In the aftermath of President Obama’s election in 2008, I spent a good amount of time on YouTube checking out some of the inspiring videos created by fellow supporters of our first supposed “Muslim Socialist Kenyan” president. Most of these used still images of Obama interacting with crowds of people, his smiling face on prominent display as songs like Richie Havens’ take on “Here Comes the Sun” blared over the speakers. But the song that came to mind more, and the song that seemed a hopeful call to a changed time, was “A Change Is Gonna Come,” by the late great Sam Cooke. On inauguration eve 2009, it seemed like a change had come, with our first African-American president set to take the White House. Analysts talked about “post-racial America,” and how Obama’s election meant that race would no longer be an issue.
Do I even need to say “flash forward to 2015” for you to see where I’m going with this?
The song, one of Cooke’s last singles (released in December 1964, just after his controversial death at the hands of a motel owner), wasn’t a huge hit upon its release, but it came to be an anthem for the emergent Civil Rights movement of the Sixties. And it’s a perfect song for that purpose: with mournful strings and Cooke’s strong vocal performance, it captures the agony of being black in a country that was built upon the backs of slave labor, and which continues to deny those citizens of color anything approaching equality before the eyes of the law. It could be a song of the Sixties that applies even today, in the context of Ferguson and Baltimore, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice.
Cooke is forever linked to Marvin Gaye in my head, for a couple of reasons. First, both men rose up out of a background in gospel music (Cooke was already a huge recording artist in the world of gospel before he embraced secular pop success, and the “soul” in his soul music is as much about God as it is about the flesh). Second, both added an “e” to their last names for the purposes of showbiz (another soul singer, Al Green, dropped the “e” from the end of his name for the same reason). Finally, both were gunned down almost twenty years apart from one another (Gaye’s death at the hands of his own father adds an Oedipal twist to his decline and fall, but Cooke was ascendant when he was shot in 1964). “A Change” is the forerunner to Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” as well as countless soul anthems of the late Sixties and Seventies. There were songs that the Civil Rights movement could embrace before Cooke’s recording, but “A Change is Gonna Come,” to me, has the most resonance to today’s fraught political and racial climate.
We live in a country where a black male can be killed simply for walking through a neighborhood where he “doesn’t belong.” I’ve had friends stopped by cops simply for DWB (driving while black), and the pain and anger he expressed in recounting this episode echoes the anguish of Cooke in this song. The United States is not so different from the country that once turned a blind eye to the decay of the inner cities and the growing unrest of Southern blacks who were second- or even third-class citizens in their own cities and towns. To pretend otherwise is to give in to the fallacy of history, that it is indeed history and not present-day. To paraphrase William Faulkner, the past that “A Change Is Gonna Come” describes isn’t history; it isn’t even past. It’s right here, right now, and Sam Cooke spoke for millions when he penned this song. It’s up to each and every one of us to give it a listen.
Trevor Seigler is a graduate student and TA at Clemson University, currently working on a Master’s Degree in English and looking to pursue an MFA degree in creative writing after graduation. He is a native of Walhalla, South Carolina. Among his favorite authors are Charles Portis, Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Barry Hannah, and Thomas Pynchon.