EDITOR’S NOTE: Today is Whitney Houston’s birthday. This would’ve been one of those milestone birthdays for her, because she would’ve been 50 years old today! In celebration of the day, I thought I’d repost this wonderful piece by Tanya Steele, originally published in March of 2012.
I have tried to avoid weighing in, publicly, on Whitney Houston’s death. I didn’t know the woman. I didn’t know her family. I didn’t even care to know the rumors surrounding her life. I never heard the ‘wendy williams‘ interview (until, last night). However, I do know addicts. I know addicts who have experienced unspeakable horrors and that use substances to try and stuff them down. And, I could see the road Whitney was traveling. As I saw her struggle, my only thoughts were, “please, give her the strength to make it.“
You see, there are very few things said in the culture about black women. The one label we do get is that we are “strong“. Lately, I’ve been listening, really listening to the message of Whitney’s music. I’m appreciating how she pierced that veil of ‘animal’ strength that black women have been burdened with. She expressed that we are vulnerable, soft, thoughtful and, sometimes, empty.
Whitney’s voice is so brilliant, it arrests. I’ve never had a playlist that didn’t have Ms. Houston’s music. My particular favorites are “All At Once“, so pure, “Run To You“, the earnest yearning, “You Light Up My Life“, the raspy vulnerability. And, now, “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength“. The latter is, particularly, meaningful. As a black woman, I’ve come to know my own strength but, like Ms. Houston sang, it came after surviving my darkest hour, after crashing down and getting through all of the pain. She shatters the myth that we, black women, are born with it.
Whitney resembled the women in my family. All are brilliant, beautiful, sophisticated and complex. As a child, I watched their struggles with men, the love, the addiction, the brilliance, the survival skills. Whitney was ‘familiar’ to me. She was “every woman“, it seemed. I knew her narrative. I know black women who possess unique gifts. Women who stand on the edge of who they are. Black women who think, feel and move through life with a sensitivity and sharpness that stuns. A gifted black woman, searching for love, looking to God (who seems to be the provider of unconditional love for many black women), grasping for peace. I can’t erase the image of her tragic end, alone, nude and fallen into a bathtub. The one space, in the culture, that is a private zone, a healing space, a space of calm and serenity for many black women.
Since her death, I have been looking for clues, evidence, some emotional truth. A life always leaves evidence. Something that would help me wrap my head around her untimely death. I’ve watched and read as many interviews as I can bear. On Sunday, I watched Oprah Winfrey’s interview of her family. I wanted to understand why she was trying to destroy herself with such aggression.
As an observer of the culture, I am clearly aware that “genius” black women are rarely seen as such. In the culture, black women are video vixens, angry shrews, mindless creatures. When “genius” is in a black female body is not given the same pedestal, thoughtfulness and reverence as when it is in the form of a white body or even a black male body.
I know the masks that black women wear. The “loud” mask. The “fun” mask. All to deflect people from seeing the pain. The interview that Whitney did with Oprah in 2009 was very revealing. Actually, it helped to put a lot of the questions to rest. It seemed, she survived, she knew her demons and she was going to recover.
The Oprah interview, on Sunday, was also revealing. She was always a “loner“, she was aware that her voice was gone, she left her daughter a road map for a career. When Oprah asked Pat Houston if Whitney was erratic, days before her death, Pat said, “she had a drink“, “she could be loud“, “but, I don’t know what happened on that day“. “That day” was referring to the day that she died.
With addicts, it’s never just a day, it’s the culmination of a lifetime. I understand the family’s need to do damage control and to protect her legacy and squash the rumor mill. I also understand that they are in the midst of tremendous grief. Tremendous grief. At some point, I’m hoping that the truth of what Whitney was struggling with will reach the surface, without all of the “Whitney was crazy girl” talk, without all of the “God” talk. We know, black women know God. Black women need a religion of self-compassion.
Over Ms. Houston’s lifetime, it seemed, her addiction became a sideshow. I’ve been listening for clues, hoping to hear that there was a voice of reason or understanding around her. Was there someone around her who understood what it meant to be a black woman, with such tremendous gifts, in a culture that degrades us?
In the 2009 Oprah interview, Whitney clearly stated that she was abused by Bobby Brown. Now, I don’t lay Whitney’s addiction nor her death at Bobby Brown’s feet. Whitney’s trauma started before Mr. Brown. He was just a reflection of abuse or trauma that she was familiar with. Hearing that this woman, who went from the height of heights to being “spat on” by her love, is haunting. Hearing how she stayed in her room, alone and in pain was deeply disturbing but so human.
And, what was even more disturbing, was Whitney’s brother Gary (in the Oprah interview on Sunday) stating that Bobby Brown was a “good guy“. I thought, what he was trying to convey about Whitney in that moment? Was this a man protecting an abuser? But, more importantly, his sister was dead, clearly troubled and trying to destroy herself. Why didn’t he speak to that or show any compassion toward it?
Many think, “Whitney abused herself“, “Whitney threw away her career“, “Whitney was ghetto.” I’ve heard it all, all of the harsh criticism, the judgment and the scolding. Ms. Houston’s mask was deep, layered and convincing. I have noted, the deeper the hurt with black women, the harder the mask. It can turn you off and make you rigid with contempt because it’s so biting. When I see it on a woman, I stop, take a breath and look her in the eye.
The other day, I was in my local market. There is one, very young, cashier who wears this mask. I went to her to checkout. I looked at her, I said, “you’re my favorite cashier.” She was thrown off, she asked, “Why?” I said, “Because you’re tough. Most people are afraid of that, I’m not.” We looked each other in the eye, she bowed her head. She was thinking about it.
A few days later, I go into the store. She was not on the register but, she was neatening things up around the store. I could feel her following me, looking up to see if I noticed she was there. Before I left, I turned, she was right behind me. I said, “I see you.” I laughed and she did, too. You see, it is one thing to be “loved“, people have learned to say “I love you” on command. But, it is quite another thing to be understood.
Hopefully, in the future, there will be less attention paid to damage control around Whitney’s legacy. And, more attention given to truth. The truth will help those women and girls who are trying to bring forth their gifts while struggling with trauma. The truth of Whitney’s experience can break this narrative of the “loud“, “shrew“, “crazy“, “downtrodden“, “biologically broken” black woman. I work, very hard, to challenge this narrative of black women. It’s everywhere. It’s inescapable. We have to get to heart portraits of black women to pierce this veil of suffering. Contrary to popular belief, black women were not born to suffer.
Whitney was a superstar, a Supernova, whose life, in many ways, reflected the experience of the black american woman. And, thankfully, she managed to share her genius with the world, for many years, uninterrupted. I will keep creating with a commitment to replace the image of this Supernova lying face down in a bathtub, naked, alone and dead. I will have this hope for the next black woman genius knowing, full well, that there will never be another Whitney Houston.
My loved ones and I can’t figure out why we’re still grieving Ms. Houston’s death. I realized it’s because we know the narrative. I’ve seen too many amazing black women walk away from their light, run for shelter in a broken man, medicate, mask their insecurity and pain. So, I’m grieving for us, too.
Whitney sang our experience. Her voice goes right through you, past the bulls**t, to that place that makes you feel understood. I wish we could have offered the same to her. Ms. Houston was suspended somewhere between genius, trauma and God. As a black woman, in America, that space holds very little compassion.