In Memoriam: James Brown, May 3, 1933 – December 25, 2006
South Carolina. A land of contrasts, a land of conflict and tension, of strident harmony.
A land where vibrant Black African rhythms grind against White sensibilities, where the Jitterbug becomes the Charleston, a land where the Shag is the state dance. A land where Soul and Blues and Hip Hop are mixed together like sea marshes and oak trees and shrimp nets. A land where the sound of cicadas overwhelms the senses at dusk, a land where a mixture of shrimp and sausage, potato, onion and corn simmers under the heat of a blue sky and a white summer sun, taking on local names like Frogmore Stew or Beaufort Boil. A land where Gullah is spoken and voodoo is practiced.
A land where one’s heritage is revealed, one’s identity forged, by whether one is Episcopalean or Baptist or African Methodist Episcopal. A land that until fifty years ago still had Jim Crow laws, and where we know what that means. A land that produced Strom Thurmond, Lee Atwater, and the Hunley. A land with timeless Rhythm, a land of deep Blues, a land seething with Soul. Ours is the land where Moonshine appears on Saturday night and then gives way to Gospel and loud "Amens" on Sunday morning.
A land where everyone knows that BBQ is a type of meat that has been smoked for 24 hours, not an afternoon activity involving a backyard grill. (And we know BBQ is short for barbeque and we would find it sacreligious to pronounce it as Bee Bee Que, the best we will do is Baah-buuh-que.) A world where this smoked meat is our national dish, with our regional boundaries demarked by vinegar, mustard, or tomato base BBQ sauce.
The state which fired the first shot in the war for Southern independence, two full years before the Emancipation Proclamation, and whose capital was burnt in an effort to demoralize and defeat the populace during that war. A state where battles still rage over the proper place of that battle flag in its modern history. A land where the word "diversity" is a code word which really means "Black, White racial desegregation." Where the rice culture of West Africa abounds in the lowcountry marshlands and one can hear the traces of "Negro Spirituals" on the breezes as sweetgrass baskets are woven in the shade on a hot summer day or as shrimp are eaten with grits.
South Carolina. The State that gave rise to the "Father of Soul" James Brown.
James Brown: Born at Barnwell, living near Edgefield. An impoverished child who grew up to own a Lear Jet. We’ll claim him, even if he did some outrageously bad things. We forgive him for being a man of contrasts and complexity, for this is something we understand implicitly.
A man who, like most of his fellow South Carolinians, whether White or Black, grew up in a land of segregation and poverty, its economy burned to ashes during or in the aftermath of the civil war, a land crippled by disenfranchisement of half its citizens (not all of them Black, but most). A man who served a couple of jail terms, who needed drug rehab, who was arrested for beating his wife, who left "at least" four children (who knows how many more), was part of the civil rights movement, who just last week participated in a charity concert. Just like our state, a man of complexity and deep rhythm.
We’ll call him ours, just as we also are proud to claim Sterling Sharpe and George Rogers and Ron McNair and Charles Bolden and Jesse Jackson (just a few of our famous Black South Carolinians, see http://www.scafricanamericanhistory.com/honorees.asp for a few more). OURS is the man who proclaimed, "Say it Loud, I’m Black and Proud."
No matter what we think of James Brown, we can’t help but be impressed. James Brown is larger than life. Our feet move when we hear his music. In China, we hear his song and shout with him, "I feel good!" and know that we share part of that soul. He is one with us. A fellow South Carolinian. Striking a common cord in China, in every country. May his vibrant, pulsing soul live on in our music. May his music live on in our soul.