Monday, January 17, 2011

"It's been a long, long time coming/But I know a change is gonna come."

The Song: "A Change is Gonna Come," Sam Cooke. Words & music by Sam Cooke. Track 29 of Sam Cooke: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964, 2005. (Originally released as Track 1, Side 2 of Ain't That Good News, 1964, but I don't own that.)
How/when acquired: Gift MP3, 2007.
Listen/watch here.

The first version of this song I owned was actually The Neville Brothers' cover, released as track 4 of Yellow Moon (1989). Yellow Moon is another essential blues/soul CD, but I'll get to it eventually.

Sam Cooke's a fascinating guy, shot down under mysterious circumstances at the age of 33. My mother loved his early gospel music with The Soul Stirrers. Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of her death, which doesn't seem possible; I still pick up the phone a couple of times a month, thinking it's been too long since I called her.

We celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today, and that seems more important rather than less as we get further away from 1968. My earliest memories date to 1968, sometime before my third birthday. They're not coherent narratives, they're just images, and I'm not completely sure what I remember independently and what are memories created by old photographs. I do remember the pocketbook I carried at Easter that year, shiny black patent leather that matched the ribbon on my hat. I do remember not liking my hat, which was white with a black ribbon, and wanting my twin sister Kathy's, which (I think) was yellow.

Easter 1968 fell on April 14, ten days after Dr. King's assassination. I don't remember anything specific about Dr. King's assassination. What I remember is that we got a puppy for Easter, an Alaskan husky-German shepherd mix my mother called Boyfriend. It was a joke between my parents, but it must have been something more, too. Mom was newly pregnant with what would turn out to be my sisters Peggy and Susan, born in November. Daddy was on the USS Austin, which was in and out of port all through the first half of 1968, running training exercises and making trips to the Caribbean. Boyfriend would grow up to be a very big dog, and while he was so gentle he let Kathy and me try to ride him, he looked like a white wolf.

I remember the tension of that time, even though I didn't know what it was about. Kathy and I once ran away from the trash collectors, because they were dark and the truck was loud and the whole idea of garbage men seemed scary. It was Mom who explained that different skin colors were nothing to be afraid of, and that the garbage men were husbands and fathers doing a job, just the same as our own father.

It's not true that children have to be taught to hate and fear. The opposite is true: children have to be taught not to. Any animal's natural response to the unfamiliar is to fear it and flee it. It's every American's responsibility to learn for ourselves, and teach each other, that colors and cultures different from ours don't have to be unfamiliar, and aren't scary. The different is not the enemy. We need this holiday to remind us.

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