When Whitney Houston died this past weekend, I was shocked by the amount of grief and the wave of emotions I experienced. In disbelief, I watched myself undergo the five stages of grief for someone I had never met and did not know intimately. You see, I am not the type who feels personally invested in celebrities. In fact, I abhor our increasingly celebrity obsessed culture and often wish that we would lay off the blind adulation just a tidbit.
Still, I knew that Whitney Houston’s voice and songs had always touched me in a special way. I can vividly recall the countless times when I used her voice to get me out of a funk, to inspire me, to soothe me or to just help me be still. I have been in love with her voice since I was a teenager and have bought any music she put out. I did not care what people said about her. I rooted for her at every performance and every television appearance. I am not alone. The whole world recognized her gift.
Yet, I just was not prepared to grieve her loss the way I have. For the first few days since her death was announced, I couldn’t hear her voice, listen to her music without bursting into tears. I am talking about the sort of uncontrollable and ugly crying that comes from deep within.
Again, this is not like me. If you know me, you probably know that I do not like to cry or get emotional. I get angry. I get sarcastic. However, you will rarely see me cry. Crying in this situation was even more puzzling to me.
It remained so until I had a moment of clarity and understood why Whitney’s death hit me so close to home. It happened Tuesday morning, as I burst into tears, again, at hearing the details her death. That morning, driving while intermittently wiping my eyes and sobbing (yes, really), it became clear to me that in mourning Whitney, I was mourning the little black girl inside of me as well as the millions of little black girls who struggle against the challenges of this world.
If you read the testimonies from the millions of Whitney Houston’s fans, you will hear a dominant narrative from many black women of my generation. Whitney Houston represented them on some level. She showed them that, they too, could achieve the heights to which they aspired. The fact that she was black, wore her hair short, long, curly or straight, and exuded a priceless type of confidence, just made us connect to her in a way that few others had.
For me, Whitney Houston’s image was never perfect. I know that’s the way she was perceived for a while, but if you looked deep down you could always see a strain of stubbornness and sass that was all her own. And that sass and stubbornness is, to me, what made her relatable. When she performed, it was clear that she was aware of her awesome power. I loved the way her lips curled into a small smile at the end of a performance after she’d nailed a perfect note. Go back and watch her performance at the 1991 Super Bowl, her singing the “Greatest love of all” to Muhammad Ali for his birthday, or, even her playful renditions of “I wanna dance with somebody”. From early on, it was clear that she knew she had a gift and that she could deliver.
In a world where black girls are always getting torn apart and demeaned, I loved that image. I knew many Whitneys growing up: girls who were just breathtakingly beautiful and charismatic. I also witnessed many instances where the rest of the world made a point to rob these girls of their beauty and shine. Whether it be in Haiti as a small child or in the Brooklyn housing project where I lived in my adolescence, I could smell the vultures swirling around these girls the minute they started to bloom. In college, my heart ached every time I came home to visit and noticed one of the girls I admired so much looking beaten and dejected.
Whitney for me was a defiant image to these vultures. Even though it was clear that she spent much of her adult life struggling against the trappings of similar, more glorified vultures, to me she still represented someone who tried to pave a way despite society’s labels, someone who was fighting and struggling against insurmountable challenges in spite of fame and fortune. For me, just like the young girls in my neighborhood, these characteristics placed her inch closer to my heart.
When she passed on, I think it gave me the permission to mourn in a way that I had not done before. I have spent all of my life aware of the pitfalls of being a black woman in this world. I would not change it for the world. I love who I am. Being a black woman, I learned very early, means that I have to work ten times harder and to be ready to fight. And, oh, do we have to fight! We have to fight for many things, the most important being the right to be ourselves and to determine our fate.
We fight against society. We also fight against those closest to us: those whose own oppressions cause them to replicate the same against us. We have many open wounds. Wounds that can be traced from slavery and colonization. Wounds to which most of us cannot tend because we are so busy fighting.
I learned many lessons on how to fight watching black women negotiate their lives while I was growing up. I have also seen many instances of this tough world overtaking the lives of black girls and women. Each time results in an immense sense of loss and of powerlessness against which we have to exert Herculean efforts in order to be able to go on.
Whitney Houston always reminded me of our power despite it all. She reminded me of these beautiful girls with which I grew up. With her addiction, I relived the familiar fear that came with watching vultures try to peddle drugs and other things to us. I knew then, at 12, 13, 14, 15 years old, that I did not have a magic protection against their tricks. The best I could do was to try to stay away.
Yet, I understood why other girls might have gotten attracted to them. You get tired of fighting. Sometimes, you just want to put your weapons down and forget. That feeling (that these girls were just like me, give or take one or two options) always made me feel connected to them. I always knew that “but for the grace of God…”
The fact is that addiction is a disease that can overpower any one at any time. The fact that some manage to kick the habit, and some don’t, has to do with much more than will power. Every one’s brain is different in the way they react to a potentially addictive product. So, no, I never felt special that, somehow, I avoided the pitfalls of drugs. I always felt grateful that the Universe gave me an avenue that took me away from that direction. That, when I got tired of fighting, the temptation was removed until I could cognitively understand that this was not the path I wanted.
This is why I am peeved at people looking down at Whitney for falling into drugs like a princess who has fallen off her throne. For a long time, mainstream media acted like she betrayed them. So, they punished her by taunting her mistakes as often as they could. To them she became one of the many stereotypes they associate with black women. They treated her as such, completely ignoring the realities of addiction and never seeing her as a full person.
This is why I think I am mourning Whitney so vividly. Her invisibility despite all of her fame and fortune mirror the lives of so many black girls and women suffering from addiction. Her obvious struggles resonate as the types of universal struggles so many of us undergo in one shape or form. We were simply luckier than many other women in escaping the dark sides of those struggles.
Whitney, like so many girls before her, was not. With her I mourn these invisible girls and women. With her death, I realized this week, I finally gave myself permission to mourn the little girl in me who had to learn to fight too early and did not experience the feeling of being cherished and loved as long as little girls and boys should.
In the end, Whitney’s voice, the conviction and soulful way in which she sang, gave us an enduring gift. Like it did for my generation, her message and her voice will continue to give new generations the energy, inspiration and rejuvenation they need to keep fighting the good fight. I am sorry that we were not deliberate in showing Whitney that we loved her while she was still with us. Hopefully, her story and music will help create a path to healing for millions of other black girls and women. Travel well, Whitney. You will have to fight no more.