Veering of the Subject: Cultural Criticisms of the Absurd


I remember living two blocks from the corner of Joy and Southfield roads in Detroit in the mid-1980’s. On the southeast side of the intersection stood Herman Gardens, a 1948 federal housing project that was now without electricity more often than not. Because the ban on automatic weapons was not yet legislated, my nights were filled with the repetitive rapid fire of those small-sized, less than powerful, legendarily inaccurate symbols of the drug trade. 15-year-old regularly passed through the middle of basketball games with these firearms kept beneath Starter Jackets.

On the southwest corner of the intersection stood three stolen and stripped cares. Like the numerous vacant houses and buildings in my neighborhood, if they were not set afire after being stolen or used for insurance fraud, they were lit to burn for spectacle by neighborhood kids. My fast food restaurant was the local McDonald’s, back then sitting three blocks west of the intersection. A student from Cody High School opened fire inside that McDonald's killing 7 other students. At Cooley High, the PE teacher was shot for interrupting a drug deal. The guidance counselor at Cooley was reportedly a known source for drug purchases.

Quite honestly, I’ve never been inside of a vacant warehouse that looked as clean as that depicted in the Gambino video unless it was in the older non-pod style prison edifices that look just like that warehouse. The old or empty warehouses of my life have been partially burned out, and home to several tens of people or families that were never ever safe. In my neighborhood of the eighties and early nineties, young girls as those depicted dancing in the Gambino video were sometimes found dead in vacant motels or houses – declared abducted somewhere between breakfast at the family table and the doors of their own high schools. I was asleep in one such warehouse near the Old Fort Wayne historical site in Detroit – beaten with a brick and cut all over from climbing over a barbed-wire fence to escape what I feared would be a beating to death.

The Childish Gambino This is America video presents what theologian and Christian ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr ignored entirely in his rights and justice based Christian Realism, with all of his white privilege and prerogative smugly nestled inside of his conscience, if not blocked entirely from his consciousness. The theology of Niebuhr and fellow liberal theologian Rauschenbusch, often contrasted with the fundamentalist biblicism of Billy Sunday and Billy Graham; and later on the fundamentalist theo-politics of Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham, represent the truth of American civic religion and the cult of democracy that enthralled both Niebuhr and Rauschenbusch so much. Democracy allows for the presentation or re-presentation of Christian realism which is none other than replacing a gospel that demands faith in absurd responses to America with a political and domesticated gospel of political critical mass.

Really – or – in reality, Niebuhr and Rauschenbusch do little more than engage in a victim blaming theology of not understanding why black folks can’t take advantage of all of the goodness found in democracy. In fact, if my Chicago Theological Seminary classmate responses and interpretations of the music video by Glover are an indication, Black folks in America are not only not safe from violence, but they recognize that there is no safe place for them or meant for them. America was built as a white space for Anglo Saxons (built by African slave labor), and whites have avoided giving up any of their social, economic, or racial privilege.

I am a white boy that has been identified as white trash for much of my life, and I have a sinking feeling of what is real. Gambino’s America is my experience for perhaps 15 years of my life. Presently, it is not my reality.

I have found how to cross the color line to my advantage and I always feel at least safe. No one wants to take my guns while they keep their own. No one wants me to prove my loyalty to this party or that and burdens me with the responsibility of swinging elections my way. No one saddles me with the salvific expectations of a democracy that shit all over my and then lay my body to rest in it – a lake of fire fueled by human remains of the lynched and enslaved. Because I have privilege and have been able to pursue various success without having to prove myself twice to qualify, I cannot fathom the black experience.

I can, however, fathom the Black Jesus portraits offered by numerous artists. I’ve seen enough Black Jesus’ hanging on the walls of friends’ houses and Black churches to know about Black Jesus. I have also seen enough dead black bodies to know they don’t really matter. Not to Niebuhr, Trump, or American civic religionists who worship at the feet of electoral politics. My former period of atheism of more than twenty years was informed by a singular notion - White Jesus left the building for the suburbs, and when gramma died, the empty churches served as tombs for the dead girls who were simply trying to get to school. It’s not the sin or original sin – it is the evil produced by the surplus of malevolence that rains evil upon black bodies, leaving those bodies to burn in Gehenna so as not to take up more land that might be gentrified once ten dollars-an-hour facilitates a family move to the inner suburbs, where the cycle starts over again. The old vacant land is more valuable than the black bodies that might have been buried in those buildings otherwise. This is a fact of the racist marketplace.

Nothing can change the fact of this institutionalized racism other than whites acting upon giving up privilege and control over outcomes - the need to win. Instead, we must find the means of caring for people who are victimized by racism and somehow finding the way to take the brunt of the force of political and economic body blows that keep folks in the ghetto. We must give up our rights and our sense of fairness (or justice) on behalf of those who have no rights or justice. If bus boycotts, produced results, why not a boycott of being middle-class whites and deny ourselves of privileged spending? Our cross to bear is the emptying ourselves of privilege that often misdirects us to degrade ignorant racists or economize responsibility by rightly pointing to white supremacist politics as the problem - but most whites continue to benefit economically from the basic structures of state sanctioned corporate and wealth dominated marketplaces that they are so critical of. The only action ever taken is politically and socially domesticated spending and voting. Those may be positive activities, but they should hardly bear the burden of so much focus from those who claim to be progressives.

What if we quit purchasing Volts and Prius’ other fuel-efficient vehicles and demand mass-transportation? Stop paying for your child’s college education and let them figure it out. Stop supporting private schools – homeschool if you must choose an alternative. For goodness sakes, start limiting your income and new purchases of crap. You don’t need a new hemp hippy hoodie or hemp canvas shoes with marijuana leaf logos. You are simply advertising for an economic model that is now being supported by John Fucking Boehner. We need a marketplace that serves human needs rather than nostalgia, whiteness, and corporately sponsored alternative progressive identities. It is not funny that one puts a Bernie sticker on the back of their Mini-Cooper before they drive it off the lot. It is idolatrous, and reinforces the privilege that whites fight to maintain within the context of a shrinking middle class that intends to serve as a buffer between most whites and everyone else that threatens the income intended for new phones, second-car payments, and cottages on Houghton Lake.

The video from Gambino, which I have watched many times, is traumatic for me to view, every time. Yet it is no longer my experience, and was never quite honestly, my reality. I could, after accessing resources like landlords that trust white folks without credit and college acceptance despite a known history of crack addiction, escape unsafe places where I was a target of violence but could always avoid certain impulsive acts of state sanctioned murder and institutionalization. Persons of color cannot escape such targeting. They always feel like targets. And white folks will often agree that it is true, but awkwardly, we just tell people to vote Democratic. Whites never place ourselves between the target and the projectile, and that is exactly what the cross call on followers of Jesus to do.

This is the cross – emptying one’s self of privilege and loving others at great expense to ourselves and our ability to product or control our outcomes and futures. It is a heavy cross. Lift the weight.

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