James Brown came to be known by many different names during his illustrious career.
The Godfather of Soul; the Hardest Working Man in Show Business; Mr. Dynamite.
But to black baby boomers like myself, the moniker that best fits this icon is Soul Brother No. 1.
Why? He made it cool to openly state the pride you had in your ethnicity.
His seminal call to action in the summer of 1968, Say it Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud), gave voice to the frustrations that generations of blacks had encountered as they sought access to the American Dream. Black author Ralph Ellison effectively described in his 1952 landmark novel, Invisible Man, how many blacks had come to view their lot in America: We were ignored, outcast, "invisible because people refuse to see (us)."
Mr. Brown's song nearly two decades later let America know that was no longer acceptable. A sample:
"I've worked on jobs
With my feet and my hands
You know all the work I did was for the other man
And now we demand a chance
To do things for ourselves
We're tired of beating our head against the walls
And working for someone else
Say it loud, (I'm black and I'm proud)"
The power of this song cannot be overstated. The Rev. Al Sharpton, a longtime friend of Mr. Brown, summed up its meaning during an interview with me Wednesday.
"Black and Proud literally overnight changed blacks from being called Negroes to black," he said.
I believe the song had additional meaning to people who grew up in small rural towns during the turbulent 1960s, like myself. In my hometown of Swainsboro, Ga., blacks had little empowerment and were invisible in most ways that mattered. Say It Loud provided an anthem to which blacks there, and in similar towns across America, could rally around.
A theme song to a revolution.
I didn't know Mr. Brown personally and only saw him in concert once, at one of his birthday bashes in the mid-1990s at the then Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center - now fittingly renamed James Brown Arena. But, I always considered him what I like to call a true brother - someone who never forgot from where he came.
The same can't be said for a number of other black celebrities who achieved riches and fame but forgot those who helped them along the way.
The Rev. Sharpton agreed.
"I've been around the biggest leaders in the world, heads of states and all," he said. "James Brown is the only one I know that was for real as a brother. He was real. That's just how he was."
Reach Mike Wynn at (706) 823-3218 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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