This is my favorite July 4th-themed song. I am not one much for (so-called) “Independence Day.” I find it hard to celebrate a nation that prides itself on freedom when it is born of so many contradictions, limits freedom for its own people in mercenary ways, and works to crush the democratic agency of other nations when whoever is in charge considers it against “our” interest. I choke out that “our,” because I don’t feel like a part of that “our.” The people who speak for me have rarely if ever said what I would have to say on those issues.
But still, I really love this song, “Black Man” by Stevie Wonder. It is off of one of the best albums of all time, Songs in the Key of Life, which was released in 1976, the bicentennial year. The song mostly consists of a long listing of the accomplishments of people of different races in the United States. Things like heart surgery (black man), farm workers’ rights (brown man), incandescent light (white man), building the railroads (yellow man) are listed, but as you can see from the parentheticals, the way that Stevie identifies race is a little problematic. No one refers to (or at least no one probably should refer to) Asian people as “yellow” anymore.
But still, I understand what Stevie was trying to do. He wants to make sure that the narrative of American history includes all the people that are too often ignored, washed over or only added in as special cases. As he sings in the refrain, “we all must be given the liberty that we defend / For with justice not for all men / History will repeat again / It’s time we learned /This world was made for all men.”
So it is clear to me that Stevie is challenging traditional notions of not only white-washed American history and what kinds of accomplishments should be included in that narrative, but the very notion of nation itself, for he says “the world was meant for all men,” thus implicating the United States position in global politics and the ways that it protects its interests at the expense of others. The refrain is really a warning about denying people access to the mythical benefits of being an American, and by extension, not only American nationals, but all people.
This has recently come to light for me again in reading Juan Gonzalez’s Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. The book does a good job of highlighting the ways that American foreign policy has worked to undermine democratic movements in Latin America, in pursuit of is corporate interests and its obsessive anti-communist policies, ironically driving people to immigrate to the U.S. where they contribute to American society and the economy, but are too often treated as less than human, cheap labor to be exploited both economically and as political scapegoats.
The song’s problems aren’t limited to only its racial language, as it ignores any direct reference to the genocide and removal of indigenous peoples of the Americas to make way for our nation—in fact, Stevie goes so far as to list Sacajawea’s aid of Lewis and Clark as one of the positive contributions by “a red woman” to the U.S. However, despite this I like to read the bridge in a way that overcomes this. Stevie sings, “I know the birthday of a nation / is a time when the country celebrates / but as your hand touches your heart / remember we all played a part / in America to help that banner wave.” That “we all played a part” resonates with twofold meaning, because it also suggests a complicity in reinforcing the destructive foundational myths of nation when they benefit us, requiring a heightened sense of awareness about the dangers of buying into them.
The song is funky and fun and I particularly feel the remix I included above, so don’t get the idea that I trying to hate on it. As I have said many times, true criticism emerges from a place of love, not hate, and I do love this song. Its problematic aspects only serve as an opportunity for its listeners to critically engage with it, and understand that there is no position that is completely free of the need of contextual awareness.