Warning: This post is not for the faint hearted.
I wonder if Whitney Houston is black enough now. Early in her career she was heavily criticized by the black community, even booed by fans of BET because they thought she had abandoned her “blackness,” whatever in the world that is. They felt she had abandoned her church singing, gospel roots by singing pop music rather than R&B, as if pop music were the exclusive property of non-black artists. In fact, looking back on it now it seems completely absurd, but rest assured the concept of not being black enough still exists. It is a particular expression of oppression sickness, in which people who have begun to free themselves from oppression feel the need to oppress others – sometimes members of their own demographic. The problem isn’t unique to black people, it is common to all oppressed groups.
Eventually, perhaps in a misguided attempt to become black enough, Whitney got involved with Bobby Brown. Nobody could question Bobby Brown’s “blackness,” and so perhaps Whitney became “black enough” when she became involved with him. Or maybe it was when she started sharing his drug addiction, or when he started beating her that she finally earned the approval of those who had at one point had criticized her for not being black enough. Make no mistake about it, she was responsible for her own actions and the choices she made but the pressure on her must have been enormous. Michael Jackson was a pop star, but nobody questioned his “blackness” – even when he started bleaching his skin. One can’t help but wonder if the real problem is a deeply held belief that a black woman’s function is as a victim of a long standing patriarchy that results in black women not being free to express themselves – much less succeed – outside of a very narrowly defined and inherently limiting definition of what it is to be “black enough.”
During the 1980s I used to joke that nearly every middle aged white man had fantasies about Whitney Houston. While I certainly don’t think it’s a good thing for anyone to objectify anyone else, there is a sense in which I can’t help but wonder if that was part of what made people think she wasn’t black enough – she appealed across racial lines in her music and in her person, at least until she became a tragic figure trapped in a downward spiral of her own making. If her autopsy results become public, I won’t be surprised if the cause of death is cardiac related. Cocaine wreaks havoc on the heart, and so it may well be true that Whitney Houston died of a broken heart. Perhaps at last she will be black enough – but if what it means to be black is to be addicted and the victim of domestic violence I believe we need to redefine what constitutes being black enough.
My biggest problem is that I believe the question of being black enough, or white enough, or brown enough is the wrong question. The only important question is whether or not we can be human enough, and that question must be asked first and foremost of those who would judge another as somehow deficient because they don’t fit in with their stereotypes, prejudices, and small-mindedness. We will only become fully human when we can allow every other person to be fully human and true to themselves rather than true to our expectations. How many more Whitney Houstons will have to self-destruct before we learn that lesson?