James Brown: The Man Who Named a People
by BAR Executive Editor Glen Ford
“Overnight, it seemed, the great bulk became ‘Black’ people.”
In death, James Brown this past weekend vied for headlines with two other passing luminaries: a former U.S. president, Gerald Ford, and the man a generation of Americans have been taught to hate, Saddam Hussein. That’s world class celebrity – no doubt about it. However, despite all the accolades, I believe the historical James Brown has been short changed. Even Brown’s many, mostly self-authored titles – “Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” “Godfather of Soul,” “Soul Brother Number One,” to mention just a few – fail utterly to convey the Barnwell, South Carolina native’s seismic impact on the modern age. James Brown can arguably be credited with a feat few humans have achieved since the dawn of time.
He named an entire people: Black Americans.
More accurately, James Brown was the indispensable impresario who chose the moment and mechanism that allowed Black Americans to name themselves. He was the Great Nominator who in 1968 put forward for mass consideration the term that the descendants of former slaves would voluntarily and by acclamation adopt as their proud, collective designation. “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” set in motion a tsunami-like process – breath-taking in speed and scope – that for the first time in their North American history created a mass social forum through which slave descendants could loudly register their ethnic-name preference. Overnight, it seemed, the great bulk became “Black” people – with an attitudinal clause: get used to it.
The uniqueness of the Brown-impelled nomenclature change lay in its referendum-like character. With “Say It Loud,” Mr. Brown, who had earned a powerful bullhorn by forging direct, cultural connections to the masses – which is, of course, what popular entertainers do – cracked open the social space in which a whole people could quickly affirm or reject their Blackness. The phenomenon built upon, but was more far-reaching than, Stokely Carmichael’s popularization of “Black Power,” two years earlier. Carmichael’s slogan called for – demanded – power for Black people. But James Brown’s anthem actually empowered ordinary Black folks to signal to their leaders and oppressors – the whole world, in fact – the fundamental terms of any dialogue: how they were to be addressed.
“Everybody got a chance to declare whether or not they were ‘Black and proud.’”
To be sure, group nomenclature had been a near obsession among Africans/Negroes/Coloreds/Blacks as far back as intra-Black debates have been recorded. But the late Sixties, the point in history seized by James Brown to introduce his plebiscite, was a time of both unprecedented mass Black political action (including urban rebellions) and the emergence of Black-oriented media that could reach into every nook and cranny of the national Black polity. For the first time, the Black call-and-response could be national – that is, people-wide – and, in political terms, near-instantaneous. Through the medium of Black-oriented radio – which was then a one-sound-fits-all Black demographics affair – the Black call-and-response was no longer limited to the literate classes, or to the realm of the church. Thanks to Black radio, everybody got a chance to declare whether or not they were “Black and proud.” Most voted, “Yes.” It was a landslide. The skeptical minority were drowned out by the Black and newly-Black, or borne along by the back-beat of James Brown and the Famous Flames.
A Name is No Game
One vastly beneficial effect of the James Brown Black popular referendum, was to clear away the historical-rhetorical nomenclature underbrush that had built up over generations – to collectively say, in effect: We’re Black now, let’s get on with more productive discussions. Until James Brown definitively split Black history in two – BB and AB; Before Black and After Black – the terms Colored, Negro, Black and some variant of African had coexisted (though not necessarily capitalized), with varying degrees of friction and tolerance. Clearly, the folks that founded the African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches were not repelled by the term African, despite the fact that “The Race” was despised by the broad masses of whites. By taking their faith in their own hands, building their own church, these early congregations empowered themselves to speak on their own terms – at least with one another. More important than what folks called themselves, was the effective right to decide the question. Within the proscribed parameters of Black life in AME and AME Zion – and later, Colored Methodist Episcopal and other denominations – Black folks could by voluntary association “name” themselves.
“The power to name a people was only an extension of the real sources of power.”
However, Black preferences – or Negro, Colored or African preferences – meant nothing to whites, who called Blacks by whatever terms or epithets they chose because they had the power to do so. Emancipation did not break the white monopoly on power, yet the post-Civil War freedmen’s nomenclature debate seemed to escalate, to take on a life of its own. Frustrated by the death of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow, many Blacks got caught up in a current of thought that argued, in chicken vs. egg fashion, that Black powerless was caused by failed nomenclature. If only Black folks would take on an identity that best befitted their heritage and aspirations, they might find a way out of the tightening racial vice.
Others saw somewhat more clearly that the power to name a people was only an extension of the real sources of power: wealth, a savage white citizenry willing to kill for the sake of perceived privilege, and the might of the state. Such Black citizens saw that use of language was simply an acting out of actual power relationships, not the cause – or even a significant contributing factor – in racial disparity. Words, names, can be wielded as whipping sticks against those who are already powerless to resist. It is the power and intentions of the word-wielder – his ability to define the Other as he sees fit – not the word, that is operative.
Respect, the need to show or withhold it, is an outgrowth of power relationships, not the other way around – a real world fact well understood by Black lawyer Ferdinand Lee Barnett, founder of the Chicago Conservator. In 1878, the newspaper’s first year of operations, Barnett wrote an editorial titled, “Spell It With a Capital.”
“We have noticed an error which all journalists seem to make. Whether from mistake or ill-intention, we are unable to say, but the profession universally begins Negro with a small letter. It is certainly improper, and as no one has ever given a good reason for this breach of orthography, we will offer one. White men began printing long before Colored men dared read their works; had power to establish any rule they saw fit. As a mark of disrespect, as a stigma, as a badge of inferiority, they tacitly agreed to spell his name without a capital. The French, German, Irish, Dutch, Japanese, and other nationalities are honored with a capital letter, but the poor sons of Ham must bear the burden of a small n.
“To our Colored journalistic brothers we present this as a matter of self-interest. Spell it with a capital. To the Democratic journals we present this as a matter of good grammar. To the Republicans [the party to which most Blacks were allied at the time] we present it as a matter of right. Spell it with a capital. To all persons who would take from our wearied shoulders a hair’s weight of the burden of prejudice and ill will we bear, we present this as a matter of human charity and beg you SPELL IT WITH A CAPITAL.”
Note that Barnett uses the capitalized term “Colored” twice, but “Negro” – the subject of his editorial – only once, an indication that he may have been more comfortable with the former. But Barnett did not quibble over the use of either. Rather, he asked – begged – that his people be accorded at least the nominal respect of a capital letter, whether as Negro or Colored. Barnett recognizes that the lower case is reserved for people who can be treated as lower beings; that non-capitalization is intended as “a mark of disrespect…a stigma…a badge of inferiority.” It is not the relative merits of “Negro” or “Colored,” but the small n (or small c) that is meant to diminish The Race as a whole – a reinforcement and reminder of Black powerlessness.
By today’s standards, Barnett’s editorial may seem groveling, but that is a misapprehension. He was simply informing Power that he knew what they were up to. In the absence of countervailing power, there could be no expectation that whites would be forced to change their behavior. Barnett was not one to grovel, by the way; he later became the husband and collaborator of Ida B. Wells, the crusading journalist and anti-lynching activist whose militancy often worried her colleague W.E.B. DuBois’ “last nerve.”
“Blacks periodically expended precious time and energy engaging in name-disputes largely disconnected from actual power relationships.”
For a century after Emancipation, the terms Negro, Colored, Black, variants of African, plus periodic outbreaks of obscure, short-lived and now-forgotten nomenclature, were cohabitants of the ghetto. (The Baltimore Afro-American newspaper began publication in 1892, preceding by more than 70 years Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro American Unity.) None of the group-names was enforceable as a standard, not even among Blacks, who nevertheless periodically expended precious time and energy engaging in name-disputes largely disconnected from actual power relationships, and without benefit of a movement strong enough to make the conversation relevant to the Black masses.
Fifty-two years after editor Barnett’s appeal, the New York Times finally deigned to upgrade “Negro” to capital status. “[This] is not only merely a typographical change, it is an act in recognition of racial self-respect for those who have been for generations in the 'lower case',” the paper announced to its readership in 1930.
Of course, this was the Times’ decision to make, in keeping with the spirit of what Barnett called “human charity” – not to be mistaken as some great victory for “Negro” self-determination. That would come almost two generations later, and the word would be “Black."
By the early Sixties, “Black” was clearly in ascendance among some activist circles of former Negroes. The emergence of a roiling national Freedom Movement, the African decolonization process, the observable fact that the descendants of slaves were now poised for numerical dominance of cities across the country – a multiplicity of world-altering factors – had converged to make a new day imaginable; some thought, inevitable. The imminence and necessity of a great change in power relationships required new nomenclature, both to clarify emerging realities and to accelerate the movement that was making these new realities possible.
“The imminence and necessity of a great change in power relationships required new nomenclature.”
But the new word was not…new. “Black” is as ancient a part of the American racial lexicon as “Negro,” a derivative of the Portuguese word for “black.” Both terms crossed over long ago from descriptive adjectives, to nouns denoting an entire people who were articles of commerce or social proscription. Only the deliberately obtuse could deny that Coloreds, Negroes and Blacks were proper nouns for what Barnett maintained was one of the “nationalities” resident in the United States. What set “Black” apart from its foreign-derived counterpart “Negro,” or from the ambiguous “Colored,” was the sheer weight of racist, victim-internalized cultural values embedded in the English term. Black was bad, incorrigibly bad, bottomlessly bad – bad to the bone.
Certain elements of Black folks (by any name) have always deployed an inversion formula to turn their racist-dominated world right-side-up. “Bad” became “good.” They embraced “bad” – “bad” as you wanna be! The Stagger Lee philosophy of life in the ghetto boiled upward through the thin layer of “Renaissance” Negroes in Harlem, March 19, 1935, the “civil disturbance” widely recognized as the beginning of the modern Black urban riot (or rebellion) cycle – an historical break from the pattern of murderous white mob invasions that had punctuated Black folk’s previous existence in the U.S.
The Negro, formerly pictured as a lone, mindless brute or passive “uncle,” was now perceived in his growing numbers as a “time bomb” ticking away in the nation’s cities. By the Sixties, Stagger Lees were assembled on every street corner, a palpable political presence. The massed Negro had acquired the power to frighten the rulers in America’s centers of commerce. Watts, Los Angeles, 1965 confirmed that there were now multitudes of “bad” Negroes eager to break out of the old racial paradigm. Somehow, the old nomenclature didn’t fit anymore.
It was past time for a popularizer to synthesize – sloganize – the objectively transformed relationship between slave descendants and the majority culture and its rulers. Finally, after so many generations of near irrelevance, the never-ended nomenclature discussion could occur in the presence of a vibrant national political movement, amidst a radically changed urban environment. Most importantly, the conversation was now connected to concrete questions of power relationships, questions of direct relevance to an entire people.
“The massed Negro had acquired the power to frighten the rulers in America’s centers of commerce.”
“We want Black Power,” Stokely Carmichael declared in 1966. Carmichael was by no means the first to define both a people and their aspirations in the two-word phrase. “Black Power” had been around for awhile, promulgated by Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and author Richard Wright, among others. But the time was now right, and the cameras were rolling. Many future historians would note that the Black Power Era had begun.
But not quite. The various branches of the movement were not in agreement – not about the nature of the “power” that was sought, and not about “Black.”
And nobody had effectively posed the question to the people.
R.I.P. Negro and Colored
James Brown was uniquely situated in the new media environment that had evolved since Memphis radio station WDIA became the first to employ an all-Black announcing staff, in 1949. By the late Sixties, Black-oriented radio had penetrated every city with a substantial Black population – and lots of smaller ones, as well. James Brown, constantly on tour and always on the charts, delivered his unadulterated sound to everyday folks who worked up almost as big a sweat during the performance as he did. Brown also generously greased the palms of disc jockeys and program directors throughout the land, securing a permanent place on nearly every R&B station’s playlist. In 1967, Brown bought radio stations in Knoxville, Tennessee, Baltimore, Maryland, and Augusta, Georgia, making him the biggest radio mogul of his race at the time.
Brown was the ultimate hook-master, musically and lyrically – a genius that came to full flower with his 1965 release, “Poppa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” Brown dropped hooks like Einstein dropped science, with perfectly integrated musical and lyrical phraseology that embedded itself in the mind and body more indelibly than any commercial advertisement. Had he lived in a more just world, James Brown could have earned tens of millions of dollars on Madison Avenue, outclassing so-called classic ads like “Flick my Bick,” “Sometimes you feel like a nut…sometimes you don’t,” and “Coke – it’s the Real Thing” with his far more elegant, concise and powerful “I feel good (I knew that I would), I got you,” “This is a man’s world” and “I break out in a cold sweat.” Increasingly, the James Brown sound came to be defined by his magnificent hooks – his inimitable and irresistible people-catchers.
“’Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud’ sealed the fate of ‘Negro’ and entombed ‘Colored’ in its moldy crypt.”
Four months after Martin Luther King’s assassination and the resulting rebellions in more than 100 American cities, Brown would drop the hook that definitively and inarguably named a people. Appropriately beginning with the words “uh…with your bad self,” “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” sealed the fate of “Negro” and entombed “Colored” in its moldy crypt.
The linguistic sea change wrought by “Say It Loud” was made possible by the confluence of a genuine national political Movement, the swirling global currents of decolonization, concentrated urbanization, unprecedented mass civil rebellion, and a new and dynamic radio and records communications network with near-universal reach – factors that had never before in Black American history existed, collectively or severally. But it took the unassailably authentic, “super-bad,” quintessentially “Black,” hook-master supreme James Brown to seize the moment, and set it off.
Brown’s greatest gift was to allow masses of Black people to participate in the process of self-determination. Nothing like it had happened before, or since. By submitting the declaration “I’m Black and I’m Proud” directly to the people, for them to affirm or reject, Brown took the name issue out of smoke-filled strategy rooms and away from the machinations of self-selected “spokespersons.” James Brown called out, and the people responded – democracy in action.
The effects of Brown’s plebiscite were far more profound than a simple change in ethnic appellation. By embracing “Black,” the people stripped the term of its historical negative baggage – something only the people themselves can do, not their “leaders” or preachers or soothsayers. Coming only months after the dramatic crescendo of the Sixties – King’s death and cities in flames – the popular response to Brown’s referendum can also seen as an affirmation of the previous decade’s struggle.
“Brown took the name issue out of smoke-filled strategy rooms and away from the machinations of self-selected ‘spokespersons.’”
Ten years later, an entirely different exercise was imposed on Black America, one that had no relationship to self-determination or any notion of democracy. Seventy-five self-selected “representatives” of the race locked themselves in Washington hotel meeting rooms in December, 1988 for a conference that was supposed to hatch a political agenda for the Nineties. After two days in secret conclave, Rev. Jesse Jackson emerged to inform the press that a decision had been reached. Henceforth, Black folks would be known as “African Americans.”
Was that it? A unilateral name change declaration? From the press coverage, it appeared to be so, although the usually well-informed Richard Prince, columnist for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, later insisted that “one reporter – Lillian Williams of the Chicago Sun-Times – made the so-called ‘name change’ the news story from the meeting.” Whether Ms. Williams was capable of manipulating the Washington press corps or not, the following decade saw no evidence of the existence of any “African American Agenda” except the name imposition.
The whole sorry process was emblematic of how far Black politics (yes, “Black” with a capital “B”) had devolved since JB’s referendum. In the absence of a real movement, with no mandate from the people directly concerned, no mechanisms for popular review, and in total secrecy, less than 100 mostly unelected people conspired (yes, that’s the appropriate term) to substitute their own choice of name for an entire people, who had only a decade before affirmed by acclamation their preference for “Black.”
The merits of “African American” are irrelevant. The conferees had no right to impose their preference on Black people. By their secretive and monumentally presumptuous actions, these self-selected spokespersons proved beyond doubt that they do not respect those they claim to represent, and have not a clue as to the meaning of self-determination. Nearly 20 years later, there is no reason to suspect that the surviving conferees have learned a thing about popular democracy.
“The conferees had no right to impose their ‘African American’ preference on Black people.”
James Brown had many flaws, but he respected his audience – which, at the time, was damn near all of us. He submitted his contributions – lyrical, musical and political – to the judgment of the masses. He treated Black people as active agents in their own lives, with full knowledge that his personal fortunes were always subject to the people’s verdict.
The term “Black” remains the people’s default preference, overwhelmingly so in Black informal speech.
Thank you, Mr. Brown, for giving us the opportunity to choose.
BAR Executive Editor Glen Ford’s first full-time radio news job was with James Brown’s Augusta, Georgia radio station, WRDW. He later worked at Brown’s Baltimore station, WEBB. Ford can be contacted at [email protected].