Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk | Rethinking democracy: A tale of 2 Donalds

Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk | Rethinking democracy: A tale of 2 Donalds

Two men, one African-American, the other Euro-American, with little in common except the same first name, are forcing us to rethink the dominant myth of the U.S. One a genius African-American cultural artist, the other an avaricious, fascistic Euro-American buffoon, are from vastly different perspectives, unsettling conventional wisdom and challenging us to look again at the U.S.'s so-called democratic experiment.

The first, Donald Glover, in the persona of his musical alter ego Childish Gambino, recently released a chilling music video, "This is America." Cultural critics have praised the video's underlying critique of gun violence, police brutality, the history of racist caricature, the pervasiveness of materialism and for alluding to the relationship between U.S. capitalist consumer culture and violence.

An important fact about "This is America" is that while grounded in the particularities of the African American sociohistorical experience, significant aspects of its cultural performance are drawn from global Africa, specifically, South Africa.

The video begins with a wide shot of a guitar propped in a chair with Gambino largely obscured behind a steel beam. As unseen, dark-skinned children sing "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah/Yeah, yeah, go away," a lone black man takes the guitar from the chair and begins strumming as another group of voices, more African American in tone, sing, "We just wanna party/Party just for you/We just want the money/Money just for you." The children's melody is reminiscent of South African choral singing.

As the focus shifts to Gambino, he dances to the man sitting in the chair. He is no longer playing the guitar and now has a bag over his head. Striking the classic Jim Crow minstrel pose, Gambino pulls a gun and executes the man in the chair. In essence, "the new Jim Crow" is still murdering blacks. He then turns to the camera and declares, "This is America/Don't catch you slippin up." While repeating the refrain, "This is America/Don't catch you slippin up," the children join Gambino in performing the South African Gwara Gwara dance.

In another scene recalling the Charleston massacre, Gambino murders a church choir singing "Grandma told me/Get your money, black man (get your money)."

"This is America" depicts a violent racist materialistic society. It is Gambino's realist assessment of the U.S. The chorus, "This is America/Don't catch you slippin up," reflects his vision of the U.S. as the embodiment of Malcolm's nightmare.

It's a bracing retort to President Obama's oft-repeated claim, "That's not who we are." Gambino's lyrical and visual response is no, "This is America." And perhaps, there is no better proof of Gambino's assessment than the current president with whom he shares a first name.

The other Donald offers not a work of art as expose of America's democratic egalitarian myth, but rather the raw evidence of the quick and easy demolition of its democratic institutions and the replacement of its hallowed rhetoric about the rule of law with a blunt declaration that he is the law.

Trump exposes the thinness of U.S. democratic traditions and the weakness of its institutions and social philosophy. In 17 months, he has shredded presidential conventions, monetized the office, brushed aside the separation of powers and shattered historic international relationships.

Support for Trump's unrestrained actions rips away the democratic egalitarian facade covering the crimes against humanity that lay at the pale cold heart of the American experiment. American history is replete with people like this Donald — Andrew Jackson, Sam Huston, Andrew Johnson, J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford, to name a few. America is a society built on the values and practices necessary to engage in chattel slavery, dispossession and genocide, labor exploitation, spectacle lynching, racial pogroms and mass incarceration.

"This is America."

Trump sheds light on the reality that at least 40 percent of white Americans have always been comfortable with racial tyranny, imperialism, sexism, homophobia, etc., while a majority of the rest have not been uncomfortable enough to speak up or act to halt the carnage.

Both Donalds, in different ways and for vastly different reasons, reveal the reality of America. Gambino seeks to awaken consciousness and spark action, while Trump believes that ushering forth that roiling mass of white racial resentment at the core of the U.S. will "make America great again."

Gambino does more than simply offer a portrait of the American nightmare. He also gestures toward a radical vision. In the oft-repeated verse, "Get your money, black man (get your money)," Gambino is speaking collectively (though surprisingly in masculine terms) and thus we should understand the verse as a call for reparations.

However, even though both Gambino and Trump reveal the true soul of America, they offer only partial visions. There is another America. The America that Langston Hughes extols when he wrote, "On, let America Be America again — /The land that never has been-yet." Hughes speaks of the road not taken. He doesn't just describe the reality of the American nightmare but offers a radical vision for "redeeming the soul of America." What we need now, more than ever, is a map to help us find our way to the people who pursued alternative paths. It's time to move the radicals from the periphery to the center.

Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is schajua@gmail.com.

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