Inside Papa’s Brand New Bag
James Brown held a prominent place in my constellation of stars. His music was the soundtrack of my black girl life. My middle-school bestie Brunella and I would scoop up tickets to his concerts at the Cow Palace and savor every moment spent shoulder-to-shoulder in the roaring crowd. The Godfather of Soul was a bad mother (shut your mouth), taut and compact like a bulldozer, his slender physique poured to overflowing into a black-on-black ensemble, his hair a swirl of black satin stacked high like his patent leather shoes. Years later, my black was beautiful because of him. Every disc jockey at every house party knew that he had to put JB on the turntable if he wanted the crowd to get down. Sweat descending from our Afros to our faces, we’d stop mid-rhythm, thrust our fists in the air and scream – ‘Say it loud. I’m Black and I’m proud.’ He was never in or outside the box, because there was no box that was big enough to fit.
With that love in mind, I was wary from the moment I read the introduction to Kill ‘Em and Leave, James McBride’s (The Good Lord Bird; The Color of Water) newest release. Living fourteen deep on the wrong side of the tracks in Queens, NY (as did the author, who, incidentally, is also an accomplished musician) couldn’t be so different from coming up hardscrabble in South Carolina. James Brown was a poor kid just like the ones he left his $100 million fortune to and by default, the trajectory his life was set in stone. But even if it was set in stone, James Brown was still the master brick layer. McBride says, ‘we have to figure ourselves out if we want to figure James Brown out.’ But I disagree. We just have to fully acknowledge the truth: that racism – white supremacy in all its deep-rooted nuances and veiled iterations – has sharp teeth and it bites, really, really hard.
Everybody got to leave this land. And in 1951, everybody did. One thousand, five hundred homes, 2,300 farms, 8,000 people, the majority of whom were African American, and 1,700 graves that were dug up and moved. Six towns and three counties all scattered to the wind so that the Savannah River Nuclear Site could take up residence. The Gaines-Scott side of James Brown’s family was part of the thousands who slipped between the cracks of history with just an x signed on the dotted line.
Mother Theresa once said that ‘in death, everyone’s a saint.’ And James Brown is no exception. When someone you love and cherish dies, you don’t fixate on their foolishness like McBride tends to do in this tome. Because it’s not what the dearly departed left behind, it’s how they made you feel when they were here. James Brown slayed it; he put it down and when you do that you don’t have to be commemorated and memorialized. Brown prophesized that when he died ‘it would be a mess’ and it was.
Throughout his life he made us proud, and unknowingly showed us we didn’t have to be either or. We could be saint and sinner, faithful and infidel, loving and cruel and that our genius lies somewhere in that duality of contrasts and complexities.
The ‘silent roar’ McBride refers to echoes the song of the Jim Crow south, the Willie Lynch letter, the noose and the pic-a-nigga lynchings, the post-traumatic slavery syndrome we never talk about and the current urban terrorism of being black while living. Is it the way the music industry and the South treated Mr. Brown that elicits all the author’s anger, or is it McBride telling his own story in the spaces between his words? This is a hard read and I think it’s intentional. Because Kill ‘Em and Leave is not just a search for the ‘hardest working man in show business’ or an exploration of ‘the American Soul’. It’s a metaphor for all the brilliant black men who’ve had the life sucked out of them and don’t have a clue that they are the currency everyone wants a bigger piece of.
Judy Marie Willis is a writer, publicist and life coach. She values the opportunity that books provide to witness how others view this utterly wonderful world.