedroom where his wife was sleeping, padded down the carpeted stairs, crossed the length of the living room to the kitchen, retrieved the key to the locked storeroom where the weapons were, went down to the basement, took shells from his ammo box, closed and relocked the door, came back upstairs, walked ten steps to the front-entry foyer, opened the foyer door, stepped inside, placed the butt of the gun on the linoleum tile, tore open the breech, slammed in the cartridges, snapped it shut, bent over, rested his forehead against the blue steel, and blew away his entire cranial vault with the double-barreled, 12-gauge Boss shotgun with which he once shot pigeons?

There are plenty of things for which you can criticize Ernest Hemingway. You can call him a coward for taking his own life, and you can point to Zelda Fitzgerald’s account of his making a pass at her in an alleyway one drunken night. Many have pointed out that his code-hero is simply an affirmation and vindication of his own machismo character, and many have argued that there is nothing creative about his work: that it is merely a retelling of events that indeed happened in Paris and in Pamplona. However, all this would be to miss the most important point of Hemingway’s contribution to American literature, and this would be to dismiss the aim of good writing.

Hemingway’s most widely read work, and perhaps his most tired, is The Old Man and the Sea. Of that work, Papa once said “There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is the old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are sharks, no better, no worse.” Despite the criticism of his simplicity, Ernest Hemingway’s stories still endure because they touch what is all too human: failure in endeavor, and failure in self-redemption. Hemingway was able to produce work that was honest to his own life and his own vice, and this resonates with readers who are too weak to be honest with themselves about their own failures and their inability to white-wash those failures. Hemingway’s stories are the simplest of stories because they are the truest of stories, and they touch what is truest about ourselves; this is what most readers of Hemingway are too weak to confront, that his stories mimic the human fallen-ness that is too evident to all of us.

No story shows Hemingway’s confrontation and confession more so than The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Snows is the story of a man named Harry on safari in Africa with his rich wife. Harry is a writer who believes that he has become impotent as he has lived off of his wife’s wealth. Because he has become weakened by the life of luxury provided by his wife, when he becomes afflicted with gangrene in a cut on his leg he begins to distance himself from his beloved even blaming her for his demise as a writer and his belief that he “would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well”.

The story is a reflection on the life of a writer and his suffering; of his inability to express those truths that “Maybe you could never write… and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting”. What is striking is that Harry has given up: he believes that he is going to die and there is no fighting it. Meanwhile, his wife holds out hope for his survival, telling him “You can’t die if you don’t give up”. Harry responds “Where did you read that? You’re such a bloody fool”. He treats of his death as an imminently practical matter, whereas his wife looks to the metaphysical. While she asks “What have we done to have that happen to us?”, Harry responds “I suppose what I did was to forget to put iodine on it when I first scratched it”.

There are threads that run through this story and provide its depth. On one hand you confront the difficulties of marriage. Hemingway provides a power struggle between his code-hero husband and wife. There is the bickering about Harry’s purported “giving up” and the way in which his readiness for death will affect his wife. On a much deeper level, we see Harry bickering with himself through flashbacks, internally confronting his own insecurity and fears of death while providing false strength in regard to his impending death.

But what we receive through the depths of this text is some knowledge that what is most important is out of both Harry and his wife’s control. Although Harry believes that he is already dead, he has hope that is above and beyond him despite his recognition of that hope toward which he may grasp. Harry reflects, “He had had his life and it was over and then he went on living it again with different people and more money, with the best of the same places, and some new ones”. You see, just as Hemingway believed that his life has ended as he no longer had the ability to write the things that he once wrote, Harry believes that his life has ended because he has given up the opportunity to write by marrying his wife. What he doesn’t realize is that what he subconsciously confronts in his reflections throughout the story: that his life contains the properties of a life well lived, if he could just make good of these properties. Most readers rebuke Harry for beating up his wife, which is understandable, but my reading is that Harry’s verbal abuse of his wife stems from his inability to see good in himself. He verbally attacks her in order to confirm his control over his own life, despite his understanding all the while that he has lost control. What must be understood by Harry and Hemingway alike is that salvation is not to be found in fame and writing; that one cannot redeem himself through the product of efforts on this Earth, and that honor is something above and beyond the individual endeavor or accomplishment. Hemingway struggled with this his entire life, and Harry never approached it.

The story has a double edged ending. Harry lies in his cot after dinner with his wife as he drifts to sleep. He has a dream that he has been rescued. Harry ascends and sees the square top of Kilimanjaro, and “he knew that there was where he was going”. This recalls the opening description of Kilimanjaro as “the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai, the House of God. Close to the western summit is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude”. However, Harry’s dream is interrupted as his wife wakes to the laughing of a Hyena and witnesses her husband dead in the night. Undoubtedly, Harry’s reflection points that he is assured that he is that leopard climbing toward the House of God. Nevertheless, the reality is not so. Helen wakes and is still haunted by her husband’s death and the cackling of the hyena that accompanies that death. The great question that the reader is left with is the same one that we all confront: does the man who acts viciously in times of despair reach the House of God, and is his vice pardoned in death?

Harry’s true failure is being like that leopard of whom no one knows what he is seeking. He reflects, “You kept from thinking and it was marvellous. You were equipped with good insides so that you did not go to pieces that way, the way most of them had, and you made an attitude that you cared nothing for the work you used to do, now that you could no longer do it”. Because Harry hides all that is internal for fear of being perceived weak, he neglects the opportunity to lead a life of honest. If Ernest Hemingway’s birthday warrants one lesson, it must be that we ought not worship false idols and sirens singing the psalms of temporal fulfillment. This is a lesson that we as Americans are in such deep need of, and it is fitting and proper that Papa provides this insight for all of us in which we often take for granted that which is most important.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1: I Guess I Named Myself

Cornelius Sheridan Dare Postell. Wouldn’t that have been a hell of a thing to go by? The day that I was born my Uncle said “He will always be Bob to me”.

The tale that was told me was my uncle Frank Smith come in the morning I was born and heard that name. He always did his business on a Sunday. He asked, “What’d ya name him?”

“Hoho!” He laughed “He’ll always be Bob to me!”

That name stuck. So when I went into the Navy that was the name I put in: “Bob Postell”.

But the recruiter said that was just a nickname. I said “No… It’s not a nickname. I was named Bob”.

He said “That’s not a full name- you’re going to have to go by Robert”.

I complied because at the time that was all there was to do. There was no fighting it. So I’ve always signed my checks “Robert S. Postell”. It is the deal between what I was given and what I took; what the Navy give me and what I refused to give them.

I always said that I’ve named myself.

In school I went by Deacon. I always went to Sunday school because Pop always made us go. I had a friend who was named Bob Bryner and he was a Jehovah’s Witness. His folks had me over for dinner one night and his mother asked me when I would go with him to “class”. You see, they always called church “class”.

I replied “I’ll come with him to class when he decides to come to the Baptist church with me!”

Oh boy, did that go over bad!

So that’s when I hung the nickname “Baptist” on him. From that point on I was known as the “Deacon” among us boys. Old Dale Ward was “Cedrick”, Rolly was “Rolo”. And then there was old Carol Reams who we called “Dutch”; he was a really good friend of mine.

We started nicknaming one another early on. It was a way of knowing who we were, and that is what that Navy recruiter couldn’t understand. He couldn’t understand how deeply American it was because, rather than his own self-reliance, his obedience to the Naval order defined his American-ness. There is nothin’ more American than naming yourself. There is nothin’ more American than defining who you are and what you will be.

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This is the story of my grandfather, my hero. He is an Ohioan who served in the Navy in World War II. He is extremely conscious of becoming too elaborate in his story-telling and when he heard that I had recorded him the first thing he said was “It wasn’t any braggin’ in there was it?”. He always defines these stories as “most of ‘em funny”. Every time he tells me stories he reveals that of which he is most proud saying, “I’ve had a good life, Sammy”.

He also reveals that which he wishes to be remembered by. He fathered three children with the same wife. He loved my grandmother deeply and faithfully. The first time I ever saw him shed a tear was the night before her funeral. He said “She was my left hand and my heart” and brought the entire room to tears. He wrote her every day when he was away at war while she was working in a factory and taking care of their first born daughter.

However, little of what is within these pages come from the letters. We were able to locate a plethora of pictures, keepsakes, notes, and Naval garb in my grandfather’s house, but only two letters that he had written to my grandmother. His story is that he saw her lighting them on fire because she was “bashful”. In my heart I know that my grandmother was too proud to relive losing him to the war for so long, and she was too “bull-headed” to admit how special they were to her.

The stories herein told are taken from several hours of recording on different occasions of his telling them to my brother and myself. At first, I thought it impossible that he could remember so many stories from as early as the age of eleven, but I have heard these stories on numerous occasions as have a few others. I have talked to others that he has spoken with and the stories are the same each time. He is either being honest or he has memorized lies. You may choose to believe what you wish.

My grandfather’s stories are important because they capture the character of a people and ennoble that character, shedding light upon the goodness of a people who are in great need of ennobling. What his stories capture are a dedication to family, country, and compass. He always put his family first, no matter how difficult, and he never thought a thing of it. He understood that family was the stuff of life. He always loved his country, honored it, and fought for what it stood for, despite the various things about that country that he could choose to hate her for. He always kept in view his own moral compass, never straying from what he thought was right and never backing down when had to fight for what he believed in.

My grandfather is my hero because he embodies what is redeeming about Midwesterners and about Yankees. My grandfather’s story is important because it preserves the character and the habits of a time past and it preserves the history of a time when Americans were dignified without believing themselves so.

The terms “Yankee” and “Midwesterner” that I use to describe my Grandfather ought to be synonymous; however, not all Yankees are Midwesterners and not all Midwesterners are Yankees. Nonetheless, I believe that a Yankee is what a Midwesterner and an American should strive to be.

Outside the United States all Americans are sometimes described as “Yankees”. This includes Southerners. The informal British and Irish English “Yank” refers to Americans in general. It is especially popular among Britons and Australians and sometimes carries pejorative overtones.

Within the United States, “Yankee” usually refers to those of the Midwest and the Northeast. It most precisely identifies those with New England cultural ties and descendants of colonial New Englanders. It is therefore more cultural than geographical. It ties Americans back to the settling of America before the United States became Independent from Great Britain and expanded Westward, allowing the descendants of those settlers to disperse. It recalls the grit and the stern Puritan faith of those who settled along that coast. They later migrated through New York, then Pennsylvania, and finally into Ohio, later dispersing throughout the Midwest in no certain pattern.

Southerners often refer to Northerners as “Yankees”, and this certainly carries a negative connotation. It refers to the nickname of those fighting for the Union side in the American Civil War. The term Yankee implies holding one’s ground, willing to fight in order to “nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth”.

Yankees were the ones who migrated North, up the shore of America, and began operating fisheries and running towns. They were the ones who migrated West into what we now understand as the Midwest where they began to create the infrastructure that would later facilitate the industrialization that happened in the north. Because they were the first to define the habits and culture of the place that they inhabited to a great extent they informed the culture and the habits of immigrants who came to work throughout the next two centuries in hopes of becoming Americans. Throughout Industrialization, Yankees began to define themselves by work and work ethic in addition to grit and religion. It is peculiar the way in which a Midwesterner or a Yankee earns money and feels toward that money, especially if he becomes rich. Rich Yankees are different from any other rich men I’ve met.

If the hillbilly happens to become rich it is usually by chance. He takes a risk and stumbles upon wealth, only to expend that wealth quickly, lavishly, and foolishly.

The rich men on the coasts are always old money, or if they are not they feel self conscious that they are not. If their fathers were not rich they are burdened by this almost daily and conceive of a way to manufacture the circumstance of their birth in order to dignify themselves. They are defined by the wealth of their fathers and their fathers’ fathers before them.

Rich men in cities are self-made but often the product of calculated risk. They come to their own demise as a result of that risk, never taking a moment to cherish what they have got while they’ve got it, and never thinking about the provisions for the next day or for their children because they always believe that their industry and talent will provide income.

The Yankee, on the other hand, almost does not believe he has money even if he’s got it. It sometimes seems that he is bashful about having money for concern that he may appear to be reaching beyond his own means and therefore exercising haughtiness, but that is not quite it. The Yankee always deeply understands his past and his future and therefore he understands equality as the capacity of misfortune to bring any man to ruin. He does not feel exempt from the heaves and throws of life simply for having earned a few day’s bread. Even if he becomes rich he feels compelled to toil, often outlasting his necessary work years. The Yankee understands that work and toil define life and a man’s worth. It is almost as if the money is for naught. Even after the Yankee has ceased a life of labor and lives peacefully in retirement, he will conceive of a way to show those around him that he still struggles and works rather than rests. It is almost as if he believes that in giving up a life of labor he gives up life altogether. The Yankee feels self conscious if he is spending lavishly and frivolously and this will weigh on him. He will soon feel that his neighbors mock him and disdain him for breaking the appearance of equality of hardship and the fashion that is work.

This is but a mere sketch of what the Yankee is and what my grandfather has taught me is good within him. My grandfather’s stories should give vividness and expression to this description, and this should serve merely as a framework or reference to the themes throughout the book.