It's True, Donald Glover Can't Save You
Last week, a New Yorker feature on Donald Glover was making waves in all my social media feeds. Entitled “Donald Glover Can’t Save You,” the piece was accompanied by a patriarchy-bucking photoshoot of Glover posing in front of various brightly-colored backgrounds with flowers tucked behind his ear. Millennials ate it up. It seems 20-somethings are wont to lavish praise on absolutely anything even tangentially related to Glover (and I’ll admit—I include myself among the guilty.) Glover has been hailed as a tortured artist, a tragic genius and a visionary by members of the press and by fans. But reading the recent New Yorker profile, I had only one impression: We have to be smarter than this. The guy’s a charlatan.
I’m not arguing that Glover hasn’t made some absolutely killer art— I’m most familiar with the music he’s produced as Childish Gambino, and 2016’s “Awaken, My Love!” is second only in brilliance to 2013’s “Because the Internet.” Glover is smart, or at least, he produces smart content. The aspect of the profile that bothered me is that so much of what Glover said felt familiar: I had heard it all before, in many senses. Glover comes off as what a friend coined a “hallucinogenic college intellectual”— that is to say, a stoned fraud. How many privileged, self-assured men have I listened to spout off about how they “really get it,” how they’ve emerged from Plato's allegorical cave and see the world in its true form—or, as Glover so humbly puts it, how they—and they alone—have “figured out the algorithm.”
Glover conceives of himself as uniquely brilliant, uniquely talented and singularly capable of achieving particular artistic feats— he’s a genius, but finds his existence alienating and lonesome. But don’t take it from me. Here’s Glover in his own words:
Is there anything you’re bad at? “To be honest, no. Probably just people. People don’t like to be studied, or bested.” He shrugged. “I’m fine with it. I don’t really like people that much. People accept me now because I have power, but they still think, Oh, he thinks he’s the golden flower of the black community, thinks he’s so different.” He laughed. “But I am, though! I feel like Jesus. I do feel chosen… but I don’t know if humanity is worth it, or if we’re going to make it. I don’t know if there’s much time left.”
Glover is not the first to offer that life is meaningless. And he’s not the first to feel loneliness or discouragement in response to that possibility. But I’m sick of the idea that artists should choose sadness to fuel their art. I’m fucking sick of sadness as a choice. I’m sick and tired of the glorification of sadness as artistic, productive, beautiful or good. Without delving too deep into my personal life, I’ll say that as someone who both a) considers herself a writer and b) is often sad without having any control over it, I would much rather be happy. And I produce much, much better art when I’m in a good mood than when I’m in a pit of despair. Never once have I produced better or more thoughtful art when I was sad, and never once have I been sad willfully in the name of improving my writing.
I have absolutely no respect nor any sympathy for those who actively choose to be sad, who indulge in it, and who think it makes them better and more enlightened than everyone else.
Not only does Glover’s self-indulgent, self-congratulatory tone sound familiar, the content of what he’s saying is familiar as well. Throughout the interview, Glover says a few thoughtful things about how a white societal framing has shaped and stifled art, not to mention negatively affected the lives of Black Americans in a multitude of ways. Glover contends that “blackness is always seen through a lens of whiteness—the lens of what white people can profit from at that moment,” and he’s not wrong. But he’s also not saying anything new. Glover grifts from Baldwin and Malcolm X and MLK and presents their philosophies to his audience as his own.
It’s maddening, but it’s also dangerous to exalt copy-cat intellectualism like this, to accept Glover’s propositions at face value. It allows white people (and Black people, perhaps, but more damningly white people) to be, as Baldwin said, “Trapped in a history they don’t understand.” If we begin Black academia with Glover, if we decontextualize ideas about race and privilege and oppression from their roots, and allow those ideas to exist only in 2018 as “new” or visionary, we erase decades of progress, and we erase decades of struggle. Just as Glover wants for any modicum of self-awareness, the feature itself should be criticized for failing to represent Glover’s ideas as the outgrowth of three centuries of Black thought in America.
It is necessary, sometimes, to analyze art independent of the artist. I’m not arguing that we should stop enjoying Donald Glover’s movies or music or television shows. I’m not arguing that “Atlanta” hasn’t been a healing salve and a revolutionary stand for Black America. But I am saying we should dispense with idolatry.