In My Words: Retelling the past is harder than you think
A new James Brown biopic gives Associate Professor Naeemah Clark an opportunity to reflect on her own research into "Soul Brother No. 1" on the opinion pages of several regional newspapers.
The following column appeared recently in the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle, the Winston-Salem Journal, the Greenville (S.C.) News, the (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record and the Savannah (Ga.) Morning News via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Viewpoints are those of the author and not Elon University.
In My Words: Retelling the past is harder than you think
By Naeemah Clark - firstname.lastname@example.org / @NaeemahC on Twitter
The recent release of “Get On Up,” the James Brown biopic now playing in movie theaters across the country, brought back memories of my own attempts to delve into the life of Soul Brother No. 1.
In 2002, I began digging into his life for academic research I would present and ultimately publish. Over the course of the next 10 years, I would revisit what became known as “the James Brown paper” to the point of being mocked by friends and family.
My focus on the life of the iconic musician was so great that when he died in December 2006, several people called to see if I was all right.
My decade of painstakingly cutting and pasting song lyrics, applying theoretical lenses and massaging informed conclusions comes as no surprise to those who do biographical scholarship. And I would hazard to guess the process was similar to that of the cinematic storytellers of “Get On Up.”
Whether for academic or cinematic purposes, the responsibility of telling someone’s story is fraught with anxiety because the researcher wants to do right by the subject and audience. The process is a mix of objectively following the steps of doing research, and choosing and interpreting volumes of information that makes the work problematic, yet compelling. Objectivity is essential, but it would be dishonest to say that I leave my personal feelings out of the research. Interpreting the data means that I apply my own life experience to James Brown’s. I hear a little click in my head when I think I’m moving in the right direction.
The materials used in the historical study of a life are twofold. First, scholars rely on primary research, content from the time that the events occurred, such as oral history, newspapers, magazine articles and census records. There is, for instance, plenty of television footage of Brown’s charismatic hold over a crowd. Perhaps most illustrative of his power is concert footage that aired on Boston’s WGBH the night after Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated. Brown acted as a pied piper, calming the crowd as frenzies erupted on stage and in the streets of many large cities except Boston.
Second, others who have utilized primary sources create secondary sources that add depth and context to the story. For example, an anthology of the power of music in advocacy helped shed light on how Brown’s music (i.e. “Say it Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud”) shaped young listeners in the 1960s.
Historians use this amalgam of primary and secondary sources to build a story with the ultimate goal of getting as close to the truth as possible. However, telling the absolute truth using primary and secondary sources is impossible because there are many factors that keep perfection at bay. Knowing the present influences the retelling of the past. And so, instead of seeing the world through the eyes of today, historians must work to see through the eyes of the past.
Consider this. In 1967, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee H. Rap Brown once instructed his followers that, “You have to tell the [white] man, ‘If you come into my community you are going to come in with the intent of dying or you don’t come in at all.’” That level of passion is difficult to understand when considered against the lethargic hashtag rebellions of today. Secondary sources provide the context necessary to capture the urgency of the time.
Those conducting biographical work also have to guard from romanticizing the subject, the kiss of death for a biographer. Storytellers walk a fine line of seeking closeness without becoming too cozy. In this way, writing biography is similar to courting. The researcher is in pursuit of intimacy that only comes in the discovery of information that forms a personality. These discoveries satisfy a need, a desire for completeness.
To me, one of these points of contact is the knowledge that Brown was raised in a brothel. Yes, it is tragic, but it is also oddly ingratiating. In fact, it provides explanation and perhaps forgiveness for his later transgressions against women.
For the record, I probably won’t go see “Get On Up” right away. In all honesty, I fear that seeing the film may reveal I’ve gotten my research wrong. Perhaps my interpretation isn’t close to truth and now that my work has been published as a book chapter, I can’t go back.
And therein lies the intangible and slightly paralyzing component of being a biographer. There is a very personal worry of making a public mistake.
Still, that’s how we walk through life. Through conducting research about people, I’ve discovered that try as we may, we see people as we see ourselves. I saw Brown as earnest, wholehearted, and flawed. And that’s the picture I created of him that I hope readers think is fair and honest. But in the end, it’s solely my own.
Naeemah Clark is an associate professor at Elon University who researches economic, programming and diversity issues related to the media and entertainment industries.
Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (email@example.com) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.