Then I Found Harmony Brown – Harmony Holiday

My father’s given name was James Brown. He had his surname legally changed to Holiday because he loved Billie Holiday, whose first name was Eleanora Fagan, and he hated the peculiar institution. Besides that another black James Brown, the King of Soul, already had a recording career when my dad was starting his in New Orleans. Avoid adverbs and superlatives if you love somebody, the very much is like dried-up blood on cotton with no vine, a stain on the clear utterance. I won’t tell you how much he hated the institution, though no secret is safe in confession. Once at a nightclub called Deity in Brooklyn, the bouncer started hitting on me and asked me my name. I felt objectified and got defensive or reflexive and asked him to tell me his first in a quick and friendly banter. He refused and so I teased, c’mon, just as loosely entitled as you asking me, proving my point, smiling, I wasn’t offended just not interested in being identified first I guess, what’s your name, what’s your slave name, I continued to tease. Suddenly the whole mood shifted, I don’t have a slave name, I’m Nigerian, he responded. Do you think you’re better than someone who got trapped in a slavemaster’s name? I asked, clearly triggered by his affront just the same as he was by my playful question. He was quiet, thinking. I continued, you wouldn’t be living as you are in this racist country if it weren’t for the black slaves who rescued themselves from captivity here, he remained quiet, pensive, I went back inside with some friends, the club was closing but we stayed at the bar, the bartender, the bouncer, two friends and me, debating the validity of our given and received names, as if maybe we could give them back to some daggering source in the collective unconscious, as if identities can be shed that way. The bouncer, who never gave us his name, refused to believe these callings interdependent. By the end of the conversation he was seething and I was lighthearted and belligerent and my name was everywhere in the room looking for itself. But back to my father who had improvised a name that hinted at his coming deliverance, a name that allows me to luxuriate in debates about who’s who and what mistaken identity means for black bodies. James Brown and James Brown were born about a year apart, the King of Soul in Atlanta, Georgia, the now Jimmy Holiday in Sallis, Mississippi. Both of them watched their fathers beat their mothers while growing up. They both loved their fathers. Both loved to sing. And they loved their mothers. And both of these descendants of slaves were trapped in the master’s monochrome name singing about freedom. And both men would eventually accumulate impressive stashes of guns. And both would turn violent toward their spouses to extents that might seem unfathomable when you listen to their soul crying songs about love and tenderness and pride. Both men composed beautiful black music and loved black people and in some ways were always exacting revenge on the Jim Crow South, just by sounding as rapturous as they did and masking their brutality as they did, thinly, and beneath all of the charisma of the downbeat, the beat down the swallowing sound of sorry and please in their leaping radio seasons. And both men are dead now, and loved as we love a tribe of broken angels. My father died while in jail for a domestic violence charge, and the King of Soul’s death is under investigation as a possible murder. He died on Christmas. The investigation was prompted years later by a call to CNN from a woman who once mistook him for Santa Claus when she spotted him in furs on a tarmac. Later they would become close friends and she claims to have been raped by him and threatened and then the article on comes to a close. It’s unresolved whether she feels vengeance for what he did to her or for the fact that he was murdered or both. It’s unclear what she is trying to solve in the paradoxical capacity the suffering have for total forgiveness. My mother feels no perceivable vengeance, my parents’ lovemaking was consensual, they were in love, it took her years to leave, and maybe a part of her regrets having put him jail, having had to call the police, but Jimmy Holiday is really a great angel, an heroic ghost. And if listeners to his music knew his story I hope they would still be able to revel in it, as I do, and love him, as I do. But after reading about the depths of James Brown the King of Soul’s violent streak, his music feels tragic and remote and less the upbeat exegesis it’s always been for me, it feels like lying to ourselves feels even when we’re really good at it, it feels like food that tastes perfect and might make you sick if you knew the ingredients. It has been stolen back for the time being, rebranded in the tradition of slave songs, of rage with no name but color, hue, danger, blue. There is no sugared way to say that trauma has a consciousness of its own, a second spirit. There’s a blurry mirror where James Brown my father and James Brown the King of Soul greet one another in sorrow and jubilant solidarity, say their names back and forth I am a king / I am king you are a king / you are king and walk out into the world feeling lighthearted enough to ask a bouncer twice their size for his slave name, smiling, feeling free enough to never say sorry or please, they back away from the mirror into me, lay their weapons down – the pain can stop here, the pain stopping here. Our legacy of pleasure and redemption is so near I lend it my other name.