Driving home from work yesterday, I heard the news that Don Cornelius had died–a suicide.
To those who are younger, under, say 30, that name probably doesn’t mean very much. Those of us in our 40s and 50s are likely to have some memory of Soul Train, the dance program beamed into homes from the 1970s through 2003, first from Chicago and later from L.A. And for those of us who are black in particular, Cornelius and his show will have a particular resonance.
These days it may be hard to remember, but not that long ago it wasn’t easy to see black musical performers on television, despite the popularity of soul and rhythm and blues from the 1950s on. The Ed Sullivan Show and American Bandstand, the primary venues for musical performance on television, overwhelmingly showed white acts (often doing covers of black R&B songs, like Pat Boone performing Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti). And few black performers had variety shows of their own. Even into the 70s, that continued to be the case.
That changed when Cornelius started Soul Train in Chicago in the 1971. It broadcast popular black acts performing in front of a group of predominantly black teens. Most of the show featured recorded music and the teens dancing, like a darker version of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.
I still remember how my brothers and I would be glued to the television set on late Saturday mornings to watch. By the time we started watching Soul Train, we were living in a small city in central Kansas. In my Catholic middle school and high school, I was one of four or five black kinds in a school of several hundred students. It wasn’t just the prospect of seeing black culture on television; in those days it was difficult to see black people on TV at all, outside of sporting events, slavery documentaries, or news stories of racial tension. For a good part of my growing up, the most regular black face I saw on television was the smiling, tap-dancing presence of Arthur Duncan–the only black performer on my mother’s favorite program, The Lawrence Welk Show.
So viewing the clothes and the dancing styles and the presence of young black Americans–kids like us–on the television screen in those days was, for me, reassuring. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to emulate the urban kids who danced on the show; in fact, my brothers and I often laughed at some of the more outlandish clothing, hair styles, and dances we saw. But if you have ever had to spend time in a setting where few people around you look like you, you’ll have some sense of what I mean. Those years of growing up with few black faces in the public–unless it related to sports or racial protests or riots–the years of seeing almost no regular, everyday blacks, of getting no view of the range of black experiences in the larger society, took a toll. It was easy to wonder if you existed, if you were anything more than the anomaly that the white, small town, Kansas society around you indicated that you were. Today people use diversity and inclusion as catch phrases, as incendiary bombs in the culture wars. But the personal impact of not being able to see people like you represented can be like not being able to see yourself at all. It’s the sense of looking in a mirror and discovering that even there you are invisible.
So I mourned for Don Cornelius yesterday when I heard about his death, and I’m sure I’ll mourn for a while. Not because he was a great personal figure for me, but because the show he created gave me a small space, a small glimpse into the possibility that there might be a place for me in my society. For one hour every Saturday, I got to see people like myself. And let me tell you, we looked g00d.