Painful Legacy

09.24.1410:34 AM ET

Cold Sweat: My Father James Brown and Me

After growing up witnessing her father, James Brown, violently abuse her mother, Yamma left her abusive husband just days after her father died in 2006. The night she made the decision, he had beaten her so badly she awoke unconscious on her kitchen floor in a pool of blood. Recovering in the hospital, she learned she was to be arrested for defending herself during that fight.

The day I knew my marriage was over was Thursday, March 7, 2007, two days before Dad was to be buried on my sister’s property in Beech Island. I know the exact date because it’s on the arrest report. The legal wrangling over the estate was in full tilt, and I had just returned from a meeting with our lawyers. Darren had an office in our guesthouse, and I joined him there for a drink. He was sitting with my nephew, my half brother Terry’s son, Forlando, and had already had his share of scotch. I could tell from his cocky stance and the drained Chivas bottle on his desk. Forlando’s visits with Darren had become frequent after Dad died. I often told my nephew not to count on getting rich off of Dad, but Darren filled his head with other ideas. Ideas about how Darren could turn Dad’s considerable wealth into so much more that everyone in the family would benefit from, if only we would turn over the reins to him. That’s all he’d talked about since Dad died. The estate. He wanted to manage it for the family. He could turn Dad’s millions into billions with the right investments. That was his expertise. Would I please get my damn family to agree?

I poured myself a glass of red wine, sat down on the couch, and kicked off my heels. My feet hurt and I was bone tired, the kind of unpleasant tired that comes from stress.

“How was the meeting?” Darren asked. Right away, I could tell he was in a nasty mood.

“It was OK,” I said, my voice hoarse with weariness. Please don’t start.

Darren drummed his fingers on his desk. I was dreading the next question, but I knew it was coming. “Did you talk to your sister?” Oh shit. I don’t know if I can play the game right now. I’m not sure I have the stamina to try to keep the peace.

A couple weeks earlier, at a meeting with me, my sister, and Rev. Al Sharpton, Darren had presented us with his business strategy for investing Dad’s holdings. The man knew how to make a presentation. I’ll give him that. He had made a career of bullshitting people into investing their money with him. He had been impressive that day with us, too, dressed in his best pin-striped business suit, talking about real estate and hedge funds and venture capital, that kind of stuff. When he finished his pitch, he asked Deanna and me to sign a contract, which basically gave him carte blanche to do as he pleased with our inheritance. No way was Deanna going for that, so the meeting ended without any kind of commitment. Darren had been stewing ever since.

My sister was especially leery of the part of Darren’s plan that put him in charge of the estate. When I told him that afterward, he blew a gasket. “That stinking, rotten bitch!” he raged. “Who does she think she is?” He badgered me to pressure Deanna to see things his way, but even though I was too afraid to come right out and tell him, I wasn’t about to try to talk Deanna into anything, nor could I. Deanna is a strong woman, and she didn’t trust Darren, with good reason. She knew his history. He had blown his share of business deals—and our new house was on the way to foreclosure, for God’s sake. Why would she put her future in his hands?

I hadn’t raised the subject with Deanna again. We had too many other things on our mind. But Darren didn’t like it when he didn’t get his way. He wanted to manage Dad’s holdings, and he wanted me to convince everyone involved—starting with my sister—that it was a good and sound financial decision to hire him. Time was a wastin’.

“Well?” he asked again, pouring himself another scotch and sneering at me. “Did you talk to Queen Bitch or didn’t you?”

“Um . . .” I said. My shoulders tightened up, the way they always did when I felt a confrontation with Darren coming. I fumbled for more words, but they stuck in my throat.

“Um?” my husband asked, mocking me. “You said ‘um’? Um what?” He picked up the half-smoked cigar that was smoldering in an ashtray on his desk. I looked into my wine glass and wished I were someplace else. Honestly, I wanted to haul off and punch him.

As I stood there, swirling the wine in my glass, he blew smoke rings and waited for an answer. “Well?” he asked. “Did you talk to her? DO YOU UNDERSTAND ENGLISH? DID YOU TALK TO HER?”

I sipped my wine and tried to explain. “It’s not a good time, Darren,” I said. “We’re still mourning our Dad. We haven’t even buried him yet. We can talk about the estate later.”

I thought he might burst a vein in his head. He clenched his teeth, rolled his eyes, and shook his head from side to side. He didn’t want to hear it. Who cared that my poor father had been kept in a crypt in a temperature-controlled room for the last three months while everyone fought over where he should be buried? Who gave a damn that my heart literally ached when I thought about never hearing Dad’s wonderful, raspy voice again? Not my husband. Oh, no. Darren wanted to talk business. My family’s business. He wanted to make his name on my dead father’s back.

Darren stubbed out the cigar and got up from behind his desk. “Time’s a wastin’, Yamma,” he said, menacingly, as he paced around the room. “You need to stand up to your family. I’m a businessman. I know how to do this. Don’t be stupid. You have to convince your sister let me handle this, or you’re going to end up with no money. Do you hear me?”

I looked down at my drink to avert his stare. The wine jiggled in unison with my shaking hand. I didn’t want him to see that I was nervous, so I set the glass on the table. But my leg gave me away, jackhammering the way it always does when I’m anxious. Darren looked at my quivering leg and smirked. He loved being in control.

He began rambling on about my sister and me and how we thought we were so goddamn smart and knew so much when we didn’t know shit from Shinola. I knew what would happen if I mouthed off so I held my tongue, but my silence only seemed to provoke him this time. He bent down and got in my face. His breath stank of cigar tobacco and booze. “

Areyoulisteningtome,Yamma?” he asked, his words jamming into each other. “Whathehell’swrongwithyou? . . . Doyouknowhowimportantthisis?”

I clenched my fists so tight my fingernails gouged the skin of my palms. I tried tuning him out, but his words got louder and meaner. “You and your fucking sister,” he shouted. “What do you know about anything? You’ll listen to me if you know what’s good for you, and you’ll get your goddamn sister to . . .”

The pressure in my head was so intense I felt as though my eyes might pop. I thought of all the things I wanted to scream at him about—years’ worth of things I had stuffed inside to keep the peace. I was bursting with contemptuous thoughts. Stop your carrying on, you damn lunatic. What makes you think you know anything? You’re a liar and a loser. You’re a grown man and you still suck your damn thumb, for God’s sake!

“I’m not going to try to convince my sister to do anything, Darren,” I said firmly, interrupting my husband in the middle of his rant. “Please! Just let me mourn my dad.” He stopped shouting and stared at me. He was stunned that I was talking back. How dare I? “Besides,” I continued, picking up my wine glass and standing to leave, “it seems as if this is about giving control of the estate over to you, and I’m not comfortable with that.” Wrong answer, Yamma.

Darren lurched at me, cursing and spewing his rage with such force that his spit sprayed my face. “Who do you think you are?” he shouted. “You stupid bitch. You and your family don’t know what you’re doing. You’re going to fuck up everything.” I wiped his saliva from my cheeks and turned to walk away. “Do you hear me?” he yelled, his voice seething with scorn. “You have no idea how to run this, and neither does anyone else in your family. What the hell do you know about anything?” God, I hated him. “Don’t you walk away from me! Don’t you dare walk away.”

“You’re crazy!” I cried. “You need help!”

My nephew leapt from his chair and tried to intervene. “C’mon, Uncle Darren,” he pleaded. “Just try to calm down.” Darren pushed Forlando to the side then grabbed my arm. I yanked it away. He pushed me, and I shoved my hand in his chest and pushed him back. Now mind you, I am five foot one and 110 pounds compared to his six foot five and 280 pounds. “I’m not dealing with this tonight,” I said. “I don’t want to talk about the estate. You’re right, Darren. I don’t know anything.” He pushed me harder. The wine glass flew out of my hand and shattered on the floor.

I don’t know what came over me, but I wasn’t going to let this man have the upper hand. Not this night. And not the next. Or the night after that. I was done. I could feel it in my soul. My father was dead, and as much as I always wanted him to somehow save me, now he truly never would. If I were going to get out of this marriage alive, I would have to save myself. And I was ready.

“Don’t put your fucking hands on me,” I said. “I’m not in the mood for your shit.” Now you’ve done it, Yamma.

Darren’s eyes bulged out of his head. Sweat poured down his face. “You said what?” he asked, incredulous.

“I said I’m not in the mood for your shit,” I repeated, holding my ground.

My defiance only fueled his rage. He shoved me and I hit the wall with a loud thud. I gathered myself and walked toward the door, hoping he’d let me go. He followed on my heels, cursing me. “You ungrateful, stupid, fucking bitch!” he shouted. I could feel his hot breath on my neck.

I walked into the main house and headed for our bedroom. My plan was to get far enough ahead of Darren to lock myself inside. I ran through the living room and he pushed me from behind. I stumbled over the cherry curio cabinet in the hallway and heard the china inside rattle. “Leave me alone, you son of a bitch,” I screamed.

We reached the bedroom and I tried to shut him out, but he knocked me to the floor before I could get the door closed. I twisted my knee and watched helplessly as he stomped over to my closet and tore all my clothes from their hangers and threw them in heaps on the floor. “Stop it!” I screamed. “Stop it!” I crawled toward the open bedroom door. Darren grabbed my leg and I kicked him off. Someone’s going to die, I told myself. I have to live for my kids. I have to get out of here.

Struggling to my feet, I stumbled out of the bedroom and down the hallway. I was screaming in fear, but there was no one else there and Darren was in hot pursuit. He grabbed me from behind and heaved me toward the kitchen. I lost my balance. This is it, I thought. I’m going to die.

I know it’s a cliché, about seeing your life flash before your eyes, but I really did. As I tried to keep from falling, I saw myself as a little girl, dressed in my yellow sundress, wandering away to see my pony, Sugar. I saw myself, a few years later, pounding on my father’s back and begging him to stop pummeling my mother. I saw my father walking me down the aisle at my wedding and I remembered the moment, just before we reached the altar, when I wished he would rescue me from making the biggest mistake of my life. But my father never rescued me, not even when I told him years earlier that Darren beat me. Why did I think he could? No one ever rescued my mother or stopped my father from beating her. I wondered if he even understood that beating a woman was wrong.

Backing into the kitchen, I saw the paring knife on the counter. I grabbed it and started swinging. Darren’s eyes said everything. I knew that at that moment he could kill me. “Leave me alone!” I cried. Darren lunged at me. We scuffled for a few seconds. I stuck the knife in his forearm and watched as blood trickled onto the floor. I tried to run away, but he grabbed me from behind, spun me around, and drove his fist into my face. I went down, and my head smacked the tile floor. Warm blood seeped from a gash in my scalp. I imagined gooey yoke oozing from a cracked egg.

I lay there for a moment, trying to focus, wondering how badly my head was bleeding, questioning whether I would even be able to save myself. If I could keep from losing consciousness, I still had a chance. My kids, I thought. I have to win this battle for my kids. My nephew appeared and tried to pick me up, but I screamed out in pain. I could barely move my mouth. It hurt to try to talk. I heard Darren rummaging through my closest, pulling all of my clothes off the hangers. I lay very still as he paced back and forth between our bedroom and the kitchen. Had he lost his mind?

“You cut me!” he screamed. “You fucked up. You’re going to jail and I’m going to get the kids. Now get your sorry ass up.”

At that moment, lying on that cold tile floor, with my head pounding and my vision blurred, I saw my marriage with absolute clarity, and I knew it was over. I’m not sure why I was so certain this time. Maybe Darren had finally beaten the pretense out of me. My marriage had survived for ten years on false hope and make-believe. Now there was nothing left but the bare and brutal truth. I was an abused woman and I wasn’t going to take it anymore. Any feelings I still had for Darren were finally dead. Now if only God would let me live. That’s when the room went black.

When I woke up, I was alone in my kitchen. I was astonished and furious that my own nephew had abandoned me while I lay unconscious on my kitchen floor, without knowing if I would live or die. The house was eerily quiet. I picked myself up off the floor and dragged my aching body from room to room to make sure Darren wasn’t lurking around a corner somewhere. When I knew I was safe, I called my sister first and then my best friend, and they both urged me to call the police, which I did. Then I called my mom. “What happened?” she asked. “I’m hurt, Mom,” I said. “I need to get to the hospital.” Mom arrived before the police. She knew that Darren was verbally abusive, but she didn’t know about the previous beatings I’d taken. She looked me over and shook her head. I had never seen her look so sad. She didn’t say a word. She didn’t need to. We drove to the hospital in silence.

I winced as an emergency room nurse wiped the gash on my head. “Any dizziness?” she asked. “A little,” I said. “Do you have any pain?” Funny question, I thought. I’d been in pain for most of my marriage. Now, other than the sting of the saline on my cuts and a throbbing headache from hitting my head on the floor, I just felt numb. “I’m OK,” I answered. “The doctor will be by in a minute,” the nurse said, pushing open the curtain around my bed and walking away.

My mother sat on the edge of my bed.

“I hope this is the last time, Yamma,” she said. I stared at the hospital monitor over my head. My blood pressure and my heart rate belied my composure.

“Not now, Mom,” I said.

She pressed on. “You don’t have to put up with this.”

I didn’t want to hear that from my mother. In a way, I blamed her for what was happening to me. Hadn’t she set the example? “You put up with it,” I said. I was sorry as soon as the words left my mouth.

“I didn’t have a doctorate, Yamma,” my mother said. “You can pick up the pieces.”

Yes, I thought. I can pick up the pieces. I won’t live in a multimilliondollar Greek revival mansion in Buckhead anymore and I won’t drive a big, bad Range Rover, but having those things was never my dream; it was Darren’s. I knew all about material things. The biggest house in Beech Island didn’t make my father feel good enough about himself to stop threatening my mother, and the Mercedes in the garage didn’t comfort my mother after she took a beating from him. The only “thing” I ever really wanted was a happy home and to know real love. I had fooled myself into thinking that I could have that with Darren. I couldn’t kid myself any longer.

The doctor had just finished checking me over when the police arrived at my bedside. My nose was broken and I couldn’t open my mouth without it hurting like hell. Bumps and bruises covered my arms and legs. Darren was at the other end of the emergency room, one of the officers said. He was getting stitches for the stab wound. He wanted me arrested. “He said you did it. Is that true?“ “Yes,” I said. “Well, sort of. He was beating me. I thought he was going to kill me. I grabbed the knife to defend myself. He tried to get it away. He got stabbed.” Darren told the cops that I was trying to get rid of him and had tried to stab him in the heart. “We have to charge you with aggravated assault,” the other officer said, almost reluctantly. “Me?” I cried. “Me?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “He was going to kill me. All I did was try to save my own life.”

My mother wailed. “Please, officers,” she pleaded. “Don’t take my daughter away tonight. You don’t understand. There’s a long history of abuse here. And in two days this girl is burying her father.”

This is really bad, I thought as I sat there, watching my poor mother beg for me. How had this happened? How had I become the woman I vowed never to be? I looked from the officers, into my mother’s weary eyes, and, for the first time in my life, I could see past the image of who I had wanted my father to be, to the truth of who he really was—a deeply flawed man who had been incapable of restraining his own violence, much less saving me. And Darren? I was in love with the idea of Darren, not the person he was—the same way I loved the idea of having a perfect father. How can you love someone who hurts you so much?

My mother took me home with her that night. Deanna had picked up my kids at their friend’s house and brought them to Mom’s. “What happened to you?” they cried when I walked through the door. “Mommy had an accident,” I said. “Don’t worry. I’m fine.”

“Where’s Daddy?” Sydney asked.

“Daddy’s home,” I said. “We’re going to stay with grandma tonight. Now let’s all go to sleep.”

Of course, I didn’t sleep.

I brought a police officer with me when I went back for my clothes the next day. Darren was still in a fighting mood. “You’ll have to kill me first,” he said when the officer told him why we were there. He took a step toward us. The officer pulled out his pepper spray and aimed it at him. Darren threw up his hands and backed away. “Sorry, man,” he said. “This has been a stressful time.” The officer ordered Darren to wait outside while I retrieved what I needed from the house. I never looked at Darren, but I could feel his eyes burning into me. After I left, he sent me a text message. “I will do everything in my power to see you put away for 10 years,” it said. He later told an Atlanta newspaper that he had thought we were happily married, “But I guess she wanted out, and she figured by killing me she gets out.” Poor Darren, always the victim. Go suck your thumb, I thought.

That Saturday morning I sat at my father’s graveside on my sister’s property in Beech Island, wearing big sunglasses to hide my black eyes and a long-sleeved blouse to cover my bruises. My dress was white, a symbol of the celebration of my father’s life. The day was glorious, with a gentle breeze blowing. I sat between my mother and my sister. Darren showed up, but security guards, at my instruction, turned him away. Rev. Sharpton spoke for a few minutes about Dad’s accomplishments. I felt both proud and confused. The crypt was unveiled, and I imagined Dad’s spirit floating up to the brilliant blue sky. I prayed for his soul. I prayed for us all. When the service was over, I dropped a rose at the foot of the crypt and walked with my mother to our waiting car. The police had given me the time to say my goodbye to my dad. Now it was time to turn myself in. 

The above is excerpted from “Cold Sweat: My Father James Brown and Me,” by Yamma Brown. 

Yamma Brown is the Vice President of the James Brown Family Foundation and founder of Daughter of Soul Productions. Her recent projects include transforming her father’s Beech Island house into a museum, and producing the major biopic about her father, Get On Up, directed by Tate Taylor of The Help, starring Chadwick Boseman. She is also the spokesperson for Break the Cycle, a nationwide organization that empowers victims of domestic abuse. “Cold Sweat: My Father James Brown and Me” is published by Chicago Review Press and available for purchase at Amazon and Barnes and Noble