Racial Violence and Representation

Sam Cooke: A Change Is Gonna Come

The song “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke illustrates parts of Saidya Hartman’s interpretation of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave as she sets out in the introduction of her book Terror, Slavery, and the Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America. In the introduction, she explains difficulties in representing black suffering and the violence that comes with it. Cooke’s song shows us how black suffering can be represented in a musical context.

The first chapter of Fredrick Douglass’ book immediately made me think of Sam Cooke’s song. I was already very familiar with the song, so when I read the sentence “I was born […]” in Douglass’ book, Cooke’s voice took over the sound of the narrative in my mind.[1] Hartman interprets this sentence as an establishment of the central place of violence in the making of a slave. The making of a slave and “I was born” should both be seen as ‘original generative acts’.[2] The same can be stated about Cooke’s song: he directly sets the tone for a discussion of the immediateness of racism by starting with “I was born by the river, in a little tent”.[3] Just like in Douglass’ book the sentence represents the immediate state of being a slave. Both Cooke and Douglass were born into violence because they were black. The difference here is that Douglass was born as a slave in the Nineteenth century, and Cooke was born in a society that forbids slavery but is still segregated.

However, Cooke’s and Douglass’ representations of black suffering also differ a lot from each other, especially when we consider Hartman’s argument about the ethics of representing black suffering: she states that the line between witness and spectator is vague in the case of representations of black suffering. By ‘witnesses’ she means those who “confirm the truth of what happened in the face of the world-destroying capacities of pain, the distortions of torture, the sheer unrepresentability of terror, and the repression of the dominant accounts”. By ‘spectators’ she means “voyeurs fascinated with and repelled by exhibitions of terror and sufferance”. She argues that we should therefore refrain from representing black suffering.[4]  

While describing forms of violence that are perpetrated against black people, Cooke keeps repeating that “a change is gonna come”. With this he points towards a current state of affairs in society that is violent towards black people, and this should and will change. He does not give a description of bodily harm inflicted on black people, but rather gives examples of other types of aggression, such as segregation. For example, he does not sing about police violence, but about doing the same activities as a white man but being treated as less when he sings “I go to the movie; And I go downtown; Somebody keep telling me; Don’t hang around”.[5] With this, Cooke also addresses the discrepancy of the captive being both property and a person that Hartman is interested in without explicitly describing bodily harm.[6] Cooke had the right of going to the movies, but his experience of it would still be violent and not equal to a white man’s experience. He may have briefly felt like a person with full rights when going to the movies, but he was still captive in a racist society. Cooke’s account of violence towards black people is thus less of a ‘spectacle’ than Douglass’ account, and he shows us how black suffering can be represented without spectacularising it.

It would be far-fetched to conclude from this that Cooke’s song makes a witness out of the listener, but since much of the songs power lies in its subtlety, it would be safe to state that listeners of Cooke’s song cannot be qualified as Hartman’s notion of spectators. This is also because the song is more activist and future-oriented than descriptive: the listener can imagine what needs to be changed. Cooke apparently did not feel the need to extensively describe black suffering, he merely observes a situation that needs to change, and in doing so he exposes the violence and suffering without providing a spectacular violent image that Hartman disapproves of so much.          

Doortje Kok

[1] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, Chapter 1 (Harvard University Press, 2009), pp. 15-20, p. 15.
[2] Saidiya Hartman, “Introduction”, Scenes of Subjection. Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 3-14, pp. 3-4.
[3] Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come”, album: Ain’t That Good News (1964).
[4] Hartman, “Introduction”, pp. 3-5.
[5] Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come”.
[6] Hartman, “Introduction”, p. 5.

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