“Kill ‘Em and Leave” – an unforgettable foreword!
A native New Yorker, he wrote it based on interviews and astute observations during one of his many forays into the Deep South; to Barnwell, South Carolina, birthplace of the late soul singer James Brown, the book’s protagonist.
James McBride, National Book Award-winning author, was there to stitch together the complicated, up and down life of Brown, proclaimed “Godfather of Soul,” “the hardest working man in show business,” Mr. Dynamite” – there, in McBride’s words, to “walk through the carcass of a ruined, destroyed life.”
Now unlike no other I’ve read, the foreword in McBride’s book, “Kill ‘em and Leave – searching for James Brown and the American Soul,” held me in a vicelike awe – maybe captivation is a better word – as I stretched across the back seat of our SUV (my son behind the wheel) while we crossed the state line from south Georgia into South Carolina; places where Brown spent many of his early (and later) years before skyrocketing into the all-too-familiar collision of fame and infamy.
Written with greater effect than I could ever imagine, and to add historical context to the life and times of James Brown, McBride distilled into six pages the complexities of race relations in America’s south, back then (and still now) where, “race keeps you in a kind of a grid in which you never know where to step. Blacks and whites together – but not together. Living as one, but not as one. Living as a family, but a dysfunctional family.”
Continues McBride, “There used to be to an old black-run soul food joint on Allen Street in the town of Barnwell, not far from James Brown’s birthplace, called Brooker’s. Every time I would go to that town to pick around the bones of James Brown’s story, – what’s left of it – I would head to Brooker’s and eat pork and grits and collards and whatever else Miss Perry Lee was serving. I’d sit at a table and watch the people come in – young, old, some quiet as bedbugs, others talkative and friendly, a few suspicious, folks of all types: small businessmen, local workers, farmers, an undertaker, hairdressers.
They love James Brown in Barnwell. They don’t see his broken life; they don’t care about the bottom-feeder lawyers who line up to pick at his bones, or his children fighting over the millions Brown left to the poor instead of them. They’ve seen enough evil in their own lives, going back generations, to fill their own book of sad tales.
They laugh and smile and make you feel good. But behind the laughter, the pie, the howdies and the second helpings, behind the huge chicken dinners and easy chuckles, there’s a buzz. It’s nothing said, or even seen, for black folks in South Carolina are experts at showing a mask to the white man. They’ve had generations of practice. The smile goes out before their faces like a radiator grille. When the white man talks, they nod before the man finishes his sentences. They say “yes sir,” and “right on” and laugh and joke and say “I declare!” and “is that right?” and howdy ‘em and yes ‘em to death.”
And you stand there dumbfounded because you’re hearing something different, you’re hearing the buzz, and you don’t know if it’s coming from the table or the bottom of your feet, or if it is that they spend so much history passing between the two of them, the black and the white, in that moment when the white man pays for his collard greens with a smile that ties you up, because you can hear the roar of the war still being fought – the big one, the one northerners call of the Civil War and southerners call the War of Northern Aggression, and the more recent war, the war of propaganda, where the black guy in the White House pissed some people off no matter what he did.
It’s all about race. Everybody’s knows it. And there’s no room to breathe.
So you sit there, suffocating, watching them, and you stare in amusement, feeling like you’re sitting on a razor blade, waiting for one or the other to pull out a gun and blow the other’s face off. If you wait until the white man leaves and ask about that space, the space between white and black folks in South Carolina, the black folks say, “Oh, it ain’t nothing. Such-and-such is my friend. I’ve known him for years. We get along here.”
Only at night, when they go home, when the lights are down and all the churchin’ is done and the singing is over and the TV is off and the wine is flowing and the tongues are working freely, only within the safety of home and family does the talk change, and the buzz is no longer a buzz. It’s a roaring cyclone of fury laced with distaste and four hundred years of pent up bitterness.”
Now by the time we’d checked into our hotel in South Carolina, I made a few false starts into chapter one in the book, but each time was drawn back into that riveting foreword to read it a few more times with yellow highlighter in hand and my comparable experiences growing up in the south in mind.
“Good moanin’ Faaginyaah,” (“Virginia” was my mom’s actual name) he said while peeping through the screen door and through a deep southern drawl. It was clear that this white man, many years younger than my mom, was the insurance man there to collect the premium on her policy.
Obviously based on habit, he let himself in and didn’t say “Mrs. Virginia,” rather referred to her by her first name several times during his visit. However, “Mr.” was how she referred to him. I cringed. I seethed. I cussed at him under my breath.
But that was the way it was back then –and now? – when survival and going along to get along often trumped racial bias and inequities. Yet I could feel the anger bloating in my gut as I, a product of the sixties, sat on that couch with, ironically, James Brown’s day saving “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud,” oozing out of my dirt cheap little KMART cassette player.
Now if I didn’t see it then, I can clearly see it now – my mom’s living room was no different than Brooker’s soul food restaurant in Barnwell, South Carolina when the white man came calling; on my occasion leaving me lost in my version of a roaring cyclone of fury with distaste and four hundred years of pent up bitterness.
Oh, as for the rest of the book you ask? Well, I hope soon to get to it.
But only if I can somehow just get past that damn foreword!
© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer, story-teller, and senior associate with Diversity Wealth. He also serves as Contributing Writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report New York – based Catalyst and is a member of the Cross Cultural Academy. He can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.