While my car radio taught me just about everything I needed to know about the Motown Sound, my first encounter with what I would later regard as real soul music occurred in a physical-education class in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I was a junior at Brainerd High, a school that, while racially integrated, was still known as the Home of the Fighting Rebels. "Dixie" was our theme song. Our symbol was the Confederate flag--the stars and bars. We waved it at football games; it was stamped on class rings. The year was late 1969.
My phys-ed class--forty or so boys--had just finished playing several rounds of everybody's favorite game, battle-ball, a particularly rough variant of dodge-ball. We had returned to the locker room, and we were changing out of our blue and white gym suits, back into school clothes. The room buzzed with conversation.
Then, all of a sudden, a black guy in white cotton briefs--his name was James Sears--squealed, "Yeeeeah, Yeah-Yeah!" He leaped onto one of the room's narrow wooden benches and started dancing. James gyrated his hips like he was swinging a hoola-hoop, and his feet did a double-time shuffle. He kept grunting and screaming, "Popcorn." A few times he shouted, "Looka here!" and "Gotta-hava-mutha-for-me!" When he finished this impromptu performance, everybody laughed and shook their heads. A few guys might have clapped.
Now here was a story my parents would enjoy. "Daddy," I'd say at the supper table, "you shoulda seen that black guy! He was wild--totally out of control!" Then, in mock-serious tones, I'd ask, "Mother, do you think he's demon possessed?"
"Michael, don't make fun of the things of the Lord," my Dad would say. To which I'd reply, "Come on, Daddy! You know I'm just kidding."
Mom and Dad were never glib about spiritual matters, and while they undoubtedly spent no time pondering or trying to name the species of bug that had bitten James Sears, they never once doubted where he had contracted that bug. That, after all, was partly why our independent Baptist church sent missionaries to Africa, and it was precisely why my parents prohibited their children from attending dances. "Be not drunk with wine," Mother would say, quoting the Apostle Paul, "but be filled with the Spirit." Then she would amplify, unconsciously repeating Augustine and consciously citing John's first epistle: "Satan wants us to lose control; God wants to control us. 'Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.'"
I was not a rebellious child. I kept my parents's rules. I never fornicated, drank alcohol, smoked tobacco (or any other
substance), took God's name in vain, went to the movies, or attended a high-school dance. I
knew lots about being marginalized. And I also knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, who had
possessed James Sears. It wasn't Satan. It was James
Brown, Soul Brother No.1.
Eighteen months before the locker-room experience, my ninth-grade class had taken a trip to Washington D.C. While there, we toured all the predictable sites of civic interest: the White House, the Capitol, the Smithsonian Institute, Arlington Cemetery, memorials to Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington. We also saw buildings burned to the ground; they were still smoldering from the violent wake that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. And I was moved--troubled in the most conventional sort of way. James Sears was there, too, but I never asked him how he felt about what we'd seen. Maybe he felt black. I say that because, later, when James did the Popcorn, I felt white: bleached out and terribly pale.
Did James Sears--a boyish reflection of a pop star I hadn't yet seen or heard--make me want to be black? Possibly. I do not doubt that he prompted racial envy. Still, such an assessment diminishes the profound effect James had on me. He became an icon, in my mind inseparable from James Brown. Flannery O'Connor would call him a means of grace, so thoroughly did he alter my conception of the world and my place in it. Certainly, he spoke of much more than race. The epiphany he brought me cut deeper than skin color. It said: The world is worth knowing; it's worth loving.
Postscript: One night, shortly after Bill Clinton was elected President of the USA, I dreamed my way back to Washington. I stood beside a stairway in the White House, looked up, and saw the President. "Mr. Clinton," I asked, "do you like James Brown?"
"Mike," he said, "I have an almost religious affection for James Brown."