I am writing this while listening to Aretha in a tiny hotel room in Manhattan, a place that I will always associate with the Queen of Soul, both because her music seemed so much a part of the fabric of this city she loved and because my mother and I had the great pleasure of spotting her at Christmastime once on the third floor of Saks Fifth Avenue. She seemed to me to be encircled by a bright golden light, larger than life. We recall that she had the most beautiful skin of any woman we had ever seen.
When I heard the news of her passing, an overwhelming feeling of despair washed over me, of deep sadness. I sat down and cried for an hour, glued to the TV, as I watched endless clips of her many memorable performances over the years. I can’t say for sure why I had such a strong emotional response to her death. We’ve lost so many greats over the last few years, but none of them moved me quite like this one. Why that is, I can’t say for sure. But I think it has something to do with the fact that Ms. Franklin, besides having one of the greatest singing voices of all times, expressed a kind of female sexuality and power that resonated with so many women, from so many different backgrounds. When she belted out “Respect,” we were not only inspired and empowered, but we were put in our proper place. I grew up in the south in the ‘80s and ’90’s, where it was still all-too-common to see black women as “the help,” existing to service white ladies and their children. But she gave us a picture of black womanhood and black female sexuality that revealed what a distorted and myopic understanding most white folks had, particularly in the south, of what it was to be both black and female. Because she sang about widely universal experiences of womanhood, but did so from her own particular point of view, she both touched us and taught us.
And unlike so many of her counterparts today, Ms. Franklin did not feel the need to package herself in a way that would be widely appealing to white audiences, though she certainly was. She was a woman of substance in every sense of the word, with an authenticity and luminosity that is increasingly rare in the entertainment industry. No shade to Bey, but when Aretha took the stage we sat in complete rapture of simply Aretha—no gimmicks, no political messaging, no personal drama spun out into a public persona. I, for one, have much admiration for the artist who can do this and few, if any, have done it as well as her. In the case of Aretha Franklin, this particular achievement was the mark of both an aristocrat and a woman of the people. She was a Queen and, yet, she was also a natural woman.
Since yesterday morning, in every cafe, shop, and restaurant I step into here in New York, her voice is ringing out over the speakers. And I notice people stopping to listen, some somberly lowering their heads with eyes closed, others happily bopping their heads and smiling at the familiar and unmistakable sound of her voice, before their face quickly changes as they remember: she is dead. Perhaps my sadness has as much to do with her passing as it does with my fear that we are becoming a people and a nation to whom a great talent and woman like Aretha Franklin is no longer intelligible. This morning, the day after, I’m clinging to the possibility that I am wrong.