In the memoir Cold Sweat: My Father James Brown and Me (Chicago Review Press), Yamma Brown writes about growing up in the shadow of celebrity and domestic violence. She is equally candid about her parents’ troubled marriage (“the beatings always began the same way, with the same terrible sounds”) and the dichotomy of her life after their divorce (“at home, I was a shy kid living a barely middle-class life . . . When I stayed with Dad, I lived like a princess, flying places in private jets and riding around in limousines”). She applies the same candor to describing her husband Darren Lumar, a slick con man and abuser, who was mysteriously shot to death in 2008 (the case is still unsolved). Brown, an Atlanta pharmacist, now gives speeches about domestic violence and runs a foundation that promotes music education in Georgia and South Carolina. She was an adviser for this summer’s biopic Get on Up.
Our first house was in a ritzy residential area of Augusta, on a street called Walton Way. Our neighbors were Augusta’s aristocracy: doctors and lawyers and other high-powered professionals. You could hardly miss us. We were the only African American family, and we had a pony in the backyard. At Christmastime, the glowing, blinking, black Santa Claus on the front lawn gave us away.
Dad had our animated Santa custom-made along with Uncle Sam and Frosty the Snowman and a host of other illuminated cartoon figures. Every year, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, curiosity seekers came from all over to see our Christmas pageant. I remember peeking out from behind our heavy living room curtains and seeing cars creeping past our house, most of them stopping just long enough for the people inside to ogle the twinkling, jerking display and snap a few photographs before driving off. I’m not sure if they came for the decorations or for a glimpse of James Brown changing a dead bulb or righting a leaning lawn ornament. It was probably a little of both.
Walton Way is ten minutes and a pipe dream from the hot, swarming district of Augusta where Dad spent most of his childhood. He went to live there, in his aunt Honey’s whorehouse, when he wasn’t quite six years old. The neighborhood was called the Terry, short for Negro Territory, and it was a step up from where he had lived before with his father in a series of tar paper huts in the dense pinewoods of Barnwell, South Carolina.
This article originally appeared in our November 2014 issue under the headline “Saying It Loud.”