By Appei Porbeni,
America (the United States of America) has always been an object of fascination for me. Growing up in Nigeria, I always heard those around me herald it as the greatest in the world. It’s a true paragon of what a nation should be. Not like our devastated and corrupt taped-together-and-barely-standing excuse for a country. (I was instilled with a lot of anti-Nigerian and anti-African sentiment from a young age, bear with me).
No place in the world is immune to the influx of American culture via its increasingly pervasive media. I came to have this yearning to be American. Being American meant being pure and right; it meant being successful. Also, there might have been some inklings of wanting to be white (oh yes, that ever-present aspiration for whiteness). I was so happy to arrive in this country but then, as you can believe, I came to realize that all was not as it seemed… Childish Gambino’s “This is America” somehow has managed to encapsulate every raw emotion I have felt about the United States since arriving and living here for quite some time.
When the only picture of America is this wonderful paradise where anyone and everyone can get by, it’s easy to begin to see the place as a utopia, a modern-day Eden. However, as anyone can attest to, this is not the case. From racism, gun violence, corruption, and police brutality, America reads more as a post-apocalyptic young adult fiction novel, honestly.
One of the many lies I had fallen trap to thanks to Hollywood was internalized anti-blackness. “This is America” has helped me reconcile how I view black people (including myself) in America. You’ve probably heard of the heated African versus African-American debate–an unnecessary divide between African foreigners in the US and Black Americans. African foreigners (myself included) often hold black Americans in contempt–thanks to the fact that we are inundated with representations of black people as being only lazy drug-addicted thieving invalids who demonize white people despite white people being their “saviors” who are trying to rescue them from the disease of blackness.
Blackness is always the villain in media–the light versus dark power struggle has somehow been warped from the struggles between the forces of good and evil to mean the war between what is the default normal (whiteness) to what is other (so-called “non-whiteness”). There is this aspiration to whiteness. And, those who can prove themselves as worthy of this whiteness mask gain the badge of being a model minority, infallible according to the standard of whiteness (as long as they can maintain that mask).
Growing up, and viewing America through this lens made me believe that there was no more racism and those “few” instances of racism that did occur were just minor scrapes and abrasions. After all, racism was slavery and slavery is over now, and besides, maybe you wouldn’t be experiencing racism if you didn’t act so ghetto! All of the blame is placed on the black community. I never got to see black people as vulnerable and that’s heartbreaking.
It’s important to note that the black people murdered in the video were killed while merely trying to enjoy life–the carefree man strumming his guitar, the church choir in their regalia performing their number in high spirits. What really sticks to me is the fact that they were killed just because and that is not OK. The Charleston Massacre was arguably one of the most devastating acts of terror committed against the black community in this modern day because it occurred on holy ground– in a church. I think we have become increasingly complacent concerning gun violence in this country and the unexpected suddenness of these murders in the video puts the whole situation in a weird uncanny valley.
The video has this fleeting twilight zone-esque feel considering that while we express shock concerning what transpires in the video, it seems that we are not shocked enough by the reality of the issues presented IRL. The visual storytelling device of having a carefree foreground which is constantly in stark contrast to a chaotic background is essentially the hypocrisy of America. This is the birth of the lie that America is a utopia and this image is further distorted as a foreigner because this foreground is all they go by.
The whole phenomenon surrounding “This is America” also adds to the discourse (after all, they did say that “Art is meant to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”). Of course, since this video is about exposing hypocrisy, it’s no surprise that a white woman (shan’t give her the pleasure of being named here) has taken the video and remodeled it fit her white “feminist” ideals is unsurprising (I mean, when does that not happen?). In a now unavailable video, “Can White People Sing Black Songs?” Kat Blaque discusses the fact that when white people cover songs by black people, they often take the meaning out of it.
The video and reactions to it speak volumes about the changes that need to be made to help America come to be the paragon of justice that it has been purported to be in. Funnily enough, Childish Gambino’s “This is America” could end up being what could make America great again. It’s cathartic to finally have a cultural masterpiece that represents the America that I currently live in, not the one that was promised to me.
Appei Porbeni is a Nigerian-borne writer with a love for geek culture and a desire to see better representation in media.