Was a racially charged banner at Santa Monica High School hateful propaganda or Childish Gambino-inspired protest art?

By Danny Karel

A Santa Monica High School security guard snapped this photo of the controversial “This is Amerikkka” banner before taking it down

During a May 2018 interview following the release of “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” artist and entertainer Donald Glover (who plays a young Lando Calrissian in the film) was asked to explain the nightmarish ending of “This is America,” a viral song and video released under his rapper alias Childish Gambino. “Naw,” he said, laughing. “I feel like it’s not really my place to do that. I think it should just be out there. It’s for the people.”

With Glover maintaining his silence, the video has reached more than 470 million views and inspired countless analytical videos, critical essays and heated debates. On its face it’s a maximalist, nearly surrealist work of art that most see as a commentary on black life in America that thematically addresses gun violence, racism and police brutality.

So in late September, when a banner displaying racially charged imagery mysteriously appeared on the Santa Monica High School campus with the provocative caption “This Is Amerikkka,” many assumed it referred to the video. And, like the video, interpretations of the banner varied.

The focal point of the banner (which has been the operating term, though it appears to be more of a collage) is a young African-American woman in profile, wrapped in the American flag. Behind her, about 100 smaller images are stitched together in a cluttered patchwork: minstrel faces with cartoonish proportions, ghostly-white portrayals of Jesus, aggressively racialized text, depictions of political leaders, and several references to popular culture. “This Is Amerikkka” is written in permanent marker along the bottom, the k’s scrawled in bright red.

On Jan. 13, volunteers with the Committee for Racial Justice convened in Virginia Park’s Thelma Terry Building to discuss whether the banner was a work of art or an act of racism. Formed in 2011 after a group of white Santa Monica High School students chained a black student to a locker and declared him a “slave for sale,” the public discussion group briefly became the target of white nationalist protesters immediately after the violence in Charlottesville.

The committee projected a cell phone camera image of the banner, taken by the security guard who discovered it, onto a large screen. After snapping the photo, the guard immediately took it down, concerned the banner might be racist propaganda.

“Come up to the front,” committee member Robbie Jones invited audience members, “and tell us what stands out to you.”

After carefully studying the image, the first volunteer turned to the group.

“When I was growing up, the heroes on TV always looked like him: a tall white man.” She was referring to a picture of John Wayne, smiling large to the side of the frame. “It was never a woman, and it was certainly never a person of color. He stood out to me the most.”

Another volunteer was drawn to the three Ks at the bottom, and another to a particularly hateful phrase. The next commented on the central figure: the flag-wrapped young woman. To her, she looked proud, a contrast to the “… typical All-American girl, who is usually white, the classic ‘girl next door.’ This can be your All-American girl as well.”

Called to the front, the artist Enkone — who recently had one of his murals in South L.A. defaced with swastikas — pointed out that the use of triple k’s to spell America (a reference to the Ku Klux Klan) has traditionally been used by activists and revolutionaries, not hate groups.

Just when it seemed like a consensus had been reached, a member of the CRJ asked for the microphone.

“I don’t view it as art,” she said. As an African-American woman, she said, it was “… hard as hell going to Samohi. If I saw this, I would feel personally attacked.”

Robert Howard, the Restorative Justice Coordinator at Santa Monica High School, understood her point. Then he offered a rebuttal.

“It also made me feel a way, but that’s what art do.”

Howard had been one of the first to see the collage, and was the first to suggest that it might not be overtly racist. While working for the district, he had removed racial slurs tagged on walls and encountered various forms of hateful propaganda — but this felt different. The central figure was not maliciously portrayed, and the background was thoughtfully arranged. The piece was also laminated, a minor detail that suggested care and attention.

Then the organizers invited Santa Monica High School Black Student Union President Dahlia Michael and group Secretary Rachel Porche to speak to the group. Because the collage had been taken down so quickly, they said, there was very limited reaction from the campus community. Instead of giving further analysis, they encouraged the audience to engage as activists.

“I see a lot of adults here,” said Porsche, eyeing the mostly middle-aged crowd. “But not enough youth.”

“Social media leads to laziness in our generation,” Michael said. “People think sending a tweet or hashtagging BLM [Black Lives Matter] is enough. It’s not. It’s about being in the streets and attending events like this.”

If the role of political art is to catalyze conversation, then both Donald Glover and the anonymous artist who created the collage have succeeded.