As Whitney Houston’s Funeral Nears, We Celebrate Her Life—And Remember That She Was Us

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
(Can’t speak)
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

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. This is beautifully written, Denene. It describes why we were all so shocked and are publicly morning her loss all over the Internet. Whitney Houston was a powerful influence to so many black girls through several generations for both the accomplishments and mistakes she made in her life. I was a blown away pre-teen watching the same woman as you. Although not so shy at the time, I loved musical theater and MTV 🙂 One of my favorite memories was when I bought my late step-father the Bodyguard Soundtrack – he was so happy to receive it – and, to my surprise, “Queen of the night” became his favorite track … LOL 🙂 Now, you have to envision a 40-ish, good looking, affluent, Jewish man (that could not sing) singing “Queen of the Night” with the top off his sports car, whenever he left the house. I don’t know if he felt like that when he has a few drinks or if he just loved Whitney’s looks that much … the point being that she did not just influence black girls like us, in her prime; she had a sociocultural impact that resulted in a pool of people that loved her music and ultimately her. I would die an extremely happy woman if I had anything close to that POSITIVE affect on the world.

  2. This is beautifully written Denene! Whitney Houston’s music really did play a huge part in my life too.

  3. Madeleine Ederson

    Simply beautifully written….

  4. Wow! What a tribute. Thank you! This was so beautiful. I hope that her family can find this wonderful tribute amongst all the garbage, gossip and speculation out there.



  7. You expressed so beautifully what I feel about Whitney’s passing. I know when I cry for her, as I did again when I read this, that I’m also crying for myself, for the me she represented and the me that’s been lost though time and experience. Many of us manage to avoid the big crash and burn, often by reinventing ourselves as we go along. I wished so desperately for her to be able to do that. I know she would not have wanted to leave her child to suffer this way.

    Oh, and I second what Char said. I’m so sick of all the mud-raking and speculation. People should stop throwing stones and reflect on their own lives. Enough already!

  8. ***Grabs Tissues*** Girl, you have taken me with your words…This is absolutely beautiful and beautifully written. Everything you have said is exactly how I feel about Whitney and she will be very missed. It’s going to be hard to hear a song of hers and then silently say “Damn, I can’t believe she’s Gone”. May her music live forever and her soul rest in peace.

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