I think I know why white people don’t sing this song well.
I may be late to the party on this, but it dawned on me as I was singing: we don’t know what it’s like to NOT be free.
Sure, we get close if we’re female, or queer, or live with a disability, or trans. We know the hard, scary restrictions and compromises to our rights. But if we’re one or more of those things and we’re white, we get a pass. Because we don’t have, in our living memory, a deep, soul-rooted knowledge of what it means to be in chains. We just don’t.
We white people can sing this all day long, and groove to versions of this song by John Legend and the Roots, and Nina Simone, and Natalie Cole (who sang it at the White House in 2010), or even the original, by NYC jazzman Billy Taylor – but the truth is, we can only listen to the deep, soul-rooted longing of the African Americans for whom this is reality.
I wish I knew how it would feel to be free. I wish I could break all these chains holding me. I wish I could say all the things I could say, Say ‘em loud, say ‘em clear for the whole world to hear. Say ‘em loud, say ‘em clear for the whole world to hear.
I wish I could share all the love in my heart, remove all the bars that still keep us apart. I wish you could know what it means to be me, then you’d see and agree everyone should be free. Then you’d see, and agree everyone should be free.
I wish I could give all I’m longing to give. I wish I could live like I’m longing to live. I wish I could do all the things I can do, though I’m way overdue I’d be starting anew. Though I’m way overdue I’d be starting anew.
I wish I could be like a bird in the sky. How sweet it would be if I found I could fly. I’d soar to the sun and look down at the sea, then I’d sing ‘cause I’d know how it feels to be free. Then I’d sing ‘cause I’d know how it feels to be free.
For what it’s worth, I love the song, and I have sung it with gusto, because in my heart of hearts, I wish everyone could be free. But I can’t sing it the way it’s meant to be sung, because I can’t pretend for a second that I understand the longing in my deep, soul-root.
Picture of Billy Taylor, composer of this song.