When we’re talking black history, people rarely mention Don Cornelius.
They should. Cornelius created and hosted “Soul Train,” a groundbreaking television show that introduced generations of viewers to the artists, music, fashion and dances of black America. He died last Wednesday. He was 75.
I don’t think Cornelius should be appreciated this month in light of his death. I think he and “Soul Train” should have always been celebrated.
Before MTV or BET, there was “Soul Train.” It aired for more than 35 years and was often called the black “American Bandstand.”
Don Cornelius was a curator of black culture. He developed the show to fill a void on television and cater to black audiences, but the truth is the hippest trip in America wasn’t just about black people.
The show first aired in 1971, on the heels of the civil rights movement, and it proved to be a great unifier. It served as a platform for black artists like Al Green and Johnnie Taylor, but it didn’t take long for the likes of Elton John and David Bowie to ride the train too. To me, that’s what makes it so important.
On “Soul Train,” you could tune in and see people of all colors and ethnicities singing and dancing together. What fan doesn’t remember Cheryl Song, the long-haired Asian dancer with moves to mimic? And Rosie Perez? She’s arguably one of the best dancers of the past few decades.
Music and dance have always been able to bring people together. Aretha Franklin, who performed on the show in its earlier days, recognized his achievement.
“God bless him for the solid good and wholesome foundation he provided for young adults worldwide,” she said in a statement, “and the unity and brotherhood he singlehandedly brought about with his most memorable creation of ‘Soul Train.’ ”
She’s not alone in her admiration of his brilliance. Everyone from Questlove and Quincy Jones to Jesse Jackson and Patti LaBelle has paid respect to the host with the most. And then there are the fans, like me.
I wasn’t born when the show first began. I didn’t see my first episode of “Soul Train” until well into the ’80s, somewhere around the first grade. And I must admit, I was told to watch it by a cousin who said my dance moves were sub par.
I took her advice. There I was, in the middle of my living room trying my best to imitate performances by Salt-N-Pepa and Janet Jackson and the Soul Train dancers too.
And not only did I start picking up the latest dances — The Snake, The Reebok and The Prep — I also fell in love with the clothes. People on that show were stylish. They might have looked crazy in spandex, glitter and even straight-up costumes, but they made it look cool because they were confidently unique. The same can be said for their dancing.
Some of those moves looked like medical conditions, but because the dancers were having so much fun, it didn’t matter. To this day, it’s rare that I go to a party, celebration or cookout where some form of a “Soul Train” line doesn’t bust out. Talk about shiny, happy people holding hands.
On that show, I didn’t just see a diverse party. I saw people who looked like me, people who looked like my mom and people who looked like my dad. And the three of us? We couldn’t look more different. But that show proved we were all still the same, and our differences were good.
Don Cornelius and “Soul Train” helped America dance all over color lines. May he rest inlove, peace and sooooooul.