"This Is America" and the Aesthetics of Slavery

Childish Gambino’s new music video for “This Is America”  has already attracted massive attention, amassing more than 80 million views since its release on YouTube six days ago.  Gambino has resisted adopting an interpretive stance on the piece, cheekily explaining that he “just wanted to make a good song, something that people could play on Fourth of Julys.”  There’s no question, however, that the music video is laden with visual references.  Commentators on social and news media have noticed, for instance, allusions to Jim Crow, the 2015 Charleston massacre, the Biblical “pale horse” of death, and the 17 victims of the 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.  The song and its video are powerful commentaries on gun violence, police brutality, pop culture, and the vulnerability of black lives and black bodies in America.

One reference that stands out to me, however, hasn’t been mentioned extensively in interpretations of the video: the aesthetics of slavery.  Throughout the video, Gambino is shirtless, wearing old-fashioned, high-waisted linen pants, sporting natural hair and a beard, and wearing two gold chains – symbols of modern wealth, but also of historical bondage.



This outfit is reminiscent of this 1900 depiction of a slave auction, in which a shirtless black slave is scrutinized by an armed white buyer:

("The purchase of a slave on a slave market in the South of the United States. In the 19th century," 1900, https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/the-purchase-of-a-slave-on-a-slave-market-in-the-south-of-news-photo/526782316#/the-purchase-of-a-slave-on-a-slave-market-in-the-south-of-the-united-picture-id526782316)

("The purchase of a slave on a slave market in the South of the United States. In the 19th century," 1900, https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/the-purchase-of-a-slave-on-a-slave-market-in-the-south-of-news-photo/526782316#/the-purchase-of-a-slave-on-a-slave-market-in-the-south-of-the-united-picture-id526782316)

It is also evocative of the clothes worn by the slave Kunta Kinte in the 1977 TV miniseries Roots:



Some have pointed out that Gambino’s pants are similar to those worn by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.  It is worth noting that slaves were sometimes leased into the Confederate army as laborers and servants.  Some of these army slaves and others fled north into Union lines.  These escapees were classified as “contraband" and were not returned to the south; some enlisted in the Union army.  On its face, Gambino’s use of the word “contraband” (“Hunnid bands, hunnid bands, hunnid bands / Contraband, contraband, contraband / I got the plug in Oaxaca”) is a reference to smuggled drugs, but can also be seen as a nod to escaped slaves.  Similarly, the chase scene at the end of the video can be interpreted as the flight of a slave.

(Illustration from a Civil War Envelope preserved in a scrapbook of Civil War memorabilia at the American Antiquarian Society, http://www.americanantiquarian.org/Freedmen/Intros/contrabands.html)

(Illustration from a Civil War Envelope preserved in a scrapbook of Civil War memorabilia at the American Antiquarian Society, http://www.americanantiquarian.org/Freedmen/Intros/contrabands.html)

Gambino’s state of half-undress highlights the degree to which black bodies have been vulnerable throughout American history, as well as the ways in which they have been commodified and scrutinized under the white gaze.  The vulnerability of Gambino’s character is magnified by the contrast between his shirtlessness and the modern uniforms, helmets, and body armor worn by the police officers who run through the background of the video.  This racialized power dynamic has persisted from the auction blocks of slavery and the segregation of the civil rights era to the school dress codes, police violence, and persistent white pearl-clutching of the present day.  Gambino, like the slave he portrays, is commodified and scrutinized, subjected to the gaze of the viewer by virtue not just of his blackness, but also of his celebrity -- but at least Gambino, unlike many of his forbears, can profit from our scrutiny.

New Year's in the Trenches

For many, the holidays are a time to reflect on the past, and celebrations in the trenches of the First World War have been the source of much intrigue during these centenary years.  The Christmas Truce of 1914 — when British and German troops ceased fire and met in No-Man’s Land to share drinks, cigars, carols, and even a game of soccer — has been mythologized and romanticized in popular culture.  It is the subject of the 2005 French film Joyeux Noël, the 2014 Sainsbury’s Christmas advert, and, most recently, the 2017 Doctor Who Christmas special.  Far less is known, however, about how soldiers experienced the coming of a new year.

For many soldiers, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day were fighting days like any others.  The 58th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, for example, spent January 1, 1917, on the front lines, where the trenches were in a muddy and caved-in state of disrepair (Shackleton, 111).  British officer George B. Horridge, who served with the 1/5th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers, recalled that December 1917 brought violence mixed with dark humor.  On Christmas day, his company fired gas shells into the German lines, but were surprised when the Germans did not retaliate.  Their revenge would finally come on New Year’s Eve: “We were […] in the front line on New Year’s Eve,” remembered Horridge, “and we […] listen[ed] to German gas shells going over our lines into our headquarters. […] The next day, all headquarters was taken off to hospital with swollen eyes and whatnot.  We thought that was a bit of humor on the part of the Germans: we’d sent them a Christmas present, and they’d sent us a New Year’s present!” (Horridge).  The war could also bring violence to the holiday for civilians, most notably on December 31, 1916, when 19 civilian men, all from the same neighborhood of Tyneside, were killed when a mine intended for a British warship blew up the pilot cutter Protector, a small boat responsible for guiding larger ships safely to harbor (Morton).

Despite the violent circumstances and strange settings of war, many soldiers found ways to ring in the new year with cheer.  In a diary entry for January 1, 1917, Australian soldier Thomas Reginald Part noted simply: “Every one jovial & very merry” (Part, 45).  The soldiers of the 12th Battalion London Regiment weathered short rations during the week leading up to 1918, but on January 5, they “celebrated the new year with a fête, and with rum punch and a sing-song in Nissen huts” (Birch).  This jollity was a warm contrast to the dismal Christmas that had preceded it.  As private Thomas George Birch remembered: “Our [Christmas] dinner was tins of Maconochie [an infamous, thin stew of carrots, potatoes, and turnips] warmed over a tin containing a candle wrapped in a piece of sandbag burning beneath it.  No goose, no Christmas pudding, no mince tarts, and somehow we didn’t need crackers, being helped with plenty from outside" (Birch).

For many soldiers, the coming of a new year was an occasion to reflect on the causes for which they fought and the homes they had left behind.  On January 1, 1917, the editors of the trench magazine The Wipers Times (named after British soldiers’ mispronunciation of ‘Ypres’) affirmed their disdain for the enemy in typical tongue-in-cheek, soldierly fashion: “Here’s the best of luck for the New Year to all our readers,” they wrote, “Whatever it may have in store for us, we can at least be thankful we are not Huns.  If they were anyone else but Huns one might feel sorry for them, and send them a card of sympathy for the trouble in store” (Wipers Times).  Royal Garrison Artillery gunner D. Fergus Fergusson commemorated the dawning of 1917 with a poem that celebrated British bravery and the “King and laws” that the Allies were fighting to defend:

Amid the din and oil of war
The old year fled with noisy trend,
To usher in triumphal car
A newer era; and to lend
A spasm of time fresh from the void
Of things unknown and unalloyed.

Success in war — if nothing mar — 
Perchance may seasons bring
To men toil-stained and travelled far,
Since twice a former spring.
Ambition and high freedom’s cause
Invite brave men

To fight renowned for King and laws,
And crush again
The hostile forces that array
Their Prussian banners;
Great Britain’s sons first in the fray
Shall teach them manners.

So let the sand-glass, ebbing low,
Hasten victory — as it must —
No obligations to the foe,
False is their trust!
And with the advent of the year
Let hearts beat high that know not fear. (Fergusson).

While Fergusson and the editors of the Wipers Times greeted the new year with confidence and a degree of belligerence, the holidays were bittersweet for others.  American soldier William Russel, for instance, had never spent a Christmas without his family, and in January 1918, he wrote home: “Christmas and New Years have passed, and I must confess it is a sort of relief to have them over. Although both were happy days in so far as the hospitality and very kind treatment by friends went, yet there was an indescribable lonesomeness which made them strange" (Sass).

Perhaps the most trying New Year's of all, however, was that experienced in 1918 by the American soldiers of the 306th Field Artillery.  Though they were stationed at Camp Upton in New York, tucked safely away from the front lines, the men had weathered a bitter battle.  Private Salvatore Cillis described the brutal scene on a hand-painted New Year’s card sent to a Miss D. M. Harris: “To keep warm we choose sides and battle with snow balls, if it was a real battle I would have shot down three men in the first fight that took place, and in the second brawl if they had shot at me a real cannon ball I would have come out, out of that battle with no brains, I dodged one snow ball and got in the way of another.  I don’t know who pitched it, but I think he aughter be with the New York Giants who ever did" (Cillis).



Birch, Thomas George. Oral history. Imperial War Museum catalog number 7498 (1984). http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80032051.

Cillis, Pvt. Salvatore, to D. M. Harris. 28 Dec. 1917. New York Historical Society. http://blog.nyhistory.org/happy-new-year-wwi/

Fergusson, D. Fergus. “The New Year (1917).” In War Verses, 28-9Paisley: Alexander Gardner, 1917.

Horridge, George B. Interviewed by Peter M. Hart. Imperial War Museum catalog number 7498 (1984). http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80007300.

Morton, David. “How 19 Tyneside men were killed in a New Year’s Eve tragedy 100 years ago.” Chronicle Live, 30 Dec. 2016. http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/history/how-19-tyneside-men-were-12380631.

Part, Reginald. “From the Diary of Thomas Reginald Part, an Australian Soldier who Fought in World War I, 15 December 1915.” In Understanding the Literature of World War I: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents, ed. James H. Meredith, 39-48. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Sass, Erik. “WWI Centennial: Last Christmas at War.” Mental Floss, 25 Dec. 2017. http://mentalfloss.com/article/522360/wwi-centennial-last-christmas-war

Shackleton, Kevin R. Second to None: The Fighting 58th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2002.

Wipers Times 3:1, 20 January 1917.