Kanye West, Childish Gambino, and Woke Black America

In the past couple of years, there has been a palpable shift in the black American mind. It is reflected most clearly in recent pop culture trends with the rise of films like Get Out and Black Panther and musicians like Donald Glover and Kanye West. The movement is not reactionary but contemplative and introspective, and it is beginning to gain traction politically.

Black America, it seems, is waking up

This wouldn’t be the first black awakening in America. The first occurred during the Civil War and Reconstruction era, when leaders like Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. DuBois encouraged former slaves to rise up and take their place as members of free society. The second occurred with the Civil Rights Movement behind figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and Malcolm X, who helped delegalize segregation and demanded equality under the law. Now America is primed for the rise of new leaders who will integrate that freedom and equality to break down the remaining divisions between black and white Americans.

A large part of this most recent awakening can be credited to Barack Obama—for both good and bad reasons. On the one hand, his election was a beacon of hope for black Americans, showing them that a black man really can be anything in America. It created for the first time a feeling that their destiny is in their control. On the other hand, his election never yielded any true change. After Obama’s eight years in office, many black Americans were still in the same place where they had started. This left them feeling disenfranchised with the capacity for the American political system to positively affect their condition.

It should come as no surprise, then, that figures in the black community have started challenging black allegiance to political parties. Prior to the 2016 election, well-known sports analyst Stephen A. Smith publicly encouraged black Americans to vote Republican simply to show the Democratic Party that the black man doesn’t belong to them; if the Democratic Party isn’t going to deliver on its promises, then black voters ought to seek help elsewhere. When Kanye West took to Twitter in April to out himself as a Trump supporter, Chance the Rapper famously tweeted in Ye’s defense, “Black people don’t have to be Democrats.”

The message of Kanye’s Twitter rampage was not Republicanism, but free thought. He feels that black entertainers—and black Americans in general—are boxed in and submit themselves to a form of mental slavery rather than feeling free to express their own independent ideas. Donald Glover (a.k.a. Childish Gambino) is equally critical of the black entertainment industry in his “This is America” music video, where he portrays black entertainers as smiling money-grabbers oblivious to the struggle of their fellow black Americans.

“This is America” is a continuation of Glover’s eclectic body of work in music and entertainment. An awkward and geeky introvert, Glover has never felt truly comfortable with his ongoing rise to stardom. Camp, his first full Gambino album, is nearly bipolar, swinging back and forth between arrogant pride and lonely depression. He is proud to have found success in the face of racial tension but dissatisfied with the fake nature of success and its confining politics. His award-winning show Atlanta lives in this realm, with its protagonists trying to “make it” in the world of rap while portraying many of the struggles experienced and witnessed by Glover in his career.

His Gambino song “Redbone” was also featured in the opening sequence of Jordan Peele’s acclaimed 2017 thriller Get Out, a masterpiece that critiques a subtler side of racism in America: the racism of many “black allies” among white Democrats. In the movie, the white family seeks to implant black people with white brains. The implication is that there is no place to truly “be black” in America.

That is the ultimate message of “This is America.” Never one to pull punches, Glover freely swings at everyone. His commentary attacks failures of government and law enforcement, Republicans and Democrats, and rich and poor alike. Poor blacks feel hopelessly caught in a world infiltrated by drugs and guns, constantly in conflict with distrustful law enforcement. They vote for Democrats in the hopes that things will change, but the Democrats don’t feel the urgency or truly comprehend the problem. Meanwhile Republicans seem to view them as a lost cause and struggle to identify with them. And when black people do make it out, they rarely step outside the lines, lest they risk their money or perceived power. This picture of black America is then caricaturized in the media, prolonging the cycle and entrenching prejudices on all sides.

“Woke” black Americans have seen these systemic failures on every side and conclude that there is no white knight coming to their aid; the only people who can truly help black Americans are themselves. The first tenant of self-government is the capacity for reason and free thought. They have realized that if change is going to happen, then they must assume responsibility and drive the discussion. Regardless of the past, they must take control of their future. This was the message of the triumphant Black Panther as well as the message of historical black leaders like Douglass and King. Reawakened to these principles, leaders must now rise up and answer the challenge that has been offered, and white America must be prepared to listen and collaborate. We all must find a comfortable place for black culture in America. Only then can the American mind—and the American people—truly be one.