by Marsha Rakestraw
On May 5, Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, released “This is America,” a new song and music video that have sparked worldwide attention and conversation, in part because of themes and graphic depictions that include gun violence, police brutality, consumerism, and racial inequality in the US.
As artist and educator James Miles said, “The video is a lesson on the history of a country founded by violent acts and promulgated by more violence.”
Watch the video here (note: contains graphic violence and a bit of graphic language) (4:04 min)
The video and its messages are an important tool for discussion and exploration with older students, especially because the issues raised are so current, relevant, and far-reaching.
Here are some resources and ideas to help teachers explore the video and its themes with students.
Music Video Analysis
If you need some help with analysis, or want to provide students with resources for analysis, consider these:
- This is America: Donald Glover’s Video is a Gripping Read (via Awesomely Luvvie)
- 7 Things You May Have Missed in Childish Gambino’s This is America Music Video (via Blavity)
- Childish Gambino’s “This is America” Video, Explained (via Huffington Post)
- Hidden Meanings Behind Childish Gambino’s “This is America” Video Explained (via Insider) (4:50 min)
- Breaking Down “This is America,” Childish Gambino’s Chilling New Video (via Washington Post) (1:23 min)
- Breaking Down the Satire and Symbolism in Childish Gambino’s New Music Video (via NBC News) (2 min)
“This is America” raises numerous issues and questions worth exploring.
The song and video contain a lot of layers, so you’ll want to show the video multiple times.
It will also be helpful to share the lyrics.
Before you show students the video, you may want to ask them to respond to what they think of when they hear “This is America,” based on what they’ve heard or experienced. For example, you could ask them to complete the phrase “This is America: ….”
… The greatest country in the world.
This is America: Land of the Free, Home of the Brave.
This is America: Speak English!
This is America: Go back where you came from!
and consider how the responses might differ according to people’s demographics and experiences.
Here are some possible discussion questions to get the conversation started and help your students dig deeper:
- When you watched the video for the first time, what did you notice?
- What’s your initial reaction to the music video and the song? Why?
- (Invite students to reflect on what they notice each subsequent time they watch it): What did you notice this time? This time? This time?
- What do you think the main takeaway message of the video might be?
- Who is the audience for this music video? Why do you think that?
- How are guns treated in the video? Why do you think that is? What is our relationship with guns in the US? What’s the relationship with guns in other countries?
- Why do you think Childish Gambino makes a reference (in his posture) to Jim Crow?
(Note: To help students gain familiarity with Jim Crow, use resources like this one, this one, and this one.)
- Why is there such a difference between what’s happening with Childish Gambino and the dancers in the foreground, and everything that’s happening in the background? What is the artist trying to say/show?
- What are some of the symbolic references you noticed?
- What might the inclusion of cell phones mean? What do you notice about the people who are using cell phones? In the lyrics about cell phones? What might be the message(s) there?
- How do we in the US use pop culture to distract us/escape from the grave challenges our world faces (like institutionalized racism and gun violence)?
- Guthrie Ramsey, a professor of music history, says “Even though we think of popular culture as a space where we escape, [Childish Gambino]’s forcing us to understand that there’s actually nowhere to run. We have to deal with the cultural violence that we have created and continue to sustain.” What are some examples of cultural violence that we have created and continue to sustain? How can those of us with privilege help change the story away from cultural violence? What systems are involved in perpetuating cultural violence?
- How does our consumption of violence in entertainment influence how we react and act toward actual violence?
- Videographer Taylor Hickman said of the video, “My ultimate takeaway is that it’s easy for an audience to consume black entertainment while simultaneously ignoring black social issues.” What are examples of this?
- How does this video reflect the lived experience of people of color (especially black people)?
- CNN analyst Bakari Sellers, in a reaction to the video, said “Being black in America is constantly living in a state of PTSD.” What do you think that means? What can we as a society do to create meaningful change, so that Sellers’ statement is no longer true?
- Does using violence in art that is meant to inspire social change actually contribute to desensitizing us to violence against those whom that art is meant to help? And, as writer Jazmine Joyner asks, “… is Black death and pain art?”
- There have been strong critiques of the video, including this statement by musician and producer Khari Lucas: “I think the re-creation of traumatic violence against black people in order to convey an artistic message is an overused and less-than-effective technique, and that it certainly doesn’t provide any benefit for black people to continually have to view images of our own violation, whether dramatized or actual.” What’s your reaction to this statement? How might art be used to educate, inspire, and provoke, without retraumatizing those who have already been traumatized?
- What are the systems that support the harms and violence reflected in the music video? (e.g., political system, criminal justice system, education system, corporate system, economic system)
- What are some of the potential places to intervene in a system/problem that might be used to effect meaningful, positive change? (Use a video like this one to help students better understand how to identify root causes and how to intervene.)
- What are some potential solutions that can address the problems raised in Childish Gambino’s music video?
Additional Resources and Teaching Ideas
For additional teaching resources and ideas, consider:
- Teacher Natasha Akery has shared a lesson plan (via Google Docs) she has created to help students explore the song and video through symbolism, imagery, metaphor, and similar devices.
- The Hipster Teacher has created a free lesson plan on Teachers Pay Teachers, focusing on analyzing the dancing, lyrics, metaphors, and symbolism in the “This is America” music video.
- IHE’s president Zoe Weil has shared a blog post focused on analyzing a problem like police violence against black men, identifying the systems involved, and finding meaningful solutions.
- Use our curated resources on Pinterest to help you teach about issues around race and racism, as well as explore issues of racism, prejudice, and discrimination.
- Use our curated resources on Pinterest to help you teach about issues related to criminal justice and mass incarceration.
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