Wednesday morning I received a text from my friend and frequent collaborator, Michael Paul Britto bearing the sudden news of Don Cornelius' death by apparent suicide. It's been a season of these transitions for me personally, starting in September with my mother's passing and culminating most recently in the death of my partner's eldest brother. As you might imagine these passages elicit all manner of sublime reflection -- impermanence, eternity and the metaphysical wanderings that work to soothe the acute realization that life is an offer that's only available for a limited time. Death is the unexpectedly predictable reminder that the clown eventually pops out of the box, when you keep turning the handle.
Besides having of one of the coolest names known to humankind (one part Renaissance astronomer, one part Mafiosi and 100 percent Chi-Town player), Don Cornelius hosted a veritable buffet of black American cultural product by creating (and executive producing) the longest running syndicated program in national television history: Soul Train, ahem, SOOOOOOULTRAIN!
When I was a youngster, Soul Train's relevancy was still in effect, performing the coda to my Saturday Morning cartoon menu, and providing an aspirational benchmark for my future life as a young adult. YouTube has further solidified its import as a time capsule for recording artists as wonderfully diverse as Elton John, The Emotions, Teddy Pendergrass, Aretha Franklin and David Bowie. It gave generations an evolving guide for American style and contemporary social dance, not to mention its undeniable contribution to the art of celebration: The SoulTrain Line™.
Later that same afternoon the news of Mike Kelley's possible suicide circulated around campus. I am a rather late-blooming artist, without an undergraduate art school pedigree, so Wikipedia offers a necessary starting point to keep up with my classmates. They draw references like gunslingers, using surnames as adjectives, shooting mortal wounds and defending various arguments. A Midwesterner like Cornelius, Kelley grew up in a suburb just outside Detroit, and first delved in the city's music scene as a member of the noise outfit, Destroy All Monsters. Influential in the development of Los Angeles as an international Art center, Kelley's Wikipedia entry features the benign headings 'Life and Work', 'A Selection of Representative Works' and 'Contributions', his dash-entry curiously doubled (January 31, 2012 or February 1, 2012), while Mr. Cornelius' legacy is distilled to 'Career', 'Arrest' and 'Death'.
Perhaps 'accuracy' is to blame for this bleak representation of a cultural icon, but I can't help but connect this mark of difference to the worn weary trope of black-man-as-rap-sheet that resides in our national character. Wikipedia generally occupies the first or second entry of a Google search listing; consequently it holds significant real estate in our collective consciousness. Even in the face of death as the great equalizer, it's an oracle to an accepted history, and a revealer of stubborn hierarchies.
Kenya (Robinson) Virtual Workspace
PROJECT #497 or John Henry and the Patchwork Penitentiaries