How I Reclaimed the Blackness Elvis Stole

Covid-19 made me go to war with my former idol

Marcus K. Dowling


A photo of the author, Marcus Dowling, next to an archival photo of Elvis Presley
Photo illustration, sources: Marcus Dowling; Michael Ochs Archives/Stringer/Getty Images

Let’s face it: Every Black person has at least one White icon they idolize.

Elvis Aron Presley doesn’t mean shit to most of my Black friends, but he does to me. Instead of falling in love with White rock and “blue-eyed soul” icons like so many of them did, I was excited by the reckless behavior of country music’s White male stars. Elvis’ sound and style perfectly blended equal parts Marlboro Man, Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy persona, pop-rock idol, and soul superstar.

When I was a child, my mother told me Elvis was “much less of a redneck asshole than all those other White country crackers.” Ever since he received that backhanded — yet ultra-important — cosign, he’s been my hero.

I had nowhere to go during quarantine, so I watched my favorite Elvis concerts to pass the time. While knee-deep in a YouTube hole of live concert footage from Elvis’ final years, racial unrest made social interaction more hazardous to my health, and I defiantly questioned the nation in which I live. As I watched my hero sing “Are You Lonesome Tonight” for the umpteenth time, an Elvis race-related switch flipped in my head.

I always knew that Elvis had adopted, adapted, and redefined his way to consistent success…