Skip to comments.Staple Singers' anthem a call for civil rights and reparations
Posted on 08/27/2013 10:25:10 PM PDT by 2ndDivisionVet
One of the more stirring and heartfelt songs from the civil rights era is When Will We Be Paid, by the Chicago soul and gospel group The Staple Singers.
In plainspoken but soulful terms Mavis Staples unpacks the backbone of American prosperity: black slave labor.
We worked this country
From shore to shore
Our women cooked all your food
And washed all your clothes
We picked cotton and laid the railroad steel
Worked our hands down to the bone at your lumber mill
The Staples released the song in 1970 on Well Get Over, their second album on the Stax label. The great performance of the song above comes from the film Soul to Soul, which documents a 1971 concert in Ghana, featuring mostly American R&B, soul and jazz performers.
The song itself was inspired by a passage in Dr. Martin Luther King Jrs I Have a Dream Speech, given at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom which took place 50 years ago this month.
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence they were signing a promissory note a promise that all men, yes black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.
Despite those credentials, and the Staples role in the civil rights movement, When Will We Be Paid is not recalled alongside some of the other great anthems of the era, like We Shall Overcome, Go Tell it on the Mountain, and People Get Ready. And neither the song nor the album were a hit for the Staples.
I wonder if thats in part because the song can be read as an argument for whats proven a controversial topic: reparations. That idea has been around since the end of the Civil War, that direct descendants of slaves, either individually or as a group, deserve some kind of monetary compensation for the wrongs suffered by their ancestors.
Of course the meaning of When Will We Be Paid is also much broader. Following Dr. Kings logic, the bad check is a metaphor for the failure to achieve full equality for blacks in America. And the Staples double down on notion by invoking womens work, arguing that equality will only be paid in full if it also extends to black women.
But the litany of abuses in the lyrics, the claim that Anytime we ask for pay or a loan/Thats when everything seems to turn out wrong, the repeated refrain of When will we get paid/For the work weve done suggests the song speaks not just of the political but the economic forms of redress required to make the check good.
If the Staples did have reparations in mind, theyd be in good company, at least when it comes to Chicago and Illinois. Many of the more recent arguments for reparations have come from here, made by activists like NCOBRA and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and by politicians like Dorothy Tillman, Jan Schakowsky, Bobby Rush and Danny Davis. Reparations even came up as a topic for debate in Chicagos last Mayoral election.
Davis was part of a Congressional group charged with studying the idea of reparations in 2001. He thinks there is something unique about Chicagos position on reparations.
Chicago sent the very first African American to become a member of Congress after the period of Reconstruction, said Davis. Illinois has been the state that has elected two [African American] United State Senators. So Chicago has had a level of progression related to issue raising that many other places in the country have not experienced.
Though his own group came to naught in terms of serious discussion or recommendations, and never gained broader support from Congress, Davis doesnt think the issue has gone away.
I dont think anyone can deny that slavery has had an adverse effect on many of its descendants, Davis said. People whose relatives or foreparents were enslaved are still feeling the impact and are still being disadvantaged as a result.
But that is exactly whats proven so controversial about reparations: is payment required to repair that damage? And if so, how much, to whom, and why African Americans, and not other disadvantaged groups?
Davis thinks reparations dont have to mean paying people outright. He has in mind special incentives like education and training to lift people out of poverty, all of which he thinks can in a sense be called reparations. But reaching consensus on what those would look like has proven no less complex.
As for The Staple Singers, Davis says he is a great fan of the group and has been since seeing them as a child in Crossett, Arkansas. To him, the song evokes a key claim for blacks, one that has yet to be fully answered.
The notion of when will we be paid, or when will we really reach the point when there is full citizenship, with no barriers, no prohibitions, with nothing that holds us back and reminds us of this previous condition of servitude, when will that happen -- if it will?
Sorry, first generation here, I don’t owe anyone squat. If they want reparations for slavery let them go to the source, African tribes and the muslims, or maybe they want to go the route of some freed slaves and become slave owners themselves.
600,000 dead white folks got you free.
you pissed away a trillion plus dollars the last fifty years
gravy train over.
The work described sounds a lot like what my German and Scots Irish ancestors did.
“You didn’t build that...”
There are few ‘groups’ of people in the world that were not slaves of some other group at some point in history. They all got over it and moved on ... not so the blacks in the US.
I blame this on the US Government. Because of liberal white guilt, we have given our poor black brothers everything and required nothing ... our mistake.
None of the people who owned slaves are alive today. None of those who were slaves are alive today. America doesn’t owe black parasites squat. Get over it.
In my lifetime, you’ve hardly done squat
My mother came over fron England in the 1920s. I guess that means the Italians owe my family some reparations since the Romans enslaved all their conquered people, right?
Enough is enough and too much is plenty. Time to wipe that slate clean.
My ancestors are from Poland, I could make millions off of Russians and Germans if I sued them.
Yes.......Obama’s Muslim forebears in Kenya, Africa were the slave mechants that chained & sold African natives into Middle Eastern, European & American slavery. Your original slaves masters were Africans that looked just like Obama!!!
Um no, dead people worked for other dead people. You had jack to do with it, I had jack to do with it, I don't have a damn lumber mill. I'm not giving you jack unless you send your granddaughters to come here and cook my food and wash my clothes.
My great great grandfather was born in 1850. He was black, but he was never a slave. Neither was anyone in my family after 1865.
Yet some black people want the federal government to steal the earned wealth from whites, and give it to me and my family members for something none of us ever endured.
So-called black ‘leaders’ would do well to tell the children to go out and earn their own, because they’re never going to collect reparations from people who’ve done nothing to harm them.
My father remembers horrible signs in the neighborhood, like: No Irish or Dogs Allowed. Where do I go for my reparations?
my dad picked cotton as a child! We must be owed a lot.
God bless and keep you and everyone you love, my dear, treasured pal.
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