Say It Louder: I’m Black and I’m Proud
It’s been 50 years since James Brown wrote a song that is still necessary.
July 20, 2018
By Randall Kennedy
Mr. Kennedy is a law professor at Harvard.
James Brown performs during a 1968 concert at Madison Square Garden.Walter Iooss Jr./Getty Images
In the gym at Paul Junior High School in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1968, not that long before the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I asked a buddy whether he was interested in a certain girl. He told me that he was not because she was too dark.
He and I were African-American. (Then we would have called ourselves Negro.) So was she. All of us supported the Civil Rights Movement and idolized Dr. King, yet I did not hold my friend’s color-struck judgment against him. And he did not state his opinion with embarrassment. We had both internalized our society’s derogation of blackness.
Indeed, we luxuriated in the denigration, spending hours trading silly, recycled but revealing insults: “Yo mama so black, she blend in with the chalkboard.” “Yeah, well, yo mama so black, she sweats chocolate.”
It was precisely because of widespread colorism that James Brown’s anthem “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” posed a challenge, felt so exhilarating, and resonated so powerfully.
It still does. Much has changed over the past half century. But, alas, the need to defend blackness against derision continues.
The song was released in August 1968, five months after the assassination of Dr. King, and it shot to the top of the Billboard magazine rhythm and blues singles chart, where it remained for six weeks. I still remember the thrill of singing along with Soul Brother Number One that first summer. I have done so hundreds of times since.
Various musicians in the 1960s tapped into yearnings for black assertiveness, autonomy and solidarity. Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions sang “We’re a Winner.” Sly and the Family Stone offered “Stand.” Sam Cooke (and Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding) performed “A Change is Gonna Come.” But no entertainer equaled Brown’s vocalization of African-Americans’ newly triumphal sense of self-acceptance.
That Brown created the song most popularly associated with the Black is Beautiful movement is ironic. He generally stayed away from protest, endorsed the presidential re-election of Richard Nixon, lavishly praised Ronald Reagan, and consistently lauded Strom Thurmond.
His infrequent sallies into politics usually sounded in patriotic, lift-yourself-up-ism. In the song “America is My Home,” he proclaimed without embarrassment that the United States “is still the best country / And that’s without a doubt.” Alluding to his own trajectory, he challenged dissenters to name any other country in which a person could start out as a poor shoeshine boy but end up as a wealthy celebrity shaking hands with the president.
James Brown combs his hair backstage before performing for American troops during the Vietnam War.Simonpietri/Sygma, via Getty Images
At the very time that in “Say It Loud,” Brown seemed to be affirming Negritude, he also sported a “conk” — a distinctive hairdo that involved chemically removing kinkiness on the way to creating a bouffant of straightened hair. Many African-American political activists, especially those with a black nationalist orientation, decried the conk as an illustration of racial self-hatred. For a brief period, Brown abandoned the conk and adopted an Afro, but that was only temporary. The conk was part of the characteristic look of “The Godfather of Soul.”
Other than the refrain — “I’m black and I’m proud” — the lyrics of “Say It Loud” are wholly forgettable. They bear little of the artistry that graces the lyrics of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (written by James Weldon Johnson as a poem in 1900) or “What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue?” (written by Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf in 1929). Written in a year in which more than 100 black people were lynched, the words of “Lift Every Voice” are a magnificent exhortation championing dignity, bravery and resilience. “What Did I Do …?” is an ironic protest that also highlights the self-loathing that victims of abuse all too often assist in inflicting upon themselves:
How would it end? Ain’t got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?
Even though by 1968 uprisings against white supremacism had been erupting for a decade with great intensity and success — the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Childrens’ Crusade in Birmingham, the protest against disfranchisement in Selma — prejudice against blackness remained prevalent, including among African-Americans.
In my neighborhood, calling someone “black” was an insult, often the trigger to a fight. Our disparagement of “black” derived from a centuries-long development that Winthrop D. Jordan describes in “White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812.” He shows, in excruciating detail, how blackness “served as an easily grasped symbol of the Negro’s baseness and wickedness.”
Wielded ferociously by whites, this symbol inflicted hidden injuries that scarred every strata of African-American society. In his memoir, “Soul on Ice,” published in 1968, Eldridge Cleaver recounts a fellow prison inmate’s scornful dismissal of African-American women: “I don’t want nothing black but a Cadillac.” He remembers another one remarking, that if “money was black, I wouldn’t want none of it.”
Champions of African-American uplift in the 1960s sought to liberate blackness from the layers of contempt, fear, and hatred with which it had been smeared for centuries. Brown’s anthem poignantly reflected the psychic problem it sought to address. People secure in their status don’t feel compelled to trumpet their pride. At the same time “Say it Loud!” was a rousing instance of a reclamation that took many forms. Instead of celebrating light skin, thin lips, and “good” (i.e., straight) hair, increasing numbers of African-Americans began valorizing dark skin, thick lips and “bad” (i.e., kinky) hair.
For purposes of collective self-identification, African-Americans took to calling themselves “black” as opposed to “Negro” or “colored.” Negro Digest was renamed Black World. Negro History Week was superseded by Black History Month. Students demanded the establishment of black studies programs.
In his final book, “Where Do We Go From Here?,” Dr. King also embraced the reclamation of blackness. One “must not overlook,” he insisted, “the positive value in calling the Negro to a new sense of manhood, to a deep feeling of racial pride and to an audacious appreciation of his heritage.” He went on to say that a black man “must stand up amid a system that still oppresses him and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of his own value. He must no longer be ashamed of being black.”
The reclamation of blackness in the sixties made tremendous headway quickly. By 1970 my friend would not have dared to repeat out loud what he had told me unapologetically two years before. Here, as elsewhere, however, changes wrought by the black liberation movement, though impressive, were only partial. Nearly four decades after the release of “Say It Loud,” Professors Jennifer Hochschild and Vesla Weaver, having synthesized the pertinent academic literature, declared authoritatively that compared to their lighter-skinned counterparts, dark-skinned blacks continue to be burdened by lower levels of education, income, and job status. They receive longer prison sentences and are less likely to own homes or to marry. Filmmakers, advertisers, modeling agencies, dating websites and other key gatekeepers demonstrate repeatedly the ongoing pertinence of the old saw:
If you’re black get back
If you’re brown, stick around
If you’re white you’re all right
James Brown performs in Toronto in the late 1960s.Jeff Goode/Toronto Star, via Getty Images
Colorism was part of the drama that starred Barack and Michelle Obama. That a man of color was twice elected to the presidency is surely a sign that racism has waned. Still, that Barack Obama is not a black black man but instead an African-American of intermediate hue raises the question whether or to what extent colorism played a role in enabling his triumph. As for Michelle Obama, many black people delight in the fact that she was not only an African-American first lady but a dark-skinned first lady. Much of the satisfaction that an ambitious African-American man chose as his partner an accomplished dark woman arises, however, from the rankling impression that frequently such men prefer lighter companions. Alice Walker’s articulation of the point is unexcelled in its bluntness: “For the dark-skinned black woman it comes as a series of disappointments and embarrassments that the wives of virtually all black leaders (including Marcus Garvey!) appear to have been chosen for the nearness of their complexions to white alone.”
Intra-racial colorism in Black America is often seen as a topic that should, if possible, be avoided, especially in “mixed company.” That sense of embarrassment three decades ago prompted officials at Morehouse College to demand that Spike Lee cease filming on campus once they learned that his movie was exposing, among other things, black collegiate colorism. The impulse toward avoidance remains strong.
With racial prejudice against all African-Americans still a potent force, many would just as soon ditch the discussion of “black on black” complexional bias. Colorism, however, remains a baleful reality. The urgency with which it needs to be confronted is evident in moving speeches from the actress Lupita Nyong’o about learning to appreciate her dark skin. It is evident, too, in Kendrick Lamar’s insistence that dark-skinned women also be featured in videos showcasing his music.
Half a century after James Brown’s proclamation, it remains imperative to assert what should have been assumed and uncontroversial all along: that black is beautiful and as worthy of pride and care and consideration as any other hue.
Randall Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School, is the author, most recently, of “For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action and the Law.”
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