The hip-hop theologian, the secular theologian, and the poet/executive were deep into a podcast conversation about Childish Gambino’s “This is America.” This was only a couple weeks after the video’s release, which meant we were already forgetting about it under the barrage of other news, but I wanted to hear what African Americans who were conversant in hip hop had to say about it.
It turned out, somewhat to my surprise, that Daniel White Hodge and his guests saw the video much in the same way I had. They’d noticed the same details that complicated the popular view and were drawing similar conclusions.
Why, then, did I feel uncomfortable about my interpretation?
My moment of insight came somewhere after the “devolution of rap” and probably around the time Jeanelle Austin said, “Remember, the context is, ‘This is America,’ … it’s showing what we do, … like, America has made us into this, like, we are playing into the narrative.”
That “we” was a bucket of ice water over my shoulders.
You put a video on YouTube called “This is America” and you can expect that most Americans will feel justified believing they are the audience for it. But Hodge and his guests started from the assumption that it was speaking specifically to African Americans—and, even more specifically, to those in the world of hip hop. My discomfort owed not to any error in my interpretation but to the fact that I was not part of the conversation in the first place.
Another way to put it is that I was on the margins of that cultural conversation—and I suddenly felt de-centered. “De-centering” can feel uncomfortable, even scary, when you’re part of a center whose power is not just. It’s taken me years to disconnect myself from it even so far as I have.
That’s not to say there are no points of contact between me and Childish Gambino, just that it helps not to assume I know them all or am in control of them. The language of de-centering intrigues me because it offers the possibility that we can create a more equitable and just center—or redefine power relations so that no one is centered. Of course, centering may be inevitable. In his well-known commencement address, David Foster Wallace argued that we are all the centers of our own universes; the trick is not to forget that there’s more than one universe. It matters how we define the centers and what kind of significance we place on them.
The Christian faith, for instance, can be defined by a set of beliefs (doctrine) or by the person of Christ (bounded set vs. centered set). If, as people like Wallace and David Dark and James K.A. Smith have argued, we are fundamentally worshipful creatures, then defining your faith by doctrine risks worshiping doctrine.
In thinking about art and literature, I’ve found the Christ-centered approach more fruitful than the doctrinal one. If Christ just is the center of human existence, then we are all searching for him (i.e., salvation, redemption) in our own misguided ways. I can find kindred spirits on this journey in good Christians, bad Christians, and non-Christians, whatever disagreements I may have with their specific beliefs.
Imagine my excitement, for instance, when I discovered a book by an Afghan living in France, translated by an Englishwoman, inspired by my favorite Russian author. Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky imagines how Crime and Punishment would play out if its events happened in civil war-torn Afghanistan (hint: it goes poorly. The protagonist, Rassoul, tries to turn himself in but can’t find anyone who will acknowledge his deed much less punish him).
I’m over here worrying about the difference between borrowing and appropriating; Rahimi is freely basing his whole novel on Dostoevsky.
ii. the work of work
Edward Said argued that labor could be a path between centers or perhaps its own kind of center. We all have to work to create or earn; surely we can recognize that in each other. One might want to suggest love or goodness or even the God-shaped hole, but there’s a genius to work. It’s a concept that is both specific and general, material and spiritual. Rahimi exemplifies this movement by finding a kindred spirit in Dostoevsky and creating his own work that says, “I see myself in his book, but not exactly.”
And I see, in Rahimi’s book, myself, but not exactly. I see concern for the soul of one’s country, outrage for the way God is used to pervert the minds and souls of a people. Rassoul adapts Dmitri’s theory, “If God doesn’t exist, everything is permitted,” to modern Afghanistan: “…these days it seems to me that it’s the other way around. May Allah forgive me! If he exists, it is not to prevent sins, but to justify them.”
Rassoul doesn’t even feel remorse, exactly, he just wants it to matter to the social order that a murder was committed. He wants justice, order, peace. Those are the centers of his worship.
iii. the conversation
Another way to think about literature is in Kenneth Burke’s metaphor of the parlor conversation. One enters late, the conversation started long ago. One listens, catches up, gets a sense of things, and then ventures to speak.
Burke, a humanist, probably imagined a single conversation, while I can’t help but see a multitude of conversations at work. Maybe none of them have centers but are circles of people engaged with one another with both strife and civility.
Dostoevsky and Rahimi—even Childish Gambino—are all inviting us into important conversations, conversations about where we seek our identities, how we justify our actions, and what deeds we’re prepared to commit in the name of the beloved.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Brad Fruhauff
Brad Fruhauff helps people put their stories into words as a freelance copywriter, editor, and ghostwriter. He lives with his wife and two sons in Evanston, Illinois. Learn more at http://www.bradfruhauff.com/