Don Cornelius: Respecting those we’ve lost while holding them accountable for their actions

Yesterday, Don Cornelius, the man who started the groundbreaking Saturday morning show “Soul Train,” was found dead at 75 years old from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. After an incredibly successful career and having altered the face of American music, he was ultimately not able to overcome his personal struggles.

Cornelius’s contributions to music can’t be overlooked. Dan Charnas writes at NPR,

Cornelius insisted on as much black presence behind the cameras as he induced in front of them, and he was one of the first black moguls to expand his brand beyond its origins: producing records (Cornelius was the executive producer behind the bubblegum-soul group Shalamar) and, eventually, award shows.

Cornelius’ cultural impact, however, went beyond the confines of black business achievement. Soul Train became a Saturday morning staple for Americans of all colors and creeds (after Cornelius stared down a ham-handed copycat attempt byAmerican Bandstand‘s Dick Clark called Soul Unlimited). The “Soul Train line,” a regular feature of the show, popularized new dances and grew to become a real-life American tradition at weddings, celebrations and, yes, bar mitzvahs.

As I read through the obituaries yesterday, I had some fond memories come up of watching Soul Train with my parents as a kid on the one day we were all together and how it was one of the few examples of non-whites on TV that we could relate to as a family. Or how my friends and I would have “soul trains” at our high school parties and dances, weddings and yes, bar mitzvahs.

But I was also struck by the different ways people referred to his arrest just a few years back for spousal abuse against his then wife Russian model, Viktoria Chapman. While some merely referred to it as a bitter divorce, others stated how “the woman he hated” would benefit from his life insurance policy and others dismissed the charges as “marital problems” that led to his unhappiness.

It is clear that Cornelius was dealing with some deep pain and others have speculated he might have even been suffering from dementia. But the urge to wipe away his very real history with domestic violence is a problem. We have to hold our heros accountable when they abuse the women in their lives or else we are essentially condoning their behavior as private affairs or the trials of people with money who attract “greedy” women. It is not a narrative that helps hold them in higher regard in history and it is certainly not akin to the kind of progressive social change he himself made for American culture.

Cornelius’s legacy is more than Soul Train or the tragedy of his suicide–it is also about the deeply problematic ways fame impacts people’s lives, sometimes at the cost of getting the help they need before they hurt the people close to them or self-destruct.

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