Whitney Houston was one of us; she was a human being with all the angst, pain and limitations that brings. She was a woman living and fighting the applied stigma of the “weaker” and by implication the second-class sex, in, yes, what is still a man’s world.
She was an African American who lived with all the self-doubt, internalized hatred and double consciousness all African Americans live with, the uncertainty and unsureness of footing that comes with never being fully at home. And yes, she was an American who sang the country’s anthem as no other has before or since, and clearly loved her country. And she was a Christian, one who fell down, no doubt, but kept getting back up.
Whitney was one of us, which is why the Black community especially cried so many tears. They are the tears of folks at the funeral who have not done right by the deceased. No, we didn’t do right by Whitney.
When she struggled with her drug addiction we sent judgment and scorn her way, instead of compassion and sympathy. Folks know it’s true. You could barely go to the barber shop or the beauty salon in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s without hearing something negative about Whitney and her husband Bobby and their obvious drug issues. She surely deserved better because she was one of us.
And she entertained us just like she did everybody else, even if it was crossover and pop, we dug it like everybody else. Folks had the nerve to boo her at the 1989 Soul Train Awards because she wasn’t Black enough for some of us.
Imagine that, the woman who as teenage model refused to work with agencies that did business with then-apartheid South Africa. And when she reached greater fame, she sung for Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday at a concert that raised millions for South African charities. A favorite of Mandela’s, she was the first major star to perform in the apartheid-free South Africa. She wowed over a quarter-million South Africans with her performances in 1994 in what the South Africans called the media event of their young non-racist history. And Whitney left every dime in South Africa.
This same woman performed, with other young artists of the time, the King Holiday Chorus to sing a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in honor of the nation finally honoring the day of his birth with a national holiday.
Still, we wanted her to prove her Blackness so she “showed out” with her “I’m Your Baby Tonight” and “All the Man I Need” and returned to her gospel roots with “Miracles.”
And from there she went on to prove that she had acting chops and sung a song sung first by Dolly Parton like no one else has sung a song since: “I Will Always Love You.” Waiting to Exhale showed she had a bit more depth than she had been given credit for, and she was quite comfortable in a role with other strong actresses telling the woman’s side of things for a change.
Whitney came home to her gospel roots in The Preacher’s Wife. She wound up selling better than any other gospel album at the time, while leaving us with a few more classics and singing some old gospel standbys like we hadn’t heard them. That was the Whitney we came to admire, but there was the other side that embarrassed us.
Oddly, in that struggle she still proved to be one of us. How many of us have been completely unscathed by the drug scourge of the last three decades? How many have not witnessed a relative succumb to ultimate self-medication? We judged Whitney though we knew she was going through the same pain, the same hurt that we all experience.
We will probably never know the source of her deepest pain. I am fairly sure being rejected on that day in 1989 by her own people added to it, and it wasn’t helped by her dysfunctional marriage.
All her talent and her success couldn’t serve as a balm, a salve for her deepest pain. But when pressed she didn’t want to admit her drug problems, while lying about her crack addiction.
She later admitted to it and then quit and fell down again. She showed her behind on national TV on Bobby’s reality show. But she got back up.
In 2009, she sang a few songs that amounted to her personal and spiritual autobiography on her I Look to You CD. I think if she had know that she was right when she sang “I didn’t know my own strength” maybe she would have gotten back up earlier.
What made Whitney’s death so hard to take is that she had indeed gotten back up. She had recognized that she had more strength than she knew. And many of us were hoping that she was back for good.
She did get back up after falling down, proving in more ways than one that she was one of our greatest talents ever and indeed was and always will be one of us.
Mel Reeves welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.