Childish Gambino, Black Archival Practice & Conceptual Art

Nettrice Gaskins
4 min readMay 17, 2024
Production still. “Little Foot Big Foot” music video with Childish Gambino (2024).

In the annals of American entertainment history, one narrative stands out for its resilience, creativity, and defiance against racial segregation: the Chitlin Circuit. Emerging as a network of live entertainment venues catering exclusively to African American audiences and performers during the era of Jim Crow, the Chitlin Circuit not only shaped the cultural landscape of the United States but also provided a crucial platform for Black artists to thrive amidst adversity. — Obehi Ewanfoh

Chitlins, short for “chitterlings,” are fried or stewed animal intestines, usually from hogs. This dish is a Black American food tradition from the poor and working-class. Growing up in Kentucky, chitlins were served at almost every major family event. Chitlins is also a metaphor for the ad-hoc collection of churches, ‘jook joints’, nightclubs, restaurants, and theaters. These venues and other ‘cultural touch-points’ are part of what is known as the black archive. Black archivists work to render Black lives and Black culture visible in places where they are often positioned as nameless subjects in the historical record and academic canon.

I started talking [before singing a song] because it was the only way to get people’s attention. For years I played night clubs, working the chitlin circuit. These clubs were very small, very tight, very crowded, and very loud. The only way to establish communication was by telling a story to lead into a song. — Lou Rawls via Adrian Miller

Cab Calloway. Photo by Carl van Vechten.

Childish Gambino’s (Donald Glover’s) music video for “Little Foot Big Foot” begins with his character named Johnny and his backup dancers (the “Pipes”) arriving at a jook joint somewhere in the rural deep south. Johnny’s shiny, white costume seems to be inspired by jazz performer Cab Calloway who played on the Chitlin’ Circuit at some point in his career.

When they came out on stage, they brought you something you’d never seen… “It would be like seeing Prince, drenched in his purple-clad prime, stage a show in a neighborhood besieged by poverty,” Swamp Dogg said. — Matthew Leimkuehler

Later, Gambino/Pipes perform a dance inspired by Calloway. My point here is that Childish Gambino is accessing the black archives to find concepts for music videos like “Little Foot Big Foot” and “This is America,” a layered, provocative exposition not only on the state of Black America (how things were and came to be) but on America as a whole. The “This is America” music video makes several references to how trauma (i.e. Black trauma) is represented and consumed via media and information technology. Some of these references make their way into “Little Foot Big Foot.”

Jim Crow references: Thomas D. Rice poster
Jim Crow references: Coon-Chicken Inn

[T]he Chitlin Circuit (emerged) as a network of live entertainment venues catering exclusively to African American audiences and performers during the era of Jim Crow…

I argue that these Childish Gambino videos leave doors open for others to explore more possibilities for naming the modes through which we might view “Black lived experiences and Black archival lives and understand how Black lives have been ‘lived in spaces of impossibility’ (Omowale 2018). Jim Crow was a fantasy of racist white people, portraying Black people as “coons.” Coon, derived from racoon, originates from a minstrel character, Zip Coon, first portrayed in the 1830s by a white actor in blackface.

Production still of the smiling performer “Johnny”

Decades-old ephemera and current-day incarnations of Black American stereotypes, including coons, have helped to commodify Black bodies (and culture) and justify the business of slavery. However, from the point of view of the former (Black) subjects, these incarnations take on entirely different purposes and meanings. The Gambino/Glover music videos interrogate the “white gaze” in media and confront the practice of repeating/re-cycling Black trauma hidden under the guise of happiness or joy (song and dance).

If anything, we should seek to restore the complexities of our humanity, acknowledging the limiting historical conditions that have shaped our choices, and let that serve as the only claim we need to make for a right to peace…

If we are to restore and document our humanity, we must refuse the spectacle for the everyday. The archive has privileged the spectacle to our detriment. Today we can chant the names of a handful of the dead, but these are not litanies for survival. — Yusef Omowale

The audience in “Little Foot Big Foot” is silent and unresponsive until one of their members is shot dead. It is then, in the aftermath of the trauma, that the crowd responds to the performers in a positive way, with joy. It’s as if Childish Gambino has held up a mirror to his audience to deliver a message. Be prepared to see more confrontations, including the 2025 yet-to-be-titled film by Ryan Coogler, starring Michael B. Jordan that pits characters from the Jim Crow south against vampires.

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Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.