“He is a superhero,” said English professor, Crystal Brandt, as she described visiting speaker, Tre Johnson “his superpower is that he uses words to stop time.”
On Tuesday, Nov.13 at 8:15 PM in Cole Cinema, the St. Mary’s College of Maryland English department hosted writer Tre Johnson to discuss American pop culture, race and politics. His lecture is titled “This is America: A Journey of Body, Identity, Representation and Politics.”
The evening began with Brandt introducing Johnson to the full crowd with remarks filled with a sense of personal academic respect, as well as joy in getting ready to show people the gift of Johnson’s work.
First, Johnson showed vintage photos of mostly black servants in the South who seemed content—on the surface. However, he often wonders about what they were not conveying in those pictures. He explains that these workers lived in a time where overt-racism, segregation, and racist acts of violence occurred daily. Despite this, they had to show up to their workplaces with “conflicting emotions and realities” and “keep cool around whites,” said Johnson.
He then examined the connection between the impact of natural disasters on African Americans and black pop culture, both past and present. He explained that a majority of African Americans were forced to rebuild cities after a natural disaster had taken place or fear not coming back if they flee. He used the Great Flood of 1927 and Hurricane Katrina of 2005 as examples of African Americans who were trapped in poor housing situations with a lack of resources, and as a result were forced to migrate.
Johnson also compared the strangle relationship between violence, entertainment and art by discussing Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”, which he strongly recommended for the audience, Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam”, and Louis Armstrong’s “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.” “Mississippi Goddam”, for example, is a critique of the slow progression towards racial equality during the Civil Rights Era. Johnson explains that these artists had to find a way to include the realities they faced as black people in America in their art. He says that “as artists travel, they have to tell of what is actually happening back home.”
Johnson remarks that this phenomenon is still occurring to this day and similar stories are being told over and over again. He used Frank Ocean’s 2016 hit “Nights” and Lil Wayne’s “Tie My Hands” as examples. These artists sang about what their people faced in their communities after the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Johnson then discusses Childish Gambino’s “This is America” in this context. “Donald’s not letting us forget or get off the hook,” he said. He refers to how Gambino uses the past, near-past and present to explore black history in America from a point of view of a successful, black artist. He says that there is a high price of trying to tell the truth as Gambino sees it, since it is a professionally risky move. However, this is “a task that Black America has to contend with.”
There seems to be a resurgence in black popular culture and race dialogue of this as seen in Lemonade, This is America, Moonlight, and Black Panther. Johnson asks “when do you dance, when do you listen, or [simply just] experience” as a black artist?
Johnson’s work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Vox, Atlanta Black Star and other outlets. His writing work, various media appearances and more can be found on https://www.trejohnsonwriter.com.