Donald Glover, #NappingWhileBlack, and the role of the artist in America today

I knew it would only be a matter of time before I saw another news story about a Black person having to deal with unchecked whitepeopling. This time it was a Black female grad student at Yale who had the cops called on her by a White student who found her napping in the common room of their graduate housing. This comes on the heels of the Philadelphia Starbucks incident, and the five Black women who were golfing too slowly. (Not to mention the women who were laughing too loudly during their wine tour.) This story reminds me of my own incident a few years ago while I was living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

It was the middle of winter and I was walking home in the early evening from the train. I was on my street wearing a long black coat with the hood up, jeans, and L.L. Bean Boots. I had my bag slung over my shoulder. A white lady who looked about my age (and dressed how you’d imagine a mid-20s white woman living in Williamsburg would look) overtook me on the sidewalk. When she was in front of me, she turned around and looked me dead in the face. We made eye contact. She turned forward again, put her head down, and crossed the street. You might be thinking to yourself, well-intentioned reader, that she was simply crossing the street because she had to; it probably had nothing to do with me. Here’s the catch, she lived in the building next door.

The media will pay this #NappingWhileBlack story lip service before pressing forward to the next headline like a scarab rolling dung in the Egyptian desert. However, I fear that as we descend deeper and deeper into the dark depths of this Trumpian dystopia, we seem to have become anesthetized in our vigilance to issues that are slow to unfold, difficult to name, and even slower and more difficult to resolve. The consequence has been something different from apathy, but not too distant from complacency and resignation.

I find it interesting to read these headlines in the context of undeniable and unapologetic Black excellence: Beyonce’s very Black Coachella performance and with it, her solidification as the world’s supreme entertainer; Virgil Abloh’s ascendancy atop Louis Vuitton; and Robert Smith’s domination of software private equity, to name a few. We could reasonably argue that this is the beginning of a Black Renaissance. And yet...

For every generation of every society— past and present— there comes a time in the maturation of that generation when it must ask of itself, What is the role of the artist?

As we wade in the comfortable tide pool of potential, we are snapped back into stark reality by the ever-woke Artist (with a capital A), Donald Glover. With the surprise release of his new song and music video, This is America, he does what true Artists have done for centuries; what Baldwin so perfectly, as always, describes as driving “to the heart of every answer and expos[ing] the question that the answer hides.”

The video is about gun violence in America, what we choose to focus on-- and thus protect-- and how we choose to cope. It is also about much more.

While it is critical to ask these questions, it is equally important that we be willing and prepared to make the changes required by the answers. Eleanor Roosevelt posited that “every bad situation is a result of apathy.” It is not enough to simply be aware or to complain, action is needed. It is an adage repeated in countless fashions over time and across distances. Maya Angelou said it when she declared, “When you know better, you do better.”

And this is where the Artist comes in again. He is at war with the injustices society believes are necessary for its preservation. But it is a war, as Baldwin (again) describes so precisely, as a “lover’s war, and he does at his best what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself, and with that revelation, make freedom real.”

It is a beautiful sentence, but it is lacking. For as we learned from the magnificent women of just a generation passed, awareness without action is an opportunity lost. Fortunately, Camus— a giant of modern human philosophy— has an answer: “...the mind found its real emancipation in the acceptance of new obligations.”

These times require us to take ownership over the facts of the shortcomings of our society. Eleanor Roosevelt advises us to “learn to think freshly about our new revolutionary world, to free our intelligence from the shackles of fear, and set it to work on the most challenging problems we have ever faced: the preservation of our civilization. We have to take a look at ourselves, at what our government requires, at what our community needs from us; and then prepare to take a stand. In the long-run there is no more liberating, no more exhilarating experience than to determine one's position, state it bravely, and then act boldly. Action brings with it its own courage, its own energy, a growth of self-confidence that can be acquired in no other way.”

It is not about assigning blame. It’s about using our lives, our voices, and our choices to make the world a more “human dwelling place.”