Glen Ford: The James Brown of Black Radical Media

Writing about James Brown in 2014 Glen Ford said, “Left unsaid was the fact that “Mr. Brown” held only one Black person in high regard: himself. With the release of the movie Get On Up, those of us who knew “Soul Brother Number One” are free at last to tell the truth: he was an asshole of the highest order.”

Glen titled his final words about Brown, “The Hardest Working Asshole in Show Business,” and I thought immediately that this would be how I would one day write about him. Glen new Brown from working in Black radio, a station owned by Brown, where Glen would first learn truths about Brown, radio, and Black media, lessons he brought to his work ever since. So Glen knew a little about what he said. And by that standard I damn sure know of what I speak now given that I knew and worked with Glen Ford far longer and closer than he did with James Brown. I worked with Glen from about 2001 or so until roughly 2011 and intermittently thereafter until his death, though we effectively parted ways about a decade ago because, as he said of Brown, and what will undoubtedly be “left unsaid” in all the ultimately insufficient tributes to this great man is that, Glen was also an “asshole of the highest order.” 

Glen wasn’t self-important like he said of Brown. It wasn’t himself he held “in high regard” beyond all else. No. That lofty space was saved strictly for Black radical analysis. His almost singular focus on that made him hold in low or with no regard damn near everybody and everything else. If you weren’t helping him evolve or disseminate Black radicalism you better at least be brining him a cigarette, or a drink, or be careful. 

Now, beyond that, it must said clearly that this parallel I am attempting is unfair for at least two reasons. First would have to be that I am saying this far sooner than did Glen regarding Brown, though Hollywood will never make even a half-hearted attempt at a film about Glen Ford thereby providing some mass invitation to reflect on him or his work. To my point, Glen was far too radical and correct to have his brilliance elevated to the level of commercial propagation.

The second reason though is far more important: I will never be to Glen what he was to James Brown. This isn’t a comparison of proximity, its one of importance, or a comparison of their seminal relationship to their crafts. That is, Glen Ford was to Black radical journalism, commentary, radio, and analysis, to Black radical media, what Brown was to music and it would only be due to his banishment from any form of capitalist enterprise or the absence of the kinds of support offered James Brown by the most reactionary of cultural industries or politics that there will be many who don’t properly appreciate the accuracy of my claim. Imagine Glen being invited to even Obama’s White House as was Brown to Nixon’s! Glen Ford should be as popular and beloved among any consumer of news as James Brown is to consumers of music. He was even to Black commentary what Rakim is to rap. Glen could easily take “seven commentators and put ’em in a line. And added seven more commentators who think they can rhyme. Well, it’ll take seven more before I go for mine. Now that’s twenty-one commentators ate up at the same time.”

Glen invented a new lane of expression, revolutionized Black public/popular discourse, and has provided more samples to new generations of (often less capable) writers – myself included – than any single journalist of the last two decades. So when anyone bristles at my describing him as he did Brown I expect and understand any visceral reaction. All would be understandable if not justified. But for a time I think I knew Glen as well as anyone could. I wanted to be able to think like him, write like him, bring the funk and soul to news analysis like him. And I only cared slightly more than he did about all the feelings he hurt along the way never worrying how his analysis hit as long as it hit hard. And it always did. 

He could be brash, short (in temper not just stature), condescending, and difficult to bring to some organizational spaces. How many times have I said to someone in response to them calling me about the harshness of his critique, “but was he wrong?” The answer was never yes. It would just be about the way he was right. Invariably my next line would be, “you don’t have to work with him so don’t take it personally and move on.” Easier said than done because when it was my turn, unexplained as his actions were, it hurt. Straight up. Still does.

Glen’s was the analysis I brought to my earliest organizational meetings, having thought I found in Black Commentator my generation’s Intercommunal News Service. I invited Glen to DC to meet with our organization, and having experienced a version of this myself, did not recognize this fair skinned, pony-tail wearing, chain smoking (how many times did he step outside?!) tiny man staring holes in my head. But then he spoke. Even when nervous or (rarely) unprepared, by his standards, Glen was sharp, smooth, and sounded like every man I would have tried to emulate as a boy growing up. 

When he offered to publish my first commentary I had to front like I was expecting it. When he invited me to speak on panels on his behalf or that of BC and eventually BAR, I had to front like this didn’t mean the world to me. I even developed an introductory line in those instances where I would tell folks that “I am trying for the 6th man of the year award for coming off the bench.” When he called me, for years, at crazy hours, wanting to run by me his latest commentary or idea, I had to front like I thought this was routine. And when he would say, “we really need your commentary this week because the issue is light,” I had to front like this sense of heightened importance was just another request. With Glen I was always fronting, mostly like I wasn’t looking for and in him a jegna, an advisor, a father. But I was. 

But when Peter Gamble called me in 2004 to tell me that his partner Glen Ford was leaving Black Commentator to form Black Agenda Report and would I stay to become editor of BC there was no need to front then. The answer was an easy no. Glen had brought me in, Glen would be the only reason I was at BC and if he was leaving there was no point in me staying. Bill Fletcher took that gig at BC and the rest was history.

But after ten plus years of constant work Glen unceremoniously replaced me from a related project we had begun to build, and for which I worked for months, and worse still replaced me with people he had previously said to me repeatedly should “never be allowed back in Black radical politics” for their support of Obama. I thought he had chosen radical celebrity over fidelity to a comrade. I let him know we were done. True to form, there was no sentimentality for Glen. No drama, no response, not a word. Once I told him I was out it was a wrap for me and no longer a need for him to engage. My usefulness to his almost exclusive focus had run its course. It was more like me quitting after having already been fired. Since then, when we would cross paths, and even if I directly raised the issue with him, his response was the same; nothing. A shrug, a change of topic maybe, mostly just dismissal and silence. 

But that was Glen. By the time we came to know each other he was clear (though I wasn’t) that he didn’t care about feelings, emotions, and he damn sure wasn’t offering me the roles I was projecting on to him. Glen wanted to create the analyses that would cause revolution. Full stop. He wanted to draw and have us protect our political “bright lines” and to develop a movement to advocate for them. Black Agenda Report was not named haphazardly. Glen wanted to expose the Black misleadership class, a phrase  for which we owe him eternally. In fact, my first assignment for BAR, living in DC at the time, was to go to the National Press Club only to ask Corey Booker a question that was designed by Glen to expose him on the record as the latest edition at the time to that Black misleadership class. I was so amped, THE Glen Ford sent me for THE new BAR! Glen, and Bruce Dixon right beside him, made me part of the “vanguard” who were early, first, and right about who misleaders like Booker and Obama were and would become. Glen was right about these misleaders as he was about Black Lives Matter, Bernie Sanders’ sheep dogging ass, Black press history, the particular tactic of having BAR target a Black radical “intelligentsia” that would bring value to the work beyond any immediate or observable popularity. He was right about a lot.

And to Glen that was all that mattered. If he was right in his political analysis it meant almost nothing that he may not be right in his personal behavior, or as a comrade. Like Brown, his genius acted as a mask, a shield, something to distract or protect him from being properly assessed as a man. Maybe he was right about that too. Nobody will give a shit that I or anyone else might remind of his imperfections because he made his name on accurate, biting, Black radical analysis. And he was often exactly right. 

For years after our “split” it was understandably assumed by many that all was good and through no fault of their own would have me pressed into several uncomfortable working arrangements with Glen. Not wanting to seem childish or simply misunderstood I would just do it because, of course, all were right that his work, objectively, was, is, essential. Since we started Black Power Media I’ve been asked repeatedly why he has never been on. Each request felt like another gut punch.≠≠≠ But I never answered why he had not been on, until more recently when Glen, as he had so many times before when it came to political analysis, gave me an answer; that he was too weak to do interviews. Indeed, Glen even treated his own physical health as he did many people, with a kind of disregard beyond its base ability to help push a radical conclusion. 

When asked for whom would you die, I often think “no one” because in combat I like to think more assertively about those for whom I would take the lives of others. Glen for a long time topped my list. An attack on him for years would have meant an inordinate response from me. And it remains terribly painful that he did not feel the same for me personally even as I know he felt that way broadly speaking about “the people.” But even still, it is far more painful to know now that he is no longer here to punish this ignoble world with his viciously accurate interpretation of it, or that he is no longer here to remind me of the last thing I said to him, that “everything I do should have been under your banner anyway.”

Rest in power Glen Ford, the hardest working asshole in Black radical media.

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Author: Jared Ball
Emancipatory Journalism & Media Jared A. Ball is a father and husband. After that he is a professor of Media and Africana Studies and produces multimedia for imixwhatilike.org. > Dr. Jared A. Ball

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