The Genius of James Brown

James Brown at the Olympia music hall, Paris, September 1969
Gilles Caron/Contact Press Images
James Brown at the Olympia music hall, Paris, September 1969

In his 1996 memoir The Color of Water, James McBride describes a difficult moment of his boyhood in the 1960s. Raised in Queens, along with eleven siblings, by a black stepfather and a white mother (a Polish Jew who had told her children little about her origins), he was sent to predominantly Jewish schools at the insistence of his mother. She was intent on his getting what she considered the best education available, even if she herself had long been cut off from her family and her religious upbringing, ever since marrying an African-American minister and converting to Christianity. But McBride writes:

As a kid, I preferred the black side, and often wished that Mommy had sent me to black schools like my friends. Instead I was stuck at that white school, P.S. 138, with white classmates who were convinced I could dance like James Brown. They constantly badgered me to do the “James Brown” for them, a squiggling of the feet made famous by the “Godfather of Soul” himself, who back in the sixties was bigger than life. I tried to explain to them that I couldn’t dance.

When he finally gives in and launches into his version of the dance, he is momentarily lifted by their apparent enthusiasm but then crushed as he picks up on “the derision on their faces, the clever smiles, laughing at the oddity of it.” This is only one episode in McBride’s winding account of sorting out who he really is in the process of learning about his mother’s hidden life. For a moment, in this narrative of elusive and conflicted identities, James Brown emerges as a clear and unwavering emblem of black identity, a status that Brown affirmed resoundingly with his 1968 hit “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

Two decades after his memoir, in Kill ’Em and Leave, McBride returns to Brown, offering along the way further details about his own childhood. He grew up in a house “where food was scarce and attention scarcer, where ownership of the latest James Brown 45 rpm was like owning the Holy Grail.” At that same time, James Brown was living not far away in “a huge, forbidding” twelve-room mansion in St. Albans, “with vines creeping onto the spiraled roof and a moat that crossed a small built-in stream, with a black Santa Claus illuminated at Christmas, and a black awning that swooped down from the front yard in the shape of a wild hairdo.”

Here McBride and his friends would stand on the street for hours and days, hoping for a glimpse of their idol, swapping rumors about Brown handing out money to kids if they promised to stay in school. McBride never got that glimpse…

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