Aretha Franklin: A Detroit Conversation
By John Sims and Alisea Williams McLeod
The Aretha Franklin Homegoing, in Detroit at Greater Grace Temple, was the best funeral ever. This was a conference, not a funeral. Proud to be from Detroit. Chaka Khan, Ron Isley, Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson all sang. Gladys Knight and Cicely Tyson were divine. Faith Hill and Ariana Grande were underwhelming. Bill Clinton was quite the music historian. Smokey Robinson was light and heavy at the same time. Tyler Perry told Aretha telephone stories. Judge Mathis told us of Aretha’s mandate for him to address Flint’s water crisis. Shirley Caesar took us to church. The Clark Sisters took us to more church. Georgetown Professor Michael Eric Dyson brought great correction, by calling President Trump a lugubrious leech and hinting that Aretha’s funeral was too black for Obama, hence him not showing up and sending a letter instead. Dyson stole the show. Then, I learned Aretha once lived on Sorrento. I grew up on Sorrento! Jesse Jackson said vote if you love Aretha. The eulogist, Dr. Jasper Williams, challenged us to find our souls and said that we should be very much worried about black on black violence. And Stevie Wonder concluded by saying that black lives do matter and make love great again. And in the finale, the raw and real Jennifer Lewis, as backup singer, was bringing that sanctified energy as Jennifer Holliday concluded the Arethapalooza with a soulful song fit for an icon.
After nine hours of funering, Ms. Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, was ready to go to a waiting procession of 100 plus pink Cadillacs to her final resting place. The end of an era, indeed.
This is what I posted on Facebook after watching the full nine-hour event from the comfort of my studio. Weeks before as I was digesting the news about Aretha’s imminent death, David A. Love, one of my journalist buddies contacted me for a quote on the Queen, knowing that I am Motown born and bred. This is what I gave him:
From her father’s Detroit church to worldwide stage, the voice and spirit of the great Goddess of Soul Aretha Franklin has inspired and carried the hearts and minds of millions, over six decades music defining the best of American culture.
Her singular force was both cultural and political. Her love and advocacy for black people undeniable and her feminism unshakable. Before there were Black Lives Matters and #MeToo, the Queen was challenging us to “think” and “respect” ourselves, and to become better partners, better citizens and better humans.
And while she became extremely blessed and successful, she never forgot her roots, her people, her family, and her hometown Detroit. Always staying close to home, when others left, speaks to her loyalty, faith and commitment to a culture that cradled and nurtured her divine genius in a country, on a whole may have not deserved it.
We owe Ms. Aretha Franklin our highest respect for being the voice of our most meaningful form of human intelligence: love. To honor her is to follow her message of love, grace and community.
To my great appreciation, Mr. Love used much of this quote in his very fine piece for NBC news. Shortly after that article came out my homegirl Omo Misha, a Detroit native artist, curator, and arts educator, contacted me and invited me to be in an Aretha Franklin tribute show for the grand opening of her new gallery, which is in the same hood as Aretha’s father’s church. Of course I said yes, and before I knew it, I was on the curatorial team for the show — SuperNatural Woman: Tribute to the Queen, which opens September 21. Thinking that was way too long a wait to do something, I started organizing a poetry tribute associated with Misha’s show and to be scheduled for the evening of the day of Aretha’s funeral. Having a hard time finding a venue, I called my homie Rev. Charles Williams, who helped officiate my Detroit Burn and Bury Confederate Flag event, to see if we could use his church. Well that option was dead, after he got invited to the hottest show in town — The Aretha Franklin funeral.
But what was I thinking anyways, this funeral was destined to start late, end late and defy whatever was written in the program. As much as it was a conference, it also was a family reunion with all of the drama and inappropriateness that come with diversity and intergenerationality, and different degrees of pain. This event tried to straddle both the public and private language and behavior of Black church culture around its most sacred performance-the death ritual. So to see this on full share mode was both exciting and nerve wracking. So it was only a matter of time before something was going to pop off. First you had Ariana, who many thought dressed inappropriately. Undoubtedly such events, especially in the black church almost always have an unspoken dress code, and anything off key might be cause for a pause and an icy reception. Bishop Ellis’ interaction with Ariana after her performance also became an issue. The optics of his creepy hand placement and the remarks connecting her name to a Taco Bell menu item were very embarrassing and cause for an immediate pause and impromptu emergency conference on respect. There is a lot to unpack where the club look meets the church vibe, where gospel meets R&B, where the male gaze meets female bodies, and youthful body expression meets the restraint of religious respectability. Even though the Bishop quickly apologized anticipating the hammer of a media fallout, there is still more explaining and learning to do, and collective community reflection. One might wonder what Ariana and Aretha were thinking about all of this.
Dr. Williams, an old school preacher and Aretha-appointed eulogist, delivered a very conservative sermon, akin to spanking your kids in public, an act which many might find out of date and abusive but which others might celebrate as necessary to a goal of restoring discipline and respect. Unlike Bishop Ellis, Dr. Williams ain’t apologizing for nothing he said. And let my mother tell it, he was right on point, but my academic friend folk think he needs to be tarred and feathered. As reported by CNN, some of Aretha Franklin’s family thought his eulogy was offensive. Clearly we have all the dynamics that come with the intersecting social physics of: the old vs the youth, left vs right, civil rights vs Black Lives Matter, and the politics of respectability vs PC cooning.
Although some of this was somewhat unnerving, what really bothered me the most was the absence of the Obamas. How could Barack or Michelle not be there? Was it the presence of Minister Louis Farrakhan, who did not actually speak, or was President Obama afraid of running into Rev. Jeremiah Wright? Was it the weather in Chicago or on Martha’s Vineyard, or was it Prof. Dyson, who has been very critical of the former president lately? In his funeral remarks speaking about Aretha he had this to say:
“She was about transforming the existence of black America! Now negroes scared to say they black! Scared to show up at a too black place! That’s why some black folk aren’t here today. They sendin’ letters; they don’t wanna get up in this blackness!
They don’t want to feel the nasty power of this blackness! We are black in Detroit! We don’t care! Take your shoes off! Dip in the water! Get baptized!”
It seems clear that these were shots at Obama about “Blackness.” In my earlier The Rumpus piece, BINARY STATES OF AMERICA: A LETTER TO OBAMA, I talked about some of this and wondered about Obama’s relationship and commitment to Black America.
But to not show up for the Queen of Soul’s final farewell and speak the very next day at John McCain’s funeral was disrespectful at best and also disrespectful at worst. Did he not forget that McClain voted against the Martin Luther King Jr. bill, or that he opposed sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid government or that he initially defended the Confederate flag flying in South Carolina? And, most importantly, did he forget McCain’s support for the surge against the Iraqis, an act that led to the death of millions.
Did Obama forget that Aretha’s “Respect” was an anthem for a people in pursuit of justice and equality, and that she financially supported civil rights in a time of need, doing the groundwork contributing to the framework for a future black presidency. Did he forget that Aretha Franklin is an example of black musical genius, defining the best of America culture and that she will be revered and celebrated for centuries to come, as Clive Davis said in his remark, after complicated flip-flopping senators are long forgotten?
And lastly, did he forget to imagine had Aretha’s funeral occurred in 2007 or 2011 during elections years, he would have been all up in the “blackness” of Detroit singing Amazing Grace at Greater Grace at the feet of the Queen?
Perhaps it is difficult to forget what you don’t really know. Perhap it is easier to respect the language of surface civility than the voice of pain, the story of struggle from a people brought from the bowels of American slavery.
After I wrote this I sent it to my “big sister” Alisea from high school, who also grew up on Sorrento, somewhere between me and where Aretha lived. Alisea went on to get a Ph.D in English and Education at the University of Michigan and is now doing all kinds of cool stuff. For the last couple weeks, she and I have been going back and forth about Aretha, the state of Black America, and the recent funeral. This is what she had to say:
Aretha Franklin has passed the baton; she has left us to go about the business of expressing our human condition, both the reality of enduring pain and the tempting, commodified possibility of transcending it. This is a modern proposal in which Detroiters especially — black and white — are quite familiar; it is Ford’s Fusion, our Chrysler New Yorker and Lincoln men and women who left the heat of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi for the heat of a Dearborn foundry, and hollows of Kentucky and fields of Ireland for the factory floor. They are our mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, some still here, some gone, who bargained with American manufacturing for freedom of movement and moral transcendence.
A Woman of the People
Aretha’s orientation was both similar and different than the average Detroit worker. In her public life, she ascended to secular, artistic royalty while in her private life she dealt with ordinary problems of life in the twenty-first century, namely love and loss, womanhood, institutional power against personal power, and a question of the relationship between the sacred and the secular. Without a doubt, her music was both public process and public product of negotiating these. All Americans have certainly been about the same task inflected in its various ways by race and gender. But Aretha’s difference, her relative privilege, was that she came of established black Baptist tradition and that she had a microphone. That she would remain a woman of the people while being elevated to a status of cultural icon is the result both of her success at synthesizing multiple realities and of her complicated appeal. She was both “natural woman” and a thriving artist-singer on the free market; she was both Detroit and trans Detroit. She understood, because she herself lived, the city’s ebb and flow — the relationship between civil rights and labor rights, northern, urban struggles and northern opportunity, the movement of black populations into the city, around the city, and into the suburbs and white flight. Like all Detroiters, she knew the history of how racialized bodies were positioned across the Detroit landscape. She heard of the city’s early black neighborhood, Black Bottom, and its haunts along Paradise Valley. She grew up near the epicenter of the ’67 Riot. So it is interesting to consider how her music was informed by Detroit’s twenty-first century zeitgeist, and while this is a worthwhile question what the two of us have meditated on is whether there was something peculiar in the crystallization of figure, history, and place that resulted in an American musician and American music that we may not hear again.
The City that Fed Her Soul
Having set this question, I have chosen an odd way to go about answering it. Rather than focus on the music itself I have thought deeply about Aretha’s nine-hour televised funeral, held, not downtown, but in a solidly black neighborhood at the northwest edge of the city. I believe that Aretha’s music — not unlike that of her peers, Wonder, Gaye, The Temptations and on — was inspired by our very own city. And her homegoing, even with its diversity of speakers from outside the city, exhibited unmistakable Detroit flavor. To know Aretha was to know Detroit, and to know Detroit was to know Aretha, but the sad truth is that until her passing there apparently seemed not to exist adequate reason to lift the curtain.
Franklin’s funeral was a grand event full of grand flourishes appropriate to honoring a “queen,” and also not untypical of Detroit funering officiated by Swanson Funeral Home as important a Detroit institution as there is. The grandness that exists in putting away our loved ones in style — white hearse, white doves, gold casket — is in keeping with a narrative of black upward mobility. The black church most certainly has had its part in inculcating such habits in black Detroiters. And here’s where it gets interesting. Detroiters’ dramatic tendencies have always also been arrested by many factors including working class identity, experiences of systemic racism, and the economic isolation of our city. As the Detroit Pistons quipped more than a decade ago: “We go to work.” We persevere. When we had no chain grocery stores still within the city, when we drove to suburbs to shop, when factory doors closed, the tax base eroded, schools failed, and housing values plummeted, crack cocaine devoured our youth, and the first black mayor of the city was maligned by the local press almost daily, Detroit and Detroiters persevered. That always has been the Spirit of Detroit. The Queen of Soul drank from that font.
The distinct realities with which the people of Motown in the last century have contended resulted in a unique and proud Detroit culture. The forging of Detroit’s pure mettle, born of both movement and abandonment, is the substance of this largely black, not really Midwestern but not eastern, city between the straits. In the twentieth century, then, haughty yet humble Detroit came to symbolize blackness. And on the occasion of Aretha’s passing, the city revealed itself to the world as it presented for the last time one of its own. The funeral was both a ceremony for and celebration of the departed and a demonstration of blackness. It was a must that it be glorious and unforgettable. And it was. But this underlying purpose sent forth a call for a response from African Americans and “honorary blacks” from sea to shining sea. What would be the cultural significance of the passing of this black woman from this black city? This is not a trite question, and word magician Dr. Michael Eric Dyson — himself a son of the D — didn’t just tweak a global audience when he suggested that Philly and Chi had reason to envy Detroit. In indigenous style, he threw down the gauntlet.
They don’t want to feel the nasty power of this blackness! We are black in Detroit! We don’t care! Take your shoes off! Dip in the water! Get baptized!”
This was no veiled comment. Choose today whom you will serve, the Georgetown professor and preacher urged. Afterall, the Queen’s death had summoned a council of elders — the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton, former President Bill Clinton, Secretary Hillary Clinton, the Rev. Jim Holley, Judge Joe Mathis, Mother Cicely Tyson, Minister Louis Farrakhan, and the Rev. Jasper Williams.
However, as much as the funeral confronted the meaning of blackness going forward, the wieldy event with its complex presentation of a collage of song, dance, politics, technology, old and new, black and white and with moments of both pure joy and side eye embarrassment ALSO was confronted with the question of how performance — to say nothing of media — mitigates identity.
A Struggle to Feel
And this is the challenge for us today — how to feel authentically, from the gut, and from experience. Do today’s artists conjure art of human misery? We think so, but listening to the various singers at the funeral, they seemed to struggle not to experience what James Baldwin refers to as the “cup of trembling.” We struggle today to feel deeply. Did performers at Aretha’s funeral go to those places? Chaka Khan might have if her rhythm weren’t interrupted by her looking at the lyrics. And doesn’t that say it all? Even Chaka’s funky whining, on this occasion, seemed too intentional or forced.
In her short story “Nineteen Fifty-five.” Alice Walker speaks to the problem of not feeling. Were she writing that piece today maybe she would find a similar difficulty not of whites covering black music but between generations of African Americans trying to undergird our identity. But the generations are speaking, the Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials, each in its own way. Toure’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? anticipated the discordance. He boldly states that his grandfather’s pain is not his pain. The nation has contemplated post-history, post-race, and Toure — post-blackness. Might the suggestion of loss of this identity or soul not exonerate Williams’s eulogy? “Black man! Where is your soul?” Williams asked from the very outset.
This important gathering was awkward at times, the struggle a little embarrassing at least to my eyes and ears. It confounded, called for removal of shoes, anything and everything to whip up the spirit. I could only think of those children in the South, kids like my father, who were tempted to pretend to get the Holy Ghost in order, finally, to get off the mourner’s bench. And yet, on one level, the performance succeeded, and on a deeper level it may have failed. I heard a lot, but I did not feel most of the performances. I may have had a different experience had I been present in the physical audience, but to my ears, this was sounding brass. Whatever the gap is, the cultural moment of August 31, 2018 is no less important than August 28, 1963. It all matters; the postmodern condition is complicated, barely intelligible at times as it differently overwhelms, but it is no less interesting as human experience.
Well it is hard to believe that “big sis” wasn’t moved by the talent, because Jennifer Hudson, who by the way was picked by the Queen to play her in the upcoming biopic, killed it with Amazing Grace. In any case, this funeral demonstrated the African American death ritual at its highest level and most complex presentation as a collage of song, dance, politics, technology, old and new, black and white and with moments of both pure joy and side eye embarrassment. With Dr. Williams, Bishop Ellis and Ariana Grande, and the absence of Barack and Michelle Obama, this funeral as a Detroit conversation and a bigger cultural conference is an opportunity to — discuss the politics and behavior of respect and absence, the changing topology of blackness, and the lessons and constraints of the death ritual televised.
This funeral as celebration should inspire the expression of pain and joy, the work of social justice, and the mandate of respect that we all, as Americans and beyond, have inherited from the life, art and activism of the great Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. So may she rest in Peace, Power and Grace. And may we continue the soul work and the necessary pursuit of respect.
John Sims, a Detroit native, is a multimedia conceptual artist, writer and activist creating projects spanning the areas of installation, text, music, film, performance and large scale activism. Check out his work at www.johnsimsprojects.com.
Alisea Williams McLeod, a Detroit native, is a professor of English at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She blogs at www.hastac.org/user/mcleod.