[Only a couple New England states celebrate Patriots’ Day, which officially pays tribute to the colonial Minutemen who helped begin the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord. But the holiday offers a chance to think about patriotism in America more broadly, which I’ll do this week, starting with my annual Patriots’ Day post, continuing through a series on critically patriotic texts, and leading up to an update on my new AmericanStudying book!]
When I finally got around to checking out Gary Clark Jr.’s “This Land” in late January, after I had seen it highly recommended by reliable voices for at least a couple weeks, what immediately blew me away was the chorus: “I remember when you used to tell me/‘Nigga run, nigga run/Go back where you come from/ Nigga run, nigga run/Go back where you come from/We don’t want you, we don’t want your kind/We think you’s a dog born’/Fuck you, I’m America’s son/This is where I come from.” I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a more succinct expression of the debate between the exclusionary and inclusive definitions of America on which my forthcoming book focuses: Clark apparently was prompted to write the song when he was confronted by a particular horrific version of the exclusionary attitude, when he was attacked and called the n-word in front of his young son; and his choice to quote that perspective directly and then respond so forcefully in the chorus is thus at the heart of the song’s reason for being as well as its resulting identity and meanings.
The song’s lyrics (there and throughout) are more than powerful enough to speak for themselves, but the striking video, directed by filmmaker Savanah Leaf, contributes additional and equally potent layers as well. It does so most visibly and consistently through its use of Southern gothic imagery, starting with the decaying former plantation (flying an upside-down American flag) in which Clark is located for most of the video. Thanks in no small measure to Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade (2016), among other prominent cultural influences and images (including the new, third season of True Detective), the Southern gothic has returned to American popular culture with a vengeance in recent years. Leaf’s video for Clark’s song builds on those longstanding and evolving influences, weds them to more overt depictions of racial violence (especially nooses) than is sometimes the case in the symbolic gothic, and centers them all on repeated and stunning images of the Confederate flag (along with the MAGA hat one of the two most contested American symbols of the last decade). This is Southern gothic with a very pointed 2019 twist.
That might all seem more critical than critically patriotic, of course, and both “This Land” and its video have that more justifiably angry side to be sure. But I would argue that the video and Clark do put even the darkest images in service of depictions of and arguments for the future, and the video especially does that through one central choice: besides Clark, every other person in the video is a young African American kid. As that hyperlinked interview reflects, that choice was certainly inspired by the role that Clark’s own young son played in the experiences that prompted the song (as well as in every aspect of Clark’s life for the last four years, of course). And I suppose one could argue that watching these young African Americans confront images of racism, past and present, is its own form of darkness and anger. But I believe that the video’s use of kids, and particularly the culminating images of those kids watching and singing around a bonfire for the various neo-Confederate images, offers instead a portrayal of a future in which the next generations, those America’s sons and daughters, can create a different set of narratives and communities. I can’t imagine a more important and inspiring vision of critical patriotism than that!
Patriotic series continues tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other patriotic texts you’d highlight?
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