When I was 16, Whitney Houston was everything.
I was a nerd—wholesome, shy, black. Never kissed. And in love with this boy I’d worshipped from the moment I saw him in Mr. Muckle’s 5th grade class, sitting at a desk across from my own. There are a million songs that remind me of my years-long clandestine love for him—Sergio Mendez’s “Love Is Waiting,” Shalamar’s “Somewhere There’s a Love,” and especially Whitney’s “How Will I Know.” I’ve been thinking about that last song a lot, lately. What the lyrics meant to me. What Whitney meant to me. How she bounced across my MTV in that slinky mini-dress and matching oversized hair bow, runway thin and model pretty with hot pink lips and those bright, smiling eyes, wondering about, dreaming of and wanting the guy she longed for to just, like, notice her.
There’s a boy/I know
He’s the one I’m dreamin’ of
Looks into/my eyes
Takes me to the clouds above
How will I know if he’s thinking of me
I try to phone but I’m too shy
Falling in love is all bitter sweet
This love is strong why do I feel weak
Whitney spoke to me. For me. Her musical mentor, Clive Davis, had fashioned that inner city girl, born at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement but a huge benefactor of its promise, into a beautiful butterfly of a star who sang songs about puppy love, grown folk love, forbidden love, self-love—things that directly appealed to the girl next door who, too, was navigating all those manifestations of love. I was a girl next door. Whitney Houston was me.
She was me, too, when she struck out against apartheid and sang, defiantly, for the then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday, just as we, like thousands of other students, were sitting outside our dean’s office, protesting the university’s investment in South Africa. She was me when she accomplished the unimaginable as a black woman singing soulful songs—a steady string of musical accolades previously reserved for the likes of Sinatra and Elvis, just as I was making inroads as a political reporter in the white male-dominated newspaper industry. She was me, too, when she strutted across the big screen, smashing box office records and showing the entire world that black girls could be bratty superstars (The Bodyguard) and BFFs who hold each other up (Waiting To Exhale) and fairy godmothers who help chocolate girls become the princesses, too (Cinderella), just as my girls and I and black girls everywhere else were negotiating the tricky relationship terrain. She sure was me when she married a boy from New Edition, our favorite teenage band, and swung her pregnant belly with giggles and a lot of pride as she proudly proclaimed, “I’m Every Woman” in a video full of our African American sheroes—just years before I would have a brown baby girl of my own.
She was everything because, as my friend Myrna pointed out, she showed the whole entire world that we chocolate brown girls could be everything—talented, pretty, successful, passionate, outspoken, loving, motherly, Godly, soulful, sexy, political, connected, strong, weak, troubled, joyful. Beautifully Human.
Whitney Houston was not perfect. I know I’m not. Show me the one who is. And while you demand perfection, or waste time and space and matter dissecting the life of this fallen icon and dragging her memory through gossip sludge, today, as her family prepares to say farewell to her in a private funeral in her childhood Newark, NJ, church, I make the conscious choice to celebrate Whitney the singer, the movie star, the woman, the daughter, the mother. The beautiful black woman who was—and is—me.
1. Whitney Houston Dies At 48—A Sad Farewell To An Icon We Absolutely Adore
2. Jennifer Hudson’s Grammy Awards Tribute To Whitney Houston (Video)
3. Soul Holiday: The Ill MyBrownBaby Christmas Song Playlist