Pageants of Grief: Handling Loss in the works of Donald Glover, Jaamil Olawale Kosoko & serpentwithfeet by Adam Patterson
Sometimes is not a good thing to cry too long. My man is dead yes. But not all the crying in the world going to bring him back. And I fraid to lose what leave. We is here, don’t is so? And tomorrow the sun going come up the same as ever. No matter what is past, you can’t stop the blood from drumming, and you can’t stop the heart from hoping.
Dennis Scott, An Echo in the Bone (1974)
What kind of lover would I be / if I didn’t properly grieve?
serpentwithfeet, mourning song (2018)
To share one’s loss with others – to make it public – is an invitation to recall what has been lost, reanimating and recharging the past to address the underlying traumas of the present, as a community in mourning. In taking the time for mourning rituals, whether spectacular or introverted, commemorative or irreverent, pageants of grief (as borrowed from Josiah Wise of serpentwithfeet) complicate our handling of loss, compromising its burden through the support of the collective. While Donald Glover’s ‘This is America’ visualises a spectacular massacre of black life, Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s practice and theory lament those dead black bodies caught in cyberspace; zombies condemned to the looping purgatory of their own recorded killings. In serpentwithfeet’s ‘soil,’ Josiah Wise lyrically performs a sequence of recovery from the loss of a loved one, drifting from shared confessions of grief to love. Wise’s work helps us to identify the inextricable relationship between the burdens of loss and love. Whether taking the form of a music video, a multidisciplinary performance, a thesis or an album, each of these artists offers a particular pageant of grief, initiating its participants into a funerary contract. Not too dissimilar from the Nine-Night ceremony of Afro-Caribbean spiritual practices, in such processions, we are invited to confront loss and its weight in our lives, communing with, possessing and being possessed by the loved and lost object (that which burdens us through its absence). In committing ourselves as participants in pageants of grief, we may proceed, not burdened but instead, seasoned with loss.
Pageants of Grief (I): The Necromancy of Donald Glover
Donald Glover, “This is America,” Video Still, 2018. All images the intellectual property of respective artists.
Grief and rage – you need to contain that, to put a frame around it, where it can play itself out without you or your kin having to die. There is a theory that watching unbearable stories about other people lost in grief and rage is good for you – may cleanse you of your darkness. Do you want to go down to the pits of yourself all alone? Not much. What if an actor could do it for you? Isn’t that why they are called actors? They act for you. You sacrifice them to action. And this sacrifice is a mode of the deepest intimacy of you with your own life. Within it, you watch [yourself] act out the present or possible organization of your nature.
— Anne Carson, Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides (2006)
People are murdered in Donald Glover’s ‘This is America’, but they will continue to die countless deaths: the first, being the death of a guitarist, the remaining ten a choir being gunned down. Without going into too much detail, ‘This is America’ reads as a critique of the sinister arrangement to which Black Americans are contracted; the salvaging of art from trauma, both of which are served up to, exploited and consumed by the white American gaze. This critique is visually represented by a forefront of dance moving through the graphic shootings of those above eleven, supported by a background of ensuing chaos. Moving beyond Glover’s visual language, which has already been discussed, celebrated and condemned to death by various viewers, fans and critics, we must turn our attention instead to Glover’s handling of black death and dead black bodies.
Defending the intentions of ‘This is America,’ Kaitlyn Greenidge posits that the video’s shock serves to question how we reckon with the violence on which black culture and black and white American wealth are built on. If such a question is being asked, ‘This is America’ offers no comfortable answers in approaching the grief we hold for those lost to anti-black state-sanctioned murder. The perpetual dancing drummed up like an instinct for survival, becomes an image synonymous with the final image of Glover, running for his life. Dancing for one’s life, running for one’s life, performing for one’s life, the black body, in Glover’s logic, can never stop moving, not even to grieve the deaths of those around it. There is simply no time for a reckoning. The condensed speed of ‘This is America’ reads as life flashing before your eyes, where blinking, stopping or mourning all mean certain death. ‘This is America’ does not call for a prolonged period of mourning but, for instantaneous grief devoid of contemplation, remembrance or reverence. The dead must be dropped so as not to impede the survival of the living. After all, we can continue to bury our dead but their documented murders will continue to be re-enacted, re-shared and re-watched online via video link. There seems to be no stone heavy enough to thwart the efforts of the zombifying grave-robber that is the internet.
Think of the fiendishness of the thing. It is not suitable for a person who has lived all his life surrounded by a degree of fastidious culture, loved to his last breath by family and friends, to contemplate the probability of his resurrected body being dragged from the vault – the best that love and means could provide, and set to toiling ceaselessly.
But, if there can be no reckoning, if there can be no rest if the pace of black life can only ever be a sleepless labour of dodging the bullet and allowing the dead to pile up around us, unburied and without grief, can this really be called living? Against the cynicism proposed by ‘This is America’, Israel Daramola states the video’s “argument against treating the death of black people as callous and inconsequential is to depict the death of black people as callous and inconsequential,” and I would add that it treats the lives of black people with rivaling callousness. Appropriating the very real deaths suffered in the case of the Charleston church shooting, Glover, as the necromancer, re-imagines and reanimates the victims’ corpses as zombies in service to a singularly bleak vision of black American experience. In the condensed form of the music video, they are reduced to caricatures of victimhood, choreographed to perform and be killed over and over again, a banal horror of “nameless bodies incapable of returning the gaze that we direct at them, […] object[s] of speech without themselves having a chance to speak.”
If the introduction and presence of the child dancers are meant to produce a contrast of joy, and a means to “dance our sorrows away,” then it is this gesture that gives form to Glover’s method of mourning. Moving as his “shadows,” as a sort of innocent or naive subconscious, the relief of these dancers’ presence about Glover signifies his inability to comprehend and handle loss. There is a redeeming sincerity in the dance, where it acts as a coping mechanism, a source of healing, a celebration of life and a means to mourn as a community for those lost and taken from the dance. The joy of the dance is bittersweet, as is the joy of the living in the wake of overarching black death. Black life becomes reduced to a panicked ritual of perpetual grief, where acts of joy only numb the pain and cost of survival. It becomes apparent, then, that the object of Glover’s grief is the wearying loss of motivation and conviction in facing perceived futility in the living of black life. For the perpetual dancing, running and performing are both acts of survival against and committed surrenders to the cat-and-mouse game of the state’s desired hunt and eradication of black life. In ‘This is America’, death is inevitable, and the future is void.
The scar marks a site of transfiguration, and might we say, a glimpse of shared flesh. […] What I am reaching for is a way of affirming scars not as a reinforcement or reinscription of wounding (making them definitive […]), but as a way of marking and illuminating the complex textures of life—both joys and pain, pleasures and agonies.
Glover’s vision rests on cynicism and disbelief over the prospect of black futures. It is important to recognise that if this is America, then it is a singular image. The monolithic claims ‘This is America’ makes of its locale, relies on self-definitions informed solely by a present experience of trauma. The type of mourning at play in ‘This is America’ is an act of self-harm and trigger, in the sense that a perpetually mounting grief, a singular preoccupation with loss – a fetishistic investment in loss – and a perverse relationship to the dead, abort any possibility for a future of difference, not only of survival, but life, love and joy. Glover’s treating of trauma as the wound that solely defines black American identity, instead of a wound that marks the many complexities of black existence between its joys and agonies, marks his own cynicism and faithlessness in the building of alternative black futures. Consumed by the potency of trauma, Glover has lost any love for the dead who have become ghosts raised by his necromantic desires, their demises doomed to repeat themselves, denying all rest and solace.
We speak of trauma only when the event cannot be processed and produces the characteristic aftershocks. Trauma, like performance, is always experienced in the present. Here. Now.
‘This is America’ marks Glover’s impotence in mourning. He is not ready to grieve; he is incapable of grief for he cannot process or comprehend the trauma with which he finds himself infatuated. He has no love for the dead because he cannot understand their deaths or his loss. The performance of death by his supporting actors, his own performance of murder against his supporting actors, becomes an exercise of comprehension, a means to mourn through re-creating the violence and trauma which eludes his understanding. And such a performance holds us to the present, where the future is stripped of its potential, significance, and concern.
I am fraid’ to see into the future. It looking too much like what gone before.
Let it be clear that the present should not be disowned or unaddressed but ‘This is America’ seems mostly concerned with repurposing the continued conditions of the trauma of the present in service to a well-established status quo. Where black death looms in the American imaginary, Glover regurgitates this image, treating the black body and the black corpse with that same indifference and glee shared by America’s gaze. Afraid of the future, cynical of black futures and borderline complacent, Glover denies us passage onwards just as he denies the dead their due rest and passing. Raising the dead as ghosts, keeping the wounds fresh, embalming viewers in a limited defining trauma of the present, ‘This is America’ is an unholy carnival, reveling in its desire to forever mourn its bleak prophecy: a total loss of black futures.
 Dennis Scott, “An Echo in the Bone,” in Plays for Today, ed. Errol Hill & Derek Walcott (UK: Longman, 1985).
 serpentwithfeet, “mourning song,” June 2018, track 5 on soil, Secretly Canadian, digital release.
 Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, The Blood was on their Shoulders: Mapping Black Intersectional Identities Within Curatorial Practice (USA: Wesleyan University Press, 2017).
 Anne Carson, “Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides: Chapter 1,” The Globe & Mail, accessed June 24, 2018, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/chapter-one/article20412617/.
 For the purposes of this essay, I am disregarding the unconfirmed twelfth death of the person jumping from the balcony.
 The guitarist is played by Calvin the Second, though originally rumoured to be Tracy Martin, father of Trayvon Martin.
 This is a likely reference to the Charleston church shooting.
 Childish Gambino, This is America, directed by Donald Glover & Hiro Mirai (2018; USA: RCA, 2018), Digital release, accessed June 24, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYOjWnS4cMY.
 Kaitlyn Greenidge, “’This is America’ Choreographer Sherrie Silver: Artists Shouldn’t Shy Away from Violence,” Glamour, accessed June 24, 2018, https://www.glamour.com/story/this-is-america-choreographer-sherrie-silver-interview.
 Zora Neale Hurtson, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (NY: Harper & Row, 1990), 179-198.
 Israel Daramola, “The Cynicism of Childish Gambino’s “This is America”” SPIN, accessed June 24, 2018, https://www.spin.com/2018/05/donald-glover-this-is-america-review/
 Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (UK: Verso, 2009), 83-105.
 Eric Skelton, “The Story Behind Childish Gambino’s Symbolic “This is America” Dance Choreography,” Pigeons & Planes, accessed June 24, 2018, https://amp.pigeonsandplanes.com/in-depth/2018/05/childish-gambino-this-is-america-dance-choreographer-sherrie-silver-interview?__twitter_impression=true.
 Shelly Rambo, “Refiguring Wounds in the Afterlife (of Trauma),” in Carnal Hermeneutics, ed. Richard Kearney & Brian Treanor (NY: Fordham University Press, 2015), 263-278.
 Diana Taylor, “Trauma as Durational Performance: A Return to Dark Sites,” in Rites of Return: Diaspora Poetics and the Politics of Memory, ed. Marianne Hirsch & Nancy K. Miller (NY: Columbia University Press, 2011), 268-279.
 Dennis Scott, An Echo in the Bone