Leonard Pitts: Don Cornelius' love, peace … and soul

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 3, 2012

This was for us. And that was a new thing, so we gathered faithfully to the television as that hard-working cartoon engine chugged across the screen, rainbow smoke pouring from its stack, the announcer calling us to order once upon a Saturday. This was “Sooooooul Train,” he said, darn near yodeling the name, “the hippest trip in America, 60 nonstop minutes across the tracks of your mind, with guest stars …”
And oh, the guest stars … Gladys Knight, slinky and gorgeous lip syncing “Friendship Train” as the Pips whirled behind her; the Jackson 5 rocking “Dancing Machine,” Michael gliding as if to make a liar out of Newton; Marvin Gaye, so besotted by some nubile young dancer he forgot to lip sync “Let’s Get It On.”
Or maybe the guest was someone little remembered now, someone who flashed and faded — Jean Knight, Enchantment or the Honey Cone — but who owned a moment and marked it indelibly.
“Soul Train” host Don Cornelius died Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles, apparently a suicide at the age of 75. If you are black and of a certain age, that news likely stunned you back to a time when the only things wider than your Afro were your lapels, your favorite movie was “Shaft” or “Cooley High” and there was a stack of 45s next to the turntable on your dresser.
“Soul Train,” which Cornelius created in 1970, was essentially a black “American Bandstand,” but to leave it at that is to miss its truest import.
This was for us, those of us who were young and black and coming of age in the post-civil rights years.
Don’t take that wrong. “Soul Train” was not exclusionary. White kids joined the “Soul Train gang,” that crew of dancers whose angular athleticism was like nothing you’d ever seen on television. White artists — Elton John, David Bowie, Gino Vannelli — played its stage. Young whites like Wolf Isaac Blitzer from Buffalo were among its many fans.
And yet, this was something especially for us.
We knew it from the Afro Sheen commercials (where else on television did they advertise Afro Sheen?), from the fashions the dancers wore and from the way Cornelius took our slang and gave it back to us, stylized and made somehow profound by his cool announcer’s baritone.
“Here’s a big’un we’re sho’nuff diggin’,” he would say, announcing some new tune by James Brown or the Dramatics. Dick Clark didn’t talk like that.
And then, there was his signature sign off: “Join us next week on most of these same stations, and you can bet your last money, it’s all gonna be a stone gas, honey. I’m Don Cornelius and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace … and soul!”
Soul being that beat, that authenticity, that depth of spirit, that hip swagger we felt made us unique.
We were something new, the promise of the civil rights years made manifest in polyester pants and towering Afros — and here, for the first time on television, was something for us.
If you are white and television has always been for you, if you are black and cannot recall a time before BET, Centric and TV One, you likely cannot appreciate what a revelation that was.
If you are black and of a certain age, you cannot forget it. And you understand why there is really only one fitting farewell for Donald Cortez Cornelius.
May he rest in love, peace … and soul.
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Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Contact him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.