i’m still in utter and complete shock regarding whitney houston. floored. very saddened. i left church this morning with some seething hope that i’d hear “it was an internet rumor” or a hoax or something. the weird thing is, my parents didn’t allow my brother and i to listen to “secular” music growing up and whitney was no exception. but as i heard of her passing last night, i teared up a bit. i began to think that even with the injunction against non-gospel music, i somehow still knew most of whitney’s songs, even when i was very young. her music made its way into school shows, everyone sang about children being the future, wanting to let them lead the way. everyone belted “and iiiii will always love you!”
but it was when she remade chaka’s “i’m every woman” that i got in trouble — a lot of trouble — for singing the song in my junior high school hallways. see, i must’ve been too flamboyant when i was 12 years old but i distinctly remember being reprimanded by my science teacher in front of the entire class when she said to me, without a hint of humor, “you’ve got some really feminine ways about you. if you don’t stop acting like that, people will think you’re gay” and she went along and finished her lesson or whatever. funny how some moments become etched in your mind.
i became not a little bit careful and surveilled myself with the hopes of repressing as much of those “feminine ways” as possible. but not knowing the grounds upon which my teacher made such a declaration, i was fighting a losing battle. anything i did i’m sure could have been construed to be in the “feminine” kind of “way.” and so it was that one day, after watching BET videos — likely video soul — i found myself in love with this “new song” called “i’m every woman.” and so it was that i’d sing this new song in the hallways of my junior high school: loudly, with much excitement and not a little bit of irony. but it just so happened that my science teacher’s attempt at public shaming gave others the license they needed to participate in a similar surveilling of my activities.
and so it was that a friend of mine [i will, of course, never forget who it was] said to me in the middle of a line, “ooooh, imma tell ms. burke! you actin like a girl!” and could not wait to return to the classroom to tell her that, indeed, “ashon was singing a girl song!” my teacher looked at me with not a little bit of disdain but also a hint of pleasure, “what did i tell you about that? people are gonna think you’re gay.” and that was that. it was an odd moment where the performance of gender, sexuality and song came together for me, even in a derogatory way. i’d been called a “faggot” in church for singing soprano but those school scenes — with classmates and teacher — seemed different. my voice was changing, puberty had already set in. so it wasn’t my voice that was the culprit. it was something other. of course, i still love, and sing, the song … whitney’s version of the song. but not again until after a very long period of waiting.
i found, with singing some non-gospel song, that the relationship between queerness and song that worried me since before puberty began was not relegated to the church … but that the performance of someone like whitney could also tattle. a choice had to be made: to continue to listen to her background ubiquity with pleasure, to sing anyway; or to stop, become quiet, and withdrawn. i chose the latter for a very long while because i could not untangle my sense of erotic, libidinal difference from such songs — sacred or secular. but in the background, in the underground, underneath, all this music still moved me. and moves me still.
whitney was just always there, always in the background singing clearly. for me, and with her performance of “i’m every woman,” she was an underground soundtrack for how performance pronounced all kinds of queer things about you, libidinal excesses. and her voice was always celebrated: they named a school after her in east orange, she continued to visit her church in newark, my high school prom date sang background for whitney all of the time. last night, it hit me: i share in all of these tangential connections to her work, to her voice. and i realized last night, as i was struck with the desire to cry, that whitney’s voice, her unabashed tone and clarity, her playfulness and depth of character created a performative space for me to be … whatever that being was and was becoming. like nina simone stated about the song “feelings” at the montreaux jazz festival, similarly, i am not mad at whitney making contemporary for me a “girl song” that i could sing … rather, i am mad at the conditions [all those institutional -isms] that produce the necessity and demand upon my science teacher to respond to my singing whitney — to singing a presumedly “girl song” in a decidedly “heterosexist land” — with such dismissal and chagrin.
because i realize: in me is every woman’s voice that has come before me, their life, their breath, their force, their vitality. the love of my mother and grandmothers is all in me. every woman is in every child ever born, a materiality of the refusal of alienation. black folks know something about an injunction of having to “follow the status of the mother” … but though the imposition was through a horrific condition, we celebrate the mother anyway. because it’s right. every woman. in all. each of us.
so i’m just sad. thank you, whitney, for your life.