Watching the Democratic National Convention is surprisingly resonant. I thought I fully appreciated the historical gravity of a black presidential candidate, but I suppose I hadn’t felt it until now.

Unfortunately, I find that still many Americans aren’t learned enough in art, politics and history to understand the symbolic importance of this moment. A politically pessimistic acquaintance of mine scoffs and rolls her eyes at my professions of wonder. This is the same acquaintance who didn’t know until a few months ago (and is still maddeningly hesitant to believe) that rock ‘n’ roll began as black music. I shudder to imagine the other absences in her view of our national narrative. It is the ignorance regarding America’s political/cultural history that informs too many citizens’ regrettable disenchantment.

No matter what your position– Democrat or Republican, Socialist or Anarchist– the nomination of Barack Obama for President of the United States means something. Big.

I find myself listening to one song in particular over and over again in contemplation of this crescendo in history. It’s not Sam Cooke’s masterwork “A Change is Gonna Come” (though certainly that would be appropriate), rather Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” (1972) rings in my ears–a song that deserves its status as one of pop music’s greatest.

In his article “The Aesthetic Ante: Pleasure, Pop Culture, and the Middle Passage” for Calloloo Vol. 17, Eric Lott writes about “Sail Away” so brilliantly, I cannot possibly compress or improve his words. I have transcribed his writing below and embedded Newman’s track. Tonight we will see a black man accept a major party’s nomination for President, an event comprehended however inadequately only with a full embrace and complex understanding of slavery in the United States. Though Obama himself is not the descendant of slaves, he is nonetheless the privileged American to walk this virgin path.

“Though it takes a moment, if not a second listening, to realize it, [“Sail Away”] is sung from the point of view of a white slaver imploring some Africans to come with him to America. This preposterous and even disgusting conceit pays off in what it’s able to say about the terror and pleasure of being an American. Arriving on the shores of West Africa, one imagines, the trader steps off into the crowd as the music begins and utters his quiet and chilling entreaty.

The image is “The Slave Ship” (1840) by Joseph Mallard William Turner

Newman’s irony is anything but cheap; the song’s earnestness, and the outrageous beauty it conjures out of the slave trade in the majestic vision of Charleston Bay, confront you with all the awful contradictions of American history. The song isn’t cynical; it acknowledges and even encourages your love for America; indeed it tempts you for a moment to believe that this image of America is true, and packs a wallop the instant you start to do so.

In America every man is free
To take care of his home and his family

You’ll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree
Y’all gonna be an American.

Sail away-sail away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay

Sail away-sail away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay


Griel Marcus’s words describe the trader brilliantly: “Of course he is lying. He has seen babies thrown into the sea, smelled the death and excrement in the hold, watched the brand burn into the flesh. He has looked without flinching into the bewildered eyes that are perhaps the most terrible of all. But for the moment, he believes himself” (Mystery Train 127-128), and in a way that illuminates how white inhabitants of the United States experience themselves as American citizens. [PF note: of course, we realize Newman’s portrayal of the ticked slave is historically inaccurate as most Africans were brought overseas against their will.]

The song depicts a faith in the idea of America so strong that even the violence on which it is founded comes to seem beautiful. Insisting on the violence as well as the beauty, Newman’s after something more than a complacent sense of “ambivalence”—he wants it to hurt every time white people feel like Americans. He wants the feeling to be earned. It is all there in the combined temptation and violence of the last words to the slaves-to-be, in “y’all gonna be an American” (that is to say, whether you like it or not), in the way Newman rolls the word “American” around in his sly drawl.

Indeed, the song’s final irony lies in the fact that this very drawl and the gospel-bluesy cadences of the melody would only come into being after those Africans had become African-Americans and generated musical forms that would infiltrate and define American music: the song is in this sense literally impossible, and this discrepancy forces us to acknowledge the thievery and the forced racial embrace of the beautiful music itself.

All of which seems to me every bit as realized and incisive as the ending of The Great Gatsby, when Nick Carraway imagines the wonderment of Dutch sailors upon first landing on American shores, that “transitory enchanted moment” in which (given the plunder that will follow their arrival) they see for the last time “something commensurate to [their] capacity for wonder”—the Dream shadowed by its negation.”

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