Discover more from Witness
"Trust Your Experience"
“Take no one’s word for anything, including mine—but trust your experience.”
—James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963)
Hello Family and welcome new subscribers!
How y’all feeling? Good, I hope.
Me? I’m taking it day by day. I turned 52 on April 21 and I have a ton of gratitude about that because when I was younger, I didn’t believe I’d make it to 30. I was always afraid of 29 because I thought that would be my last year on Earth. Why? Lots of reasons.
I believed that because I was a Black kid, I’d be strung up by roving racist mobs, gunned down by police, or taken out by someone who, at another time, in another place, might have been my brother. Also, I grew up during the height of the AIDS crisis and believed that because I was a queer kid, I’d succumb to it like so many of the people around me did, or get bashed to death by roving bands of homophobes. In short, I figured that if anti-Blackness didn’t annihilate me, anti-queerness would.
Also, all the holy rollers, street proselytizers, and even Prince, were saying “2000 zero zero party over, oops, out of time!” and so I thought the world was going to come to an end in the year 2000, my 29th year. Kids are very impressionable you know.
Somehow—perhaps through sheer luck, perhaps through Ancestral grace—I’m here. Still. Some days good; some days not so good. But I’m above ground and that has got to count for something.
“Trust Your Experience”
Recently, I’ve been thinking about the James Baldwin quote above. It was advice that he was giving to his nephew, to whom he was writing in The Fire Next Time. It seems like such a simple lesson, but it’s one I find I have to learn over and over again.
I recently gave a lecture at the Marygrove Conservancy in Detroit, Michigan (you can find the video on YouTube and the essay on my website), and it was truly a life-altering experience. Detroit felt like hallowed ground, given how much Black art, intellect, and resistance is manifested there. I met so many wonderful people—scholars, students, librarians, booksellers, readers. Folks in Detroit are mad nice; very warm and welcoming, kind and giving. I’m grateful to have been invited and I hear that I’m going to be invited back. I can’t wait! I didn’t get the chance to see the city like I wanted. When I go back, I’m going to stay long enough to check out the sights.
I was nervous about the lecture because I was asked to speak on my experiences a Black student in a primarily white M.F.A. program. And when people ask about your experience, if you decide to testify, it has to be an honest testimony. And that honesty required me to recall some things that I would much rather forget; made me remember some things that I did forget. And when I was finished, I’m not going to lie: I was worried AF for sharing it because I never went into such detail publicly before and I was concerned about the ramifications.
But once that subsided, I felt giddy; almost felt like I might be able to fly.
Or dance with somebody, one.
“Take No One’s Word for Anything—Including Mine”
The critics largely trashed Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody. So I made the error of taking their word for it. To be fair, I didn’t want to risk seeing a film that didn’t do Whitney Houston justice. We have, after all, already lost someone who is possibly the greatest singer of all time. I didn’t want to compound that with a terrible representation of her life.
When I saw that it was available on Netflix, with trepidation, I asked my husband if he wanted to watch it. Courageously, we did.
We were weeping within the first 20 minutes. I loved this movie.
I understand the various criticisms about the film not being a deep dive, etc., but I don’t care. In my opinion, what was put on the screen gave me what I needed. What I didn’t need was a rehash of all of Houston’s already public failings. I wanted a triumphant recollection of her life. And I feel that’s what was given to me.
The film does have it share of tragedies, of course. The one that is often underappreciated is how Whitney succumbed to the religious and business pressure to hate and then erase her queer self. On full display here is what happens to the person who is stripped of their human complexities and turned into a brand simple enough to consume; a person whose pop transformation requires that they become the empty vessel into which the audience might be able to cast their hopes, dreams, wishes, fantasies, and sins.
What happens is inevitable: they die soon.
I found this to be a compelling and complex portrayal of Houston. Naomi Ackie, despite not physically resembling her, did an incredible job of embodying her. What graceful, captivating performances by all the actors involved, especially Tamara Tunie as Cissy Houston and Nafessa Williams as Robyn Crawford.
This movie made me wonder, too, if anyone has ever publicly apologized to Bobby Brown for lying on his name and blaming Houston’s addictions on him. Or is it that his own human failings make it such that people think—in this day and age, where, as unachievable as it is, perfection is still the prerequisite for being afforded humanity—they don’t have to atone for being unscrupulous if they have convinced themselves that they are morally superior to the person they bore false witness against?
The triumph of this film is that Houston presented in it is not the butt of jokes; not the caricature that has been unfortunately immortalized and flattened in memes and comedy skits. This was not the Whitney who we collectively thought it was okay to laugh at when she was at her lowest just so that we could be soothed by the fact that famous people have flaws, too.
The Whitney Houston in this film was presented as one of the most talented and one of the most human beings to ever exist. I think that’s what I loved most.
About Houston’s talent: My husband once described it something like this: just when you think she’s sang everything she had to sing, when she couldn’t possibly hit a higher note, wouldn’t dare a broader belt, could not have any more air in her lungs for another note, she goes back to the well and brings up the sweetest water you’ve ever tasted. That’s exactly it. She built, on foundations laid by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Aretha Franklin, the most beautiful vocal structures humankind has ever seen.
After we watched the film, I said to my husband: “I feel grateful to have been alive while she was alive.”
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody accomplished one thing for sure: it makes this reality inescapable: the world lost someone irreplaceable when we lost her.
There will never be another Whitney Houston. Maybe that’s true of everyone we lose. But it seems especially true here.
As difficult as it may be, we try to recover from profound loss, yes?
And we seek out reasons to be glad:.
Tonight (May 2), me and the homies are rolling deep up to the Schomburg to see Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah and Mitchell S. Jackson celebrate the release of Nana’s new novel, Chain-Gang All -Stars.
And tomorrow (May 3), I get to talk to Cleyvis Natera about the paperback release of her novel, Neruda on the Park, at St. Joseph’s University.
Literary events are, well, lit. 😊
The Devil Finds Work by James Baldwin
A Song for You: My Life with Whitney Houston by Robyn Crawford
Reel to Real: Race, class and sex at the movies by bell hooks
Didn’t We Almost Have It All: In Defense of Whitney Houston by Gerrick Kennedy
Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop by Danyel Smith
Until next time, may the Ancestors love and keep you.
Blessings upon blessings,