‘Soul Train’ Reaches End of the Line for Creator Don Cornelius

by on December 16th, 2010
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It was the summer of 1971; I had just graduated from high school in Apopka, Florida and was visiting my mother in Newark, New Jersey. Surfing the channels on the Curtis Mathis television in my mom’s living room, I saw an image that changed my life forever. It was a group of young African American men and women dancing on television. Prior to that moment I had only seen a black boy or girl here and there on “Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.” Watching young blacks dance on the white show was good for the mind but to see a room full of them was great for the soul. Seeing the images of black folk on television that were not stepping and fetching but dancing to music that I loved make me feel good.

The boys wore big and tall hair with wide leg pants and platform shoes. The girls wore bold and brazen hair and they were confident, feminine and graceful; their clothes were bold, short and tight. Their bodies smiled as they moved and the pride of their blackness exuded with each beat of the songs tempo.

They did the hustle to Van McCoy’s “Do the Hustle”, they swayed to Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff”, and they got down to King Floyd’s “Grove Me” and to Betty Wright’s “Clean Up Woman”. They danced slowly and tenderly to The Persuaders “Thin Line Between Love and Hate” and to Marvin Gay’s “What’s Going On”. The stage on which they danced was a studio somewhere in Los Angeles, secured by a man named Don Cornelius; the show was called “Soul Train”. His height and hair perfectly matched his stature as a visionary black man — beautiful, cool, confident, intelligent, sexy and proud. His trademark dark glasses made a black man in sunglasses a black man with foresight.

My peers and I looked up to Mr. Cornelius because he realized that we needed to be understood, recognized and expressive. Not only did he bring to us a weekly escape from the reality of the circumstance of our race in America but he and the Godfather of Soul James Brown, made us feel Black and Proud even when America told us we were ugly and inferior. Through Soul train he showcased young black talent on a national level. Dozens of musicians, singers and dancers owe their fame and fortune to him and the impact his vision had on their lives of black is immeasurable.

Seeing so many black folk in one place was a bit too much for some Americans. In the south it took a while for the Soul Train to make its way into the living rooms of Southern communities. In my hometown, when it finally arrived it rolled into the television station in the wee hour s of the morning. Mr. Cornelius continued to push America’s buttons and eventually the Soul Train and its dancers made their way in day hours into the living rooms of Americas all across America.

On Wednesday, January 31, 2012 Don Cornelius committed suicide. Reports suggest that he was despondent over a bitter divorce in 2012 and health issues. The news of his death surprised me. I would have imagined that someone whose life impacted so many others would feel fulfilled and know that his life was a meaningful one. Don Cornelius was 75 years old. He chose to rid himself of the demons that possessed him by ending his life. Some believe that suicide does not lend itself to eternal peace, (biblical scriptures support that premise). It is not for me speculate the why’s of his actions, it is only for me to say thank you Don Cornelius for the memories, hope, pride, confidence and mirror of self reflective beauty that you gave me during my youth, and know that I will always ride the Soul Train!


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