It was March 1979 and James Brown was still without peer. More than two decades after recording his first hit, no entertainer had yet to match his charisma and choreography. Certainly, no artist was cooler than the superstar whose first introduction to hustling and entertaining came in the relative anonymity of Augusta, Georgia’s “ill-repute area.” Now a household name, Brown was the voice of a generation, the lyrical spokesman of millions raised with his anthem, “Say it Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
He was also a man confident in his ability to win over anyone, anywhere. As winter turned to spring and the 1970s came to a close, Brown was in Nashville, Tennessee recording his next album. One day, an unexpected invitation arrived: Porter Wagoner, a popular country music singer, wanted Brown to perform at the Grand Ole Opry.
Brown leapt at the opportunity. He had to. After all, Brown was the self-proclaimed “Hardest Working Man in Show Business” and no place did show business like the Opry, the heart of what had become known as Music City.
Before Brown could even take the stage, Jean Shephard, an Opry mainstay, called for a boycott of Brown’s performance. “It’s not an anti-Black issue,” she protested as her call gained traction. “Don’t get us wrong. It’s not racial . . . But I’m against James Brown’s music on the stage of the Opry and what it stands for. I could throw up.”(1)
The “Godfather of Soul” arrived in Nashville more than a decade after a federal district court ordered the city to comply with Brown v. Board. Still, it remained starkly—and often violently—separate and unequal. About 1/3 of Nashville’s public schools were at least 99% White; about 1/6 of them were more than 90% Black.
The latter schools were dilapidated, dangerous structures with inadequate plumbing and collapsing ceilings, underpaid teachers and outdated textbooks. They reflected Nashville’s divided landscape. Although the Supreme Court had also ruled against restrictive covenants decades earlier, White Nashvillians still refused to rent, sell, or even show suburban properties to Black families.
The aspirational Black men and women who stubbornly resisted those private actions often found themselves stifled by federal policies including home financing loans unavailable to Black borrowers. For the most part, their spaces—schools, neighborhoods, social clubs, and restaurants—remained Black spaces, a world apart from the recording studios that lined the famed Music Row.
For how long, though? That question, latent with hope and anxiety and hate, gained prominence during the 1970s as a federal district court ordered Nashville schools to desegregate their faculties and demanded integration through busing. It received a near unanimous response from White Nashvillians.
While Black parents in Nashville saw busing as a potential solution to solving the lingering problems of Jim Crow, Mayor Beverly Briley won re-election by re-assuring White voters that he opposed busing and did not believe that schools were “social experiment[s].” In the wake of his victory, city government quickly pulled funding for busing.
Pickets and boycotts became hallmarks of White resistance to equality. Black children left the familiar halls of soon-to-be shuttered Black schools and deserted the well-worn streets of an urban center wracked by disinvestment and urban renewal. In the unilateral process of integration, their destinations were White spaces as hostile as they were foreign.
While the social landscape shifted under their feet, a so-called “silent majority” in Tennessee turned more and more to country music as the soundtrack of their conservatism. Their mecca was the Grand Ole Opry. In the same moment that Jean Shephard told reporters that Brown’s intrusion into her hallowed grounds made her physically sick, more protests came from the White Citizens’ Council, an organization formed to resist integration and Black voter registration.
“We consider it almost sacrilegious,” the members of its Memphis branch announced,
that the Grand Ole Opry stage (the last bastion of Southern White culture) should be open to soul singer James Brown, as well as other Blacks who are not a legitimate part of country music . . . We protest this infiltration of country music, which represents White roots—White culture. For, if Blacks are allowed to move into country music, it will lead to its demise. What has made it special to White people will no longer exist.(2)
In the midst of the storm, as controversy swirled around him, Brown remained as cool as ever. Following a performance that included his hit song “Papa’s Got a Grand New Bag,” Brown boasted that the Opry audience had treated “me like I was a prodigal son.” They had, he continued, “treated me so nice . . . I felt I got as much praise as a White man who goes into a Black church and puts a hundred dollars in the collection plate.”
The picture, still on a shelf in my parents’ home, was taken in the same year that Brown gave his first public performances following a bid in a South Carolina state prison. Standing on the ice of Raleigh, North Carolina’s Dorton Arena are three rows of serious-looking six-year-olds.
Large black gloves protect little hands, skates in various stages of wear cover small feet, and teal and black jerseys replicating those worn by the San Jose Sharks, the newest addition to the National Hockey League (NHL), swallow prepubescent bodies. The only thing exposed are faces. The only Black one is mine.
My short-lived hockey career was born out of my mom’s pragmatism. I was already sports-obsessed, spring and summer in Raleigh, North Carolina were, by rule, oppressive, and hockey had just come to our city in the form of the East Coast Hockey League’s Raleigh IceCaps.
The solution seemed too obvious. Why not take a reprieve from the sweltering blacktops and baseball diamonds, my mom reasoned? If nothing else, Dorton Arena would be cool.
It wasn’t long before I saw that hockey could be cool, too. During an intermission at an IceCaps game, the team brought out pee-wee players from our local league to entertain fans with a scrimmage. I don’t remember being nervous—I probably was. What I do remember is the song that blared over the loudspeakers.
I feel good, I knew that I would now
I feel good, I knew that I would now
I feel nice, like sugar and spice
I feel nice, like sugar and spice
James Brown had done it again. As fans willed us to score, one of his most iconic hits, “I Got You (I Feel Good),” injected the arena with energy. It filled the space with the sounds of southern-derived funk and soul, a sonic Blackness that contrasted with the glistening white of the ice—and of the sport itself.
In the years after the Sharks came into existence, the NHL pursued an aggressive policy of expansion and franchise relocation into non-traditional markets that included my hometown and other southern cities. The policy produced change and continuity in equal doses.
Despite gaining a foothold in the region with the highest historical and contemporary percentage of African Americans, hockey made little inroads into Black communities. Even today, the demographics of NHL arenas in Nashville and Raleigh, Tampa Bay and Miami bear a remarkable resemblance to those at the Grand Ole Opry, the space that the White Citizens’ Council prematurely called the “last bastion of southern White culture.”
Each Saturday, while the NHL expanded in to new markets and I moved on to more popular southern sports, a talented young hockey player born in Toronto to two Caribbean immigrants tuned in to Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC). On a typical night, HNIC host Don Cherry not only provided commentary on the night’s NHL game but also offered cultural critique.
Performing the role of the conservative Canuck, he railed against the forces threatening his romanticized, masculinized, and homogenous homeland and its national pastime. Russians. Scandinavians. French Canadians. All were outsiders and effeminate. To Cherry, none played the “right way.”(3)
Somehow that first-generation Torontonian tuned out the white noise. And it was not long after P.K. Subban made his NHL debut for the Montreal Canadiens in 2010 that his play and passion helped fill arenas across North America. A defenseman, Subban could shut down opposing first-line centers and carry the puck with the grace of a winger.
He could break down defenses with his passing and scorch the net with his slapshot. He could, in fact, re-define the game of hockey. As Subban cemented himself as one of the NHL’s best defensemen, a claim cemented with his receipt of the Norris Trophy in 2013, he eschewed hockey traditions.
He bounced to music during warm-ups, joked with teammates in the locker room, and refused to defer to older opponents. For being himself—for playing with unabashed joy and not apologizing for it—he captivated countless fans, fellow athletes, and entertainers, some of them most struck by what they called his “James Brown moves on the ice.”
Of course, others were less pleased. In his first year in the league, Mike Richards, a center for the Philadelphia Flyers, told a reporter that “it’s just frustrating to see a young guy like [Subban] come in here, and so much as think that he’s better than a lot of people . . . I’m not saying I’m going to do it, but something might happen to him if he continues to be that cocky.” Don Cherry agreed.
On HNIC, Cherry warned the “cocky” Subban that if he “has a big mouth like that, he’s going to get hurt.” In his opinion, Subban did too much “silly stuff.” He celebrated goals and embellished hits and talked trash. He didn’t play the “right way.”
Or, as hockey analyst Darren Pang put it in a Freudian slip for the ages, “the White way.” During the 2012 season, Florida Panther’s defenseman Krys Barch asked Subban, one of only 86 Black players to ever make an NHL roster, whether he had “slipped on a banana peel” after falling to the ice during a fight.
Two years later, fans in Boston’s TD Garden pelted the Canadiens with trash after Subban beat their Bruins with a slapshot in overtime. Other fans took to Twitter and, within seconds of the loss, #Nigger was trending in Boston. “Tied something for Subban,” one of the tweets read. A picture of a noose was attached.
Subban brushed the comments aside. Criticism continued, reaching a crescendo in the summer of 2016. When Montreal Canadiens’ General Manager Marc Bergevin defended his trade of Subban to the Nashville Predators for a player four years older, he cited the “tremendous leadership” of new acquisition Shea Weber.
Sports media recycled his talking points. Yes, Subban had done charity work in Haiti and donated $10 million to Montreal Children’s Hospital, the largest philanthropic gift by any Canadian athlete, but Weber had better “character.” Subban was a “non-conformist.” Weber was “reserved” and “modest.” It wasn’t racial—the hockey establishment just had an issue with Subban and what he stood for.
The Nashville in which Subban and I arrived, he the newest member of the Predators and I one of the newest faculty members at Vanderbilt University, is different than the one that James Brown experienced. It has surpassed Memphis as the largest city in Tennessee. Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans, now sits on the bank of the Cumberland River.
Every day, bachelor and bachelorette parties ride pedal taverns on streets lined with chic boutiques and craft breweries. The New York Times has even profiled the city where Rob and Rex Ryan get into bar fights, Taylor Swift makes her home, and the food scene, among other things, is just “so dynamic.”
Still, it is not altogether foreign. In the same moment that Nashville becomes more and more of a destination, people in historically Black and working-class neighborhoods are being displaced. In Edgehill, East Nashville, Germantown, 12 South, and Bordeaux, longtime residents are selling their homes and developers are swooping in. Entire sections of the city have earned the coveted label of “desirable” simply with the construction of new, more expensive units that command higher rents from the predominantly White, affluent tenants they attract.
For too many native Nashvillians, the process has literally alienated them from a city that ranks in the middle of significant indices of metro area racial inequality. As the Music City changes and their taxes increase, poor and Black residents are seeking out more affordable housing in the outlying suburbs of Antioch, Belleveue, and Madison.
Some might argue that the unfolding processes of growth and gentrification contrast the earlier period of development and desegregation. But, even as the White-flight of the twentieth-century reverses course, an unavoidable fact remains. Put simply, race and space are bound, now as then.
While the social landscape shifts under their feet, thousands of Nashvillians are attempting what residents of Memphis and other southern cities undergoing similar changes have tried. They have turned to sports and entertainment as their unifying force.
The “I Believe in Smashville” mural painted on the side of Bridgestone Arena, the Preds’ home and the loudest arena in hockey, mirrors the “I Believe in Nashville” ones found in other parts of the city.
Countless businesses fly banners emblazoned with the Preds’ rallying cry, “Stand with Us.” Democratic Mayor Megan Barry promotes the team almost as hard as her YIMBY (“Yes, in My Back Yard) campaign.
And Subban jerseys are everywhere, even my closet. When I wear it outside, my neighbor on our mixed-income street shakes his head and laughs before asking whether the Preds—and perhaps our city—are doing good, bad, or somewhere in between.
My answers have varied. After a rocky season in which new players adjusted to each other and Subban battled one of the worst injuries of his career, the Preds snuck into the playoffs as the eighth and last team in the Western Conference.
Since then, they’ve suffered more injuries to critical players. They’ve also become nearly unbeatable. In dispatching the favored Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, and Anaheim Ducks, the Preds dropped only one home game thanks to raucous crowds and impenetrable defense. Now, in the midst of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the prospects of a Preds title seem brighter than ever.
So does the spotlight on Subban and his changing city. A day before the Stanley Cup finals, weeks after analyst Mike Milbury called Subban a “clown” for dancing during pre-game warmups, ESPN aired a special profile on the All-Star defenseman. It opens in the Music City.
On stage at Tootsie’s, one of the most iconic honky-tonks on the famous Broadway strip, Subban stands wearing dark black shades under a dark black derby hat. Gripping a microphone close to his face, he sings:
I hear the train a comin’
It’s rolling round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when
I’m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a rollin’ on down to San Antone...
Coming to the end of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” Subban removes his glasses and tosses his black hat. It glides above the White crowd below. “Whew, Nashville,” Subban shouts. “Nashville!”
Bill Hance, “James Brown May Meet Protest at Grand Ole Opry,” The Courier-News, March 8, 1979.
Colin Escott, The Grand Ole Opry: The Making of an American Icon (New York: Center Street, 2006), 209.
Peter James Hudson, “Honkey Night in Canada,” Transition 96 (2006): 68-85.