Whitney and my mother are inexorably linked within my memory. They did not know each other. Or maybe they did in the way black women know each other quite well–a sort of underground communication through wormholes connecting history to history, time to time, separate lives lived with separate outcomes, separate burdens, but the familiarity of those burdens, those choices, those lives bridge the gap between two people: a pop star and a nurse.
Or perhaps music was the bridge. My mother loved Whitney: her voice, her flawless smile, her shoulder-shrugs in lieu of dance steps. I, on the other hand, was not a fan of Whitney; in the late 80s, hip-hop clutched my older brothers’ collective attention by the throat, and I watched them squirm, wondering what kind of music could make them spin on their backs or wear unlaced Adidas or argue for hours–hours–over who should claim the “best rapper” title. Whitney was a singer, and I desired the rhymes my brothers coveted, so I dismissed her as someone my mother loved; I pegged Whitney “uncool,” a label assigned due to her proximity to my mother, the most “uncool” woman I knew–know.
So began the Gulf War. I was ten years old. Politics then, as it is now, was uninteresting to me, though the war did confuse me. What I knew of war was what was taught to me in grade school: the history books framed America’s wars as necessary evils that, for the most part, ended in victory. The wars’ necessity spawned by some kind of foreign threat, some shadowy figure aiming danger toward the States. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait; I neither knew of Hussein (and Iraq) nor Kuwait, and it seemed to me that their conflict had nothing to do with the US. So why the war? Why the yellow ribbons and the “Operation: Desert Shield” oops, I mean “Operation: Desert Storm” code names? Why the grainy footage of missile strikes aired on CNN?
And–why the tears in so many people’s eyes as Whitney sang the National Anthem prior to the Super Bowl?
I don’t remember my mother shedding tears during Whitney’s rendition. I only remember the voice–The Voice–booming from the fifty yard line, the wide-mouthed bellow of The Star-Spangled Banner from that slender, shoulder-shrugging pop star who ripped the anthem apart with her voice, who reassembled the words and the melody with the power in her gut, who made the National Anthem “her song” the way Jimi Hendrix warped it with amplifiers and the electric guitar and made it “his song,” the way all of our most beloved and memorable geniuses of art and song can take the mundane, the known-by-heart, and redesign it into something wholly new and wondrous.
And there was Bobby Brown. Bobby Brown, in his hey-day, made me laugh. His “bad boy” antics seemed clownish to me–“clown” as in the entertaining shenanigans of those costumed jesters in ever circus, but I don’t mean “clown” as in “coon,” a deadly pejorative I’ve heard hurled his way more than once. Bobby and Whitney fell in love. Bobby and Whitney married each other. Even at my young age, such a coupling seemed–odd. Off-key. At least that’s how my mother approached the topic. “Bobby Brown? Him??”
I hated “The Bodyguard” and will continue to hate “The Bodyguard” until I’m buried, not because the movie was bad–though the movie was bad–but because of the song. The Song. You know the song. A beautiful cover of Dolly Parton’s song. Another song Whitney deconstructed and reassembled into her own song. The Song played over. And over. And over. And over. And over. Again.
My mother loved the movie and owned the soundtrack and played The Song to death–as if radio stations weren’t busy with this task–while I rode in the backseat of her Ford Taurus, tortured.
I don’t know what to say about Whitney’s death because, it appears from preliminary autopsy reports, it would require me to discuss Whitney’s later years. The drug use. The alcohol abuse. The tumultuous and public marriage to Bobby Brown, the former bad-boy-clown who was later pegged by the masses as the source of Whitney’s downfall.
“Known to bring a rapper down, like Bobby did Whitney.”
The morning after I learned of Whitney’s death, I thought of her voice. I imagined her voice in my ear. And I imagined Bobby and Bobbi, his daughter, Whitney’s daughter, and I imagined Bobby hearing those words throughout the years–“It’s your fault”–and I imagined the emotions, the memories, the love–for there was love–deconstructing and re-assembling his blood, his organs, his tears–and I turned my mind’s eye elsewhere.
Every person has a champion and every champion–minus Jesus, so goes the story–has a closet full of sins. And all of those sins are now comedic fodder (crack is whack) and bring a sick joy to those who watch the fall of someone else’s champion. And they make untimely jokes. And they tout their self-righteousness, since people are dying in wars and children go hungry everyday, so who are YOU to mourn a former pop star? It’s always someone else’s champion until your champion falls. It is all fun and games until your idol, so far from grace, collapses by the same final stab which awaits us all.
My mother’s champion is gone.
mensah demary, whose prose has appeared or is forthcoming in various publications, is co-founder & editor-in-chief ofÂ Specter Magazine.
a regular contributor for The Lit Pub, Hippocampus Magazine, ArtFaccia, and Peripheral Surveys,Â mensah currently writes in Camden, New Jersey. For more information, visitwww.mensahdemary.comÂ or on Twitter @mensahdemary.Â