In my adolescence in New York, Saturday was a day of chores -- a time of house cleaning, laundry and grocery shopping. It was necessary work that no kid looks forward to. And yet the day always held the promise of fun, of being taken, in our imaginations, on what the funk group Lakeside called "a fantastic voyage."
"Soul Train," the pioneering dance and music show created and hosted by Don Cornelius, who died Wednesday at 75 at his California home, was a Saturday staple. And from the contestants' unscrambling of letters to the hosts' signature right index finger pointed in a promise of "love, peace and soul," Cornelius and his band of revelers guided our youthful imaginations weekly into an intergalactic realm.
Growing up, I was never much of a dancer. "Soul Train" gave me permission to throw myself at music.
The show was always an explosion of music, dances and bright colors. On that dance floor, people seemed free to do anything (and they often did), with proud, unique fashions and hair. Like church, it was a realm to be fabulous. The show dared the world to look in and discover expressions of joy and creativity that were different from what they saw on "American Bandstand," the show that inspired the creation of "Soul Train."
"Soul Train's" celebration of funky imagination and on-the-spot invention contrasted with the strictures of the life I knew inside and outside my home. Inside, my parents were afraid of New York and did not allow us to wait for life to happen to us, as my dad said, by "hanging out." Instead, everything we did, from libraries to cultural events, had a purpose. Outside the home, reality seldom lived up to the lofty ideals enshrined in the Constitution that we studied in classrooms. As a black male teen in the city, I lived on an dangerous squeeze between hoodlums and the police (or at least that was my strong perception).
"Soul Train" was a respite from all that. Cornelius promoted music and dance as part of a cultural revolution. His show, which ran from 1971 to 2006 and was the longest in TV syndication history, embodied values articulated in the Black Arts Movement. It showed a weekly array of black people that contrasted with the portraits of pathology that showed up in the daily papers and nightly news.
I remember reading a New York Times magazine article that devastated me. My Brooklyn zip code, 11238, was listed as a throwaway area by marketing gurus, a place of welfare dependents and crime. I read Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and Paul Laurence Dunbar for solace (along with Shelley, Keats and Byron). I listened to music. And I watched "Soul Train."
The show had musical stars, of course, from James Brown and Aretha Franklin to Patrice Rushen and Shalamar. But the mainstays were the dancers, who interpreted the music with their bodies. They popped and locked. They slid and glided. They made a sacred space that many a wedding party re-creates today in "Soul Train" lines.
In an era when radio stations and the music industry operated as a segregated bastion, Cornelius provided a safe corner to fly. He lived his ethos and every time I watched "Soul Train," I felt the love, the peace, and that steam-whistle souuul.