Day 35: Race in the Mourning Time

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.

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7 Responses to Day 35: Race in the Mourning Time

  1. David K says:

    Your friend used the term “transcended race”; you didn’t. You don’t have to agree with it or even explain it if you don’t think it’s right. Really the phrase “transcended race” means simply that even people not of Whitney’s skin color saw her as one of themselves, as an “American” singer, as part of their cultural life. My concern is that a funeral steeped in African-American traditions and set in a black church in a bombed out neighborhood of Newark, following a life marred by drug addiction and death in sordid circumstances, will reinforce among less-thoughtful people that drug abuse and domestic violence is a “black problem”, and that Whitney was laid to rest in the community from which she and all of her problems sprang.

    • Nigel Furlonge says:

      I think “racial transcendence” has at least has 2 dominant strands–one in the sense that Dave notes here to suggest that this particular figure (often an athlete or a musical performer) and usually black reaches a larger audience–not of their own race. But there is another interesting use that I hear–often from a younger generation. I heard from my high school students over the past few years on more than one occasion, note that we live in a post-racial society. Essentially, as a society, we’ve transcended race. As Cornell West noted years ago: Race Matters, But in a “post-racial society.” how does Race matter?

      • I’ve been struck, too, my how my students think about these issues. They talk about themselves as “less black” and “more white” because they attend private school. Psychologically, what impact, then, does their sense of “transcending race” have on them and their sense of self? What does it do to a black child to think that they have to “become white” in order to be successful? It basically puts them in positions where, by implication, they think something is wrong with who they are and where they come from. It’s sad. What impact might all of this have on the achievement gap?

  2. Dave, First, thank you for sparking the discussion which led me to write this post. My thinking here about racial transcendence is not an attempt to refute you or anyone else in that original discussion. I am trying to think through what racial transcendence means and implies when we all use it. This is what I do, and enjoy doing, as a cultural studies scholar. And let me note that our emails weren’t the beginnings of my thinking about racial transcendence. For me, it is of utmost importance that we think carefully about language, that we are constantly tweaking our language, because embedded in it are views that can impact us when policy makers make policy, when teachers teach, when talk shows pose questions and frame politics in certain ways, etc.

    In part, we are having a conversation between friends in a public space. If you are put off by my comments over the past few days, email me directly or call me. I value your opinion and your comments to my thinking and writing, which is why I jumped in the conversation on Saturday when you invited me to do so. So if you are bothered by my comments, I am sorry. But they are my on-going thinking about these matters nonetheless.

  3. Nigel Furlonge says:

    I didn’t read David K’s comments as particularly bothered. That point about reinforcing negative stereotypes in the black community is interesting. However, I don’t think that less thoughtful people would rethink their position with respect to urban blight based on where this particular funeral was held. At the end of the day, this is the community where she grew up. For people to read Newark as the place from where all her problems sprang–that may or may not be true. Who knows? Some might argue that the irony is that her substance abuse problems arose after she left Newark–again, I have no idea. What I do know is that this space was her childhood home and at least at one point her dominant “community.” I suspect her family didn’t think twice about their choice in this regard.

    • David K says:

      I am zero percent bothered by anything in this conversation, neither in the email version nor in this one. If anything were to bother me it would be a concern that what I wrote bothered somebody else. To respond to Nigel’s comment above, I agree that these hypothetical “less thoughtful” people I am talking about are so much “less thoughtful” that they haven’t had any thoughts at all triggered by the funeral or its location. It was just Whitney Houston’s funeral in the place where she grew up (or close to it) and nothing more. It’s just that for me, the funeral triggered some questions.

  4. Sujay says:

    I saw the funeral and the celebration of Whitney’s life in a different way. Whitney was from a different time. A time when gospel music was black music and not mainstream. A time when a soulful sound was considered “too black”. The last 15 years of her life have been consumed in the Hollywood culture which has truly transcended race. Sure they could have had a funeral at the Staples Center or MSG and that funeral would have transcended race, but instead they had an African American funeral which tilted away from the diverse Hollywood culture where Whitney was living and the diverse culture to whom Whitney was an icon. I thought the black church made a conscience decision focus on Whitney’s roots in gospel and her roots as a mentor to so many black and white artists that came after her. I came to this conclusion after seeing Kelly Price and a few other gospel singers talk about Whitney’s impact in the music industry. Another point which led me to my thought was watching a young Whitney Houston sing in a Newark Church at the age of 16. It was so incredibly powerful and intense in way that could not be matched in her later pop music. Michael Jackson did not have the same lasting impact in the black community or more importantly MJ did not have a continued interest in the black community. Chris Christie the Governor of NJ decided to fly flags at half staff for Whitney’s funeral in respect of her career and her roots in NJ. Christie was attacked by several groups because of Whitney’s drug use and her ultimate demise. I thought the family and her church made the right decision to honor the best part of Whitney’s life and career. They celebrated in a way that could not been achieved with 20,000 strangers.

    As for post-racial culture, I am uncomfortable with the concept of “post-racial”. True interracial marriage and mixed babies are on the rise, but culture, race etc… are still very important and worn on everyone’s sleeves. Indians for example are more in touch with their culture now then they ever were when I was a child even though I went to India and had parents that were more recently immigrated. I am more aware of other people’s cultures and people are well aware of my culture. So I don’t think we are post-racial by any sense of the word in that race is more important than ever. The difference now is people are more tolerant if not welcoming of diversity. Look at Whitney Houston, she was criticized by whites and blacks for the Bodyguard and her interracial romance with a character played by Kevin Costner. It was not normal to see an interracial romance on the screen in 1992! Yet now no one would bat an eye. As has been pointed out, young people have grown up where they think race does not matter and for many in their generation it does not matter or frankly they don’t even know how to recognize the symptons. However, racism is alive and well with the older generation and with large swaths in this country, people are just better at hiding it. But give it another 30 years and our grandkids are likely to not even understand racism. We can dream.

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