In 1970s New Orleans, I was a black kid living a black life. I lived in a black household with black relatives in a black neighborhood. I went to a black school and a black church. I watched black television shows and listened to black radio. That was my life.
I was fascinated by the different faces and the different sounds. On the school bus, I listened to Fleetwood Mac and Journey and REO Speedwagon. When MTV introduced music videos in 1981, I watched Billy Idol and Adam Ant and A Flock of Seagulls.
In the ensuing years, Michael Jackson took over the planet and “The Cosby Show” showed America the content of our character as black people. I tell my mother frequently, “No Huxtables, no Obamas.”
By 1985, many of the devotees of “American Bandstand” and “Soul Train” shared neighborhoods and idols.
I was introduced to one of those crossover idols that year on Christmas morning. It was the second album I ever owned, the self-titled debut from Whitney Houston.
I remember her on the cover of that album. I used to hold it in my room while I danced to “How Will I Know” over and over and over again. I was 16 and I was in love. How could a human being look and sound like that? It just wasn’t possible. She had to be an angel. She just had to be.
At her concert at the Superdome in 1987, I was blown away when she sang “Just The Lonely Talkin’ Again.” I followed her career passionately, her original songs and the remakes.
Artists cover and remake songs all the time. But there are some songs that ought to be left alone. Why even try to cover Etta James’s “At Last?” Just leave it alone. Can’t be topped. Aretha Frankin’s “Respect?” Don’t even waste your time! And in 1991, that kind of phenomenon happened again.
At Super Bowl XXV, Whitney Houston took the “The Star-Spangled Banner” out of the American songbook and put it in her back pocket. She made shivers go up your spine and turned the perfunctory into a poignant and mesmerizing moment in American sports.
Every year, with each Super Bowl, I am filled with dread. My mother, magnificent as she is, has situational Alzheimer’s. She is prone to say the same thing over and over without any recollection that she has done so. During each Super Bowl, after the national anthem, my mother says the same thing.
“That was pretty good, but she (Mariah, Beyonce, Celine, Christina, Kelly Clarkson, whoever) didn’t sing it like Whitney! That girl sang that song!
“Yeah, Mom,” I always reply. “You’re right.”
As the years advanced, Whitney became less of a singer and more of a celebrity. (She also became Bobby Brown’s wife. You don’t want to see your angel become Bobby Brown’s wife. But that’s another post for another day.) Becoming a celebrity causes many people to lose themselves. And we always get into trouble when we allow our circumstances to define who we are.
But that voice is silenced forever. Still, I ain’t mad at Whitney. She used her life to do what she was supposed to do. That woman changed the way that American citizens look at black people. She took Eddie Murphy’s hand and Michael’s hand and Cliff, Claire, and the Huxtable kids’ hands and Prince’s hand and Carl Lewis’s hand — and together they moved this country closer together. Suddenly people were too busy laughing, rocking, dancing, singing, holding their breath and shedding tears of joy to realize that it was black folks who were inspiring them.
Whitney Houston took me by the hand as well. She led me into a world that was far different than the world of my childhood, and far from different from the world of my parents. Together we staked our claim on rights to full citizenship, to full participation in the American dream and to headliner status on the American stage.
Thank you, Whitney. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. I will always appreciate your timeless beauty and your peerless voice. Let us honor the gifts that this angel brought into the world.
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