feature photo by David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Many of us don’t yet have words for Beyoncé’s recent performance at the Grammys because… language has yet to catch up with her. But do you remember how, in Cranes in the Sky, Solange danced like a gold, shimmering bird? Remember how it felt to watch the last few scenes in Moonlight? How you were buzzing? Whether it’s the blues or a flash, there is this tradition of alchemy in African American culture. Using art to turn suffering to light. In honor of Black History Month, we are featuring personal essays as part of the Renaissance series. Each essay will describe how one queer black life has been saved by art. In the name of healing, wholeness and resistance, we hope you enjoy!
I am the daughter of a God-fearing, Southern Baptist, single, black mother. The soundtrack of my childhood was primarily gospel. My earliest memories of music involve soul clapping and swaying to the sound of harmonies— seemingly sent from God— being belted out by stunningly powerful black vocalists singing from a place of strength, rooted in the collective black experience. I loved gospel music, still do, and loved how proud my mother was whenever I learned a new song to sing about her Jesus. I could never quite contain my excitement when the glorious moment arrived that mom was in the mood for soul music. It usually happened in the car, and I would watch from the backseat almost exploding with anticipation as she ejected Kirk Franklin and reached for some good old soul. She had a couple favorite singers, and while I was always happy to hang with Luther Vandross and Tina Turner, nothing and no one compared to Whitney Houston.
My love for Whitney ran DEEP. It ignited when I was three years old the day my mom brought home a videotape containing my version of the holy trinity of music videos: “How Will I Know,” “You Give Good Love,” and “The Greatest Love of All.” I had never seen or heard anything like Whitney Houston, and I could not stop hitting rewind. I watched those music videos religiously every night before bed for a year, singing and dancing the whole way through, often to my brother’s dismay. I was obsessed. In those moments you could not tell me that I hadn’t been right up onstage with Whitney killing it in my footie pajamas.
Whitney Houston gave me my first taste of black girl magic and I relished every last drop. Here was this stunning woman commanding the world’s attention on every channel and radio station, not just the black ones, and she was the same color as me! She was Southern, radiant, successful, and poised like my mother. She was everything my little black girl heart needed to look up to, and she had an entire song devoted to telling me that I was the future, that I was beautiful, that I need not be anyone but me, that I should learn to love myself unabashedly. Whitney Houston was my ultimate idol, and had I not spent such a formative year of my childhood heading to sleep to the tune of her breathtaking voice preaching self-love and internalizing it with all my might, I would not be the vocalist and queer woman of color that I am today.
When The Bodyguard came out, my level of Whitney fever reached impressive heights. Whenever I saw that disk adorned with the pixelated images of Whitney and Kevin Costner’s faces clutched in my mother’s fingers headed for the CD player, I felt a joy so intense that it somehow tickled and itched at the same time. All I could do was giggle and squirm around in elation waiting for the songs to load, but once that first note rang out it got serious. No laughter, no dancing, eyes closed, singing my heart out to “I Will Always Love You” like I’d somehow learned all about love and heartbreak on the playground and could absolutely relate. I memorized every lyric, rhythm, melody, and riff on that album, and as a result my mom realized I actually had a pretty good talent for singing. She signed me up to be in the children’s choir at church.
I adored children’s choir. Partly because we had cute matching jumpers and got to sit separately from our parents and sneak peppermints during the service, but mostly because it was there that I realized just how much l loved to sing and first made performing a major part of my life. I anticipated every rehearsal, practiced constantly, and not long after joining I was assigned a solo. I basically flew into the car screaming in glee when my mom picked me up from rehearsal that night and somehow managed to coherently inform her about my super special diva solo that was all of five words long and would surely impress Whitney Houston. I was so ready.
The morning of my debut I woke up and felt like my stomach was competing in a double dutch competition. I thought I was sick but, already a typical soprano, I didn’t want to say anything and risk forfeiting my solo so I got dressed and got in the car. It wasn’t until I was scuffing my already worn shoes on the church steps glaring angrily at the fluffy white socks mom loved for me to wear that itched and bunched around my ankles, and feeling completely terrified at the idea of walking inside that I realized I wasn’t sick — I was nervous. I hated being nervous and still to this day have a low tolerance for it. I thought about running to the playground to hide until the service was over, but the next thing I knew I was picturing my bestie Whitney in my head and I thought “if she could sing at church as a little girl, so can I.”
I took a deep breath then walked inside and eventually sang my solo that day, and many more after that using Whitney as my secret confidence weapon. I also started singing at school and spent the next few years happily assuming as kids do that life would always be songs, school, and friends; but then I fainted in the middle of my fourth grade class. That lead to a two-week stay in the hospital for a heart surgery that mandated a very long recovery period with no allowance of physical activity, and for a while left me too weak and sad to sing. I spent a long period of time out of school, out of my activities, feeling like my body had failed me, and frustrated that I wasn’t getting better sooner. Shortly after I was able to return to school, my mom informed me that we would be moving from New York to Pennsylvania. I didn’t know how to handle all that change— even 10-year-olds who aren’t the products of black single parent households in America aren’t the best at processing change and trauma— so I did what I’d seen all the women in my life do numerous times, said a prayer, held it all in, and kept it moving.
Life in Pennsylvania was drastically different from our life in New York and I had a very hard time coping. We went from having the embrace of a large black community around us, backyard fish fries and spades nights, to being isolated as one of about 15 black families in our entire school district, which covered four suburban cities, with a population of about 27,000. We were one of two black families in our neighborhood. It was a brand new development that mom was so proud to be able to move us into thanks to her new job and major income increase, but to me felt it foreign and surreal like a place we didn’t belong. I felt lost. I had no friends, low self-esteem, was heavier and taller and darker than everyone around me and they made sure I knew it. I retreated into myself, stopped singing, made no effort to socialize, covered my ridiculed black body from head to toe, and read fantasy novels in every minute of my spare time to escape.
I’d grown accustomed to my new shut-in life and was on the bus headed home after school one day when “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” came on the radio. I didn’t realize I’d started to sing along out loud until I was startled by someone talking to me. It was the girl who lived across the street from me, who was also teased and disliked. No one ever talked to me so I assumed it was a mistake and stared at her in shock, at which point she laughed and repeated “you have a really pretty voice.” I shook my head in denial but managed to embarrassedly say “thanks” which she took as an opportunity to sit next to me, convince me to be her friend (it wasn’t hard), come over to hang out, and then talk me into joining the school choir. When I got home later that night I ran to my room, dropped to my knees and felt tears of joy flow as I thanked the universe that by some miracle Whitney Houston helped me make a friend.
As promised, I signed up for choir and got very excited about the idea of singing being a part of my life again. The first few minutes of class were terrifying as I realized I couldn’t sit next to my friend because she was an alto and I almost cried, but once we started singing life felt right again. I felt warm and weightless and like I belonged for the first time in years. Choir became my favorite part of the week. Little by little I started to come out of my shell within the boundaries of the music room, and our teacher noticed and took me under her wing. She spent time with me, became my friend and role model, and did everything in her power to gently but assuredly push my boundaries. She made me sing for her, and then for others. She taught me in private voice lessons that built my vocal and personal confidence, which led me to try new things like auditioning for solos and musicals. From those musicals I made new friendships that she helped me foster since I was still insanely shy. She helped me find my voice and make it stronger, and in turn helped me find and strengthen myself.
From that point on my life was about music. If there was a musically related thing to be done at school or in my spare time, I did it. School and church choirs, musicals, community theater, band: I was a full on music suite geek. I sang and played my way through middle school and into high school. No longer an outcast, finally feeling adjusted to my new community, naturally I should have known that something was coming to start some shit. That something was my first crush.
She was a new girl at school, a goth Hot Topic chick so I knew immediately she’d have a hard time making friends. I just felt it was the right thing to do to befriend her and make her transition to our school as smooth as possible. Yes, I was delusional. Suddenly my time was split between doing everything I could to make sure we had classes and study hall together then ditching rehearsals to hang out with her after school, and panicking inside because I realized that once again I was very different from everyone around me. I became terrified that if anyone found out I’d lose my newfound social status and happier life.
I thought I couldn’t be gay. My Southern baptist upbringing told me I couldn’t; my uncle’s explosive outburst at a family gathering demanding that my two-year-old cousin shouldn’t play with his mother’s shoes because it’d “turn him into a faggot” told me I couldn’t; the homophobic jokes my peers constantly made and laughed at told me I couldn’t. I’d been conditioned against gayness my whole life, and spent so long being ostracized for seemingly lesser infractions that I couldn’t stand the thought of losing the inclusion I had finally gained. I thought I couldn’t be gay and black and loved and accepted. So I lied to myself and worked as hard as I could to believe I wasn’t.
I ignored every feeling and desire I had, and berated myself for having them in the first place. I ended up hating myself, which was a dark place to be as it threatened my mental health. I started to mess up at school from the stress and lied to my family and teachers about the reasons that led to more emotional stress and more lies. I fell apart. After a sleepover with my crush where I spent the entire night awake feeling both elated and disgusted by the fact that she fell asleep with her arm touching mine, I hit my breaking point. I figured there was no place in the world for me so I shouldn’t be here. By some miracle — given the huge stigma around mental health in the black community — at this same point in time, my mom decided I needed to be in therapy and informed me that I’d be starting that week.
I headed into my first therapy session expecting to hate it because no one ever talked about therapy as a positive thing. From what I understood it was a horrible place for “crazy” people that failed at managing their lives, so I skulked in and plopped on the tweed couch, folded my arms, put on my bitch face, and prepared to give my best silent angsty teen performance for an hour and then refuse to return. My therapist was unfazed. She told me she wasn’t interested in forcing me to talk and would happily sit there in silence with me, but figured since I had the chance to get the kind of help a lot of people don’t have access to I should use it. Then she offered me a snack. She was good.
Ten minutes later I was surrounded by peanut butter cracker wrappers sobbing into a wad of tissues while explaining my inability to understand how all the things I’d learned to love about myself as a child turned out to be things that were devalued by society at large. She asked me if I had any role models, at which point I shared my love of Whitney Houston and history of motivating myself and coping with life by listening to her music. I never mentioned my crush or fears surrounding it during that session, but my therapist must have picked up on something because she asked me if I had followed Whitney’s personal life at all or read any interviews she had done. I hadn’t, so the homework she gave me for that session was to get back into the habit of listening to “Greatest Love of All” daily, and to read up on Whitney’s life and specifically look up an interview she had done in Out magazine a few years back.
When I found that interview I was floored. I had no idea that LGBT publications (or the acronym) existed, and here was my idol happily gracing the cover of one. It was surreal. I read the interview at least 15 times before I could really grasp what was in front of me or just what it meant. So much about who I am had come to light in ways that I felt were unforgivable since that first time I learned about self-love as a little girl nine years prior, and I no longer thought the right to love of self applied to me. Lighter, thinner, straighter girls sure, but not me. Now here again was Whitney Houston expressing that no one should ever be ashamed of who they are, and that while she did not identify as a lesbian and, in fact, vehemently denied rampant rumors of bisexuality during her life — which I accepted as truth — she was raised in contact with and loved the LGBT community, and if she were gay, she would be proud to say so. Proud. For the second time in my teen life, I found myself on my knees giving thanks to the universe for this woman I felt inexplicably connected to and overwhelmingly grateful for. I wasn’t forgotten, I wasn’t alone, and I surely wasn’t unworthy of love from myself or others. I needed that.
There were other themes in the interview that resonated with me as well, such as Whitney’s journey to finding a way to be true to herself yet still navigating and being accepted by the mainstream white population, which coincidentally led to her music becoming highly adored by the gays. I found it easier to start over and start moving forward using her as an example of how to occupy multiple spaces as a black queer woman in America without losing myself to any of them. Many years passed before I reached a place of pride, love, and acceptance of my queerness, but I worked kindly and patiently with my heart and mind to get there over time. I kept singing at the center of my life and made Whitney Houston my go-to karaoke choice out of gratitude. I surrounded myself with liberal, open-minded people that I knew would stay by my side when I eventually did come out, and let go of anyone I couldn’t put that trust in. I learned to release my residual religious guilt. I nurtured myself and put myself first because I finally felt I deserved to. I deserved to love the shit out of myself and was going to get there in my own time.
During this period of immense growth and strengthening, Whitney Houston was headed in the opposite direction. Admittedly it hurt to see the decline in her health and struggles with addiction so I selfishly avoided it and tried to hold on to the utopian vision I’d had of her for so long. I was in graduate school at NYU studying in the library when I found out that she died and it shook me. I packed up and cried the whole walk home as I wondered how someone who had changed my life and helped me persevere time and again, and brought so much positivity and love into the world could have her life end in such a tragic way. It was the ultimate lesson that loving and caring for yourself is a journey that’s easier said than done. I called my mom and we cried together and reminisced about all the childhood car rides and bedtime dance parties Whitney provided the soundtrack for, then I spent some time alone in silence thinking about all the ways she had touched my life.
Initially I was overwhelmed by sadness at the memories, then one came to me that caused a shift to celebration. It was the first time I went to a gay club in New York City after starting to come out. I went alone and got so nervous that I walked around the block for 15 minutes pretending to be on the phone and giving myself a motivational speech before walking in and immediately ordering two tequila shots. I danced on my own for a while, letting the warmth of being free and safe and surrounded by queer community wash over me as it tends to do, and then it happened. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” came on. I lit up and smiled, someone noticed, we danced, and then I had my first out queer makeout session in the middle of a bar full of my people singing their hearts out to Whitney Houston. No other experience I’ve had touches the beauty of that moment.
I have to admit it feels cathartic to have written this about Whitney a few days before the anniversary of her passing, during the month that is a celebration of both black history and love. How fitting to have the chance to offer this celebration of her life and impact on my personal black queer love history, and rejoice in knowing that she will be a part of my future as everything I create from a place of love stems from roots that she helped me cultivate. I still think of her before every performance that I have, and I’ll be turning up her songs on the radio, singing them at karaoke, and dancing to them at bars in her honor for the rest of my life because Whitney (you know I have to do it!) I will always love you.