Over the weekend, Donald Glover released his latest visual “This is America” accompanied with a sing-rap song that sounds like something you’d expect as Pharrell’s next Billboard hit. If you’ve somehow missed it, the video showed a deranged Donald Glover sliding in and out of choreography committing acts of violence that echo real life moments of terror like the Charleston Church Massacre. Glover moves sporadically, and goes into smooth dance movements. He shoots a man in the head and transitions into the gwarra gwarra backed by smiling, dancing black students in uniforms. His face does just as much choreography, transitioning from the awkward, suburban kid we met on the television show Community into this bearded, shirtless serial killer. This is another version of the mad black man; mad as in the ableist slang for mentally ill, and not as simply another word for angry.
Watching the video, I felt free of shame around my own battles with mental illness that I don’t believe I inherited, but rather, I was socialized into because of dealing with anti-black racism for my entire life. I do not believe you see as many black people die and be brutalized as I have and not develop anxiety—or, in my case, OCD. I don’t think you can live with the level of poverty, housing, and food insecurity that I have and not develop clinical depression. Often I think my development of these conditions are proof that I am alive and not just some numb vehicle for domination that I was socialized to be.
Still, I love being black. It’s hard to imagine living without the depths of pain and heights of joy that I’ve experienced. Being black in America thus far has been a surreal experience: I feel incredibly close to the possibility of racialized tragedy and death at all times, but also carry the pride and cool of knowing I come from a people that created trap music and Nikki Giovanni’s poetry. Speaking honestly as a black person, I doubt I’ve ever known mental stability because blackness is a constant extreme episode between melancholy, rage, joy, death, and creation.
It has been easy for me to feel like a failure to both living and dead black people because I do experience melancholy and rage. I say mean and cynical things when I feel trapped. I have a short temper and don’t forgive easily. I am neurotic and I often am toxic to be around. I don’t always feel like my ancestors’ wildest dreams, but their greatest regrets. Because of this behavior, there’s a subtle desire for your life to be a type of minstrel show where you perform a type of peaceful, black boy joy and black carefreeness that you don’t actually know. This performing with a painted smile and cheery disposition can be for the comfort of white people. It can also be to comfort other black people that may or may not be in the midst of their own performances to hide the trauma that comes with being black in America. This performance is also in service of myself to hide the toxic parts of me that do not live up respectable, carefree black man I feel pressured to be, but constantly fail.
It was cathartic for me to see Donald Glover embody a toxic black person doing heinous things and see the visible struggle in his face and body to find stability. In the video, an unassuming father figure picks up a guitar and Glover begins to dance before he destroys that moment. He goes to church, begins to find “the spirit” that so many people promise will deliver you to nirvana, and then ruins that too. He lights a joint in hopes that drugs will provide him with the peace he seeks. He ends up running from both the chaos he caused and also the terror he was born into because of his race.
The image of a vile, unstable person pushed me to not just take note of the ways this person was toxic, but the ways this person was just like me. When white men commit the real atrocities Donald Glover recreated, there’s two reactions that are often divided by race: white people code the terrorism as mental illness and black people see the violence as racialized terror. In “This is America,” it was captivating to see a type of performed instability that I could relate to, explain, and be disturbed by—not just because it was brutal, but because it was accurate.
The bloody violence against black people was not something I desired to see, but it did illustrate what happens when a cis black man— like myself and Donald Glover—invests in the American Dream (“Black man, get your money!”). We implode and destroy everything around us all while the next generation is following our every move.
The idea of creating images of black deaths—in a time of actual viral black deaths being so routine due to police brutality and intimate partner violence—felt irresponsible of Glover, but not inconsequential. The “This Is America” video felt both reckless and explosive, but that does not eliminate it from still being powerful and transformative for the audience. Black art rarely gets space to be nihilistic. It usually must be morally sound and healing; doing the work that is usually reserved for Gospel music. This transgression by Glover felt intentional and like it was opening up a space for black art and artists that don’t have the moral answers and can’t offer upliftment. The visual opened up a space for the black artist that wants to create out of an impulse that may or may not disturb you.
Art only fails when it does not do what the artist intended for it to do. Art doesn’t have to heal or uplift you; this is just a kind gesture that some artists decide to do. Glover offered us what popular black art rarely is able to offer which is powerful imagery without a clear artist statement and intention. With that, Donald Glover gifted us a freedom to decide if this was medicine or poison. And what it ultimately exposed is that black people are not monolithic; one person’s catharsis can be someone else’s trauma. That is supremely American.
Myles E. Johnson is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.