Childish Gambino: Expanding Life-Scripts for Black Americans

The Racism of Donald4Spiderman Inspired the Label-Busting on Childish Gambino’s new album, “Camp”

Imagine if underneath Spider-Man’s red and blue suit was a Peter Parker with black skin.  Played by a person of color with the same neurotic humor, scientific wizardry, and love for a certain redhead, would the photo snapping wall-crawler be any less amazing?

When fans of Donald Glover suggested he play Spider-Man in the movie franchise’s reboot, the nether-realm of strident racism that thrives online swelled with hostility.  Motivated by the venom spit his way, Glover, known lyrically as Childish Gambino, responded with his new album, “Camp” (Glassnote Records).  Exploding the labels that confined his youth, CG offers a commentary that expands and enriches what a black life can be.

“The last thing Spider-Man should be is another white guy,” wrote Marc Bernardin on the science fiction website io9.   With a list of lackluster, potential actors, (who all happened to be white) Bernardin asked his readers to imagine Spidey with a darker hue. Because Peter Parker is “…defined by the people he cares for, by his career, by his identity as a New Yorker,” casting a non-white actor to play him wouldn’t change much.

While many supporters took to twitter propagating the hashtag Donald4Spiderman, Glover recounts all the hate mail he received.  In an interview with HardKnock TV he retells: “All these nerds were hitting me up on Twitter and emailing me and shit and calling me nigger…. Don’t take Peter Parker from us …and these are nerds!”

Capturing the polar reactions to Donald4Spiderman, Glover jokes on his Comedy Central special, “Weirdo” it was either “Donald for Spider-Man!” or, “He’s black kill em!”

Much more than overt hatred, one reaction infuriated Glover.   He recites: “Listen, the thing about it is there’s no black kids like Peter Parker.”

“It’s fucking 2011,” an aggravated Glover declares, “and you don’t think there is a black kid who lives with his aunt in Queens who likes science…who takes photography?”

Glover’s experience alludes to a narrow and impoverished conception of black Americans. Where white characters in TV and film occupy the entire spectrum of personality, black characters are denied nuance, instead defined solely by their blackness.  A colored man who is also nerdy, cunning, idiosyncratic? Impossible.

Take, as another example, the movie, “Finding Forrester.”A young basketball star from the Bronx is offered to attend a prestigious prep school.  Jamal Wallace, we soon find out, is also a talented writer versed in literature and poetry.  One of his pieces is so exceptional that his presumptuous teacher accuses him of plagiarism.  No black man can excel at basketball and something else.  The scenes where Wallace corrects his instructor on the usage of “farther” vs. “further” or when he educates an arrogant man on the origins of the BMW insignia: “white propeller zipping around a blue sky,” are righteous defiance.

Like Spider-Man with a different complexion, Wallace is strange only because he’s judged without complexity.  Relegated to stereotype, to the limited imagination of American culture, the attitudes people have towards blacks can be one dimensional.

To combat the negative conceptions that hinder life possibilities, Childish Gambino made his music for “white kids who feel like they don’t exist…I made the album for me when I was 13, I made it for black kids specifically who are told who they are all the time.”

CG aims to complicate black identity by challenging ready-made life-scripts. On the introspective and somber “Hold You Down,” Gambino confesses: “Culture shock at barber shops cuz I ain’t hood enough/ we all look the same to the cops ain’t that good enough?” The insightful and poetic sociology reminiscent of Dave Chappelle continues, “White kids get to wear whatever hat they want/ when it comes to black kids, one size fits all.”

The actor/writer/comedian/musician proudly inverts the popular comparison: “I won’t stop till they say James Franco is the white Donald Glover.”

Feeling pigeonholed as a rapper (like Mos Def and Drake he sings too), Gambino prefers to call his music black rock. He explains, “Oh its a rap album. People are like okay, got you. People think all rap is the same.” On the ardent track “Sunrise” Gambino affirms, “New shit, you didn’t know/black rock like a fuckin’ Lost episode/something for these black kids to call they own/so when you skatin’ in yo driveway you not alone.”

With equal parts salt and sugar Glover cracks: “I really have to thank the racists…That whole Spider-Man campaign is probably the reason Childish Gambino is the way it is now.

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