Don Cornelius: 1936-2012

Don Cornelius, creator and host of Soul Train, appears to have killed himself at age 75.  Gunshot to the head, ugly way to go.  I’ll be interested to learn over the next few weeks whether he was terminally ill or what the deal was there.  I hope it wasn’t depression.

I wonder if he knew how much he did to change things in the United States.  There’s a lot of focus on the impact Soul Train had on black pride, which probably goes without saying.  American television for the most part still is a white, Protestant, middle-class wasteland, and it was even more so in 1970 when Soul Train debuted. Off the top of my head I can only come up with Diahann Carroll on Julia, Mannix’s secretary, and Link from The Mod Squad as recurring black television characters at that time.  It must have been amazing for African-Americans to tune into a show where they weren’t relegated to sidekick status, or represented basically as white, middle-class Protestants with brown skin.

But there’s more to the story.

My early childhood was almost completely devoid of black people.   When I was in the first grade there was a single black kid in my school.  He cut his arm on the playground one morning — not badly, but enough to draw blood.  I was fascinated by the contrast of deep red against his dark skin.  That’s just how sheltered I was.  Shortly thereafter the Denver school system announced that they would begin bussing more black students into my elementary school.  My parents started looking for a new house around that time.

That’s really the flavor of racism that I recall from the Seventies.   For the most part America seems to have moved past the overt racism of violence and subservience and into a form of racism equally destructive in its way.  It was a sort of passive aggressive racism — I won’t keep you out of my neighborhood, I’ll just move.  I’ll work beside you, but I’ll resent you as a “token” hire.  Seventies racism had a sort of “fine, we’ll just pretend you aren’t here” vibe, at least in the little bubble in which I was raised.

In some ways nothing personified this worldview better than American Bandstand.  Every Saturday morning I’d watch cartoons followed by a little Sid and Marty Krofft live action like Lidsville or Sigmund and the Sea Monsters.  Next up was American Bandstand with its Barry Manilow theme song.  All of the dancers were young and white, the host was perpetually young and white, and even the music was young and white even when it wasn’t.  Black music on Bandstand leaned more toward Hughes Corporation than Parliament Funkadelic.

But after Bandstand on those Saturday afternoons came Soul Train.  My father hated Soul Train with a passion.  He hated the music, the clothes, the dancing, the hairstyles, and he wasn’t quiet about it.  It didn’t take me long to figure out that there was more going on there.  Soul Train was a threat — it was like a little keyhole view into a world that his generation was trying to hide from us, presumably out of fear.  That’s what was used to sell it, after all:  We have to get out of this neighborhood before they move in; they’re going to take our jobs, etc.  It was your textbook demonization of The Other.

And so with my father in one ear, cool music in the other, and an eyeful of people dancing and having fun I experienced cognitive dissonance for the first time.   How can The Other be villains when they’re having such a better time than those stiffs on American Bandstand?  I had to think for myself, come to my own conclusions.

That may be the single most important lesson that anyone can learn.  It is a lesson that stops wars, cures hatred, and nurtures kindness.  It’s the greatest bullshit detector one can ever hope for, and it immunizes one against the fear mongering spread by talk radio hosts, politicians, and news networks claiming to be fair and balanced.

Don Cornelius intentionally or not changed the world not with a hammer but with a funky beat and the Soul Train line.  He didn’t bully from his pulpit he entertained, and in the process he inoculated a generation against racism.  That’s quite a legacy.

8 replies »

  1. I have read that he has suffered from significant health problems over the past few years. I’m always so saddened though, when this becomes the only way out that someone can see. May he rest in peace.


  2. “Passive-aggressive” racism. When I was in my twenties, two of my friends got together in an on again, off again relationship. They finally “on-ed” it and got married. John was black, Tracy was white. Tracy was diagnosed with leukemia and died in her mid-thirties.

    John and I spent some long afternoons together after she died, drinking too much beer and talking about what it felt like being widowed in our thirties.

    John talked about his anger. Anger at the disease, anger at the God he did believe in, anger at the doctors who had given him some hope, anger at himself that he could not save her. One of his biggest angers was when he would tell a stranger his wife had died, they immediately said, “oh, no, I am so sorry! A drive-by?”
    If he showed them a picture of her and told them she had died, they would simply ask, “from what?”

    The assumption that his wife was black and the only way she could have died so young was from gang violence, while the assumption that his white wife had died of a terminal illness, caused him more rage than the other four targets combined.

    This was in Los Angeles in 1995.

    Didn’t mean to ramble. That sentence, “Passive aggressive racism” literally flung me back to those tipsy afternoons listening to my friend John trying to get a handle on what, exactly, it was that people were seeing when they looked at him.


  3. When Kel first showed me pictures of John and Tracy and told me this story it took me back to when, just before I left for LA, I worked at an electronics/stereo store. The battle between vhs and beta was still on and the store was smart in setting up a video rental section.

    There I met two of the nicest people you could imagine and got to experience first hand the looks, mutterings, and downright vile comments towards two people from customers I never had heard say a bad word about anyone before. He was black, she white, they were both successful with the most beautiful kids you could imagine – and I am not particularly drawn to kids.

    As if it wasn’t bad enough to hear the comments when the husband and wife came in together my “neighbors” did not even have the decency to keep their sh*t filled mouths fully closed when one or the other parent would come in with their “mixed” kids, to return probably the same Disney film my “neighbors” were about to rent for their future quiet racists.

    Racism wasn’t hidden in parts of my family. My grandfather threw the “word” around like a kid with his first yoyo. He was brutally mocked and looked upon as a second class citizen because he came from eastern europe, but I asked myself internally, early on, why he was so angry at these people. What had black people done to him. Oh yes, he and his son (my glorious uncle) would give the obligatory – “not Joe so and so at the mill, he’s one of the hard workers” line along with “those people down on Stambaugh Avenue are just as bad – white trash.” My grandfather was hated by others but I couldn’t see why he needed to hate a whole group of people because of the slightest of differences, their skin color and who he did not know at all. He and my grandmother moved as soon as the first black family bought a house 6 lots down.

    I guess I was lucky, hell, I know I was lucky having folks who somehow didn’t bend to the family and cultural pressure. They aren’t perfect but they actually try. I just wish I had called my grandfather on it just once when I was old enough, but that is just a fantasy as he would have made my mother pay for the transgression of her child, me. I’ve always had a chuckle thinking how my grandfather (just on one side by the way) must have taken the news of my parents, before we were born, not going to some big band show – which would have been correct for their age – but to a rockin’ review that included the likes of Fats Domino.

    Soul Train wasn’t a problem at home. I honestly think a main part of the appeal was Don’s smoooooooth voice. Damn it was fine to listen to.


    My apologies for this long winded comment (because it is nothing new in the world) but I wanted to give a little of my background, to let you know that hearing Kel’s telling of her talks with John and that particular… that particular question still gets to me to this day.

    Kel, thanks for putting this up and James, thanks for giving Don a wonderful nod.

    p.s. Someday I’ll let you know how I got to be on the very sound stage Soul Train was shot on.


    • Yeah, I have more stories along those lines than I care to tell, but for me it all comes down to familiarity breeds normality rather than contempt — at least in a lot of us.

      Hillary was right — it takes a village to raise a child — and thanks to Don Cornelius my little village got a lot bigger.


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