Am I Black Enough (Fo’ Ya’)?

On December 20, 2007, in Culture, Family, Kids, Race, Relationships, Women, by Claude Johnson

People often ask me, “How and why did Black Fives come to be your passion?” Here is some background that goes way back.

Claude Johnson yearbook photo

My high school yearbook photo. What?!

Interviewers often ask me, “How and why did Black Fives come to be your passion?”

There’s never enough time or space for a full answer. But a blog allows something toward that. So, here it is.

My father is from the South Side of Chicago, 43rd and Prairie, which is “deep in the ‘hood.” His father was a functionally illiterate Pullman porter and his mother was a “domestic”. His uncles were sharecroppers. They were all from Monroe, Louisiana.

My Dad attended DuSable High School (’51) and used his brains, wit, charm, and desire to avoid the distractions of his environment and become the first and only member of his immediate family to get a college degree (at Roosevelt University), after which he joined the Army and went to Europe as a language specialist.

Charles Johnson

Among many other things, my father covered the Vienna jazz scene for the Pittsburgh Courier and eventually became a university professor.

My father met my Mom at a jazz club in Germany. She was from a humble, hard-working family in Frankfurt, Germany, which lost everything during WWII. She lived through war and bombings and rubble and hunger and dangerous leaders. She was grateful for little things, so she made friends with everyone. She could create something (like a special moment) from nothing.

Her parents didn’t want her to marry a “Neger,” as black people were called back then (but at least nouns are always capitalized in the German language). Until they learned he was fluent in German. Then they thought he was OK. Then they grew to respect him. This taught me something about the power (and ignorance) of language and words.

My father eventually used the G.I. Bill to get his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Vienna, in Austria.  While he was doing that, he became a television and stage actor in the highest echelons of the Viennese theater scene.  He eventually became a college professor, first at Lovanium University in Leopoldville, Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) and then at Boston College in Boston.

My parents had five kids. Four of us were born in Vienna and the youngest in Leopoldville. We shuttled between Vienna, Leopoldville, and Frankfurt. In 1966 we moved from Leopoldville to Newton, Massachusetts (a town near Boston).

Marianne Kaufmann on stage

My mother loved jazz, which was outlawed in Nazi Germany.

We moved to Cincinnati, Ohio for two years (during my junior high) and then returned to Massachusetts (Concord) where I attended high school. Whenever people ask where I’m from, I usually say I grew up near Boston.

Like all of my siblings, I speak fluent German, which I owe to my mother. Being a German woman living in Boston in 1966, whose English wasn’t perfect, married to an African American, with five active little brown kids runnin’ around, must’ve been much for my mother.

One time we were in a supermarket and the checkout lady called her a “nigger-loving Nazi.” That’s when I learned about laughable ignorance. Racists twist their own selves up, don’t they?

But my Mom more than held her own, and she taught us how to be tolerant and compassionate with everyone. I never ever thought of my mother as “white,” and I still don’t. She was German. The term “white” is an American fabrication that never applied to my mother. The term “black” is also contrived. My father is an African American.

My parents pose with the kids in Scituate in 1966

My parents pose with the kids in Scituate in 1966, our first time in the United States of America.

We often forget there’s a choice about what we want those words to mean. Next time someone says “black” you should ask them if they mean a) the color black, b) of African American culture, or c) of African descent.

As a youngster growing up in mostly white environments, I was very conscious of race and race relations and Black Pride, and the music of the early and mid-1970s, particularly during junior high in Cincinnati, during that era when Superfly came out. I remember my father taking us to go see The Spook Who Sat By The Door and The Education of Sonny Carson.

Like everybody else, I had platform shoes and I had a big giant Afro. And there was this one song by Billy Paul called Am I Black Enough For You that I really appreciated.

I appreciated the question as well as the song. Still do.

My father made sure we were very close with our relatives in Chicago, and with our cousins who were the same age as my older brother and me, so we shared our interest in these things.

Ellee Johnson and siblings

My grandmother, Ellee Johnson (second from left), with her siblings (Loberta, Luther, and Andrew), all in their 90s.

I also appreciated the bond of love we had with my grandmother and her siblings, who lived in Chicago and Gary, Indiana. All of them lived well past 90 years old. I was always fascinated by them and by their old photographs and stories. Annual family reunions were a tradition that continues today.

Being multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, I guess I was always asking myself that question and wanting to do something to prove it. Something positive.

360 Degrees of Billy Paul

An influential album.

So I was always looking for ways to honor my black cultural roots, and to express the love I felt for that part of me.

Plus I’ve always loved sports, particularly basketball.

Plus, ever since I could remember, like back in the 9th grade, I’d been tutoring kids from inner city schools and looking to help people with what I know, because I just thought and assumed that that’s what people do, maybe because my father was an educator.

So when I discovered the history of the Black Fives Era, everything came together.

My mission in life, really, is to teach, enlighten, and inspire people. I would be doing that even without Black Fives.

While I still appreciate it Billy Paul’s question, people don’t dwell on that anymore. Actually, just many white people are asking themselves that question now.

I love black culture. It helps shape and define me. But it’s not the only thing that does, and I’m not a slave to that. Instead, I choose to help shape and define it.

What about you? What are you doing with your culture? What’s your view?

19 Responses to Am I Black Enough (Fo’ Ya’)?

  1. Interesting background, and a well-preparing one. I can see the journalism bent you inherited, even though you matriculated at Carnegie.

    I can empathize on several grounds- my maternal grandfather was a Pullman Porter- in Boston (near Newton, where I have cousins). I lived in Cincinnati a few years ago. I came to this area of research in ’92, after hearing four teenagers in D.C. tell me they didn’t know who a great American was that they had just walked past- Oscar Robertson, who was at a daughter’s Georgetown graduation dance in Union Station. The foundation had already been laid though- In ’86 was watching a morning program in D.C. on which some teens from a performing arts h.s. confessed they had never heard of James Brown. I then began writing a Black Facts for Children column for a local paper, and a Black (hist.) trivia quiz. I still have a lot to learn- microfilm’s pretty tedious to browse.

  2. Roy says:

    Thanks Claude for sharing your story. Like yourself, I am multi-cultural, bi-lingual, multi-ethnic, and multi-national (my mother was born/raised in Panama). This mix, especially on the west coast, made for an interesting childhood.

    In answer to what I’m doing, a main reason I wanted to be a counselor/therapist was so that I could make a difference in my community. I’ve always been that person others went to to talk, so it was a natural fit. This passion to help led me to focus my efforts on increasing awareness on the effects of domestic violence.

  3. Claude says:

    Hey Roy, you probably forgot “multi-tasking”! Thanks for sharing yours too.

    Did you know that John Isaacs was born in Panama? His mother was Panamanian and his father was Jamaican. They moved to NYC at an early age for him.

    I think in most cases we’re all mixed somehow. I just read a great article yesterday about the fascinating history of the mixed culture created between the Seminoles and escaped slaves in Florida.

  4. Roy says:

    LOL…yes, I did forget “multi-tasking” and no, I did not know about John Isaacs. Thank you for the info.

  5. Lawrence says:

    What a great article Claude! I remember all those days very well. When Superfly came out, I went to watch it at the RKO Albee Theater at 12 5th Street East in Cincinnati, Ohio. That single screen theater was closed and demolished in 1977 – the same year I joined the Army and went to basic training across the river at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

    Somewhere in my vinyl record collection which I have given to my son may be that 360 degrees of Billy Paul album. In any case for those of you that have not heard it – can’t remember it – or have otherwise forgotten, you can listen to the whole Am I Black Enough For You single here.

    Indeed, the next time someone asks me where I’m from, instead of me saying “I’m from many places, now I’m here”, I could also just refer them to this Blog.

  6. Claude says:

    Lawrence, yes, those were the days!

    Bijan, you remember the Albee Theater? You’re right, all the research that’s already done is still just the tip of the iceberg!

  7. Claude:

    Don’t know the Albee- in ’77 I was just a teenager in D.C. going downtown to see movies like “The Greatest” (1976 or so) at the Loews Palace, and “Rocky” (also circa ’76) at the Allen on New Hampshire Ave. in Langley Park. Didn’t live in Cincy until 2000. I’ve seen Walnut Hills High though- had a Howard classmate from there named Jimmy Ball. And my fave cousin was captain of the track team at Newton South H.S. (class of ’75).

    We couldn’t go see movies like “Superfly” when we were kids (my household- I’m an older brother) because of the adult content. Only saw it about a year ago.

  8. Lawrence says:

    Bijan,

    I have a DVD copy of “The Greatest” starring Muhammad Ali, Ernest Borgnine, James Earl Jones, and Paul Winfield. The movie was a 1977 Columbia Pictures presentation. I did not see this movie until about six months ago.

  9. rick morris says:

    Interesting history. The nomenclature people choose to use to decribe people I always find interesting. Black and white has always struck me as a fair, balanced and brief set of terms to desribe caucasians and negroes. The nuances that are clearly inaccurate in those blanket descriptions seem to be equally applied across both races, but don’t make any assumptions beyond skin color. Whereas African American suggests Negro, if Pik Botha, F.W. DeClerk or any white person from the African continent moved to the United States, would they not be African American? It was a point I once saw attributed to Tavis Smiley, if we can trust the Internet, and I think it is a valid one.

    Reggie Jackson once told me in an interview for my documentary on The Negro Leagues, “I started out as a Negro, then I was colored, then I was black and now I’m told I’m an African American. Frankly, at this point, I don’t know what I’m supposed to be.”

  10. Claude says:

    Hey Rick, what a great point about people from Africa! The answer to your question has to be “yes!” One of the parents at my kids’ school is from Morocco, and her husband from Egypt. I asked them the other day if they consider themselves “African American” and somewhat to my surprise (pleasantly so) they said “yes.” But the “media” wouldn’t label them “black” more so than “Muslim” and they certainly wouldn’t be called “African American.” Do you think in the end people should just decide who they are for themselves?

  11. KevDog says:

    Claude, just found your blog. A deep reading of SOMM or TSF will show you how much Jazz music is a passion of mine.

    I’ve written some parts of an autobiography and, given what you’ve written here about “Superfly.” You might be interested in this part.

    “When I was 9 years old, a startling movie burst into our consciousness, signifying a tidal change in how we in the ghetto viewed ourselves. And it’s accompanying sound track album spoke to our past, present and future. Photographer Gordon Parks Jr wrote and directed and Ron O’Neal starred in “Superfly.” On surface, the film was nothing more than one of about a dozen “blaxploitation” films Hollywood churned out in it’s pathetically conceived attempt to make up for it’s 50 year history of racism. The title character was a drug dealer named Priest who was trying to make one last big score in order to set him up enough to get out of the game. Good looking, stylishly dressed, masterful with his women, cool as hell and seemingly always in command, Priest embodied a way of being that was in direct contrast to the submissive Man Friday or steppinfetchit buffoon we had only a few years before, the amazing Sidney Poitier notwithstanding, been forced to play if we wanted to get any gigs in Hollywood. His suave, his cool, his way of re-defining the rules to fit his goals, hell, his moniker, bringing to mind a resurrection from the depths we had been forced to inhabit, made him an archetype to aspire to. And in my neighborhood so, so many did just that. Now, everyone wanted to be like Superfly, everyone wanted to dress like him; My brothers and their friends started frequenting tailor shops in the fabric district of downtown, and commissioning tailor made pants, vests and shirts. They took the air of affected cool to a new level and you could see it in their walk and in their talk. They took to acting like Pimps and drug dealers themselves. They started referring to women as “Bitches” and “Ho’s.” In their speech, you could see that they started to see women as objects to exploit, and it was all about the money, the paper. Makin’ it.

    If the movie appeared to glorify this small time hustler, Curtis Mayfield’s brilliant score portrayed a much darker reality. Infused with funky grooves, Stattaco guitar licks, thrilling bass lines, an odd use of strings that works far better than expected, bring out the flavor of the ghetto, and Mayfield’s poignant falsetto, the songs often seem to lionize Priest and his dynamic persona.

    Darkest of night
    With the moon shining bright
    There’s a set goin’ strong
    Lotta things goin’ on
    The man of the hour
    Has an air of great power
    The dudes have envied him for so long

    And this

    ain’t i clean, bad machine
    super cool, super mean
    feelin’ good, for the man
    Superfly, here i stand
    secret stash, heavy bread
    baddest bitches, in the bed

    i’m your pusherman

    But Mayfield was far too wise to discount the loss of human vitality and the cost to the human spirit from the drug trade, and indeed the nihilism and despair that we, seemingly without even seeing or comprehending, fell into

    I got a Jones
    Runnin’ through ma’ bones
    I’m sorry son
    All your money’s gone
    Painful rip in my upper hip
    I guess it’s time to take another trip
    Don’t care what nobody say
    I got to take the pain away
    It’s getting worser day by day
    And all my life has been this way
    Can’t reason with The Pusherman
    Finance is all that he understands
    ‘You junkie, mama cries, you know’
    Would rip her, but I love her so

    Mayfield set us up for the kill, and then dropped the bomb on Priest, the life and nihilism simultaneously with what I believe to be the heart and soul of the soundtrack, -No thang on me.

    “I’m so glad I’ve got my own,
    So glad that I can see
    My life’s a natural high
    The man can’t push no thang on me.

    So the two-part morality play that was “Superfly” was the perfect backdrop for the battle for blacks folks’ souls in the early 70’s. Parks and Mayfield tried to make us see what happened when we gave up on the optimism of the late 1960’s. They tried to get us to look beyond the superficial, the easy way out, and the pursuit for money no matter the cost to our community and the individuals who lived there. They tried to make us see the danger of venerating style without substance. But at the time, we were no more equipped to turn toward the light than we were to see the lessons of everything we had ever been taught by those who came before us. In my ‘hood, the battle became a rout, Nihilism, negativity, despair won going away.”

  12. Claude says:

    KevDog,

    No doubt. First of all, R.I.P. to the man I call the real “Curtis,” and whose cruel fate in Central Park I still can’t reconcile.

    Second of all, thank you for sharing such an eloquent series of thoughts.

    I always felt the Superfly soundtrack was immortal, while the movie was “only” great insofar as it was part of a social, cultural, and industry trend. I mean, basically, many of those movies were surprisingly terrible as cinema. If you watch Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song today it’s hard to watch aesthetically, but that hardly mattered then, and, from the box office, the studios noticed that black people didn’t care … so they financed more of same. The formula worked.

    They sucked, but we didn’t notice that at the time. What we noticed was the newfound voice. The manhood, or so-called, in contrast to what once was, as you point out.

    In many ways I see a parallel and a repeating cycle in the way these trends take place. Sweetback was a breakthrough, a seminal work. But it quickly degraded into the lowest common denominator, wherein our hunger for “voice” was taken too far by those making all the big the money. (Always look at where’s the real money, and this means you, rap artist critics.) In perspective, “breakthrough” was a sugar high. But you couldn’t tell somebody in the ‘hood that one of those flicks wasn’t dope.

    I see that today in terms of African American culture getting its true voice through hip hop and rap, but it having turned into an exploitative situation at the hands of the money machine. Where’s the money? Who is making the big money in that game?

    Years from now people like us will look back and think of the rap industry today as “rap-sploitation.” Maybe that’s what Jay-Z meant, although I haven’t heard him articulate it in that way.

    What does this have to do with the early history of African Americans in basketball? Well, isn’t it obvious? : – )

    PS – I’m sure you are aware of Separate Cinema, run by John Kisch, a visionary, positive dude.

  13. sandlot2pro says:

    Claude,

    I read your story and your intereting background. However, one thing that struck me was your comment that your father’s father was an illiterate Pullman Porter. My father was also a Pullman Porter like Congressman Ron Dellum’s father and Malcolm X. If you were illiterate, you would not last long as a Pullman Porter because this job relied upon a black person knowing how to handle all sorts of white people without appearing smarter than them.

    Did you know that Pullman Porters were the first black trade union recognized by the AFL-CIO in America? Did you know Pullman Porters backed the Montgomery boycott? Did you know that Pullman Porters were the foundation for the black middle class ? Did you know that Pullman Porters encouraged blacks in the south to move north during the great migration? It was the Pullman Porters that financed the Civil Rights movement. They were the only ones that were organized, well traveled and were the first “Spooks Who Sat By the Door”. They sat by the door, opened the door and showed the rest of us how to walk through the door with dignity. They were hardly illiterate my brother.

  14. Claude says:

    Hey sandlot2pro,

    I feel your pride and I share that. I said “illiterate” not “unintelligent” or “marginal.” I regret I never met my grandfather, so all I know about him is from my father, but I gave his name to one of my sons (as a middle name).

  15. sandlot2pro says:

    Claude,

    Not a problem young blood. I am proud of the work you are doing with keeping our history correct on the court. If you get a chance, check out ” Rising From The Rails” it is an interesting book.

    How do we connect this valuable history of basketball that you have documented into the heads of these kids chasing the dream? How do we connect the NBA players to the legacy and make it meaningful to the street ballers. Just a thought.

  16. Claude says:

    My father says that he never saw his father reading or writing, ever, and never saw anything his father had written. When my Dad told his father he was going to college, his father warned, “Boy, them books’ll bust yo’ head wide open.” My Dad must’ve taken his comment to mean that that was a good thing.

    I’ll check out the book, sounds great.

    Some people don’t want anything meaningful. Some people would rather do it their way. This type of knowledge, it can only be absorbed by those who are ready. So, all we can do is expose, in any way that works. Exposure leads to shifting of beliefs, which leads to revised feelings about it, which leads to changed course of action and choices, which leads to new results.

    Many people don’t know they could have better results, and so they are quite pleased with them. Until they begin comparing what they have, who they are, what they are doing … to what they wish they had, who they wish they were, and what they wish they were doing. And adding to that the new realization that those wishes are not so far away.

  17. Karen Wells says:

    I too am multi-cultural (caucasian, african american and native american). My great grandparents, grandparents and my parents were all college educated. My mother held a Phd and my father a MA. There were 7 of us in the midddle of Harlem. We were asked are we Italian, Puerto Rican, Ethiopian ? We were always told by the neighborhood kids “you got Indian in your family ’cause you got good hair”. My mother taught us that hair was to cover our heads and we looked the way we did because of how our parents looked. End of discussion. We lived on 125th and Broadway a wonderful diverse neighborhood with Riverside Church (my brothers played on the basketball team), Columbia University, City College. Union Theological and Jewish Theological Seminaries, Juliard School of Music, Barnard College and the wonderful Harlem Community. My parents made certain that we took advantage of all the opportunites in education (my Mom, Grandparents and Great Grandparents were all teachers), music, dance and culture. We all are bi-lingual in various languages and have lived in many parts of the world as adults. Most of us have married or are in relationships with members of most every ethic group. It has always been a joke in our family that we could never discriminate because we would be “hating” on the family. We are a very close family and we celebrate from Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, Diwali, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day, New Year and Chinese New Year. We love it.

  18. [...] Remember my post, Am I Black Enough Fo’ Ya? [...]

  19. What am I doing with my culture? Exercising it right now by answering a question with a question :-D.

    Billy Paul, man, I remember him from his hit “Me and Mrs. Jones.” I also remember it being quite controversial as it was a tune about two people having an affair.

    Love these stories, Claude! Keep’em coming!

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