The task of processing everything that has happened over the last few weeks and all my feelings about it seems almost impossible. For me, at least, these historic moments have dovetailed with watching powerful films in curious ways, all of it culminating in a newfound obsession with an old favorite song.
Two weeks ago we sat glued to the news for hours watching the aftermath of an attempted white supremacist coup in DC that disrupted the process of certifying our freest and fairest election on record. I watched in horror, but sadly not in shock, as politicians and acquaintances alike attempted to both distance themselves from the violence and maintain false claims of election fraud in a truly disgusting display of cognitive dissonance. We cheered in satisfaction and relief as some of the traitorous coup participants were arrested, and we held our breath in anticipation of more violence surrounding the inauguration. But yesterday, with a collective sigh of relief (and a lot of champagne), we finally reached the long-awaited end of the Great Orange Menace’s presidency and the inauguration of our nation’s first Black, Asian, and woman Vice President. (And Joe, too, I guess.)
In this midst of all this, my husband and I watched the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? chronicling the life and work of Fred Rogers, beloved TV companion of my childhood. It was a bittersweet thing to watch, since Mr. Rogers embodied the kind of empathy that we so desperately need more of these days. The next weekend we watched Regina King’s new film adaptation of Kemp Powers’ play One Night in Miami: full of powerful actors and even more powerful writing, it was both a balm for the soul and a poignant reminder of how far we have not come over the last 50+ years. And on Monday, two days before the inauguration, we watched Sam Pollard’s documentary MLK/FBI and were horrified (but again, sadly, not shocked) at the lengths to which the fragile men in charge of the FBI went to try to sabotage Dr. King.
As a result of this coincidence of historic events, incredible acting, and massive relief at a violence-free transfer of power, I have now had Sam Cooke’s song “A Change is Gonna Come” stuck in my head for several days in a row. No matter what else I listen to, I can’t get it out. I’ve listened to and loved Sam Cooke for years, so my interest was piqued when I heard he was portrayed by the incomparable Leslie Odom Jr. in One Night in Miami. Naturally, Leslie did not disappoint. My heart soared as the film ended with a portrayal of Cooke’s performance of “A Change is Gonna Come” on The Tonight Show (which apparently did happen, though the tapes have been lost).
“A Change is Gonna Come” is Sam Cooke’s most overtly political song (and despite what the fudged timeline of the film would have you think, we do not actually have Malcolm X’s goading to thank for this song’s existence). Although it’s well documented that Cooke was inspired by “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan and the Peter, Paul and Mary cover, I find his song carries a much more powerful message of hope and call to action than Dylan’s. Dylan’s chorus — “the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind” — seems to cop out of the persistent questions of his verses. How many roads must a man walk down? How many times can a man turn his head? Dylan shrugs his shoulders. As we’ve seen time and again, this is a pretty typical privileged response to being confronted with injustice in its various forms: “Well that’s sad, but what do you want me to do about it?”
Cooke doesn’t accept just a shrug, and he doesn’t ask vague or abstract questions in the third person about when it’s all going to get better. He refuses to shy away from the ugliness of the world, but places himself in the midst of the struggle with a consistent first-person perspective. He names specific instances of racist treatment (“I go to the movie and I go downtown / Somebody keep telling me, don’t hang around”) and those who should be allies refusing to offer help (“Then I go to my brother… / but he winds up knocking me back down on my knees”). These words could have been written last week just as easily as 50 years ago — sobering thought.
Cooke doesn’t shrug at any of this injustice. Rather, he’s exhausted by it: “It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die;” “There been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long.” There’s nothing abstract or aloof about this. This is a blunt confrontation of the toll that generations of oppression takes on the oppressed. And yet this is not a song of despair, or of hand-wringing at what potential solutions might be. Despite the exhaustion of waiting for justice, this is a song of hope and expectation: “It’s been a long, a long time coming / but I know a change gonna come / Oh, yes it will.”
I hope that the emotional whiplash of this January’s events can serve as a call to us to renew our commitments to justice — not just in the abstract, but in the real, uncomfortable, and sometimes messy ways we are asked to confront injustice in the world. May we be galvanized by the domestic terrorist attack that showed us how much work we have yet to do; may we be inspired by yesterday’s historic inauguration and the promise of an administration more receptive to progress to keep pushing for equity, justice, and accountability.
A change gonna come. Oh, yes it will.