Whatever happened to “Soul”?

(As the verdict on the events in Ferguson, MO is soon to come out, I am loathe to publish this. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m “Whitey” telling “The Black Folk” how to live. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, I want to speak about a truly American cultural thing that I love and miss. May real and long-lasting justice come out of Ferguson. )

I was listening to Curtis Mayfield the other day and I realized there has been yet another loss in my life — a whole sense of direction and a goal. The goal was to have, or hang around with people who had, soul.

Soul is African-American self- esteem. It is earthy and gritty and funky. Musically, it is not rhythm and thudding and primal sex like rap or happy, continual sex and power like hip-hop. Emotionally and spiritually, Soul as a concept is about hard, but worthwhile, work and family and accepting the beauty in it all. “Soul” is a lower and middle-class concept similar to “working class hero” — an0ther idea whose time seems to have passed, and therein lies the problem. Nobody wants to be middle-class anymore. People either settle for the poverty they can’t get out of, or they long to be rich — people who can and do conspicuously consume. We’re either all about the bling, or we’re nothing. If it’s shiny, it matters.

But soul is not about external things — it is not about style as much as it is substance. Years ago, when I was in college in Los Angeles, my friend Margo Moten and I were driving around near her house and she saw a man standing on the corner, looking immoral or lazy in some way, and she said, “I hate that. That man over there reinforces stereotypes about who we are as a people.” That is soul. I could just watch in amazement at the way she thought. It is pride in her self and in her culture, and determination to make it in life. Looking back on it, I think that if White folks said that about themselves, we’d be a whole lot better off as a country. Instead, we just are… We’re the dominant culture and we don’t think about it much.

I guess that’s it — the sense that we have an image to project to the outside world and we’re trying to maintain it. Soul, then, is the little old lady who sweeps her sidewalk because she wants it to look nice. Soul is the Miracle Mile where the streets are clean enough to eat off of because they want the community to be able to show off. It’s also the little farm community in Upstate New York where people compete about the shape of their lawn. They’re not trying to keep the riff-raff out, they’re trying to keep the good people in. They hold each other accountable for the betterment of all. Soul is about community standards, it is about who we want to be, based in the reality of who we are. I don’t think we do that anymore and I think that’s a pity. Do we have community anymore? Do we have standards any more? Those questions are up for debate, sadly, or they’re not ideals anymore.

Soul is based on the idea that people have worth not because other humans say so, but because God or Allah gives it to them, and what we make of that gift of life is up to us. Because we are treasured, we treasure ourselves and we treasure others around us.  Soul is based on the idea that what we have is not the same as what we are, so we still have worth regardless of our circumstances. My friend Gerri Claytor has soul, though I don’t know if she’d call it that anymore. She works hard, and brings out the dignity of those she serves in Bridgeport, CT and she doesn’t look like anything more than who she is. She doesn’t have to. That is what I aspire to be. That is why I miss the concept of “Soul”.

I hope we rediscover soul, and — in doing so — we find our souls. Like “Peace” as a concept, I don’t want it to come down to peace signs and “groovy” and big bell-bottoms fashions. I want it to be a goal that drives us inside, whether we reach it or not. Soul is not about Black Exploitation films, it is not about polyester or the disco or pimps and hos. It’s about meaning and worth and beauty in the African-American way. In short, if you can sell it, but not live it, you don’t have it.

Let me leave you with these two quotes from Curtis Mayfield:

“If you had a choice, of colors,  which one would you choose, my brother? If there was no day or night/ which one would you choose to be right?”

and “She may not be the best looking woman/ I ever did see. She may not have the fashions of high society. But the woman’s got soul. The woman’s got soul. …My woman doesn’t need class. Just because a woman’s got class/doesn’t mean it’s gonna last. The woman’s got soul.”






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