The statue sits smack in the middle of downtown Augusta, Georgia, face high, because the old man never wanted to be standing above anybody else. He wanted to be down with the people. And as you stand before it on this deserted stretch of cheap stores and old theaters on a hot August afternoon, you say to yourself, “This is what they don’t teach you in journalism school”: to walk through the carcass of a ruined, destroyed life — this broken life and the one behind it, and the one behind that — to navigate the maze of savage lawyers who lined up to feed at the carcass; to listen to the stories of the broke musicians who traveled the world in glory only to come home with a pocket full of nothing; to make sense of the so-called music experts who helped themselves to a guy’s guts and history trying to make a dollar change pockets. Everybody’s got a hustle in this world. Meanwhile the guy who made the show, he’s deader than yesterday’s beer, his legacy scattered everywhere but where he wanted it.
James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, America’s greatest soul singer, left most of his wealth, conservatively estimated at $100 million, to educate poor children in South Carolina and Georgia. Ten years after his death on December 25, 2006, not a dime of it had reached a single kid. Untold millions have been frittered away by lawyers and politicians who have been loosed on one another by various factions of his destroyed family.
It’s a sad end to an extraordinary yet tragic life, though you figure with thousands of poor kids in South Carolina and Georgia needing a good education, somebody would have the integrity to figure the whole thing out. But that’s a long shot these days because, in part, that would mean we’ve figured out James Brown. And that’s impossible. Because to figure him out, we’d have to figure ourselves out. And that’s like giving an aspirin to a two-headed baby.
It’s an odd thing. They’re big on him here in Augusta, his adopted hometown. They named an arena after him and a street, held a James Brown Day, all of that tribute jazz. But the truth is, other than this weird statue, there’s not a wisp of James Brown in this place. There’s no feeling of him here. He’s a vapor now, just another tragic black tale, his story bought and sold and bought again, just like the slaves that were once sold at the Haunted Pillar just two blocks from where his statue stands. Brown’s saga is an industrial-strength story, a big-box store of a life filled with cheap goods for any writing hack looking for the equivalent of the mandatory five-minute gospel moment you see in just about every Broadway show these days. Lousy story, great music. And everybody’s an expert: a documentary here, a book there, a major motion picture, all produced by folks who “knew” and “loved” him, as if that were possible. The fact is, it really doesn’t matter whether they knew him or not, or loved him or hated his guts and hoped somebody would tie him to a pickup truck and drag his body across the quit line. The worst has already happened. The guy is finished. Gone. Perfect dead. Paying him homage now doesn’t cost anyone a thing. He’s like John Coltrane, or Charlie Parker, or Louis Jordan, or any other of the dozens of black artists whose music is immortalized while the communities that produced them continue to suffer. James Brown is forgotten in Augusta, really. The town is falling apart, just like his memory. He’s history. Safely dead.
But over in Barnwell County, just across the state line in South Carolina, the place where Brown was born and was living when he died, there’s no uncertainty about who James Brown is. He is not a vapor there, but rather a living, breathing thing.
There used to be 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 Iola and her sister Miss Perry Lee were serving. I had a lot of fun goofing off in that joint. 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. I’d always leave the place laughing and saying to myself, “They don’t teach you this in journalism school either” — to stand in somebody’s hometown and still hear the laughter and the pride. They love James Brown in Barnwell. They don’t see his broken life; they don’t care about the bottom-feeder lawyers who lined 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. So why talk about it? Laugh and be happy in the Lord! James Brown died on top. The white man can say whatever he wants. Put that down in your little old notebook, kid: We don’t care. We know who James Brown was. He was one of us. He sleeps with the Lord now. In good hands! Now, here, have some more pie.
From the “Kill ’Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul” by James McBride. Copyright © 2016 by James McBride. Reprinted by arrangement with Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.