Whitney Houston’s funeral yesterday prompted an email conversation between myself and a group of friends that raised questions about how black performers who are viewed as crossover artists often are “reclaimed” by the black community when they fall from grace or die. “When Whitney was on top of the world, she transcended race – she was all of ours. When Whitney crashed and burned, she became a “black singer” – she was all theirs,” a friend shared today. When they are successful, when their style and manner are palatable to a majority fan base, performers like Whitney Houston is said to transcend race. When such performers develop addictions, die untimely deaths, or otherwise “fall from grace,” they begin to be perceived by whites as descended in blackness, rather than transcending it. This doesn’t only apply to Whitney Houston, but also and perhaps more palpably to a star like Michael Jackson.
While the funeral services of these two stars — Whitney and Michael– were so different from each other (take, for one, the different venue choices with Whitney’s return to Newark, NJ and her childhood church, and Michael’s event at the Staple Center and the different statements these services made) what interests me most is the line of thinking by a larger culture that each of these figures, in their own way, transcended race to become pop icons.
It seems that in these moments of mourning, race becomes magnified. Far from transcendent, there is something about these moments of mourning around figures like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston that remind the general populace that they are, indeed, black. And were all along.
What does it mean to “transcend race”? How do you “transcend” race anyway and why should anyone try or want to? By suggesting that blackness in particular is a racial aspect that needs to be transcended, risen above, implies also that blackness is limited in it’s scope of expression, of humanity. In this respect, the idea of “transcendence” is actually quite problematic, especially given that, in public discussions of race, we never talk about a white person transcending his or her race. What would it look like, what would it mean if we started thinking about how whites transcend whiteness? Do we think of Steve Jobs as a white man who transcended race to produce technology that even people of color would purchase and enjoy? How white people have a race too?
This notion of transcending race doesn’t only come from a majority perspective. Whitney Houston was criticized in black owned publications such as Ebony and Jet at points during her career for creating music that was “too pop” and “not black enough.” But as a good friend asked today, what is pop music if it is not black? Think about the ways in which Elvis Presley appropriated what he heard as a cool black sound that he replicated in pop music. Despite what these publications said, Whitney Houston was always a black woman singing pop music. And, by singing pop music, she actually expanded the sonic landscape, situating herself as a black female vocalist squarely in the soundscape of pop music.
These moments of mourning black celebrities perhaps also emphasize the need for us to think differently about racial difference and how we perceive it — in others and in ourselves.