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?