Saturday, March 31, 2012

Homage to Whitney and the Rest: Remembering . . . Period!

Abbey Lincoln

When I'm called home
I will bring a book
That tells of strange and funny turns
And of the heart it took
To keep on living in a world
That never was my own
A world of haunted memories
Of other worlds unknown.
I'll tell them of the trouble here
When they call me home.
When I'm called home
I will sing a song
And tell them of a beggar's life
Where everything goes wrong
Where everybody's hopes and dreams
Are shattered by the wind.
I'll tell them of a ghostly world
Of us and they and him.
I'll tell them how the shadows fall
When they call me home.
When I'm called home
I will tell the stars
Of the battles that were lost
In a world of wars.
I will tell the rivers
Of the children lost at sea
Of how a soul is bartered
And what it costs a spirit free.
Hallelujah tell a story, oh,
When they call me home.

In "When I'm Called Home," Abbey Lincoln, aka Aminata Moseka, reminds us of life Down Here Below and suggests that all goes on record.  She tells the story of enslavement, ancestral memory,  
naming and re-naming, perseverance, being a stranger in a strange land, invisibility, hopelessness, being the Other living under the shadow of that ghastly DuBoisian veil, Middle Passage homicides by Mothers throwing babies overboard, setting them free, committing them into the everlasting loving limbs and comfort of the Original Mother, Yemaya Olokun, or like Morrison's Sethe, who murdered her Beloved baby. “I took and put my babies where they’d be safe.”  Sing with me now.

Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me
and before I'd be a slave I'll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.
Before I let you be a slave,
 I'll bury you in your grave. I brought you into this world and I will take you out.

Ancestral memory, linguistic connection: 
Most Black folk know well these words "I brought you in and I'll take you out." Yes, these ancestral memories remain in bodies. Postmodern philosopher, Judith Butler, suggests that discourses live in bodies. I can't help but think, then, of discourse as memory. The memory of African women throwing their babies from slave ships into the oceans. Those discourses flow through our veins. Memories live in the songs and even the reprimands of elders training and protecting the babies from ever present terrorism of white supremacist actions.

And now we mourn the flight home of A Bird Alone, another one of our Zawadi, Whitney Houston. Kwesi McDavid-Arno offered a powerful commentary on how he basically wrote her off "when she didn’t fulfill our selfish desires." He recounted his response to a sista while in an omelet line at work. “I know you Black women are loyal but y’all need to cut Whitney loose.” Needless to say, she was upset by his comment and I am a bit peeved by another of his comments. He blamed Black women for letting her "fade into oblivion." He blamed us for not taking better care of Whitney, reifying that woman are the caretakers and men have no responsibility in the care of the community.  Then he spoke in the proverbial "We" voice, as if speaking as a Black woman.

"We have this “pride and hide” culture of not really dealing with emotional tragedy. Black women prefer to walk things off - life is tough, slaves had it rough, so suck it up and deal – “get over it” is the official mantra. We didn’t look at Whitney’s life to see who she was, what she was, where she came from, what she was really dealing with. We just reveled in her beauty and eventually sucked her dry. Love is also forceful, and our love for Whitney should have forced us to examine her pain, but our collective selfishness for something special forced us to ignore her – we ignored Whitney the person. Like a bird in a cage Whitney was trapped in our minds as our eternal songstress. And when she didn’t fulfill our selfish desires, we scorned and rejected her as another fallen addict. Instead of shunning her drug abuse, we should have been caringly probing, thoughtfully neutering, trying to understand her pain as a strong family would."

Kwesi failed to mention men's responsibility for Whitney. But I am not writing to discuss this shortcoming, this hole in his commentary, because for the most part I agree with him. I just would have appreciated a more feminist perspective or should I say, less patriarchal, male supremacist perspective.

The greater challenge is to see Whitney's life as one lived in a world that never was her own and how she kept on living anyway. And she did indeed, according to her best friend Robyn Crawford, make her own choices. But that 's not why I sit before this computer today to write.  No.

I think of Whitney, Michael, Tupac, Biggie, Don Cornelius, Marvin Gaye, Bird, Trane and the list goes on. These people were our Zawadi-our Gifts.  Quincy Jones said of Whitney on CBS This Morning the day after her death, "God left his hand on her shoulder a little longer than everybody else."  Whitney was touched, as were the others and it's hard to protect gifts in and from a system that made them.  Once they became who they were, who the system shaped them to be, it's as if they were no longer ours.  Whitney's mom said, perhaps knowing what could/would happen to her child,  "You know, you can always sing for free. You can always sing in church. You don't have to choose the professional life."
But Whitney knew she was a Chosen one and I'm willing to bet her mother knew, too. And maybe she would have done what Toni's Sethe did had it been a different time, kept her daughter's past at bay, her future from happening. A mother knows/feels and loves so deeply.

But again, I didn't come to this today to write and conjecture and quote others.  I want to focus on the impact of her death. I want to focus on what I am gleaning from the loss of one of the greatest women of all time. The impact of her death is different than Michael's.

Like Kwesi McDavid Arno wrote: 
"We weren’t honest about Whitney. We told the truth about Michael. It was an easy story - an abusive father, tormented child star. We poked and prodded through Michael’s life. But we didn’t touch Whitney. We just didn’t want to tell the truth about Whitney Houston’s life. We just wanted her to be what we wanted. We didn’t care about the truth; we didn’t care about her life."

And all I can think of is how some bodies matter and others don't. Drawing from Judith Butler, we can consider Kwesi's illumination of how Whitney's body did not matter in the same way that Michael's did. Hers was the abject body made real by Kwesi's, and others, interrogations of Whitney's life after her death. In some eerie way, the unthinkablility, unlivability, unintelligibility, of her life existed "within discourse as the radically uninterrogated and as the shadowy contentless figure for something that [was] not yet made real."1 Kwesi fesses up to that. "But we didn't touch Whitney. We just didn't tell the truth. We didn't care about the truth; we didn't care about her life."  See Whitney now; made real.

1 Costera Meijer, I., Prins, B. (1998) How bodies come to matter: an interview with Judith Butler, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 23(2):275-286.

Abbey Lincoln