Happy Birthday, Whitney: Not The Diva, The Brown Girl
Thursday, August 9th. Whitney Houston’s birthday.
She was supposed to turn 49 today, probably celebrating with her daughter Bobbi Kristina, her mother Cissy Houston and a few friends at some fabulous restaurant that most of us could never get a table in. I imagine Houston would listen as her loved ones gather around a cake she wouldn’t eat, and sing "Happy Birthday" immediately followed by the soulful Stevie Wonder version. She’d smile at her 49 years and the unimaginable platinum-coated life she’s created with it.
Instead, as we approach the release of Sparkle, her final film, today we celebrate without her.
Whitney was our first Diva. Our mothers had Diana, our grandmothers had Aretha, but Whitney was ours. This skinny, brown girl from Jersey whose hair was never quite right, but her voice was undeniable. She couldn’t dance to save her life and she never had elaborate pyrotechnics in her stage show, but Whitney came at just the right time, when we still valued voice over everything. And now the voice is gone.
It has taken me a long time to reconcile just how I feel about Houston’s sudden passing just one day before the Grammy’s this pass February. I was in LA to cover the awards ceremony. I remember being in my editor's truck parked on Melrose when I got a text from a friend saying, "Whitney’s dead." The friend worked with Houston’s agency, so I immediately went to TMZ on my phone as I ran into the store to grab my editor. "Whitney’s dead!" was all I could get out as I grabbed her to leave. From that point on, it became about the story. My focus was getting the correct–and respectful–information out as it was happening in real time. I wrote our official announcement post on my Blackberry as we sat in the parking lot of El Pollo Loco, then sent updates from my hotel, a cab and the lobby of Clive’s party, just floors beneath the very bathroom where Houston’s body still sat.
It was, surreal, altering, humbling.
Still it would be months before I was able to identify exactly how I felt. On the morning of the BET Awards, I was given the heads up that Cissy would eulogize her daughter using one of my favorite songs. That night as I watched her sing Simon & Garfunkle’s "Bridge Over Troubled Water," it finally became clear to me. I was angry at Whitney and I just didn’t know how to say it.
Whitney was one of us. She was undeniably black in a culture that subtly skews towards the racially ambiguous. We still don’t know what her "real hair" looks like because she too had issues with it, and her body mirrored my own mother's--a bean pole except in the hips and ass. She would later add the line in Waiting To Exhale: "If I had some real nerve I buy myself some bigger breasts." Whitney could’ve been that crazy auntie who chain-smoked, always knew how to get the party started and could sing her ass off. Only I don’t think she ever saw that.
Whitney was about the show. When she was "on," she was on and expected everyone around her to either come up to her level or step aside. It was when the consummate performer was "off" that ruined it for everyone. Like so many of us little brown girls, there was a hurt in Whitney. A void she tried to fill with the love of a toxic man and later a young and reckless one. In between? Drugs.
I wonder if she ever truly saw the miracle that she was. Beginning at a church in Newark, our beloved star journeyed to the Super Bowl to The Bodyguard to side-by-side with Nelson Mandela in South Africa; Whitney was living proof to all of us little brown girls that we too were good enough. Only I don’t think she ever truly believed that. Despite the fame, adoration and overwhelming praise her talent and hard work had brought her, she continued to search for something to love her, soothe her, until it finally took her life. And that angers me.
I was reminded of this again just yesterday as I rode the NYC 4 express train downtown sitting across from two young brown girls deep in conversation. They spoke a little too loud, every other word a curse while recalling the night before. There had been a fight over a guy. As I looked at the bruises on one girls arm, I wished she–much like Whitney–could see herself for what she truly is, a miracle.
So on today, Thursday August 9th–as we prepare to see Sparkle–I’m wishing Happy Birthday not to the world renown Diva whose voice helped soundtrack my childhood. No. My wishes are for the little brown girl who never knew just how special she really was. There are so many of us out there. I hope the next little brown girl to make it, gets it right.--@JasFly