“This Is America”: A Cultural Critique on Black Subjectivity in Performance, the Role of Surveillance, and Witnessing Black Victimization
In 2018, hip-hop artist, writer, and comedian Donald Glover (1983), who also performs under the name Childish Gambino, released his “This Is America” video, which quickly became a viral sensation. Gambino used his racialized body and hypnotic lyrics to bring awareness to the fragility of black existence in America. In this thesis, I argue Gambino created “This Is America” as a critique centered around cultural practices and violence towards African Americans using allusions to encourage witnessing of black victims. The video also reminds the viewer of the impact racialized surveillance has on African Americans, especially within spaces that forcibly define black identities as criminal.
Gambino's performance captivates the audience as a source of entertainment and public outcry. “This Is America” comments on the trauma associated with early forms of black entertainment and white spectatorship which is discussed in Chapter Two: Black Subjectivity in Performance. Furthermore, I unpack what “This Is America” suggests about the white gaze and the history of racialized surveillance of African Americans in Chapter Three: Surveillance of the Black Body. Applying critical social theory and critical race theory to “This Is America” helps to analyze how the video functions as a cultural critique. The goal of my research is to shed light on America’s receptiveness towards black victimhood by examining the impact viral imagery of racial violence, as seen in “This Is America,” has on audiences in terms of activism and witnessing.
Keywords: black masculinity, cultural critique, Otherness, intersectionality, surveillance, white gaze, minstrelsy, critical social theory, critical race theory, black subjectivity, hip-hop, gun violence, witnessing, black performance.