We’ve come a long way, but we’re quite not there yet!


Blog by Ismail Yassin.

“A Change Is Gonna Come”(Sam Cooke, 1964)

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh, and just like the river I’ve been running ever since

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will

It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will

I go to the movie and I go down town
Somebody keep telling me don’t hang around

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will

Then I go to my brother
And I say, “Brother, help me please.”
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees

There been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will


There are some songs that are so deep they will stick with you forever and the cultural artifact I have chosen for this blog is just that. The song is called “A Change Is Gonna Come”and it was written by Sam Cooke during the Civil Rights Movement in 1964. Change is not something that we just wait for to happen, it is something we strive for. Even as of today, civilized and developed as we are, racism is still prevalent in the lives of African Americans and other minorities. It is not something as obvious as it used to be, it is very well embedded and hidden. It is something that people choose to show as opposed to an unconscious reaction to a situation. The song was released in December of 1964, a few weeks after his controversial death. It became an emblem for Black Power and the Civil Rights Movement, growing in stature slowly and hitting top charts to become an uplift [1]. The first time I heard it was a year or so back when I first came to the US. I read it on a news article in reference to the Ferguson shootings. Not only was I surprised but I was also very much intrigued by how this song, that was written almost half a century ago, perfectly described the prevalence of both implicit and explicit racism today.­­

What has drawn me to this song, putting it in his own words “A Change is gonna come”, is that his words haven’t completely become true. Change has happened but it still has a long way to go before racism and racial segregation are erased from our communities. Even in Seattle today, it might not be as obvious as it used to be, but African Americans and other minorities are being pushed out of the main City area mainly due to the rise in Housing and the price of land. We are mostly busy with how things have changed from the time of Slavery to Jim Crow Laws era and finally to Black Power, that we might be a little blind to what is also going on today right in front of us. Modern day Seattle is still very much segregated. The change that Sam Cooke so hopefully dreamed of half a century ago, has still not completely become a reality. Even today the song is very inspiring and has been demonstrated by famous singers putting their own sense of improvisation into it. That is to say that it’s meaning will not be frozen or forgotten, but rather change and deepen with time [1].

Coming from a country plagued by civil war, I can say that this song gives me hope that one day change will happen for everyone. I can say the biggest reason I’ve chosen this song as my cultural artifact is because of the first verse that goes “I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh, and just like the river I’ve been running ever since“.
The reason being that it perfectly describes my situation. I’ve left my homeland Somalia when I was very young and have been moving to different countries ever since. I’ve lived in four countries, three different continents and five different cities. From what I’ve seen and learned so far, slavery has to have been the most evil thing humans could do to one another. Being in war and having your freedom is much better than being a slave, and the change that blacks have made from then to now, just shows how far they’ve come. It is still a song that has people’s hopes in it in a musical form. The song was even played during President Barack Obamas inauguration [2] and also at the funeral of Malcolm X and it has inspired a new generation including myself to classical composition.

It’s a blessing we know the author of this song because some influential song writers during the Civil Rights Movement were not mentioned and some of their songs were lost in time. Sam Cooke was a gospel singer and was not involved in political songs [5] up until he wrote this song and that is something I find very strange because some of his best work, is when he spoke his music to African-Americans about the injustice and inequality they were facing. He was born on January 22, 1931 in Clarksdale, Mississippi and after graduating from high school, joined the Soul Stirrers and that gave him the chance that many black singers could only dream of at the time. He was inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but he had wished it had come from a person of color and was to some extent ashamed it was a white boy [1]. The reason he wrote this song was because he had tasted the injustice for the first time. He and his friends were not allowed in a Holiday inn in Shreveport, La [5] and when he refused to leave, they were arrested. This was the time when blacks had their freedom but that did not guarantee them equal rights and it just shows how the Jim Crow laws that were passed were still being implemented.

In a world where race is constructed that is to say race is something we associate with people depending on stereotypes, people choose to live in specific neighborhoods with a maximum amount of black composition whether they are whites not wanting blacks or blacks running away from their own people because of difference in class, further increases segregation. The fact that disorder or perception of disorder is attributed to an increase in Policing especially in black neighborhoods, means that no matter how hard we try to enforce equality of races, segregation will always be there. It’s is something that is deeply embedded into our societies that I think we’ll probably never not be segregated. As Sam Cooke puts it:
“I go to the movie and I go down town”
“Somebody keep telling me don’t hang around”,
he’s talking about how he can’t even enjoy something like going to a movie and then he continues with:
“Then I go to my brother, And I say, “Brother, help me please.”, But he winds up knockin’ me Back down on my knees”
Which portrayed no matter how hard African-Americans were trying to build a life for themselves, they were still fighting for equal rights and against the stereotypical believes that they were inferior to whites.

As I mentioned several times before, the song was released during the Civil Rights movement and towards the end of the Jim Crow Laws. As soon as it was released it was picked up on by Black Power and you could say it became a theme song for the Civil Rights Movement. Sam Cooke playing in a room for an audience that was separated right down the middle and police with their dogs ready to jump on any disturbance from the black side of the room [3] just shows how space was separated and makes me think why police would even need to make an appearance for something like a peaceful concert. It was a time where even their most exciting, happiest moments were a reality check to how inferior whites thought they were. If someone was to tell me I had to keep my space because of my color and that I was inferior, I’d flip out right then and there, and of course I’d probably be beaten to death but hey what else can you do. It’s not easy knowing what African-Americans had to go through at the time and this was when they were guaranteed to be citizens, I can’t personally imagine how bad it must have been during slavery when they were tortured, not fed properly, abused physically and sexually, used for labor like animals and had no human rights whatsoever. The song was performed live once and the tapes were lost and this is mainly because of the fear and outrage it could bring but was released later on national radio stations after Sam Crookes tragic passing.

Black people coming from the beginning of slavery all the way to the Civil Rights Movement and then to the Post Civil rights, is an example of how difficult their lives have been and why this problem is still a major issue. It’s a pattern that has developed over time and still continues to shape black lives and communities. How is it possible to have a minority as the largest number of convicted criminals [4] from slavery all the way up to now? As President Barack Obama puts it “We have more work to do when more young black men languish in prison than attend colleges and universities across America.” People say it makes no sense but I say it actually does. It’s as simple as racism, segregation and discrimination are very well still there. I recently read an article on “unconscious racism” and what I came across was very surprising. The article talked about how most people are not explicitly racist but that we have been raised up in a society that even the smallest things such as seeing most school detentions being blacks, builds up a preference or an automatic response to have a deep racist attitude that we are not even aware of, and this effects our reflex actions to somewhat of an extent. I’ve learned that black folks, no matter when, have always had it difficult. I’ve also learned from this song that blacks were not only inspired by each other, their hunger for freedom and equality but also by what some white people were doing. The exact thing that inspired Sam Cooke to write this song, is a perfect explanation of how hope could even come from the people who deny you any rights.

As someone who has come from African, I can sympathize with what has happened to African Americans throughout their history but I also know that they have the will power to change whatever little is left of inequality, as they have so many times before. I’ve learned from black history that not only the physical resistance such as riots, running away from slavery, fighting for freedom can influence how life turns out for the next generation, but also how cultural meanings such as poems and songs can carry a deep message with them and still be remembered and listened to fifty years or a century later. The song has and will always be a symbol of hope that hopefully one day, change will not be needed. Writings and literature can be lost but a song is never lost because it’s in the mind and souls of the people who have for many years fought to have their peace and equality.




[1]Cantwell, David. “The Unlikely Story of.” The New Yorker. N.p., March 17, 2015.

[2]David Freeland. “BEHIND THE SONG: “A Change Is Gonna Come” – American Songwriter.” American Songwriter. N.p., July 1, 2009.

[3]Leli, Brian. “Observing Change: Sam Cooke and the Civil Rights Movement.” – Gapers Block Transmission. N.p., n.d. February 11, 2010

[4]Moore, Antonio. “The Black Male Incarceration Problem Is Real and It’s Catastrophic.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. February 17, 2015

[5] “Sam Cooke And The Song That ‘Almost Scared Him'” NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Picture site: http://appleseedsmusic.com/binders-full-of-covers-pt-3-a-change-is-gonna-come/

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