When James Brown died on Christmas Day in 2006, he left most of an estimated $100 million to aid impoverished schoolchildren in Georgia and South Carolina. In the decade since, a legal contest—circus, if you will—has bled Brown’s estate of millions in fees to law firms and creditors and has prevented even one cent from reaching the young students.
It’s a sad but not completely surprising outcome for a man whose best intentions always seemed to be compromised—often by others, sometimes by himself. Born into a one-room wooden shack in segregated South Carolina in 1933, Brown often attended school in tattered clothes. And though the future “Godfather of Soul” would eventually grasp fame and fortune with songs like “I Feel Good,” he suffered from a deep mistrust and fear of the government, the media, and business people in large part due to the racism he experienced. This calloused view eventually poisoned relationships with most of his family and friends.
In the new book Kill ‘Em and Leave, James McBride, National Book Award winner and distinguished writer in residence at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, unearths the roots that shaped Brown’s profoundly lonely world. NYU News spoke to McBride—who recently received a National Humanities Medal from President Obama—about his personal quest to better understand the musician, despite that effort’s inevitable limitations.
Your research on this book required walking down dark alleys and getting into cars with strangers. Did you ever feel especially vulnerable?
I’ve been a journalist for a long time, and that’s part of the job. I teach my students that if there’s any doubt, there is no doubt. Meaning that if you have a doubt about the safety of a situation, you’re probably correct. So you just have to move fast and make sure you have an exit strategy. Most of the time, I had an exit strategy. There were a couple times when I didn’t, and I figured I’d be hung up badly. But I always kept some cash in my sock and a car key close and figured I could work my way out of it.
How did Brown’s anxieties affect him personally, and how did he keep them from infecting his music?
Stephen King once said he never had nightmares because he put them all in his books. In the case of James Brown, he saw himself to some degree as a person who tried to originate or encourage positive change in the world, specifically in terms of race. I think you have to have a sense of purpose. And if that sense of purpose is inspired by fear, it’s probably not a good thing. [Brown] did have a lot of fear and paranoia but any person who is black in America who isn’t a little bit paranoid is not completely on point.
I think James Brown’s fear inspired his music in some ways, but it hurt him in too many others. There were lots of things in his life he felt he had no control over. And that’s the thing about him. He thought that when he had money, that would change his life. Money did not change his life. It only magnified his problems. His inability to trust anyone, other than money, essentially just destroyed him.
What was the ultimate source of his discomfort?
James Brown really wanted peace from the burden of racism, the burden of race that he was forced to carry on his shoulders. I think most people want that. That’s why Rodney King’s statement, when he asked, “Can’t we all get along?” was so poignant to me. Because I understand. You grow tired of trying to prove your humanity to every single person. You just want to be a human being. And I think ultimately that’s what James Brown wanted, and that is one of the tragedies of his life that most African Americans can respect and understand. No matter how good he was or no matter how great he was or how great he had been, ultimately he was always just a guy that cops could pull over at two o’clock in the morning and raise hell with. And in some ways, he deserved the treatment he got because he was out of control. But there was a causality behind his lack of control that most people really don’t understand or appreciate or frankly care about.
You’ve called this your hardest book to write because you still don’t feel like you really “know” James Brown. What made him so elusive?
James Brown was so complicated that you could write five books about him and not really figure him out. His story is really buried in the labyrinth of confusion that we know as black/white relations in America. In addition, he was a kind of shape-shifter himself. He was very militant to one audience, but then he was a Nixon supporter to others. He was a survivalist. And people who are survivalists often are chameleons. You don’t really know which way the wind is blowing when you’re dealing with them. I think there are aspects of himself that even he didn’t really know or recognize, so you look for the big light posts that explain why he behaved the way he did.
Would a future biographer find you to be as elusive a subject?
You know, that’s a tough question. I’m a very private person despite the fact that I wrote about myself in my first book. I’m very proud as a parent, but I don’t really associate with other parents that much. I’ve kind of raised my children how my mother raised me: Mind your own business, don’t talk about religion and politics when you’re in public, keep your nose clean because you really don’t know who you’re talking to. Especially when you’re raising a black son, you know, you’re always a little bit nervous when you teach them there are certain things they must do. They must respect the police, they must carry ID. I tell them, “You need to be careful because people are afraid of you, and if they fire and kill you, they’ll be sorry later and be crying, but you’ll be dead.”
I think I would probably be a disappointment to a biographer because I don’t do crazy stuff. I don’t sit out in the morning with other writers and get drunk and have 18 girlfriends. I live a pretty boring life. I just live for the work and for my children.