We lost something much more profound than simply our Queen of Soul when Aretha died.
When we officially send her home, it will be a send off for the parts of Black womanhood that so often are unloved that Aretha managed to wear as a cloak.
That Black gospel laden voice of hers that took over Otis Redding’s “Respect,” bossy and brash, demanding and sexy, and made the world take note.
Her flair, her pageantry, her power.
Aretha was America’s most talented singer, born in music. She had taught herself to play piano as a child. Had grown up singing with her sisters, touring as a teenager in her father’s gospel choir.
She was the Black girl baby of two talented musicians, raised in Detroit. She never took to planes, preferred to take a bus. She wanted you to pay her cash upfront, thank you, before she sang, even toward the end of her life. Ask any Black woman who has kept cash stashed away about it; she’ll tell you this truth.
But when Aretha was alive, we didn’t need to. She was the embodiment of our truth, the parts of her she would let us see. Even the parts we couldn’t see, we could feel.
We could hear ourselves, our trauma, passed down, inherited, shaking in our bones. She would repeat, over the years, that she never left the church. That is a universal Black girl’s song. Atheist, agnostic, Buddhist, Jewish — if you’re a Black woman, you have a Mama or a Nana or great-grandma who taught you about Church.
Black women are The Church for Black folk the way the women religious are the spine of the church in every tradition around the world, if not the leadership. What else but the full armor of God can give you the confidence to turn away from despair for long enough to fall in love, to decide to have babies that might not live for you to carry them out of the hospital, but if they do survive, to know that your heart, walking around outside your body might likely fare as well as your mother (Aretha’s died when she was 10) or your father (C.L. Franklin, pastor of New Bethel Church, was shot during a home invasion robbery and lingered in a coma for five years before he died)?
Born with a body you are told is only good for making more property or being the site of someone else’s desire or needs, not a body that’s protected, or valued; a body that does not matter, is not considered human, probably does not feel pain the same way as white bodies, has not been considered human for centuries on this soil where the tears of your ancestors fall under the feet of folks who jump up and down in joy to your music — of course you never leave the church.
If you are a wild woman, a woman in possession of her power, that power — and the way you wield it, that regal, erotic way — convicts the men who require you to bend to prove their manhood holy, special. Worthy.
Thirty-five years ago, Alice Walker coined the term womanist to describe Black feminism in her first nonfiction collection, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. The definition still stands as an education for anyone who does not understand why we would want to reclaim language to sound more like ourselves on the page or in the world.
The etymology comes from our cultural expression, womanish. It means someone acting grown. “Responsible. Serious. In Charge.”
Another definition: “Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the folk. Loves herself. Regardless.”
I was a teenager when this book made its way to me the first time, teaching myself to sing by singing along to Whitney Houston, one of Aretha’s musical descendants. Each time has its beacon; if we are fortunate, every generation will have many.
In search of Black women who looked like me and showed up in popular culture belonging to themselves, I discovered music as meditation, as prayer, as a life raft to another way of being. I never learned to read music — my ministry is words and those hard enough on the page. Frankly, I’m a wee bit tone deaf, despite singing in a choir and two accappella groups.
Still, I trained my ear and my soul to mimic closely the notes of Whitney’s greatest hits and that was good enough to cleanse my spirit, to help me sleep, to give me comfort enough to get close to dreaming. On my best days and on my worst, I still sing. Like writing, it is one of the only constants.
Our nomadic life when I was a kid was shaped by radios and cassette players. Time transformed them into CDs, MP3s, files to swap, playlists to stream. The Bronx girl I am, I grew up steeped in the hip hop that sampled Aretha’s lush vocals and borrowed from the spiritual heft of her expanse across genre and emotion. I became a fan of the Queen of Hip Hop Soul, Mary J. Blige, before I knew much more about Aretha. Moving around too much will do that to you.
But then I left the cradle of class, racial and diasporic diversity that I found here for boarding school, where I was one of the only ones who looked like me. I spent a lot of my free time in the stacks of the Emma Willard School library pouring over old bound collections Ebony, Jet and Essence magazine.There was both a musical and political context that I was missing, I knew, being the woman I was born and the person I was becoming. As I searched for myself, I found stories about Aretha, about Diana Ross. I became obsessed with Billie Holiday.
When I got a little money, I bought compilation tapes of music that I otherwise wouldn’t hear on the radio. Music I didn’t entirely understand and, because I listened to it so much, music I can’t stand to listen to now. Only a few musicians have stood the span of time, and Aretha is in that number.
Black women, womanist-identified or not, generally can talk about having a shared experience of Aretha as the background music to our familial or romantic joys and pains, just like Whitney. She was, for many of us, just a part of the fabric of our family’s lives. Insofar as I never really attended family reunions, this was less my experience, but I had the extended family — or remixed version.
I went in search of the anthems that blared celebration, even as I understood on a cellular level the sweet and sad sounds of longing and loneliness. I wanted to know what grew her, what made her soft. What had made her love her people, what had made her save herself? Her voice was a living encyclopedia of sound, testimony and surrender.
The first time I heard Aretha sing, “Call Me,” I felt a different kind of love. It begins with, “I love you,” a statement so unequivocally pointed that even I, who was smothered with I love you’s from my mother day and night, still get moved when I hear it, longing for the day when I can sing that to my beloved in earnest, my desire turned up to 10. Before Aretha, I thought music was just another means of getting feelings out of me, another channel, another catalyst. Since, I’ve come to know that the same way love can live in you, can grow and manifest in your veins, song can take up residence and fortify you, and make of your heart a fortress.
Then I heard “Skylark,” and “Daydreaming,” and discovered that song could be window flung open to call our souls in to come and see. It is the work of a womanish body transforming into a bridge. Baby, Aretha was saying. You ain’t seen nothin’.
Here is the impeccable dream hampton, ‘Black People Will Be Free’ How Aretha Lived The Promise of Detroit, for NPR. Writing about Aretha’s ethereal performance of Thomas Dorsey’s “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” hampton writes of Aretha’s distinction and her embodiment of the spirit inculcated by her father C.L. Franklin, killed by gunshot wounds sustained during a home robbery.
Like the best church performances, this one is buoyed by the congregation, who affirms her with praise as she lifts to the heavens with her voice and soul their collective burdens, their hopes. We’re at once listening to a 14-year-old girl who sounds, what we call, “grown” and listening to an audience engage this teenager with an enormous gift, a voice that promises a deliverance. What a gift; what a burden. From the beginning, Franklin’s strength was measured, like so many women, by her ability to endure suffering.
But we know that Aretha did not just endure. She was in charge. Regardless.
Even those of us too young to know — she gave us something we could feel. It resonated, through the generations. The week we began to mourn Queen Aretha before she died, the national repast began with the circulation of clips from the Black press, lifting up her womanist tendencies as a “beacon of black and womanist pride and self-determination,” as hampton puts it, by way of screenshots of articles quoting Aretha voicing her financial support for Angela Davis.
Black people had allowed for her to have what she did, and for her father, too. So she would give.
This is why though the beauty of her songs, the liberation in them, belongs to America the way all greatest becomes a part of the zeitgeist, there is a way in which Aretha is specifically ours. She gave me a Black woman’s blueprint for voice and song, performing a freedom that felt forever true even if, certainly at times it must have felt too heavy to rock steady with.
For me, Aretha Franklin has represented not just a Black mother and a Black creator who birthed entire universes and ecosystems that gave black women voice, but she showed us in her performances how to define the edges of our vernacular even as its being created. How to truly live unbothered. In a personal life riddled with loss and tragedy she channeled all her pain into anthems demanding respect, love and adoration.
Writing eloquently as she ever does for The New Yorker, Doreen St. Felix writes in “The Clairvoyance of the Fourteen Year Old Aretha Franklin,” that when Aretha performed Dorsey’s American lament, she was “already a mother, without a mother,” in her father’s Detroit church, New Bethel, singing in 1956,
“What we have lost with Aretha Franklin is technical mastery, yes, but also an ancestral instinct. She was in a heady and guttural conversation with the struggle that made her. She was a vessel and a commander. She knew her God like John Donne did — intensely, almost physically. She was of the black church, the church of protest, the church of brash women, the church of sorrows and of ecstasy, and yet she was also of her own church.”
We have some other models and beacons now. There are myriad, names we know and speak and praise, and others we will wait until they’ve passed to share and offer their due. But first, there was Aretha. The first Black woman I called Queen, the last.
She taught us, and many others who would come to find their space in her path, in her shadow, in her legacy, how to become our own sacred places. To find sanctity in ourselves. To make the world make space for us. Sylvia Obell, writing for BuzzFeed, “Aretha Franklin Gave Black Women Something Would Could Feel,” :
“Franklin’s music was for everyone, but she belonged to us… Her music has the range of the black experience: the despair and the joy… Franklin showed us what our hearts sound like… But Franklin’s music didn’t just teach us about our love — it taught us how to heal ourselves when the one we love or the world didn’t love us back. Because when you’re a black woman in this country, your experience includes both, and Franklin was our chief orator.”
There was a part of Aretha that instructed me most, which is the part of her which remained soft, and delicate. I loved “Respect,” of course, how could I not. It was edifying and universal. I needed it in the way that every woman really does. But the writer and dreamer in me first loved “Daydreaming,” a delicate 1972-style shoring up of a black woman being told by her love, “Let’s go somewhere far” and responding to her beloved with sustenance, “When he’s lonesome and love-starved, I’ll be there to feed him.”
Big, heavy, black demanding bodies whose faces don’t lean askance into the face of white supremacists wanting us to fold or bend or bow are obelisks of inspiration, not just for these times but for history. Forever.
Aretha taught me to relax and own it, honey. To breathe in a song, to breathe from listening to a song.
“Rock Steady” still knocks. She set the world balanced with it. Don’t nobody in this world know about hips and what to do with them like a full-bodied Black woman — I know it and I just got hips a couple years ago.
I would keep on discovering her, even after she died and I was tucked away teaching writing and in community with my favorite young people in the Pacific Northwest, crying as part of the international vigil, crying because I was not ready to say goodbye. Crying because I knew that I would have to write this and I did not want to make more real what was already true, what has been true.
Because Aretha was Queen of throwing heart and soul into a song, soaring high and digging deep simultaneously, she was the perfect singer to emulate. Singing, “Do Right Woman” was the song that made me realize what it meant to live in a song, to embody it and realize what it meant to find sanctuary and solace in a song, to think about a Black woman’s humanity as a poem deserving of soul music. About Black feminism made music.
What I loved most about Aretha when her body was still here with us, swaying to the force of her song was that her voice claimed heaven — it was the gospel training in her — even when life was putting her through hell. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is one such song of clarity and depth. She offers up her soul to us, her gift, as our bridge, manna, and activism.
The day Aretha stopped breathing, I was putting the finishing touches on a talk to give to my homegirls & my favorite people at Young Women Empowered writing camp about resilience. About parts of my story, about how hard it is to be a person in the world, how much we still need them — how much I still need them to stay in it with me. Because we can make anything ugly that happens to us into a thing of beauty.
I know this because of Aretha, which is why, after shedding even more tears, and before I could speak, I played “Respect” in the open hall where we all liked to dance and write and fellowship and laugh and cry together. Because that is what Queens in training do. This is how you revere your loves, how you honor your life.
Black music is one of our only uncontested inheritances as Black women. Our magnitude and our bond, with all glory to Gwendolyn Brooks, put to rhythm, speaking calming our nerves, our bones, dislodging aches, offering us back a bit of freedom a bit of ease. Aretha taught us through her ownership of her music, of herself through music, that you didn’t need anything but yourself to be glorious.
As the best fashion critic in America, Robin Givhan, wrote in her exquisite fashion analysis, “Aretha Franklin, secret style icon: With the drop of a fur, she proclaimed her worth,”:
“Watching Franklin toss her furs to the ground was a glorious sight. It was not as mesmerizing as hearing her roar about self-respect, unleash the soul of a natural woman or summon the sound of a chorus of angels. But seeing those fancy coats slide to the floor was more than bearing witness to a fashion gesture. It was more resonant than a diva move.
“It meant watching a black woman declare her talent, her presence, herself as valuable and special. The message seemed to be that all this expensive stuff is nice — but if you think it can adequately compensate Franklin for everything or anything. . . think again.”
She gave me much more than I could describe in monetary, or even emotional terms with language. I could always — not matter where I was living or where we had been evicted from — carry her music with me: To the shelter, to boarding school, to my first apartment, to my first home, into my present space. Aretha’s beautiful voice and spirit in the dark joined me everywhere and gave me roots. Her music gave me back to myself. She helped me find my actual voice and my writing voice, with the confidence that ebbs and flows to go with it.
I can hear our Queen now, singing, “Your time has come to shine. All of your dreams are on their way.”
Thank God her voice will live on forever.
Thank God her time has finally come.
Thank God all of her dreams are on their way.