I stopped listening to Whitney Houston after that first album. Too much had happened to really stay in what felt like an innocent time. More was going to happen, but the end of 1985 was the end of that “innocence” for me, Angie, and the rest of my girls. There were more pregnancies and more heartbreak in years to come. In the next two or three years, crack swept into my small city, putting a significant dent in the structure of the Black community I was growing up in. By my junior year, people I went to high school with who were small-time pot dealers moved onto crack. Older folks I knew went to jail, and close family members (and friends) were addicted. That lasted for several more years, and, in some cases, continues today.
At the same time that all of this was going on, Angie moved to California with her mom, sister, and brother. It felt like my whole world shifted and I couldn’t go back. I did come back to Houston’s music, however, briefly, when “It’s Not Right…But It’s Okay” dominated the gay bars I was dancing in in the late 90s. And I was happy. She was back–with a solid, sweet hit.
But, it was brief for me. The rumors of drug use and a tumultuous marriage had already surfaced and, it was too painful to look at her. Even though the gorgeous smile was there and she was even flirty in the video, she looked different. Worked over. Not quite defeated, but struggling. Definitely not hopeful. She was too much like folks I knew (know). And it was different after that. She was different. The “crack is wack” comment came later and, by that time, I was already gone. That period signaled too much loss for me. But, it was that refrain, It’s not right/But it’s okay/I’m gonna make it anyway (pay my own rent/take care of my babies) that stuck in my head as I turned my back on her, like I had others. Not because they weren’t “acting right,” but because it was too much loss. Loss that I still haven’t wrapped my head around all these years later.
It is oft repeated that 11 am on Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week in America. It is repeated, because it is as true today as when Martin Luther King, Jr., first said it. For many black Americans, grieving is inextricably tied to worship. So, if our ways or worship remain foreign to most Americans, so, too, will our ways of grieving. Watching black folks get spiritual, as many did during Whitney Houston’s funeral service, becomes an opportunity for cultural tourism.
I suppose we should be grateful that Houston’s service was a Christian one. Because popular culture generally turns African-influenced religions like Vodun or Santeria into evil and perversion or fodder for silly ghost stories. And a black Islamic service or an atheist remembrance may have been too much for America to bear.
If knowing and understanding a people is the first step to accepting them, then I fear we may never see a post-racial America. Because if reactions to Whitney Houston’s memorial and African-inspired ways of worship are any indication, hundreds of years after black folk first landed on these shores, our cultures remain foreign to our fellow Americans.
In Robyn Crawford’s obituary of Whitney Houston in Esquire, Crawford says, “The record company, the band members, her family, her friends, me — she fed everybody. Deep down inside that’s what made her tired. It was never easy. She never left anything undone. But it was hard.” There is obviously a pattern in the way our culture expects women of color to take care of everyone, to take care of herself last (if at all). Why are we so surprised when they crack? Why do we forget about their humanity?
Whitney was not only a drug addict. She was a mother, she was a wife, she was a daughter, a friend, and an artist. We know that she was a survivor of domestic abuse, which is a harder situation for Black women to deal with because of the racial injustice in the criminal justice system. We know that she was famous, so she was hypervisible and overcriticized for the decisions she made.
It isn’t fair to judge Whitney without keeping in mind that she was a human being, a Black woman, in a tough situation. African-American women are more likely to suffer from domestic violence than any other race. Women who abuse drugs and alcohol are more likely to suffer from domestic violence, and men who abuse drugs are more likely to commit it. It also isn’t fair to demonize Whitney for her drug abuse and its affect on her, but ignore its affects on artists like Jim Morrison, Michael Jackson, or Jimi Hendrix.
Keir Bristol, Whitney: The Victim of the “Strong Black Woman” Stereotype, Racialicious 2/23/12.
This. All. Day.
What’s sad is that Whitney’s death was shocking but not surprising. What’s sad is that the news seemed overdue and inevitable. That’s what a Greek tragedy feels like.
I remember standing outside Boiler Room years ago. I had too much to drink and a patron was flirting with me. He was telling me how beautiful I was and how I looked like no one else in the bar. I didn’t know how to respond to this compliment. My mind thought of beauty and in a beer haze I started babbling about Whitney Houston. I told him about my favorite performance: “Why Does It Hurt So Bad.” I gave an aesthetic breakdown of the perfect performance. The way Whitney Houston manipulated and guided the pace. Her body language and delivery. That was beautiful. and in the midst of a meaningless MTV Movie Awards Show.
He nodded along, but I could tell he was pretending. I recognized that nodding. It was “I’ll agree with whatever you want if you like me back.” I wanted him to really understand so I began to further explain why the performance was perfect. He continued nodding like a bobble head and exclaiming “wow” and “so fascinating” as I attempted to break through to him. It wasn’t working. I excused myself, hopped on the subway, and went home.