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:
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.
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.