I was only four or five years old when my mother took me to see Sparkle.
I loved that movie instantly because Mary Alice reminded me of my beloved grandmother and Sister reminded me of my mother.
My mother bought the soundtrack at Record Explosion or The Wiz for $4.99 plus tax as the big red label in the upper right hand corner announced. The songs on the record were different from the songs in the film in that all the songs on the record were arranged differently and were sung by one woman — someone named Aretha Franklin; just Aretha to the folks that loved her.
I was electrified not just by her voice, which sounded like all the joy and pain of black folk living in a world hostile to Blackness (the latter explaining, for me now anyhow, why she had so many white fans), but also by how black people reacted to hearing her voice. The way they closed their eyes and swayed under red lights in basements all across the country, maybe even the world, and the way they embraced, which was often as naughty as it was lovely.
At one such gathering, one of my mother’s friends, who was not her friend afterward, laid the record down on a hot radiator in the house and it warped. Since $4.99 plus tax was not easy to come by in New York during those dim 70’s days of crumbling infrastructure, burnt-out buildings, broken glass, empty lots, stray dogs, rattling trains, decrepit hallways, long welfare lines, and thorough police and political corruption, my mother mourned and held a grudge that continues to lace her memory — even though I bought her the digital version for her birthday a few years back. She appreciated it, but she was still mad at the person who melted her record even though she can’t even remember their name anymore.
These were my first encounters with Dr. Aretha Franklin: Swooping and hollerin’ and squallin’. Turning “Giving Him Something (He Can Feel)” inside out. Raising the roof with “Jump.” Singing her guts out on the title track. In other words, making her Blackness plain.
And that last thing is what so many recollections of Dr. Franklin try to erase: that her Blackness didn’t simply loom; it animated. It complicated. It implicated. It advocated. It activated. Most of all, it testified and covered everything it touched. It was a love for black people only and for black women in particular.
That white critics didn’t like this album is unbelievably satisfying precisely because it was not for them. Here, Dr. Franklin spoke to us in our own language, in the same looked-down-upon tones that white people claimed were symbolic of our supposed inferiority, which is to say their inferiority. With the genius Curtis Mayfield on music and angelic background singers lifting her up, Dr. Franklin made us rise too, however briefly.
So when I rememory her, it is not on world stages before armies of white faces, standing in ovation, crying because they think they are moved, unable to recognize, truly, where those tears are coming from and why they are coming (Dr. Franklin was holding up a mirror to each and every one of them; and who among them wouldn’t cry after seeing, unshakably, what they actually were?).
I remember inside the cold apartment of a Brooklyn housing project, in the days when a darker-skinned black woman could still be the standard-bearer; her album cover laying across my lap, her head wrapped in Ṣàngó-white, smiling with frosted lips, eyes bright enough to be seen in the dark, a small diamond hoop earring glistening in her ear.
And across the room, my mother, her head wrapped too, bent to her knees, eyes shut, ear to speaker, listening to Dr. Franklin sing, knowing that they both shared a world of dangerous men, and women forced to navigate the burden of that danger, wishing she, and Dr. Franklin too, were someplace else.
It wasn’t that Dr. Franklin was a queen. That was too slim, narrow, and destructive a title for her. She freed way too many people to ever be considered that. It was more like she was a cure.
Because I watched her fix a whole hell of a lot of people. Some of whom I loved. Thankfully, we still have the medicine she made. Unfortunately, we no longer have the doctor to administer it.
That is the greatest sadness of all.