In a recent commencement speech, Covenant College art professor Dr. Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt spoke on a fascinating piece of artwork that was featured in the Tate Modern Museum in London back in 2007. The museum gave artist Doris Salcedo a chance to feature an installation in their Turbine Hall. But instead of filling the showroom with art Salcedo had already made, the artist did something different. Salcedo created a 548-foot rupture in the museum’s floor – a conceptual art piece called Shibboleth. The size of the fissure led people to examine the meandering crack from many perspectives. Some would walk the length, stick their hands in the depth, and feel the contrast of the smooth floor with the rough, inside walls of the crack. With few contextual clues from Salcedo for what she intended the piece to mean, the art caused quite a stir with many praising and others not sure what to make of the crack in the floor.
In the world of pop culture, Donald Glover (AKA – Childish Gambino) made a similar artistic crack with his latest music video, This is America. With the help of visionary director Hiro Murai, Glover’s video is pure genius at work. Everyone and their mother is examining it with over 115 million views since its release just over a week ago. Many celebrate the work, some scoff, and quite a few are still left scratching their heads at his content. If you haven’t seen it, check the video below. But a bit of a forewarning, the content is explicit.
As soon as This is America broke, the internet was in a frenzy over what Glover’s video meant. And like after watching a good movie, listening to a complex album, or reading a layered text, it makes sense to take to the web and discuss the brilliance of what we’ve just consumed. A few have said that Glover’s video has “turned trauma into art” as he artistically (and graphically) portrays the pain and struggle of the black community in America. The social commentary on the video is well-worth exploring and is extremely helpful in understanding Glover’s message in the music video. However, like many discussion boards, commentaries, and online banter, the hype around the video is dizzying. Yes, Glover has turned trauma into art; the video is expertly done and incredibly uncomfortable to watch. But with each viewing, think piece, easter-egg video, or comment thread on Facebook about This is America, I’m still left wanting a resolution I’m not sure I’ll get. The problem with turning trauma into art is that the trauma can’t be resolved by just simply dissecting it. Examining This is America through a cultural lens may help make sense of the thematic elements of the video but does little to mend the wounds that Glover’s addressing.
The buzz around the video is a product of the culture we live in where opinions are dependent and quickly drawn by what we read and watch on the internet. Even in writing something, I know that in a way I’m perpetuating the very thing I’m critiquing. And although the commentary and subject matter of Glover’s video is extremely beneficial, the emotional heft of the video seems almost lost in the commotion that surrounds it. There is a lot of commentary surrounding Glover’s artistic fissure but I wonder if we’ve settled for knowledge and understanding of the content as the end goal instead of examining the crack on our own hands and knees to see what part we play in all of this.
It may be that the reluctance to see how deep the cracks and fissures in our society go can be attributed to fear. Fear that, at some point, we’ll be found to be in the wrong. We’ll find that as individuals and as a society, we have contributed to some kind of evil, in Glover’s case the deep-rooted sin of racial injustice. Author and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson, says that it’s really difficult coming to grips with America’s dark history, in part, because “we live in the most punitive society on the planet.” But Stevenson’s work and recent project in Montgomery aims to grapple with our past. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in late April and is the first lynching memorial in the United States. Here’s a quick snippet from the recent New York Times article on how visceral and deliberate the memorial intends to be:
“A grassy hillock rises in the middle of the memorial. From here you can see the Montgomery skyline through the thicket of hanging columns, the river where the enslaved were sold and the State Capitol building that once housed the Confederacy, whose monuments the current Alabama governor has vowed to protect. It is a striking view. But Mr. Stevenson pointed out that when standing here, you are on view as well, faced on all sides by the names of the thousands who were run down, instantly judged and viciously put to death. ‘You might feel judged yourself,’ he said. ‘What are you going to do?'”
Stevenson’s hope through the incredible project is to rectify the wrong-doings of our past through remembering and reconciling. He says, “I’m not interested in talking about America’s history because I want to punish America… I want to liberate America.”
There’s a short prayer in the Book of Common Prayer that says, “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.” The prayer may seem old-timey with the thees and thous but musician Zac Hicks talks about the power behind coming to God with our hearts open. He imagines our hearts literally being filleted open, all of our desires, blind-spots, prejudices, and ignorance exposed before God. The vivid imagery of our hearts being laid bare before the Lord of hosts is a dangerous prayer. It assumes that God is indeed an open-heart surgeon, that the process will be painful, but that his examining and cutting is exactly what we need for healing. And maybe the art of Stevenson and Glover are the surgical tools we need to expose our calloused hearts when it comes to racial reconciliation. Controversial content will continue to be created and like This is America, the best of it can feel like a gut-punch or an assault to our blind spots. But instead of settling for answers in click-bait articles or following the passionate dialogue to justify how we’re right and they’re wrong (whoever “they” is), our rootedness should be from a posture of repentance; on our knees examining the cracks, admitting our wrongs, and asking for forgiveness.
For the full commencement address by Dr. Weichbrodt, check the video below. It is unbelievable and definitely worth the watch.