It’s been 50 years since he wrote “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” a song that is still necessary.
By Randall Kennedy
Mr. Kennedy is a law professor at Harvard.
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, written with Mr. Brown’s bandleader, Alfred Ellis, was released in August 1968, five months after the assassination of Dr. King. 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.
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?