If you have any trouble understanding Childish Gambino’s music video of his scathing, irony-laden hip-hop track This is America, you should read Adam Smyer’s Knucklehead.
And if you’re one of the over 270 million people who have watched it and said “Aha!”, then Smyer is one of a number of American writers who can provide deeper insight.
Perhaps if 270 million people actually read the books of James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, to choose arbitrarily from a long list of writers, Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, would not need to create This is America. Or at least, it would not surprise us and lead to screeds of articles decoding its symbolism.
It’s all there, in between the pages written by African-Americans all the way back to the slaves of the 1700s.
While Glover packages today’s America in a darkly enthralling compilation of movement, colour, light and trap-hop, Smyer’s black experience roots are in the ‘90s, that apocalyptic decade during which humanity stared down the end of a millennium.
Containing three parts, each chapter takes the form of a journal entry, beginning in September 1988 and ending in February 1997. Knucklehead’s protagonist and narrator Marcus Heyes negotiates New York as a law student and San Francisco as a young professional in the midst of police violence, casual corporate racism, the LA riots and the trial of OJ Simpson. He also negotiates love, and marriage, and in-laws, and death, and betrayal.
If nothing else, Knucklehead should make us realise police shooting unarmed black men, and being guilty of ‘driving while black’, are not new, and what is most disturbing is not the destructiveness of toxic masculinity the narrator adopts as a survival mechanism, but that This America has been carrying on for decades.
We are indirectly reminded that the ‘90s weren’t just the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of Apartheid, these were just the precursors of globalisation and the rise of neo-liberalism, with social spending cuts and the revival of the death penalty in the ‘States.
Hayes is angry, and you can’t really blame him; he’s black and an American. There are worse situations, of course. There always are. But the unique aspect of America is the lie. The great American lie that everyone is equal and has the same opportunities. He’s also caught between being an educated professional and representing his race; being a brutha, and the thug persona that entails. Mostly, the thug wins out, although Hayes the lawyer keeps the record, a notebook in which the days between incidents and confrontations are noted. Often the incidents are racial, often the confrontations are with other bruthas as part of a perpetual quest for male dominance of the streets.
He finds grace for a while but the plot is essentially one of dissolution, Hayses’s descent into a morass of self-loathing is both horrifying and fascinating in its unblinking snarl at the moral void.
But we’re enthralled because we’re invested in his wellbeing, we don’t want him to fall apart. This is despite, at some point – and for me it was when he was describing his habit of driving so aggressively on the freeway that he takes a morbid delight in seeing whether he can cause someone else to smash into another car – Hayes is an arsehole. He may initially have had just cause to be paranoid and trigger-happy, to attack as a means of continual defence, but at some point he is too far down that track. Yet we continue to hope for him, as a father might for a son, perhaps, or a brother for a brother.
This is Smyer’s genius in his debut novel; while it may not be read by as many people who will watch Glover’s This is America, however much we sympathise or even identify with him, Gambino remains a figure, but Smyer’s Hayes is someone we come to care about. In comparison, Knucklehead is the This of a black man in America, just tryna get ahead.
Adam Smyer will be participating in events in Cape Town, at the Open Book Festival, from 5 to 9 September.