Every time I listen to Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” I am overwhelmed with deep feelings. Then I notice a whole train of associations. First, Sam Cooke himself: possibly the sweetest, most soulful voice of the twentieth century, a great talent who was snuffed out at age 34.
Then I think of the terrible image of the chain gang, that brutal system used throughout the South to punish rebellious Black men from the 1870s to the 1950s as part of the “Jim Crow” system of racial oppression. Then I remember – don’t you know? – that the chain gang system was actuallyreintroduced by a few states during the1990s, and that it still exists in Arizona.
This is one of the ways in which America continues to scapegoat the Other, as I describe in Chapter Ten of my book. A more detailed telling can be found in Michelle Alexander’s excellent “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”(http://www.amazon.com/The-New-Crow-Incarceration-Colorblindness/dp/1595581030).
Another way in which our culture continues to brutalize people of color is through a police system that lacks all accountability. It has been alleged that in the six months since Trayvon Martin was killed, police have murdered over eighty African Americans. “As we dug deeper, and more grieving family members came forward, we found that every 36 hours…another Black child, man or woman dies at the hands of the police, security guards or self-appointed vigilantes,” writes Kali Akuno of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement(http://99problems.org/2012/07/police-brutality-every-36-hours-updated-report-malcolm-x-grassroots-movement/).
Listen again to the song. Just before Sam sings the refrain, “That’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang…” the bass man of his backup group sings, “Well don’t you know…” Musically, this is a statement that links the refrain to the stanzas, but it is much more than that. It is in fact a challenge to the listener: Are you asleep? Don’t you know what has been going on? Your soul, your moral well-being, your nation, your children all depend on this, on rising out of your ignorance. You can no longer, says the bass man, pretend to be unaware of what the agents of authority claim to be doing in your name in order to maintain your own sense of innocence.
I realize this essay is beginning to sound preachy (perhaps to honor Sam’s origins in the church), but I can’t help but think that there’s going to be a reckoning. Is there such a thing as national karma? Will our descendants suffer for our sins?
Then it occurs to me: aren’t we already living in the reckoning time? Aren’t almost all of us experiencing a diminished, de-mythologized, de-potentiated life, swinging between the unsatisfying harbors of addictions, fundamentalism, media-driven consumerism, violent patriotism and – most of all – fear of the Other (as Muslim terrorists or as black men)?
Then again, I don’t know if Sam could fall into pessimism or despair. His very last recording was “A Change Is Gonna Come,” recorded in December 1963, four months after Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
And in January of that year Sam recorded a live album – “One Night Stand! Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963” – on which he sings “Chain Gang” with an upbeat, danceable, celebratory rhythm to a wildly appreciatory, sing along crowd (you can get it on ITunes for 99 cents). What was going on in that room? How could they seem to be enjoying such a sad song?
This event was a ritual, and the high priest was leading the assembly in the multi-generational litany of extreme pain and grief that, once expressed – and heard, in community – turns into its opposite. This is the secret of the Blues, something all indigenous people know, that a community can reach profound, even ecstatic levels of unity once all aspects of the truth, especially the dark aspects, have been brought into the light. And now we know…