Monday, February 13, 2012

'It's Not Right'...On Whitney Houston, Black Women, and Loss

Like others, I can't really believe that I'm writing about the death of Whitney Houston. I learned about her  death in passing, as I was preparing for a party. And I hadn't thought about Houston in years, not since seeing her run and literally jump into Bobby Brown's arms on one of his releases from jail years ago. It wasn't until I sat down hours later, read some of the news stories and tributes and started watching videos that a wave of memories and emotions came over me. The first video I watched and then repeated over and over (until Joan finally said "stop watching Whitney Houston and come to bed":) was "You Give Good Love" from her debut album, Whitney Houston, released in 1985. Watching it immediately took me back to junior high, 8th grade, when I effectively made the switch from tomboy to girly girl. The year that my mother said I could wear make up (no eyeliner) and let me start going to Boys and Girls Club dances with my best friend Angie, my cousin. Angie kind of looked like Whitney Houston, and both were part of my coming of age as a teenager (along with Sheila E., Lisa Lisa, and Prince). As I watched "You Give Good Love" over and over, I was reminded of that time, my relationship with my cousin, Black women and loss.

I love(d) Angie. We were close, inseparable even when we were teenagers. Our dads, brothers, were roommates for a long time when we were little, but it wasn't until 1983, when she moved into the neighborhood we lived in and my sixth grade class that we started to hang out on a regular basis.  We went to different junior highs, but the Boys and Girls Club dances, junior high basketball games, Friday night skating rink, and even Sunday morning church services were our playgrounds.We were serious running buddies. Angie pressed my hair for the first time (not really, but this is how I remember it) in her kitchen, showed me how to keep our bracelets "gold" (clear fingernail polish) and taught me how to kiss boys. She was everything to me, not just my best friend, but my family. Her relationship with her dad, whose house we spent the night at regularly, helped me get closer to my own father, who, up to that point, I barely spoke to.

"You Give Good Love" was the song for me because it marked such a moment of possibility. It was Houston's first hit. It showcased the range of her voice, hinting at how far that range could and would go on future songs. The freshness of her look (loved the pink outfit with Black jacket couldn't, but wanted to recreate it), signaled the modeling work she'd done in the past. She was flirty, as was the song, which also had it's own sexiness. All of this coincided with what felt like a new beginning for me as well, as I moved further into a pretty girl stage. I held her in my back pocket, her hopefulness, her confidence.

As Whitney Houston's popularity soared and her star was firmly established, Angie and I entered the ninth grade. Only one of us was pregnant. I didn't know it until she was five months in, we just thought she was gaining weight. But I distinctly remember sitting in her bedroom, Mickey Mouse phone next to her bed and commenting on her unbuttoned pants, after we had stuffed ourselves with burgers. "Yeah, I guess I'm getting fat." She was out of school for most of the Fall, had her baby right after her birthday in December, and I picked her up for school one morning in mid-January. Things were different. We were still close, still running buddies, but we were also "grown."

I stopped listening to Whitney Houston after that first album. Too much had happened to really stay in what felt like an innocent time. More was going to happen, but the end of 1985 was the end of that "innocence" for me, Angie, and the rest of my girls. There were more pregnancies and more heartbreak in years to come. In the next two or three years, crack swept into my small city, putting a significant dent in the structure of the Black community I was growing up in. By my junior year, people I went to high school with who were small time pot dealers moved onto crack. Older folks I knew went to jail, and close family members (and friends) were addicted. That lasted for several more years, and, in some cases, continues today.

At the same time that all of this was going on, Angie moved to California with her mom, sister, and brother. It felt like my whole world shifted and I couldn't go back.  I did come back to Houston's music, however, briefly, when "It's Not Right...But It's Okay" dominated the gay bars I was dancing in in the late 90s. And I was happy. She was back, with a solid, sweet hit.

You don't stand no chance boy/That's why you have to leave/So don't you turn around/There's no more tears/Left here/For you/To see/Was it really worth it?/Going out like that

But, it was brief for me. The rumors of drug use and a tumultuous marriage had already surfaced and, it was too painful to look at her. Even though the gorgeous smile was there and she was even flirty in the video, she looked different. Worked over. Not quite defeated, but struggling. Definitely not hopeful. She was too much like folks I knew (know). And it was different after that. She was different. The "crack is wack" comment came later and, by that time, I was already gone. That period signaled too much loss for me. But, it was that refrain, It's not right/But it's okay/I'm gonna make it anyway (pay my own rent/take care of my babies) that stuck in my head as I turned my back on her, like I had others. Not because they weren't "acting right," but because it was too much loss. Loss that I still haven't wrapped my head around all these years later.

I lost Angie too. After she moved to California, we were barely in contact, too much distance for both of us. I really didn't know much about her life, we talked on the phone a few times, but it wasn't until I moved out here for graduate school that I saw her again. And for a minute, we were neighbors--her in Sacramento and me in Davis. Within months, however, she moved to San Diego with a boyfriend and her son. We stayed in touch, I went down for Thanksgiving break routinely until I was hired at SF State. Then I lost her again, for reasons I can't write about here, mainly because, again I can't wrap my head around it. I wish I could because I miss her. I miss that friendship, that family, and that love. I miss that possibility, that hopefulness about each other and about our futures. What felt like a brief moment that I hadn't thought about in decades rushed over me like a flood in the wake of Whitney Houston's death. And I want to remember, always, the Black women that have disappeared, gotten lost, or that I have somehow forgotten. Even when it hurts.

So, I say thank you again, this time to Whitney Houston for giving us good love and for helping me remember.