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.