Democrat and Independent Thinker..."The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself." -Nietzsche

Commenting on many things, including..."A government more dangerous to our liberty, than is the enemy it claims to protect us from." - Keith Olbermann

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

James Brown, A Bridge Over the Divide

James Brown was born in Barnwell, SC. He was one of us. He was one of South Carolina's own, just like Jesse Jackson and Joel Poinsett, both of whom were born in my hometown, and John Edwards, born in just the next county over.

Being a South Carolinian trumps all in the eyes, mind, and heart of all born and bred for generations in this state, you see. It is something ingrained in the natives of the one state that is the stalwart, legendary home of states rights. The state is still the main thing here, which is one reason why the Republican appropriation of the state so sticks in the craw of South Carolina Democrats. We are first and foremost South Carolinians, then Americans, then Democrats or Republicans, then religious affiliation, and then, and only then, whatever race we may be. Or that is how I've always seen it, how I've been taught, and what I have seen demonstrated throughout my life, but I was very young during the civil rights struggle.

Still, race is a great divide, and was so especially back when there were segregated toilets and water fountains, which I can still faintly remember, even though I was too young to fully understand their meaning. Later, I came to see just how much James Brown did to help us understand just exactly what they meant. Through his music and his actions, he helped to bridge that great divide. For when the civil rights struggle came to our hometown, in my recollection, the custom of segregation (for that is what it was, a custom) was quickly and rightfully seen to be wrong. Even insensible. It had simply always been that way and been unquestioned. Until it was questioned. And, once questioned, it was answered by those restrictions being lifted without much of a peep out of anyone where I lived. It was as if a different way had just never occurred to most white folks in my area and that black folks wanted it to change was a surprise, and quickly complied with. I know there was little to no opposition to it in my hometown, and what there was, came from the Bob Jones ilk, who had not secured their hold on the community at that time. They were scorned as bible-thumping, streetcorner preaching bigots then in Greenville, and still are amongst those of us born and bred.

It may have not been so out in the real world. It was that way in my world. We were a middle class family of Roosevelt/Truman Democrats who had little mixings with those of the Strom Thurmond types. We had one bigoted in-law in the whole of the extended family, whom we roundly scorned but tolerated for love of our blood relatives in his immediate family. My mother was a career woman. So, once a week, we had a beloved housekeeper who would come in and help her with the cleaning and ironing on her one day off a week, while she caught up with the shopping and bills and whatnot. Mother insisted on paying her more than she asked and showered her with gifts and whatever she might want. Carrie was a black woman who, with my granny, also mostly tended to us children on those days. She fussed at us, made us behave, made sure we ate properly, cleaned up our skinned knees, kept us from fighting, and did all the same things that our mom and granny did, and we loved her and were devoted to her. Yet, no matter how much we asked her to, Carrie would never sit at table with us. She always insisted on eating at the kitchen counter bar, while we had to sit at the table properly and mind our manners. It wasn't what we wanted, it is what she insisted on. Why, was a complete and total mystery to us. My parents couldn't explain it. All of which may help to explain why many white southerners were more taken aback by the civil rights movement than outraged by it. Those weren't the Southerners the media chose to portray, however. People forget that the media was just as interested in skewing the truth with sensationalism then, as now, and in some ways, even more so. People need to realize that Murrow was an anomaly.

I remember when I was a little girl, maybe 6, maybe 7, hanging out downtown with my older sisters during the summertime while my mom worked at the local premier department store, back when such retail stores were the epitome of elegance and class. Think "Miracle on 34th Street" on Southern overdrive. It was the early to mid '60's and life, in our experience, was idyllic. Even if mother insisted we not show our face downtown unless we wore dresses and patent leather shoes without fail, and even gloves, in some cases. Acting like a lady was a foregone conclusion.

My eldest sister was about 19 then, married several years already from an ill-fated, misguided, and wholly regrettable elopement to Georgia, and a big fan of Elvis and R&B. She was the rebel of the family, bless her. I remember how we used to go to Woolworths, the very same one that had been the site of sit-ins, inspired by those in Greensboro. Way back in the very back of the store, there were tables with boxes and boxes of 45 records stacked library card style, but in no particular order or classification. My sister would flip through them endlessly, finding her particular treasures and then sitting and showing them to us. I remember how tickled she was to find a James Brown record one day. Showing it off, I recall that someone asked her about it, questioning why she was buying a record by a negro, though in that time, another word was likely used, one we were not allowed to use, because while I cannot recall the questioner, I do recall the antagonism of the remark which is why it probably stuck in my young mind.

My big sister's response? "Yeah, but he was born here! In South Carolina!". That was enough. That made it okay. He was one of us.

From then forward, I recall that James Brown was always looked upon by members of my family as almost an eccentric uncle or "Godfather". Whenever he was in trouble, again, or arrested, again, someone at sometime would comment, "Well, did you see that James Brown was (arrested, in trouble) again?", and yes, we would have, and we would shake our heads and sigh the sigh of amused disappointment, and then we would laugh, just like we would laugh at the antics of any one of our recalcitrant relatives. And someone would say, "I wish they would stop picking on him, you know he's just being himself! You know he probably did no such thing!", and again we would laugh. And sigh. And shake our heads. With love in our hearts.

Our recalcitrant, rocking, Godfather of Soul is gone now. We cannot laugh, we can only sigh. And shake our heads. With love in our hearts.

Bless him.

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