Segregation, self-respect, and a YouTube video
Posted by metaphorical on 17 January 2007
“I believed in the 1950s that a significant percentage of Americans were looking for a way out of the morass of segregation. It was wishful thinking.” — Kenneth Clark, 1984
When James Brown died, it felt important to me, but also not important. It’s taken me a month to account for both reactions.
First, important: Bob Davis, of the Soul Patrol, in his coverage of the viewing of James Brown’s body at the Apollo Theatre, called Brown the Godfather of soul, echoing Al Sharpton’s moving tribute. The line to get into the Apollo, which is on 125th Street, went down as far as 104th Street, he reported. Listening to Davis, I remembered junior high school. “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” was released in August 1968. Returning to school that September, the song filled the cafeteria and the hallways.
There was an ugly racial divide in my school, and black kids would not just sing it proudly, but defiantly, hostilely, even threateningly. The song gave voice to feelings—both good and bad —that had lain just beneath the surface. Music filled the middle space between civil rights marches and riots. (Just as Dylan, long hair, and LSD would be, for me, more than an anti-war rally but less than raiding a draft board.)
James Brown did that. Sure, Aretha’s “Respect” did that as well (and was sung in the hallways too), Stevie Wonder, and more, but never with the same punch in the stomach of James Brown. Nothing as loudly. Nothing as proudly.
Next, unimportant: I knew there was an opposite side of the story, but couldn’t put my finger on it until viewing the video “A Girl Like Me” today. This video hasn’t exactly been been hidden under a rock. It showed at the Tribeca Film Festival here in New York back in April. It was featured on NPR in October, and has been written about in newspapers around the nation.
The 7-minute film starts out discussing race, beauty, dark skin, and the self-image of young black women, in their own words, until about half-way. Then it recreates the famous experiment that Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted in the 1930s, about the time James Brown would have entered elementary school, asking black children to choose between a white doll and a black one.
Here’s how Leonard Pitts Jr. described the scene in the Miami Herald back in September.
‘Why does that look bad?” the interviewer asks.
”Because it’s black,” the little girl says.
”And why do you think that’s the nice doll?” asks the interviewer, referring to the light-skinned doll.
“Because she’s white.”
“And can you give me the doll that looks like you?”
The dark-skinned girl reaches for the light-skinned doll, jiggling it as if she really wants to pick it up. In the end, with palpable reluctance, she pushes the black doll forward.
It will break your heart. And then it will break your heart again when you realize that in this respect, in this critical respect, nothing has changed in 70 years. Nothing and no one, not even James Brown, has ever changed it.