THE MAN WHO TOLD US, I'M BLACK AND I'M PROUD
Derrick Z. Jackson
When I was 13 and heard James Brown sing "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," it was an anthem. It was an official affirmation of our presence in 1968, the same year that America, in its racial sloth, enacted the Fair Housing Act.
"We won't quit movin', til we get what we deserve ..." Brown sang. "We're people too, we're like the birds and the bees. We'd rather die on our feet than be livin' on our knees."
A song even more important to me than "Black and Proud" came along a year later when Brown sang about equality. In a political world I was oblivious to as a ninth-grader in Milwaukee, President Richard Nixon was crafting the federal government's retreat on school integration.
At a news conference in 1969, Nixon was asked why his administration joined the side of Senator John Stennis in an attempt to delay school desegregation in Mississippi. Nixon painted equally "those who want instant integration" and "those who want segregation forever" as "two extreme groups."
The Supreme Court would reject such "go slow" tactics, saying "there is no reason why such a wholesale deprivation of constitutional rights should be tolerated another minute."
All I knew then was that James Brown was our musical Supreme Court chief justice. He sang that same year:
I don't want nobody to give me nothing, open up the
door, I'll get it myself.
I always interpreted "Don't give me integration" as meaning "Don't give me only integration." In a 1996 interview with an alternative newsweekly, Brown said he wrote those lyrics "because of the fact that there are a lot of things closed to blacks, Hispanics, women. There are a lot of people who think they're in the system, but they're really not in the system. Any time an Afro-American kid, 9 or 10 years old, can get up and say, 'Mama, I think I'm gonna study hard because I want to be president,' and have a shot at being president ... one day, when you can go on any side of town and not be frantic or curious about what might happen to you and be at any place in America, we won't have to worry about 'Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud).'"
Brown added, "We're trying to let people know that, hey, don't give me nothin', just open up the door and if I don't earn it, then I don't earn it."
Brown, who died last week at age 73, became as erratic offstage as he was powerful on it. He ironically endorsed Nixon in 1972. He never fully outgrew juvenile delinquency, going in and out of jail over the decades on charges of drug use, domestic violence and gun violations.
But in a world where people consistently separate public art from personal angst, the public Brown sang the right things at the right time for black boys and girls who are now in their late-40s and mid-50s.
One of those black boys, Barack Obama, is indeed being talked about as having a legitimate shot at the presidency. Brown is credited with keeping a lid on Boston after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. One of my early lessons in "earning it" was saving James Brown's "Black and Brown" stamps until I could trade in a book for $3 credit at a store.
Before writing this column, I asked my 16-year-old son if there was an equivalent to James Brown in his generation. He flatly said no. There are a handful of artists who make the uplift of black people the subject of a handful of songs.
But self-pride is largely drowned by recordings corrupted by the N-word, misogyny and glorification of violence. Instead of preaching about earning it in schools and the workplace, the symbols of making it are too often gold chains, gold rings and gold teeth.
James Brown once sang, "I got somethin' that makes me wanna shout; I got somethin' that tells me what it's all about. I got soul and I'm superbad!"
Even though his soul was troubled, he nourished mine and those of countless black youth. The best tribute we can give him is another musician with the soul to inspire another generation to get what they deserve.