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Like the rest of America, I was distraught over the death of the great Don Cornelius, creator of the legendary show, “Soul Train.”  There will never be another one like him; for, he truly changed the Black entertainment landscape for all eternity.   Here are five things that Black people can learn from the master of soul:


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1) How to start and build a business: “Soul Train” was not a show that some big corporation gave to Don Cornelius. It was his baby. Cornelius started off in Chicago with a hot local show and eventually took the show to national syndication.  He saw a void in entertainment and filled it.  He carried his dream to the national level, and now his vision remains a perpetual piece of Black entertainment history.   Most of us have dreams, but most of those dreams die. Find your dream, learn how to create your dream, and then put your heart into building that dream.  You’ll be amazed at what you can do.

2) Edu-tainment really does work when it’s done properly: “Soul Train” did what BET’s “106& Park” should have done – it entertained Black people while encouraging us to develop our minds.   I recall seeing the video of a 19-year old Rev. Al Sharpton on the show, and another with Jesse Jackson sporting the coolest Afro I’d ever seen.  Don understood the importance of maintaining a double bottom line of social responsibility and corporate profitability, and he earned his millions conscientiously.

3) There is a lot of value in creating your own platforms: Most Black entertainers are excellent at performing their craft but know very little about the business models that bring their work to a wider audience.   Rather than hoping that some other show would grant media space for Black entertainers, brother Don took matters into his own hands. As a result, scores of Black superstars were born who never would have existed otherwise.  That’s what you call making something out of nothing.

4) Black is always beautiful: The ongoing theme on “Soul Train” was “Blackness.”  Cornelius always kept it authentic. The show allowed us to be cool, funky, intelligent, progressive, wild, and creative without being endlessly scrutinized by the descendants of our historical oppressors.  Don used his opportunity as a chance to tell all of us that we can be special if we choose to be, and for that, I’ll always be grateful.

5) The true power of Ujamaa: Ujamaa is the concept of unity, working together, and supporting one another, especially in the area of economics.  When we created our Ujamaa initiative to support Black-owned businesses, we were inspired by the  likes of Don Cornelius, whose show got off the ground via sponsorship from the Johnson Products Company, a Black-owned enterprise. By conjoining Black consumers with Black businesses and Black entertainment, Cornelius was able to create one of the greatest economic and entertainment empires in Black American history.  There’s no limit to what we can do when we work together.

Goodbye Don Cornelius, you were oh so special to all of us.  You were the guardian of our collective soul, and a piece of that soul will be carried with you into heaven.  May you always rest in peace.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.


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