I spent Saturday evening in a room full of black people, celebrating the birthday of a friend and the genius possessed by two people who were not in that room: LeBron James and Donald Glover. The first part of our night was devoted to the second half of the Cleveland Cavaliers game, and as we watched LeBron go Full Thanos against the Toronto Raptors (again), the most striking aspect of this game-winning shot was how ordained it felt.
The best athletes ensconce the audience in a cloak of inevitability. You watch them play enough, and the results start to feel predetermined. Staged, even. This predictability isn’t the product of conspiracy. It’s just a result of the mysticism their talents cultivate.
For much of LeBron’s career, a common criticism has been that despite the myriad gifts and talents and skills and accolades he possesses, the ability to induce this sort of wonder—this sort of sureness that his success is predestined—isn’t one of them.
It is a dumb critique. One that relies on confirmation bias to excuse away and ignore his successes to fit some narrative of his moral failings. And it is amusing now to watch these sorts of critics twist themselves into “well, actually”-ing pretzels to find a way to perform the same arguments.
An hour or so after the game ended, the Donald Glover-hosted and dominated episode of Saturday Night Live aired. We turned the TV back on and watched his monologue riff on and satirize what seems to be the prevailing consensus regarding Glover’s work now: He can do everything.
I realize that the thing I am about to say might not be said with an unimpeachable historical consideration, but I believe that the place in pop culture in which Glover exists has never been occupied.
He is the creator and star of a show that’s considered one of the best, if not the best, on TV. And he is also the creator of a musical pseudo alter ego whose work is beginning to receive similar lauds. I don’t know if there’s been a person who’s existed as both things at the same time. (Personally, I believe his show-making talent exceeds his music, but that’s an arguable distinction, I guess.)
With his last performance Saturday night, he debuted “This Is America.” We were each impressed with the song, and none of us knew that he’d also just dropped a video for that song. I didn’t know until the next morning, when conversations about it dominated each social media platform to which I belong.
The video, which I finally got around to watching in full Sunday evening, is ... something. It’s one of those pieces of art whose primary purpose of existing is to theorize about it and its creator(s). I’ve seen, over the last 24 hours, a strange and somewhat tone-deaf call for people not to provide written commentary on it yet, as if it’s an artifact that can only be considered and assessed with the most delicate of hands and the most learned of sensibilities. (And as if there aren’t people whose incomes are at least partially dependent on developing and publishing quick thoughts and arguments about the things people are thinking and arguing about.)
“This Is America,” however, was created specifically for the take economy. You do not build and release a thing like that if you do not want people to be engaged with it. And of the myriad takes I’ve seen so far, about Glover and about that song and that video, the only truly terrible one is that he is now some sort of anti-Kanye West. Or, perhaps, the gift for making it through the Yeezy muck. The pot of gold at the end of Kanye’s shit-stained rainbow.
I understand, I guess, the compulsion for this sort of juxtaposition. Between Atlanta and his music, Glover’s work could have an antiseptic quality, cleansing us of Kanye’s descent into anti-blackness and celebratory idiocy. But at the very least, this comparison fails because it reduces Glover’s work to that of a palate cleanser. And also implied is that only one of these types of men can exist concurrently.
Mostly, though, this belief is dangerous because of how it idealizes Donald Glover, making him this paragon of nuanced depictions of and love for blackness, while Kanye exists as our fallen angel.
This type of exaltation invites a scrutiny into his work and his person—a search for an unimpeachable blackness that he cannot live up to. Those familiar with Glover’s entire career know that while he has undoubtedly evolved into whatever it is that he is now, who he was before this was (justifiably) accused of loitering in the same anti-blackness that Kanye sits in now.
By bringing this up, I’m not suggesting that the 2018 Donald Glover should still be regarded as the 2010 Donald Glover. Instead, I’m just asking us to let him be him instead of St. Donald, here to deliver us from Calabasas. However tempting it is, don’t perform this racial canonization that he—and anyone else who’s similarly idealized—will undoubtedly fall short of.
I know this is America, but let’s try not to do what America encourages us to do.