Why Did Whitney Die? How Double Consciousness Robs Black America of Its Artists
“Whitney Houston died.” As the last word “died” rang in my ears, somehow grief spilled through me like ice water. Shocked, I asked who what when and where but not why. In the phone calls that followed with friends, none of us asked why.
We lost another one. It was the unspoken lament and within it was a knot of bitterness, relief and respect. However fashionable it is to critique celebrities as overpaid mannequins for Capitalism, which they often are, it does not void the fact that we need them. Especially if you are gay or brown or new or disabled or just different. Any minority within a majority looks to its celebrities whether elected or selected as trailblazers into the mainstream. Stars illuminate the path to the center and we follow them, seeing in their meltdowns and victories the dangerous warping pressures to come.
At 48 years old, Whitney Houston joins Michael Jackson who died at 50 and Tupac and Biggie, killed at 25 and 24 respectively, as another artist who succumbed to the fatal vortex of desire between what they needed from us and what we needed from them.
I first saw Houston in "I Wanna Dance with Somebody"; she was bouncy and confident with the wide universal smile of a professional performer. I was in middle school at the time, and an older Christian Fundamentalist leaned over the radio and pointed a finger at the crackly speaker. “This girl used to sing Gospel and now it’s all about sex,” she intoned. “It’s Satan’s music.”
Confused, I sensed that Whitney was a battleground over values. She was a good girl going bad, maybe not fully there yet but quickly descending. Looking back, it was a silly and stupid thing to say but in it was the public judgment that cloved Houston’s life into an unbridgeable chasm. On one side was the polished pop music diva, whose soaring voice was itself an anthem. On the other side, she a woman with a taste for bad men, liquor and cocaine. Like a shadow growing as the sun sets, Ghetto Whitney slowly overpowered Pop Whitney.
And in the desperate, perverse way of Black America, we loved her for being a clean church girl to be proud of as she wooed the nation. Our kids sang in their wobbly voices "The Greatest Love of All" at talent contests. She lifted us into a transcendent communion at the 1991 Super Bowl through a soaring version of the "Star Spangled Banner." She was loved by Kevin Costner in the 1992 film The Bodyguard. We loved her for being America’s Sweetheart and making the black voice the beating pulse of our language.
And in that desperate, perverse way of Black America, we loved her fall. It was as if her marriage to New Edition bad boy Bobby Brown showed that she didn’t really climb out of our reach. On the stoop, in the barbershop and beauty parlor, Whitney was laughed at as a pipehead, a trick being turned by a low-down man, a ruined princess. In so many conversations, I traded Whitney stories with others. Did you hear about the bathroom filled with empty liquor bottles, burnt heroin spoons, tubes, black tinged crack pipes and shit? Did you hear about Bobby taking her money? Did you hear her voice? It was the manic gossip of a people, who betrayed so many times now mistake wretchedness for authenticity.
It was because Whitney was a vehicle for integration. She was an image of blackness that white America could buy and in doing so, give us cultural leverage in return. And to the degree she ascended we praised her but felt an unease that it came at the price we ultimately could not pay. During the 1989 Soul Train Awards, she was booed by some of the black audience for what was seen as her abandoning the soul tradition for a bleached pop vocal style. It hurt her deeply. During a Katie Couric interview in 1996 she said, “Sometimes it gets down to that, you know? You’re not black enough for them. I don’t know. You’re not R&B enough. You’re very pop. The white audience has taken you away from them.”
But when she fell, she landed in black arms. Cradling her, we began the ritual of resurrection and applauded her as she reappeared onstage; thin as flagpole and her voice a tattered flag blowing in a song of loss. But Ghetto Whitney had grown powerful and no amount of forgiveness or salvation could stop her. She drank away Pop Whitney’s voice, spent her money, cancelled her shows and did not stop until she died.
Whitney died so young because like Michael and Biggie and Tupac and others to follow, she straddled Black America’s Double Consciousness. We see the image others have of us and the one we have of ourselves and when they move too far apart we fall and fall and fall. And no amount of singing can fill the void.