I’m White – And I’m All Right
I was concerned, when I was a child, with what I felt to be Johnny Cash’s unhumanness. I felt that perhaps he was a space traveller, a mythological shape shifter. His eyes contained a terrifying finality. I doubted his ability to bleed. He inhabited a territory reserved for history; I had read about Hercules, about Goliath, about Paul Bunyan, about improbable Indians with winged feet. He belonged in their company. I copied out the lyrics of his song ‘Man in Black’ onto the cover of my school notebook. I read them everyday.
I’ll try to carry
a little darkness on my back
till things are brighter
I’m the man in black
This was three years after James Brown had released ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud’. Three years after the Olympic Black Power salutes. I remember watching James Brown on Soul Train and thinking: he has the same eyes as Johnny Cash. When he spoke to Don Cornelius he had the same country accent.
In 1968, four months after James Brown released ‘I’m Black And I’m Proud’, Vic Waters released ‘I’m White – And I’m Alright’. Vic Waters and The Entertainers were one of a hundred white bands that raged across the south playing R and B. ‘I’m White – And I’m Alright’ was produced by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, two other southern, white, country soul brothers. During that summer Vic Waters and James Brown played shows together; I’ve seen photos of them in their uptown pomp, smiling, posing for some local paper. Two southern soul brothers, one tall and pale, the other short and dark. A moment that, like a million others, passed and was forgotten. And I remember sitting in school convinced that James Brown and Johnny Cash were brothers; that they shared a common intensity, an ageless gusto, two prodigal southern adventurers; and the thought I had at the time was this: there’s nothing black and white about black and white.
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