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Music superstar James Brown‘s influence was widespread. Count me in as a longtime fan of his. Brown’s recent passing marks the end of an era.
What I wish to add to the many accolades and tributes to him is just this. His song “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” during the freedom upsurge of African Americans nearly four decades ago had an impact that, I think, is being sidestepped. This says more about commentators than Brown. Allow me to explain.
The lyrics in his 1968 song aptly described the conditions of black workers. They were laboring for low wages. Their employers’ idea of upward mobility was a cruel hoax in ways big and small.
It was long past time for a positive change, and the black masses were demanding just that across the U.S. A century after the American civil war and Reconstruction, most blacks remained on the bottom. At the same time, there was a kind of post-Second World War industrial prosperity in the U.S., due mainly to a lack of competition from the nations (Germany and Japan) defeated in humanity’s biggest blood bath to date.
Meanwhile, the U.S. empire was toppling democratically elected governments in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. These military actions were packaged for the U.S. public in the name of democracy. Stateside, democracy was a dead letter for the black proletariat.
Here was a contradiction. An old bearded German once said that history is the resolution of contradictions. Well, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” spoke to a lived contradiction of African Americans in the USA after WW II.
| “I’ve worked on jobs with my feet and my hands|
But all the work I did was for the other man
And now we demands a chance
To do things for ourselves
we tired of beating our heads against the wall
And working for someone else”
— James Brown,
“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”
I submit that Brown’s song also articulated the alienation of others, namely the oppression that U.S. workers of all ages, colors, and backgrounds experience on the job. That is, what they create for hourly wages is not theirs to keep. They make and the boss takes; this process creates alienated human beings.
Without question, those working people who are the last hired and the first fired make more and get less. And in a labor market segmented by gender and skin color, the oppression of being employed, exploited, and alienated is exceeded by one thing only. I mean the oppression of being out of work, the condition of surplus labor, when there is no boss to hire you in the marketplace, the fate of those, overwhelmingly black, who are behind bars in the U.S. today.
James Brown was spot-on in voicing black people’s demand for fairness and justice in U.S. employment. He nailed the alienated, exploited, and oppressed lot of wage-labor for African Americans. Moreover, his freedom lyrics for them had to, and I say did in fact, appeal to others for whom the workplace by its very structure of inequality creates inhuman conditions. Therefore, I think we overlook to our loss the revolutionary attraction of Brown’s lyrics to society’s mass, the laboring class, employed and unemployed. The black struggle was/is a race, class, and gender struggle for a new society. James Brown’s genius was to signify a part of that whole for us.
Seth Sandronsky is a member of Sacramento Area Peace Action and a co-editor of Because People Matter, Sacramento’s progressive paper www.bpmnews.org/. He can be reached at: email@example.com.