If tomorrow is judgment day
And I’m standing on the front line
And the Lord asks me what I did with my life
I will say I spent it with you.
– Whitney Houston, “My Love is Your Love”, 1998
I left CNN on while I slept Saturday night, hoping that Anderson Cooper would cut into all the frenzy and say, “There’s been some sort of mistake. Your childhood heroes are not dying and your memories are still intact.”
I cried real tears for Whitney Saturday night — too devastated to whimper, too improper to feign sanctimony on Twitter. Whitney’s death is wrenching, but its shock is familiar. When we lost Michael Jackson, I was no less shaken, no less impolite. I made a round of phone calls last night as I did in 2009, but not to spread the news. Everyone already knew. I wanted to share memories. In mourning the loss of those whose faces were push-pinned to your bedroom wall, whose songs we recorded from the radio onto a cassette tape, we’re somehow mourning the parts of our childhood that have seemed to die with them.
Any given evening in the 1990s, you could find me holding an empty paper towel roll or the handle of a jump rope to my lips, singing a Whitney Houston song. I recall summers in the living room of my then best friend, rolling around on the floor, lip syncing and shaking our hair to “I’m Every Woman” and “Queen of the Night”. Or when my mother would take my sister and me to the video rental section of the Kroger grocery store so she could rent “The Bodyguard”…again. She loved that movie. I just wanted to be Rachel Marron, name in lights, Kevin Costner as a suitor and all.
Whitney released only seven studio albums. I was sure that there had to have been more since her music, that voice, that smile, those eyes permeated just about every moment of our lives. Who didn’t get a diploma (whether it was high school or preschool) with “Greatest Love of All” replacing “Pomp and Circumstance” as a commencement backdrop? I remember my little sister singing, “Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all” when she was in the first grade, in tandem with a choir of other six-year-olds. That was kind of like when Whitney’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner” was played before every athletic event in middle school. When I first found out that Whitney had married Bobby Brown, I asked my mom if Bobby had to change his name to Bobby Houston. For me, Whitney was that major.
What about when Whitney told us that “everyone falls in love sometimes [and] life never tells us the when or whys” or when “Count on Me” became a sister-girl anthem for the ages? There was something about the fullness of that voice, its peaks, and its sweetness that stirred our souls and empowered us. Whitney’s rousing voice on “All The Man That I Need” leads me to shave a few seconds off that last mile on the treadmill. No other ballad does that.
What’s funny is that the childhood I’m mourning today is one I was reliving at the office a day before Whitney left us. I was playing her catalog, really listening to those lyrics I’d memorized years ago and understanding them like I never had before. Didn’t we almost have it all? The nights we held on till the morning. You know you’ll never love that way again. How about The ride with you was worth the fall, my friend. Or, the best part of that song: Once you know what love is, you never let it end.
For those of us too young to remember Diana Ross in her hey day, Whitney was our Tracy Chambers. Our singer-diva-movie star. We aspired to her brown-skinned glamour with all of its dramatic spotlights and sequins. We adored her round-the-way girl aura, an energy that shone through despite successful efforts to make her palatable to the masses. We knew from the way she sang, the way she jiggled her chin on the slightest hint of vibrato, the way she lifted her arms in distinct divadom that she was one Jersey girl who had made it. And nobody was going to steal her shine.
She was ours. She belonged to every little Black girl who sang into the handle of her jump rope.
Despite her troubles, I never ever thought Whitney’s death would be untimely. Despite her troubles, I never thought that the tragically proverbial rock star ending of “found dead in a hotel room” would be her story.
I know that there has to be a much more cogent piece in me way down in here, but honestly I’m still trying to figure out the whens and whys. I pray that Whitney knew that we loved her and that, as she’s left us, we’re only doing what she told us to do: finding our strength in love. I pray that with all of her anointing, her cultural impact, and with all of her troubles (which, in essence, are no different from any of our own), Whitney had the chance to exhale.
Published in Clutch Magazine on Feb. 13, 2012.