- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2006

Former President Gerald Ford and singer James Brown, who died within a day of each other this week, had an impact on my youth in disparate but familial ways. Truly.

Mr. Ford was an atypical “unassuming” father figure. Mr. Brown was the “Godfather of Soul” when soul wasn’t so cool.

When I think of Mr. Ford, I remember a nice, friendly white man shopping at the Safeway in my grandmother’s Alexandria neighborhood. He always offered a smile and a kind word, and asked about my family, whom he knew. I also noticed how he interacted equally with other blacks as well as whites.

When I think of James Brown, I remember the teeny-bopper tingles I felt the first time I was allowed to tag along with my older cousins to see the spectacular show of this dynamic black man at the Howard Theater on U Street Northwest.

My, how those venues have been transformed in the ensuing decades. The former suburban environment prospered while the latter historical city site was shamefully left to rot.

Mr. Ford remains the only president that I have known personally. In fact, I knew this real-life Ward Cleaver long before he accidentally ascended to the Oval Office as the 38th U.S. president. Perhaps his unlikely presidency is how I initially came to view political leaders and authority figures as ordinary people who were approachable but not to be revered blindly.

Without realizing it, I think Mr. Ford also helped to teach this former “colored child,” who survived the tumultuous times of racial integration, not to fear all white men.

Meanwhile, James “Good God, I Got the Feeling” Brown taught a whole generation of young, oppressed people like me to “say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.” Thereafter, I strutted with my curly Afro, big hoop earrings and psychedelic bell bottoms and considered myself among the sassy and proud “young, gifted and black.” This music icon’s cultural call to arms was like a salve on a hard-to-heal wound, an affirmation of what my grandmother had preached for years about holding our heads high no matter what names whites hurled at us as we sought equality and tried to get a better education.

Along with other members of my family, I became close friends with Mr. Ford’s children in our integrated high school in the 1960s. In my case, Mike Ford and I took several classes and we graduated together. He aspired to be like his father, running successfully for student government offices, but became a minister. He also whispered often about a vague problem at home with his mother, Betty.

And we formed a deeper connection. Clara Powell — my gorgeous and gracious great-cousin who was more like an aunt in our extended family — was the nanny and nursemaid to the Ford family for decades. She started working for the Fords when they lived in the quaint Park Fairfax neighborhood but cut back her duties when her own mother became ill.

Mike asked me daily when “Clara” was coming back so he could get a hot breakfast before school. I don’t know why I never told him how uncomfortable I was that he called any adult, let alone my Cousin Clara, by her first name. (And, oh, how I miss those days when you didn’t dare address your elders without a respectful honorific.)

In 1968, Mike and I joined a club (I’m too old to remember the name) designed to foster better communication and interaction between black and white students after the assassination of Martin Luther King and the D.C. riots that followed. We sponsored school dances with James Brown’s tunes a must on a playlist that included the Beatles, too.

What I did not know then was that his father, a representative from Michigan, was among the Republicans working in Congress to pass civil rights legislation.

The lesson that the former president presents here is that the goal is not to make a lot of noise and toot your own horn. You can be “unassuming,” as Mr. Ford has been remembered, and do good things for the common good.

Mr. Brown, on the other hand, made a lot of noise and did a few bad things. But the soulful lyrics this masterful showman shouted and screamed as he slid and split and wiggled across the stage needed to be heard by all Americans.

When I think about Mr. Brown in his heyday, with that high processed pompadour, I can’t help but mourn the demise of the posh, vibrant Howard Theater that was the crowning jewel of Washington’s “Black Broadway.” When I was permitted to go there on my own on the streetcar, I remember lining up with my girlfriends to see the Motown Revue, and especially James Brown. The theater was becoming tattered and the stars were getting gigs in white venues by then.

Still, I screamed and laughed out loud with everyone else enjoying the grand finale. He’d pretend to cry and start begging, “Baby, baby, please, please, don’t go,” all bent over, sweat dripping to the stage floor. Then his sidekick would drape him with a glittering cape and the band would sound a final chord. But — surprise — he would throw off the cape and “get on the good foot,” and the band blared in a wild frenzy before the signature begging scenario would be replayed again, several times, before Mr. Brown finally was led off the stage.

Gone now, through unchecked gentrification, are the people who made up the colorful U Street community. Like James Brown, old-line Washingtonians and their cultural contributions to the nation’s capital are left to be memorialized in glitzy picture books.

Gone too, but not forgotten, is the gentle and gritty fatherly image of my prideful youth.

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