Eulogy for Black Caesar

James Brown, 1933–2006

James Brown funeral procession
photo: Cary Conover
James Brown funeral procession

Something like that look was seen on his face at the Apollo last week, Mr. Brown's body driven there by two white horses and two dark horsemen in tails and top hats. Lying in state in a solid-gold casket on the very stage he'd rocked so often in days of yore, Mr. Dynamite, a/k/a the Godfather, a/k/a He's Soul Brother Number One in Tokyo was decked out in a dark-powder-blue silk suit, delicate white gloves, and sparkling silver ankle boots as his music burst like bombs around the solemn processional line and the Apollo's famous ushers did everything they could not to break in to the Funky Chicken. His face, his death mask, postmortem and post- mortician—yes, that carved granite face, first on Black Rushmore after King and X (and before Clinton and Pryor)—epitomized what the old folks mean when they say they made him look "natural." And maybe even too natural at that, as there was something etched in that famous ebony-grain skin whose cheeks now sagged under the weight of a suddenly tight mouth poised somewhere between smirk, surrender, and dissatisfaction. Something that said he wasn't too happy the way this final act had been sprung on him, and on us too, quiet as it's kept. Because truth be known, Mr. Brown was one of those iconic figures we all thought of as family first, and as with family, we took his every success and setback as our reflection, illumination, and humiliation too. If loud James said we were Black and proud, we instantly became all that in spades: louder, Blacker, prouder. If James liked the hot pants, we blindly followed suit. And if Brown went to the slammer, we did too: "Free James Brown!" Tell me you don't remember that! And we always knew, as he'd already so famously reminded us, that while money won't change you, time will take you out. Troubles, flaws, and all, Mr. Brown was one of our best, perhaps precisely because he was an object lesson in self-mastery and self-martyrdom, and took every licking as a spur to resurrection. Lawd, tell me: Now that James Brown is truly free, what's to become of the rest of us?

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