Donald Glover Was Woke Even Before His Girls Cameo

Photo: John Shearer/Getty Images.
Regardless of how you feel about the show, Girls has left a legacy on pop culture. It’s a quintessential example of the old saying “you either love it or hate it.” Hoards of millennials herald Lena Dunham’s brainchild as a beacon of honest acceptance and validation of what it’s like to navigate life as a 20-something woman. On the other hand, from its beginning, many people thought Girls and its creator offered a version of Brooklyn and millennialism that erased people of color. In fact, a two-episode guest stint by Donald Glover in the second season seemed to be a direct response to the latter criticism.
Glover played Sandy, a Black Republican and the boyfriend to Hannah Horvath (Dunham). In true Girls fashion, their romance included some onscreen sex, and Hannah ultimately fucking up the relationship with her own self-centeredness. Now, a new profile for the New Yorker describes an interaction between Glover and Dunham that took place after Sandy’s run had come and gone. It touches on Glover’s feelings about how Black people — or at least Sandy — existed in the Girls universe. I thought that Glover’s cameo was a sign of uncritical support for Dunham. I’m happy to report I was wrong.
As quickly as their relationship began, Hannah and Sandy broke up, and he took it as an opportunity to call her out for being a caricature of white girl clueless. “'Oh, I’m a white girl, and I moved to New York and I’m having a great time,' and, 'Oh, I’ve got a fixed-gear bike, and I’m going to date a Black guy and we’re going to go to a dangerous part of town,'” Sandy mocked. By Dunham’s own admission, Glover improvised all of these lines; meaning that Glover was delivering a read of white feminism that was truly from the heart. And in a series of events that I have personally seen play out too many times in real life, too — one in which privileged people lean into being dragged like a masochistic sport — Dunham emailed Glover afterward to say that she hoped that he didn’t feel his part on Girls had “tokenized” him. She clearly learned nothing from the backlash following Macklemore’s infamous “You got robbed” text to better fellow rapper Kendrick Lamar in 2014.
But this isn’t about Dunham. It’s about Glover being both weird and woke, a combination that gives me a sense of pride, lust, and truthfully, relief. “Let’s not think back on mistakes we made in the past, let’s just focus on what lies in front of us,” is the response Dunham claims to have gotten in response to her email. His reply didn’t take the passive tone that many people of color have to adopt while addressing racism and other microaggressions in professional settings. Nor did Glover give Dunham a pass for creating a character in response to accusations that Girls was racist. In his own way, he urged Dunham to do better, while acknowledging that his casting on the show wasn’t all the work that needed to be done. And in case Glover’s coy message didn’t make it clear, I’ll spell it out. Despite the great scene in which Sandy effectively told Hannah “about herself,” Sandy was not critical to Hannah’s life, or the show in any substantial way. Hannah went back to being trash, and Sandy went away. So yes, he was a token, and one of the few characters of color to have a storyline bounce off the overall Girls storyline as if it never existed in the first place.
That Glover is woke shouldn’t come as a surprise after the success of his hit show Atlanta, an undeniable ode to contemporary Blackness. Accepting an award for Atlanta at last year’s Golden Globes, he thanked Migos for making “Bad & Boujee” in his speech. He quietly provided notes to Ryan Coogler on this year’s biggest and Blackest film, Black Panther. And ahead of Atlanta’s sophomore season, he’s been gushing to media outlets about why his next role — he’s playing Lando Calrissian in the upcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story — is so important. Calrissian, originally played by Billy Dee Williams, was the only Black character in the Star Wars franchise until 1999, and Glover told Esquire that he still remembers his dad buying him the figurine. Glover is Black AF, and he owns it.
But before Glover evolved into Childish Gambino, his rapper alter ego, I had no clue who he was. I didn’t watch Community, nor 30 Rock. I don’t personally know any Black people who did. And even though I’ve always vibed with Glover’s music stylistically, some of his lyrical themes — like being a social outcast — were also out of my purview. Not even his stand up special, Weirdo, spoke to me. Admittedly, before Because the Internet, his second studio album, I felt confident Glover’s ability to appeal to white sensibilities and tastes would always win out. I imagined his gripes on his album Camp being about white women who wouldn’t date him because he was Black and getting co-signs on his music by the same white kids who listen to Macklemore. Some or all of that may be true, but at least now I can rest assured that he didn’t play Sandy just to give Dunham a co-sign when everyone else thought she was problematic.
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