Childish Gambino's 'This Is America' Should Be Taught in Every Classroom

May 11, 2018 12:00:00 AM

by James Miles

This is America. Whenever I have read or heard that phrase, it is followed by another bold phrase, or statement. This is America. Land of the Free. Home of the Brave. This is America. The greatest country in the world. This is America. You can pull yourself up by your bootstraps. This America. We stand up for what we believe in. This is America. Speak English. This is America. Go back to where you came from. This is America...nigger. Childish Gambino’s new song and video, “This is America,” encapsulates all of the above phrases, and situates them in order to explore what it really means to be American. The video is a lesson on the history of a country founded by violent acts and promulgated by more violence. As an educator, this is an opportunity to introduce and discuss American history and explore the ways in which the media portrays violence, capitalism, entertainment and the Black body. [pullquote position="left"]Gambino has provided a platform for classroom discussion[/pullquote], so it is imperative that we take him up on that.

A Classroom Guide to Teaching ‘This is America’

If I were in the classroom, I would use this video as a visual inquiry activity. At the start of class, I would ask questions like: What images do you see? Why does he treat the gun with more care than the person he shot? What does that say about America? Then I would ask the students to watch the video again and examine what everyone else is doing in the background. Why is there a man riding a white horse in the video? What does a white horse represent? Where are all those people running? What are the kids doing in the video? What does it mean that everyone is using their phones? What’s with all of the cars from the last century? Why is SZA in this video? Good teaching is about asking questions, and this video brings up a lot of questions for the viewer to analyze. Throughout the video, Gambino dances and sings, and then he commits murder. The viewer sees that, but then is distracted by more dancing and singing. At this point, Gambino is highlighting how we sometimes fail to see what happens behind the flash—the bloodshed, fear mongering, police apathy, death, inequity and more. The video also rightly acknowledges how the Black body is viewed as a commodity. Childish Gambino is shirtless and contorts his face and body reminiscent of Jim Crow cartoons. We are asked to look at him and ignore the reality of his situation. When he is running from the police at the end of the video, it is an examination of how [pullquote position="right"]the Black body is in constant struggle with being eroticized and feared.[/pullquote] The video serves as a snapshot into how we digest media, and questions our role as consumers. Are we the viewers, or are we the victims? If this video is a reflection of society, we must examine what got us here. How did the impact of slavery, Reconstruction, capitalism and violence lead to where we find ourselves today? After all...This is America. Don’t catch you slipping up. (Aye.)

James Miles

James Miles is the executive director of Arts Corps in Seattle, Washington. He's originally from Chicago and recently moved to Seattle from Brooklyn, New York City, where he worked as an artist and educator for the past 20 years. A graduate of Morehouse College and Brandeis University, James has presented at SXSWedu, NYU’s IMPACT Festival, Creative Tech Week, EdTech Europe, Google Educator Bootcamp, and provided Professional Development to teachers across the world. His work has been featured by Pie News, New Profit, Seattle Times, National Guild, Complex Magazine, NPR, CBS, U.S. Department of Education and ASCD. He can be frequently found on social media, as @fresh_professor, writing about arts education, educational policy and academic inequity.

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