When Anthony and Kay Coleman got to the Museum Friday night, some of us were sitting in the Theatre with Danny Ray. We were watching him put a cape over James Brown during a fabulous 1965 concert in Santa Monica. A man who has been everywhere and has done everything, Mr. Ray, 77, has only two pages left in his fourth passport. He fully intends to complete it, and start on number five. He certainly looks capable of doing it.
Danny was telling intimate, humorous stories while we watched James Brown and the Famous Flames perform their four songs of the concert. During Please, Please, Please, Danny came out and solemnly put the cape on James, again and again. The crowd was screaming, jumping and clapping. I started talking to Anthony and Kay, who were standing at the door of the Theatre, about James and his clothes on display on Jake McCord’s porch. I mentioned that some of the few things James regretted in his life and could never forget were the times when he was sent home from elementary school.
James Brown lived in a one-room shack in Bamberg, S.C., until his mother left when he was 4. He and his father then lived in a series of shacks in Barnwell and Elko, S.C. James and his dad moved to Augusta to live with an aunt, and when James was 6, his dad left. The house was at 944 Twiggs St., and inside there was gambling, moonshine and prostitution. James started going to the Floyd School, one of the few schools for black kids in Augusta. James was picked on because he was so small, and he learned to get tough real quick.
It was here and at this time that James endured the great humiliation of his life. Mr. Myers, the principal, would call James to his office and send him home for “insuffient clothing.” James was wearing stitched-together flour sacks. James said that he was poorer than most of the other kids, but he was a different kind of poor, too. He was poor because he had no one taking care of him. He was living in a roadhouse, and not in a traditional family home.
He would tell an old friend of his dad’s that he couldn’t go to school, and that friend would take him to get some store-bought clothes.
James would go back to school until those clothes wore out, and then he was out again.
Anthony and Kay told me about their parents’ families growing up about the same time (1939), and how they also used sacks to make clothes. Almost everyone did the same during that Great Depression. Al and Carolyn Williams tell me about their families being in the same fix.
But James Brown’s “clothes” were nothing but the flour sacks with holes cut out for his head and arms and legs. Nobody cared about him, or for him. He had nothing that was decent to call his own.
At that time, many families both black and white had almost nothing. They raised chickens at home for eggs and meat, and bought their feed in bags. They bought sacks of flour for bread. From these sacks, they made their clothes. The bags were considered as valuable to them as their contents. Women used the whitened textiles to stitch clothing, curtains, sheets and towels.
Manufacturers realized that by increasing the quality of their bags they could increase their profits through greater demand for their products. Bags were stamped with stitching lines and with embroidery patterns.
I believe James Brown worked so hard to become rich and famous because he had nothing as a child. In his mind he was driven to prove his worth.
But in the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he needn’t have worried about that. Dr. King said that everyone can be great.
All you have to do to be great is to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You just need a soul full of grace. A heart full of love.