Thoughts on “This is America”

Here is the music video for Childish Gambino’s (aka Donald Glover’s) new song, “This Is America”:

The great thing about a provocative music video is that it’s open to multiple interpretations. At a glance, I’ve seen a few takes that describe this as a video about guns, riots, policing, and the like. Here’s my two cents: this is a video about black men in the American imagination on the one hand, and the experience of being a black man in America on the other.

In both of those dimensions, it is a video about fear.

In the opening minute or so, Glover alternately embodies the primary ways we have of seeing black men. He is an entertainer one moment, and a threat the next. But when he embodies the entertainer he is not empowered. He is a minstrel character; he is Jim Crow himself:

Jimcrow

And then suddenly he transforms into a hyper-masculine, violent, threatening other.

In the final moments of the video, we glimpse the irony in all of this. Black men, objects of fear in the American imagination, have ample reason to be afraid. The theme that most stood out to me in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me was fear. White Americans spend a lot of time being afraid of black people. We’re left with little room in our imaginations for how fearful the experience of being black in America can be.

When I think about the fears I have for my children—how I get angry at even the suspicion that they are being mistreated, that an adult might not be judging them as individuals—and then consider what it means to be a black parent…I am overwhelmed by all the extra work every black parent is doing to keep themselves and their children on an even keel.

I’ve now strayed a bit away from the song. But these are some rough thoughts inspired by it.

Notes from the Classroom: Teaching Evangelical Popular Culture

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Stryper, 1980s. Evangelical popular culture? Not what you were expecting, huh?

In class today I talked about or showed video clips from:

A Thief in the Night

Larry Norman

Stryper

Amy Grant

DC Talk

Michael W. Smith

Left Behind

God’s Not Dead

Now, if the world imagined by the God’s not Dead film series is accurate, I guess this is the part where my godless, secular institution fires me for saying the name “Jesus” in the classroom.

I used these varied snippets of evangelical cultural production to illustrate several salient themes of late 20th century evangelical popular culture. I argued that it is:

Populist and frequently apocalyptic

We talked a good bit about an evangelical persecution complex (see Alan Noble’s Atlantic article), which seems tied to the apocalyptic trend. Through films like A Thief in the Night and books like Left Behind, evangelicals could imagine a not-too-distant future where Christians would be hunted down and killed.

My working hypothesis is that the apocalyptic theology of the fundamentalist movement only became prominent in cultural production after the upheavals of the 1960s. Notice that this was also the era when revived narratives of “Christian America” took off, with the publication of Peter Marshall and David Manuel’s The Light and the Glory. Apocalyptic popular culture appealed to people who felt that the country had suddenly gone to hell right before their eyes.

The populist dimension of this is obvious on the surface. Evangelical popular culture is anti-elitist and anti-intellectual. But it’s deeper than that. It has to do with what is considered authoritative. Evangelical theory says the Bible is authoritative. In practice, as Todd Brenneman has argued, emotion and feeling have pride of place in evangelical culture. Much evangelical cultural production is extraordinarily sentimental.

A driver of group identity/cohesion

Every community needs to define itself and tell its members who they are and where they belong. Evangelical popular culture does that, especially for kids.

An expression of enduring insider/outsider tension

This goes all the way back to the tensions George Marsden identified in early 20th-century fundamentalism. Are we insiders or outsiders? Alienated from the nation, or its truest defenders? In late 20th century popular culture, it means evangelicals want to influence the culture, but also assert their difference from it. So when someone like Amy Grant wins great mainstream success, does that mean she is faithfully “witnessing” to the culture, or does it mean she sold out and betrayed her Christian commitments?

Implicitly political

This one is probably pretty obvious. Evangelical popular culture is political if for no other reason than it provokes an us vs them mentality, the Christian vs the secular, the conservative vs the liberal, the insider vs the outsider.

The lecture was not as well-put together as it should have been, but I think it was still a fun one. A better crafted synthesis would bring these various features of evangelical popular culture together into a more coherent whole. But I wasn’t sure how to do that.

Song of the Day

In his new album out this week, Christian rapper Lecrae says a definitive goodbye to all the colorblind Christians who wanted him to be their puppet:

There is so much to be said about this song, but for now, I think I may have found a header lyric for my entire book:

Hey, you want unity? Then read a eulogy
Kill the power that exists up under you and over me
I said, you want unity? Then read a eulogy
Kill the power that exists up under you and over me.

What do you think that means?

And I have some colleagues who will appreciate this:

You grew up thinkin’ that the Panthers was some terrorists
I grew up hearin’ how they fed my momma eggs and grits.

White Evangelicalism’s Politics of Nostalgia

Assuming enrollment holds up, next semester I’ll be teaching a GenEd history class called “The Making of American Society.” It’s vague enough for me to turn it into almost whatever I want. I’m going to organize the class around three or four thematic units. One of them will be evangelicalism.

One lecture I already have on the calendar is, “Make America Christian Again: The Evangelical Politics of Nostalgia.” I know exactly how I want to start this class: with the music video to Carman’s 1993 song, “America Again” (embedded below).

In my last post I mentioned the prevalence of national declension narratives in white evangelicalism. This song captures that sensibility with eerie precision. Some of you are going to be gobsmacked by this video, so let me insist at the outset: I didn’t go out and find an obscure example of evangelical nostalgia. This is mainstream. Carman was one of the most popular Christian artists of the 1990s, and this song was a chart-topper (I can’t seem to find the exact numbers anywhere).

Though the video contains no explicit reference to partisanship, an evangelical who imbibed its message would have no trouble knowing for whom to vote come election time. The overlap between the song’s title and Trump’s campaign slogan a generation later is more than just a suggestive coincidence.

Hip Hop Discovers (White) Evangelicalism

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St. Louis based rapper Thi’sl. In contrast to Lecrae, his lyrics usually assume a black audience.

Here’s an article idea: how Christian rap in the age of black lives matter reveals the contours of white evangelicalism. This could be published in a popular venue, but with some work I think it could be an academic journal article. Who would publish something like this?

Ok, why open up a half-baked idea like this to the public? Historians can play a useful role not only by presenting history to the public, but by being historians in public. The actual work of researching and writing involves lots of questions, lots of confusion, lots of false starts and dead ends. When we only allow the public to see a polished final product, we’re not actually modeling the kinds of thought-processes and critical thinking that are so desperately needed in the public sphere.

Here are some early thoughts on the intersection of rap, whiteness, and evangelicalism.

Lecrae is the most obvious personification of this. He was invited into a world of white Christians and it seemed great for a while. Then he stumbled over invisible tripwires. He embraced evangelicalism, and found that its embrace of him had some fine print attached to it. The terms and conditions included: be an avatar of Christian colorblindness.

With the rise of black lives matter, Lecrae was no longer willing/able to play that role. Then the backlash began.

In his early music, Lecrae rarely mentioned race explicitly. His use of black slang and urban themes made his music “cool” for white Christian kids without necessarily being threatening. When race entered into his lyrics, it came as a foil, a false distinction rendered unimportant by the common spiritual need of humanity or the common mission of the church. In his first album, Real Talk, the song “Tha Church” says:

Cause God’s wrath is something we all gotta meet
It don’t matter if you black, white, Jew, or Greek

God’s judgment of sin made no racial distinctions. Presented with Pauline allusions, this was a message about race white listeners were happy to hear. In 2008, Lecrae released Rebel. Like his first album, Rebel was full of references to scripture and theology. The most prominent use of race in the album was in the popular song “Don’t Waste Your Life.”

Suffer, yeah, do it for Christ
You’re trying to figure what to do with your life
If you make a lot of money hope you’re doing it right
Because the money is God’s you better steward it right
And stay focused, you ain’t got no ride
Your life ain’t wrapped up in what you drive
The clothes you wear, the job you work
The color your skin, naw you’re a Christian first

An unusually alert listener could possibly understand Lecrae’s reference to skin color here as a rebuke of white evangelicalism, a religious tradition where race shapes everything from theology to education to home purchases. But this is almost certainly not what Lecrae meant, and it’s not what his white listeners were likely to hear. If they heard a rebuke, it was a rebuke of black Christians for being too race-conscious, for being insufficiently colorblind.

Lecrae’s latest single shows the distance he’s traveled:

Another murder on the television
Man, somebody go turn it off
I spoke my mind, I got attacked for it
Thought these people had my back boy
Then they tellin’ me I asked for it
I guess I’m just another black boy
And then they killed Tamir Rice
And they just go on with they life

In this song and in interviews, Lecrae frankly admitted that his encounter with white Christians drove him to a place of despair.

To me an article along these lines would be fascinating. But what would it tell us that we don’t already know? My sense is that this would be an article about nuance and texture more than a groundbreaking thesis. We know that white evangelicalism has problems with race. But this is an interesting and revealing way to explore that. Questions:

How does this relate to Christian radio and its playlists dominated by white males?

What does this tell us about how colorblindness functions at the intersection of culture and theology?

What rappers other than Lecrae would the article explore? Sho Baraka? Trip Lee?

Is there a way to more precisely figure out the demographics of Lecrae’s fan base?

What kinds of sources would reveal white evangelical opinion? Social media posts?

How is colorblindness best understood? Is it a theology in evangelicalism? Is it a feeling? Is it a gatekeeper to the community? If you reject colorblindness do you become a probationary evangelical?

Woah…just thought of this: what change over time have we seen since the reception of DC Talk in the early 90s? There’s an idea: white evangelicalism and rap, from DC Talk to Lecrae. Just typing that makes me laugh.

Has anyone written about this stuff?