Black folks are not a monolith. But there are a few things we share in common. One is that we treat our celebrities as if we know them personally. We follow their life occurrences through our Black-owned weekly newspapers and monthly magazines, which, even now, in the 21st Century, are the primary sources of positive, non-stereotypical news and feature articles about us. We vicariously share Black celebrities’ successes, their failures, their hopes, their dreams.
Visit any Black hairdressers or barber shop, doctor’s office waiting room, almost anywhere we gather, and you’ll likely hear talk about this or that actor, singer, rapper, dancer, as if they lived around the corner. As if they were members of our families. So it was with Aretha Franklin, known by those who were really her friends, and those of us who felt we knew her, as “Re.”
When we talked about her life as we were busy living ours, it wasn’t just idle gossip. Although there was some of that: “Did you SEE what she wore on the TV show last night? Who picks her clothes? LAWD . . . !” But we worried about whether she would be alright following the death of her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, who raised her, initially guided her career, and was both mother and father to her after her mother passed when Re was a child. Or if she was surviving the latest divorce, or truly happy in the recent marriage.
We could identify with everything she sang. The blues and heartache songs: Ain’t no way for me to love you if you won’t let me. Yesterday I sang a love song but today I sing the blues. Never loved a man the way I love you, but your lovin’ is much to strong, I’m added to your chain of fools. My health is failin’ me, and I’m goin’ down slow.
But it wasn’t all cryin’ and dyin’ with Re. We rocked steady with her, “movin’ our hips from left to right” on dance floors. Found friendship and good times in the neighborhood joint that she sang about in “Try Matty’s: “There’s gonna be a group of people from everywhere in Matty’s this morning. So go on and do your do, try to hurry up and get through, and meet me . . . ”
Her songs “Respect” and “Think” expressed the insistence of a people who have seldom received respect in a nation where racism is part of its DNA. Especially “Think”: “Think about what you’re tryin’ to do to me! . . . oh, FREEEDOM!!!”
Offstage, Aretha was well aware of the power she had as an popular entertainer with means to advance our movements for equality and justice. She and her father contributed funds to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization associated with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther, King, Jr. She performed in concerts that raised more funds for other movement groups.
She wasn’t always able to fulfill fundraising requests. In 1972, she answered a letter from The Black Panther Party’s Minister of Culture Emory Douglas, who asked if she could perform in an event for the Oakland, California-based organization. The letter arrived too late, and Aretha had already made other plans. “Nevertheless,” wrote Aretha, “I love what you are doing in the community, and I am looking forward to meeting all of you.”
In 1971, Aretha offered to post bail for California activist and former UCLA college instructor Angela Davis. Davis was accused of complicity in a failed kidnapping attempt in a California courtroom, in which two prison inmates on trial would be exchanged for the release of famous prison author and Black Panther Party member George Jackson, among other prisoners. One of the guns used in the incident was said to be licensed to Davis, and Davis and Jackson were then involved in a relationship.
In a Jet magazine interview, Aretha said she would pay the bail “whether it’s $100,000 or $250,000.” Davis was a Communist, an economic and political philosophy that many in the U.S. misunderstood or feared. Aretha said she wasn’t helping Davis because she believed in Communism, since she herself did not. “She’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people,” Aretha said. “I have the money; I got it from Black people — they’ve made me financially able to have it — and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.”
Aretha added, ” My daddy says I don’t know what I’m doing. Well, I respect him of course, but I’m going to stick by my beliefs. Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (in Detroit for disturbing the peace) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts . . . ”
As she was of the Black community, Aretha was not immune to racism and audacious snark. In 1993, New York Post columnist Liz Smith commented on a gown designed by Bill Blass that Aretha wore on a Fox television program. “She must know that she’s too bosomy to wear such clothing, but clearly she just doesn’t care what we think, and that attitude is what separates mere stars from true divas,” Smith wrote.
In the perfect “Who asked YOU”? retort, Aretha wrote to Smith, “How dare you be so presumptuous to presume you could know my attitudes with respect to anything other than music. Obviously I have enough of what it takes to wear a bustier and I haven’t had any complaints. When you get to be a noted and respected fashion editor, please let us all know. P.S. You are hardly in any position to determine what separates stars from divas since you are neither one or an authority on either.”
Even in death, Aretha is treated by some as undeserving of recognition for her artistry. The unpresident in the White House, in his “tribute” to Aretha, saw fit to add, “She worked for me on numerous occasions,” a comment that could be construed as her having been a mere employee, like the maids who cleaned his hotels and casinos.
An article in the conservative-to-right-wing National Review magazine written by Dan McLaughlin, a New York City attorney practicing securities and commercial litigation, “helpfully” noted that Aretha ” . . .was bright-eyed but plain in her youth and heavyset in her older years . . .” (Blackfolk translation of white critique: She was ugly and fat).
McLaughlin also wrote, “I might not rate (Aretha) as the single greatest female vocalist of the rock era — Kelly Clarkson and Linda Ronstadt come to mind as more versatile across musical genres and more varied in their emotional resonances . . . ”
But we who are Black know well Aretha Franklin’s amazing talents and skills as a vocalist, pianist and musical arranger that unpresidents, certain newspaper columnists and securities and commercial litigation attorneys will never understand, even if the live to be 76, her age when she died on August 16. We’ll miss Re, she whose music informed our lives and our struggle for freedom and respect. Days, even years after her death, many of us will play her records or CDs, remember her performances, and try not to drown in our own tears.