Farewell to Don Cornelius
by Gloria Dulan-Wilson
Wow! That was all I could say when the announcement came across my computer early this morning. Don Cornelius - an Icon in Black Culture for over 30 years - dead, apparently of self inflicted wounds. I couldn't process it, or wrap my mind around it for a minute. Surely there was some error - you know that "the news of his death has been greatly exaggerated" type hope. But there it was.
The great purveyor of everything Soul was gone from among us. Ironically I flashed back to just two weeks ago, at a party given by artist and sculptor Dudley Vacciana in his Brooklyn apartment, there were about 30 of us sitting in his parlor watching a 60" TV screen as DVD after DVD showed Soul Train Classics, from as far back as 1971! The days when we couldn't wait til Saturday to catch the latest dance, see the latest artist and hear the latest hit song on Soul Train!
There he was, larger than life on that screen. And while everybody else was boogying down in the other rooms, we were checking out the clothes, the artists, the moves - and of course, Mr. Cooler than Cool, Don Cornelius.
On several occasions the party's DJ came from the other room and tried to divert us from our past life revery to participate the party at hand; and each time we ran him out the room. We held him off for nearly two hours. This was real music; these artists played real instruments and sang real songs - there were no "B" words; no put downs, no hostility. The songs had melodies you could rock to.
We relived the in depth interviews Cornelius did with Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson (when he was still a kid). They were priceless.
They were wearing bell bottom pants, platform shoes, natural hair (Afros); the original Black commercials were from Afro Sheen - Watu Wazuri (beautiful people in Swahili), use Afro Sheen! Wow! We were totally entranced looking at the peers of our yesterday, and remembering when we could kick that high, do the splits, wear slits up our thigh - we were fly!
Little did we know that two weeks later we'd wake up to find the hero of our youth was no longer among us. Perhaps we had an inkling, and that was why we clung so dearly to watching those videos at Dudley's that evening.
Don Cornelius was an inspiration to us all. He was confirmation of the greatness of Black artist, talent, youth, creativity, ingenuity. He was a brother who made no bones about being Black and Proud. Always ending with Love, Peace and Soul, and meaning it, he set a standard for showcasing Black talent that has been mirrored to this day.
Who can forget the rise of the divas: Sister Sledge, The Pointer Sisters, En Vogue, following the trails blazed by Gladys Knight and the Pips, Diana Ross - Diva Supreme, and Ms. Patti LaBelle, among others. We got our fashion tips, hair styles, and walks from watching these beautifully put together, elegant Black women.
I only met Mr. Cornelius on one occasion, when the group Mandrill performed live in Hollywood. I'm sure he barely noticed me. However, I remember how cordial, down to earth and unpretentious he was. He admired the group, and the fact that they were a self contained family. He highlighted their originality - composing and playing all their own original work. (I didn't get to dance, though - I was totally outclassed by those kids on the dance floor). It was interesting to watch from the inside out, and experience being in the company of the Mr. Cool.
My daughter, who likewise grew up on Saturdays watching Soul Train, texted me "How bad could his life have been for him to have killed himself." I responded, "You never know what's going on inside a person, what kind of pain they may be experiencing."
I later had a conversation with Public Relations Diva, Terrie Williams, who recently authored a book entitled, "Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We're Not Hurting", who stated that Don Cornelius, who had recently suffered a stroke, was indeed undergoing a great deal of physical and mental pain. Whether or not that contributed to his demise is unknown, but it is a strong indication that he may have been facing a lot of challenges.
Condolences to his family, friends, and those of us who have forged a soul relationship with him over the years. The sadness is that he is no longer here among us physically. The wonderful thing is that we have this tremendous body of work, those wonderful happy times we spent finger popping, lip synching, dancing, and trying to style like the dancers on Soul Train, as Don Cornelius brought into our homes on a very personal basis, artists most of us had only seen on album covers, or heard on the radio.
Because of Don we had an opportunity to be up close and personal with so many wonderful, talented people, many of whom have already made their transition on to the next plane of action: Michael Jackson, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Heavy D., Etta James, Nina Simone, Nick Ashford, The Temptations, Curtis Mayfield, Harold Melvin, Teddy Pendergrass - what a Roll Call!
And I'm sure they'll receive Don Cornelius gratefully, cordially, and happily, because he's needed to organize the next level of SOUL TRAIN, and "You can bet your last money, it's gonna be a stone gas honey! In his immortal words, "I wish you LOVE, PEACE & SOUL!"
NOTE: This is the beginning of BLACK HISTORY MONTH. We could do no less than honor Don Cornelius and all the wonderful artists he brought to the Black community via his show, the longest running Black entertainment show in television history.
At the same time, pick up a Black history book and read or re-read it; pick up a Black newspaper and find out what's going on in your community; go see a Black play; take your kid to something that expands his or her knowledge and pride in being Black. If we don't honor ourselves and retain what we've accomplished, we will no longer be here.
Stay Blessed &