The Next America

An old song still resonates: ‘Is it because I’m black?’

Marketplace Contributor Jan 18, 2013
The Next America

An old song still resonates: ‘Is it because I’m black?’

Marketplace Contributor Jan 18, 2013

How do you make it in America?

The question makes me think of an old song by Chicago soul singer, Syl Johnson. His answer, on an album he recorded in 1968, was in the form of another question: “You see, I heard somebody say one time ‘you can make it, if you try.’ And some of us, we’re trying so hard, we’re trying so hard.” Then he went on. “Oh, something is holding me back. Is it because I’m black?”

These were pretty provocative lyrics for a black pop singer in 1968, even if we can look back and probably agree the answer to his question was — at least in those days — ‘yes.’

But as a black president stands on the eve of his second term, some say we live in a “post-racial” society now.

Which got me wondering how a question and a song like “Is It Because I’m Black?” connects to today. And that lead me to Syl Johnson’s front gate.

When he came down to let me in, he burst out of his door, singing.

Johnson is in his mid-70s now. He lives in the same Chicago neighborhood where he grew up, known as Bronzeville, after the color of many residents’ skin. Johnson spent much of his youth in public housing, but now he lives in a handsome two-story home that he built a few years ago — although, he jokes, the Wu Tang Clan actually built it, after he sued them and a bunch of hip-hop groups for sampling his songs without credit.

“Financed this house thanks to RZA,” he chirps, grabbing his guitar. ” They paid me real good.”

There are guitars and gold records and a Grammy nomination covering Johnson’s walls. And he’s the first to say that ultimately, being black did not hold him back. But that doesn’t mean he thinks say race doesn’t matter anymore.

“It matters,” says Johnson. “It just means you’ve got to work harder.”

To help his family make ends meet, Johnson dropped out of high school and started working — washing dishes, driving trucks, leading a band on the side. When he finally did make it in music, and put the racial contradictions of the American Dream to song, his dreams were starting come true. Not just as a musician.

“I’m an entertainer, a musician, an entrepreneur,” he says.

In the 1980s, Johnson invested the money he’d made in the music business to start a seafood restaurant on the South Side of Chicago called Solomon’s Fishery — named after his dad. He says, making it — in business, or in music — takes, yes, hard work and perseverance. But something else too.

“You write a song, you better have a song like ‘Is It Because I’m Black?’ A beautiful subject matter,” he says. “A business, the same. It’s almost the same as writing. You better have a good idea.”

Seizing opportunity wherever it pops up has been another of Johnson’s strategies. Including, of all things, seizing a rumor circulating around his neighborhood that Church’s Chicken restaurants had an ingredient that sterilized black men. People stopped going to Church’s.

“So poom! Oh, there were boarded-up Church’s everywhere in the black neighborhoods all across the country,” says Johnson. “So I had the free opportunity to get the Church’s Chickens — for little or nothing.”

After buying up some of the empty storefronts and converting them to fish joints, business took off. In a few years, Syl Johnson was employing more than 100 people, and had started one of the first black-owned national restaurant franchises in the country.

“You can make it if you try. And some of us black people, tried hard to make it, and we did. We excelled,” he says.

With a success story like Johnson’s, you could stop and say: Does his old song “Is It Because I’m Black?” still have any relevance?

“Oftentimes, the answer can still be yes,” says Mary Pattillo, a sociologist at Northwestern University. She says Johnson’s achievements are inspiring. But she adds, “That progress of a small component of the black community needs to be put in the context of some really unfortunate developments.”

She points to facts like these: half of the African Americans who are born poor, stay poor, compared to just a third of whites. Black unemployment is twice as high as white unemployment, and median incomes are 40 percent lower. Pattillo says these bleak statistics can be driven by a number of things — unconscious racial bias in the labor market, disproportionately high incarceration rates among black men in the prime of their earning lives, and disinvestment in black neighborhoods.

The effects of many of those forces are in full view if you got to the neighborhood near Racine and South 81st Street, where Syl Johnson’s first fish restaurant was located before it folded in the ’90s. Now, it’s an empty lot among many.

“It was some good fish,” says Chris Johnson, who lives in the neighborhood. “They should have kept it around.”

One of the few places still open is a liquor store, where the clerk works in a bulletproof glass box. Otis Wise had just stopped in for an energy drink. He remembers the restaurant, too. I tell him that the guy who owned it was a singer who wrote a song called “Is It Because I’m Black?” And I ask what he thinks of that idea.

“No, I do not use race, or none of that, to make an excuse for anything to hold you back,” Wise says. “All opportunities is open for everyone.”

Then he looked around and added that some people live in neighborhoods like this one — where opportunities are a little harder to find.

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