I Don’t Understand “This is America”: Maybe That’s the Point

I somehow managed to miss the cultural whirlwind that came with Childish Gambino releasing the music video to his song This is America in 2018. I knew about it, I knew people talked about it but I had mostly skipped over the song because to be Childish Gambino just means Donald Glover and Donald Glover means Marshall Lee the Vampire King and that one guy in Community; a show that I had never watched but knew about thanks to my inner circle. It wasn’t that the song was offensive or worrisome to me with the limited context I had for it; it just didn’t float into my usual musical sphere of French house DJs and sad music by hot Japanese men. 

When I finally did the video due to Youtube Music’s aggressive autoplay feature, I was at first watching mostly just sort of overwhelmed; nearly to the point of disliking the video. The initial act of shocking violence via a gunshot delivered to the back of a man’s head took my breath away in a way that very few pieces of media can. Thanks to a childhood and teenage years spent desensitizing myself to sex and violence; I was shocked to feel so viscerally unsettled within seconds of the video starting. 

Now, I want to cover a few things immediately. I do “understand” the message behind the song and video. The video perfectly explores the shock and fear that comes with being black in America; a version of violence that lurks around every corner. The uncertainty that comes with large gatherings and public spaces, the rightful and generational fear of the police, the loss of life and the capricious nature of existence and the utter lack of value to a black man’s death in comparison to a white man’s. I understand racism, violence, trauma and fear. 

I suppose overwhelmed is still the best word that comes to mind. I spent so much time trying to understand the video and the many influences it draws from. Glover’s moments are so exaggerated and othered that he almost feels like a Sambo stock character, the pants he wears to evoke the uniform of sharecroppers and those who worked the fields, the different guns used and the specific act of violence against a church choir. There’s an unsettling nature to the tonal dissonance that comes from following up a shooting with a dance and there’s always something uncanny and strange about that slapped on grin Glover has that can and does quickly turn steely and frightening. 

When I say I don’t understand This is America, it’s mostly rooted in that despite playing it multiple times, knowing the lyrics (and having done most of this before deciding to blog about it) and seeing the music video multiple times; I don’t know if I like the song yet. It isn’t that I don’t get the references or don’t get the fear or the message, I just don’t know how the song makes me feel yet. I’ve struggled with my place and my blackness for years and while I absolutely feel the heavy burden of generational trauma and the weight of systemic oppression, I’ve always been very open and up front about my privilege. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a neighborhood that’s constantly shot up and full of police. I don’t know what it’s like (until recently) to know what it’s like to have a neighbor raising chickens and clothes hanging outside on makeshift lines and boards on some of the windows. And while I feel the dread and fear of every single shooting that happens to an unarmed black person; because of the luxuries afforded to me, that violence is a distant boogeyman rather than an oppressive force literally and figuratively standing on my neck. 

I’m almost glad I waited to find this music video. As violence against unarmed African-Americans only grows, distrust and misinformation spread and you can’t believe what anyone says and can only rely on what you see in front of you and the lenses we all have thanks to our life experience. 

I find that I like the song most when it feels almost like the information given by a loving black grandmother. Lines like “Get your money, black man” feel like something my aunts would tell me and honestly, have told me during the days I was willing to give out my talent for free rather than know and feel my worth and ask for payment for the things I was doing to enrich the lives of others. When the tune is cheery but still with that edge of having to be careful and sly to stay safe are when I like this song most. I appreciate the choice not to have the group of children dancing with Donald Glover not be shot because the entire time the video ran I was waiting for him to turn one of the many weapons on them and my heart just wasn’t ready for that. I grew up in the shadow of Columbine and I have seen too many children die that way after being told time after time, bloodshed after bloodshed, that this would never happen again only for it to happen again. The tonal changes feel just like real life code-switching that many African-Americans have to do just to survive in this world; switching easily from how we talk “proper” to fit into the patriarchal rigors of white hegemonic society and the more informal but yet deeper way we speak to each other about our pain, our fatigue, our generational trauma and hopes that one day things will indeed be better. 

I’m rarely left wondering like this anymore. As a seasoned media critic, there are few things that have me continuing mining for meaning and more importantly, continuing to search myself and form a damn opinion. Despite how many times this song comes up in my queue, I am never sure whether to skip it or play through: again, I am not sure I even like this song. I respect it, for sure, but that sense of dread and discomfort is still present. I don’t “get” this song but I also don’t “get” racism, sexism, the patriarchy and misogyny. I don’t get how someone could kill someone else just because they look different or want to suppress an entire group. I don’t get these things and maybe that’s the point. Maybe the point is to continue to examine these senseless things and figure out why they are so ingrained in society despite being so damn needless. 

Unfortunately, Required Reading: Episode 56- Don Quixote

In this episode, hosts Tori and Amanda cover the great Spanish work Don Quixote while Amanda complains about the treatment of a clearly sick old man and Tori discusses the finer points of when to square up with a windmill.

The Incomplete Nostalgia of Youtube Rewind

I follow a lot of Youtubers; have for years. It can be a shock to some that I am quite well-versed in pop culture and celebrity news. Being a social media manager means keeping up with what’s going on in the world and that means being able to speak on and know a lot about what’s happening in the world at all times from memes to who is dating who. The Youtubers part may be less of a shock. From Jenna Marbles (please, come back to us); I’ve followed the journeys of many of these online celebrities and enjoyed their content and their personalities. John Green helped me come to terms with having OCD, Crash Course taught me new things, Mike Rugnetta helped me see the world in different ways, Hannah Hart taught me to check my cheese for poison. 

That’s to say, when Youtube Rewinds are released at the end of the year as a bit of a jaunt through the year’s events I look forward to them. I love seeing all the trends, the dancing, the mix of pop music and all the celebrities I’ve spent so much time with and I get a kick out of recognizing names and faces. 

I started really taking notice of the Youtube Rewinds in 2016 when we had one of the best rewinds ever made since they began nearly two decades ago. It was the perfect blend of the memes, humor and tone of 2016 as we mostly ignored the election and thought on all the neat things that happened before the election and our lives and country would be changed forever. In 2016 while canceling and #MeToo was a thing, most were firmly in the camp of either denial when celebrities you cared about or to just chalk it up to a messy he said/she said. Which is why people like PewdiePie who is a literal racist being in the video isn’t so strange: he was still the biggest name on the platform and even though we had heard him be awful and racist before 2016, we accepted me; I accepted it. 

Since then, there’s only been two more rewinds including 2017 which has a montage of all the bad things that happened that year but the world coming together (and it does make me cry) and 2018 which is where things had fallen off the rails.We now knew and could not ignore the problematic elements in the Youtube community from racist stars to ignoring and suppressing LGBT voices and yet the 2018 Rewind displayed not only queer creators and many of the problematic creators that we by the time the rewind aired knew were problematic. It was almost like the rewind was meant to have us ignore all of this for a candy-colored view of the world. 2018 also had its fair share of issues mostly relating to a racist president that was bent on ruining the world but Youtube Rewind was determined to be upbeat to the point of being tone deaf. There’s something to be said about trying to choose positivity in the light of what was an objectively bad year but seeing a bunch of millionaire celebrities wax philosophic about equality and things being better and that Logan Paul wasn’t a terrible person. Even in 2017 it was starting to feel a little tired when we had people who were objectively better off than the millions watching the Youtube Rewind were continuing to insist that we just keep our heads up and dance because things are okay even when they aren’t. 

But now as I find myself sequestered inside, I found the older Rewinds so comforting or at least I want to. The 2015 Rewind that focuses on back then what was a decade of Youtube and meme culture nearly brought tears to my eyes as I saw viral videos and memes that were so much part of my teenage zeitgeist that they have imprinted on my heart. The 2016 Rewind may still be one of my favorites even if it does start to feel incomplete in comparison to what else was happening that year: 2016 was not just Pokemon Go and Justin Bieber music but it is nice to think of it that way. Even more so, it’s strange going back and looking at a year like 2015 or even 2013 which feels like it was approximately 1000 years ago. It’s almost strange now to see the tone of the world be so positive or different in comparison to how I feel now in 2021; a strange mix of desperate optimism atop of intense ennui, malaise and fatigue. At the same time, some of the earlier rewinds are nearly impossible to watch as they feature memes or songs that have been played to death or have been banished from the current social and digital lexicon. No one does the Harlem Shake anymore and if one more damn person asks “What does the Fox say?” I will fling myself into traffic. But to go back and think about a time where the world cared slime

Nostalgia is a strange thing: it does in fact distort the past into a comfortable and often linear narrative. It’s much easier to think of the past as a series of one-off events rather than think of the building tension and hostility that had been brewing under the surface or the terrible acts that happened during those years while others got the luxury to just play games and listen to popular music and revel in meme culture. It’s easier to ignore the complexities of men and the horrible things they do while the camera is running or when the camera isn’t running. It’s much easier to ignore the systemic issues that have plagued creators of color both online and in the real world to make them cheapened tokens of diversity amongst a sea of white creators. It’s much easier not to think about the racist demagogue whose reign of terror during those years would change the lives of millions while simply indulging in the hedonistic ambrosia of slick remixes and references to a thing you may or may not have liked. But for a piece of corporate-driven capitalistic nostalgia, it has been a strange sort of balm in these trying times to cast my mind back to a time that at least on the surface felt simpler. 

Unfortunately, Required Reading- Episode 55: Death of a Salesman

In this week’s episode, hosts Tori and Amanda talk about Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller; discuss the horrors of capitalism and the merits of cat fruit hats.

The Things I Want to do When This is All Over

As of the start of this post being written, I am coming off of receiving round one of my COVID-19 vaccine. I have one more month before I should be protected from the virus that has put my life and the lives of so many on pause. There is a light at the end of the tunnel as more and more start to receive the vaccine and we’re all looking towards what may be the end of this experience. With the end in mind, I want to talk about the things I want to do after this is all…well, I suppose, over. It may never truly be over. The world is changed, forever, in fact; but relatively soon, we may be able to return to something that has the look and feel of normalcy. 

Sitting at Restaurants 

I go out to eat a lot. I like cafe culture and being able to run out and eat, often by myself, and just enjoy a meal with a book or my phone. I have sat in only a few restaurants since this whole thing began and each time it felt like such a weird treat: a choice between the ethics of caring about people and remembering that as a citizen that I have a “responsibility” to keep these places open with my dollar. I look forward to sitting in a restaurant and feeling like I am at very least doing my best to protect myself and those around while enjoying a nice meal. 

Going to the Museum

God, I miss art. I miss waking up early on Sundays to be able to see the SAMA’s general collection for free. I miss being able to just bask in art or see unique exhibits with friends. I didn’t think I’d miss art so much but apparently, I do. 

Going to Con

Last year was supposed to be my ten year anniversary of con-going and I was going to go hard. Remember, increasingly going to con is less about the convention itself but more about paneling and going to places I miss back home or seeing new places and trying new things. It’s about friendship and long nights spent watching TV and swimming in the hotel pool and stressing over last minute costumes. Convention is a key part of my life and one I miss dearly. I went to one convention in 2020 and if I had known that it would be the only one I’d be able to visit, I would have tried to enjoy myself more. But at least late 2021 and into 2022 looks like it has more promise. 

Going to the Mall

Fun fact: I love the mall. I love mall culture. I love shopping. I love being able to grab an Auntie Anne’s pretzel, go to the Forever 21 and spend more money than I should while idly listening in on conversations that people think are private despite them yelling their words while drinking a Starbucks Iced White Chocolate Mocha. I just like being alone in crowds and I love shopping. I didn’t think I’d miss the mall as much as I do but this is just where we are.

Going to the Movies

I love the theater experience. I love the food, the popcorn, the overpriced Icees and sodas, I love all parts of sitting in those dark rooms and being forced to enjoy what is on the screen. I did sneak away to one movie during the pandemic but I wasn’t going to miss the chance to see Lupin III on the big screen. But with so many movies being pushed back, movies I would want to see in theaters rather than in the confines of my home, I can’t help but miss the planning and fun of actually getting up and going to the movies.

Going to the Farmer’s Market

Oh to go to the Farmer’s Market. To get bread and jam and butter. To enjoy a drink. To sample the finest of local fare outside on a gorgeous day. The Pearl Farmer’s Market is a place I often like to haunt when I can and I love to indulge in some of the best food in the city when it’s open. Now, being outside does lower transmission of the virus, especially if everyone is wearing a mask; I just don’t feel safe going to crowded spaces like so even with proper protections in place. 

Going Out With Friends

Despite my status as an introvert, I love my friends. I love going to drinks at local bars, checking out restaurants both new and old; I love deep conversations that linger until the cafe is nearly ready to close. I haven’t seen some of my friends in over a year physically and others I’ve seen once or twice when normally we’d see each other several times during the year. Now, I’ve been lucky to have friends that regularly call or video chat or keep in touch through instant messages and texts but sometimes there’s nothing that beats having company over or going out with someone else. 


There are many things I plan to do when it’s safe enough to do them. Reclaim my birthday, wander around the mall with reckless abandon, go to the Hill Country and do five wine tasting. I’m excited about going to the park with less worry and just being out of the house in moderation as the vaccine isn’t a get out of pandemic free card. But the amount of stress and worry this has taken off of me is tremendous. I realize the amount of privilege I have by even being able to be vaccinated and to have an inner circle that’s very quickly working towards vaccination so that I can reclaim some aspects of my normalcy. The world has been forever changed after this pandemic; I have been forever changed after this pandemic, but in the places where I get to reclaim parts of who and what I was before all this happened: I will do so eagerly and with vigor. 

Rethinking Black Panther

I remember going to the theater to see Black Panther with a friend; both of us being African-American. There were people dressed in traditional African clothing and it was something truly beautiful. People were proud of being African or of African descent for the first time in a while. I was never so much a contrarian to think the movie was bad but there were parts that I found deeply problematic and unsettling. But with the pandemic, too much time to kill and my friend’s generous access to her family’s Disney+ account, I’ve rewatched Black Panther several times recently. This rewatch has been affected by a few things that have changed in the world and in my world since the movie’s original release in 2018; namely the death of lead actor Chadwick Boseman and the continued pressures of racism and racial violence in the U.S. So we’re gonna talk about it. 

Let’s start with a major gripe I had about the movie at first which was pan-Africanism and cultural appropriation. At first I was very bothered by the picking and choosing of various African motifs and clothes for Wakanda. You see various African cultures represented during the first trial scene and at first watch, that bothered me. Many of those cultures and traditions had nothing to do with each other but to show them off as all related and to a fictional land in Africa just bothered me as lazy costume design and story-telling. Not to say that the outfits weren’t executed with care: everyone looked great but it just sat wrong with me. On the third or so watch or so, I cared much less and was mostly just glad to see nice costumes. Now as far as the cultural appropriation goes; I still have an issue with it and it’s one that may shock some readers and is an instance hiding in plain sight. Hanuman is a real Hindu deity and while I do love M’Baku, his is using a god that is still worshiped by millions. Now, I don’t feel that strongly about the movie’s appropriation of Baast mostly because while she is worshiped by some pagans; the religion of the ancient Egyptians is not one still commonly practiced. The cultural appropriation still sits a little raw with me but I’m less willing to openly show displeasure about it: maybe I’m getting old. 

Next up has to do with one of the biggest changes in opinion I’ve had on the film and that has to do with Chadwick Boseman. Now, the first time I saw the movie and the other MCU films that had Black Panther in it; I was always a little put off by Boseman’s almost sleepy performance. To quote a conversation I had with a friend: “It looks like he’s delivering every line with his dick being cut off.” I was really concerned about the utter lack of charisma the King of Wakanda had and that stayed with me until late last year when the news hit. Chadwick Boseman passed away after a lengthy and secret battle with cancer; meaning that all the roles he did for the MCU, he was in treatment for and dealing with a serious medical condition. It put things in perspective for many who had looked at Boseman as someone who just never seemed to match the energy of the other big personalities in the room when playing T’Challa. Even if your canon version of the King of Wakanda was one of the more regal and stoic types, Boseman to many (myself included) just seemed particularly low-energy without the context of a man who was battling disease and mostly suffering in silence. When the news of his death reached the masses, I felt like an immediate jerk: I was determined to take back every mean thing I had ever said because death tends to make saints of men but upon watching Black Panther a few more times I’ve come to a more balanced conclusion. Yes, the performance is subdued in comparison but really, everyone is except for Shuri who…we’ll get to. It’s a mostly laid back movie despite the stakes and message of the film. In his own movie, Boseman’s more flat affectation as T’Challa makes sense and though it does still stand out in other movies where he may not match the charisma of RDJ or Chris Evans: it’s still a good performance. 

The battle in the climax of the film does nothing for me as it is still just CGI blobs fighting in dark CGI nothing-scape. Angela Bassett is literally wearing baskets on her head. Everyone’s accents are inconsistent and weird. Andy Serkis is…I suppose, happy to be a human being on camera? The movie has flaws still but upon many rewatches, I find it more and more enjoyable. We’re not done yet; we’re finally going to tackle who may replace Killmonger as “Character I Wish Would Fall into a Pit” the most: Shuri. 

At first, Shuri was a funny character to me. I liked how funny and charming she was and she acted as a good foil to T’Challa’s more traditional and subdued personality. I was okay with her and her memes and the nonsense technology Wakanda has with its let’s say loose use of vibranium but after watching the movie a few times again; Shuri began to wear on me the most. She just knows too much in the way that many characters that are not written that well are. She has an answer to everything, a solution to everything; she’s very much written like a Mary Sue insert character. Now, I get that canonically she’s meant to be very smart and there’s a way to show that. Shuri is no Tony Stark, there’s just something about her that makes her quickness to correct people irksome (it’s probably internalized misogyny). 

Now onto the character I had the most issue with on my first watch and still have issues with now: Killmonger. Killmonger is touted as one of the most complex, most right and best villains in the MCU and while yes, his motivations are, I suppose, better than Klaue’s or Ultron’s; I don’t think he’s all that right. Being black, I’ve seen his rhetoric. I’ve seen the class of ideals between peace and violence. Being the PR savvy person I am, I’ve always chosen peace. In my opinion, oftentimes, violence makes an entire group look bad and has rarely been a good way to get a point across. Exceptions exist for sure but on a whole I’ve never supported revolution that way. And Killmonger’s idea to just arm random black folk and hope that it will be a big enough show of force just turned my stomach. However, after seeing the horrific backslide we’ve made in the last few years when it comes to police brutality, racism, acts of violence and domestic terrorism: maybe he has a point. Maybe being nice isn’t getting us far. I still won’t ever advocate for violence on the scale he planned but after seeing so many unarmed black men die at the hands of the police who are meant to protect us: yeah, fuck up that Target. 

I’ve had plenty of time to think about the media I ingest and why I ingest it. I can’t and won’t deny the impact Black Panther had on society and for black people. It was empowering to see an Africa not in strife and to see black excellence. It was empowering to see people use the Wakandan salute in real life to greet each other as a show of respect. I personally wouldn’t mind calling more white people “colonizer” when they speak out of turn or barking at them like M’Baku does. If this movie gave black kids someone to look up to, aspire to be, admire; then I’m not here to harsh anyone’s yums. I’ve had time to let my opinions mellow and change as the times have changed and because of that I’m still happy to say: Wakanda Forever.