“I don’t even want to cry. I think about her daughter, her mother, the people in her family. And I just think ‘how dare me cry.'”- Kelly Rowland
How dare we cry at the loss of our beautiful, soul belting beloved icon when her mother, daughter, her family mourn her loss. That hasn’t stopped the tears from falling. Rowland’s sound bite plays in the back of my mind every time I choke up singing along to one of her top charting hits played on the radio in her honor. How dare I cry. How dare I cry.
It was a cold wet Saturday afternoon. I was headed to Washington D.C. with my significant other for Valentine’s Day weekend. I was in mid sentence of Chimamanda Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun” when he asked me, “Have you been on Twitter?” Irritated that he’d interrupted my reading I snapped, “Why would I be on Twitter?” He patiently responded, “You may want to check Twitter. Whitney has been reported dead.” “No. No! You know Twitter’s always killing off somebody. She’s not dead,” I quickly responded. “I just read the AP article confirming her death. You may want to check for yourself,” he concluded. I dropped my book in my lap and held back tears, not wanting to cry in front of the two guys seated in front of us who were now eavesdropping on our intense conversation.
From my iPhone I headed straight to the AP article. Then Twitter. For once this wasn’t some twisted hoax concocted by bored, evil people. It was real. And she was gone. I could no longer fight back the tears. I silently cried in my seat, and instantly knew what millions felt when MJ passed. Whitney Houston meant to me what Michael Jackson meant to others.
I immediately tweeted: “Not Whitney. At 48. Lord that’s too young. Poor Bobbi Kristina. #RIPWhitneyHouston.” My mind still hadn’t processed the enormity of the loss. Trying to snap out of it I thought of someone beside myself–her family. “This is just sad on so many levels. A daughter burying her mother. A mother burying her daughter. And us, mourning a legend,” I tweeted.
It was a tragic way to go for such a tremendous talent. Whitney Houston meant everything to little brown girls across the world. She was a stunning natural beauty without the extra enhancements. Her beauty with a lean figure to match took her far as a highly sought after teen model. She was the first black girl to grace the cover of Seventeen, which led to spreads in Glamour and Cosmopolitan. Thankfully, singing remained her first love.
I was born 14 days after Houston’s debut album, Whitney Houston, was released. I was two by the time the second album, Whitney, dropped, and five when her third album was released. Her music was the soundtrack to my childhood. As a fully grown woman I can sing many of her greatest hits word for word (ad libs and all) because her music and my childhood are forever linked. What black girl didn’t sing Whitney’s songs into a hair brush guised as a microphone while gazing into the mirror? I knew nothing about romantic love at seven, the age I was when Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” became a hit. But the song brought tears to my eyes, as did most of her ballads. “Count on Me,” “The Greatest Love of All,” “I Have Nothing,” “Miracle” and “Why Does It Hurt So Bad” were all tear jerkers well before I could fully understand the depth of what those words meant.
Houston would go on to break records as only a legend could. I’ve written in detail for BlackEnterprise.com about her sales, No. 1 hits, money grossed from her tours, movies and television appearances. I do not want to do that here. But I encourage you to Google her if you doubt the magnitude of her iconic status. 415 awards won setting a Guinness Book of World Records. The first ever artist to sell over a million records in a week. The ONLY artist to chart seven consecutive No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 hits. Nearly 200 million records sold. And on and on. But it wasn’t the album sales, the breaking through glass ceilings that connected so many of us to Whitney. It was the voice, the music. Not to mention her down-to- earth girlfriend-esque Jersey roots. She never forgot where she came from. We saw ourselves in Whitney as black girls in our adolescence.
In 2006 I was in my last year in college at Tennessee State University. To support myself I was working at the Cheesecake Factory in Green Hills. Celebrities frequented the establishment so it was never a big deal when it was time to provide service to a celeb and their entourage. I, myself, had waited on super producer Teddy Riley and eight of his friends. Big ups for that $110 dollar tip, TR. Cece Winans (who has strong ties to Nashville), Whitney Houston, an unknown child and I believe Bobbi Kristina decided to dine at the Cheesecake Factory during one of my many shifts. I can vividly picture the corner booth they sat in. I begged my co-worker to let me wait on their table. I pleaded about how much this would mean to me, even offering to split my tip with him. He declined my offer but gave me the go ahead to bring out their drinks and bread. I smiled, said hello as I was a little shaken with nerves. Both Whitney and Cece gave me warm smiles, “hellos and thank yous” as if they knew what it would mean to me as a young black woman. After setting the drinks and bread down I said, “I just want to tell you both how much your music means to me.” I didn’t want to slight Cece Winans, but my comment was meant for Whitney. “I wanted to wait on your table. But at least I got to come over to say hi.” They both laughed and Whitney said, “Thank you so much for telling us that. See how God works?” She was referring to the chance I took approaching the table while working. That was Whitney. Strong in her faith no matter where she was or who was around. She looked good. Happy even. In that moment she nor Cece were mega superstars. They were girlfriends sharing a meal with their loved ones. That moment is permanently sketched in my memory.
My co-workers went on to make jokes about Whitney’s cocaine addiction with the managers laughing and joining in. I never laughed. Me not laughing wasn’t an indication of being such a prude that I didn’t find their jokes funny. I just knew Whitney as more than an addict. I knew her as a darling that little black girl’s everywhere had adored.
When someone of Whitney’s influence passes I reflect on how we, the public, treated them while they were here. Did we forget she was human? Did we forget the skeletons in our own proverbial closets? Were we glass houses who probably shouldn’t have thrown stones? Yes to all the aforementioned. But Whitney was a public figure. One subject to have her life scrutinized under a microscope for the world to see. Maybe instead of rooting from the sidelines, or the press vigilantly watching and documenting her downfall, we could have done more. Said more. Or maybe none of that would have done any good anyway.
Whatever she felt that afternoon while sitting in her bathwater was without a doubt an indescribable pain. A pain we sat by and watched play out as a public spectacle for years. I can only hope that as she rests in eternal peace, Whitney Elizabeth Houston knew the mark she left on the world with her nearly perfect voice. I hope she knew we loved her.
My darling Whitney, may you finally know peace. I will always remember how your music makes me feel. And for the gift you blessed this world with, I will always love you.
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