This month’s blog was supposed to be about our annual yard sale… the good, the bad, and the amusing. Instead, one week before it’s scheduled to be published, I’m sitting here at my desk grappling with all manner of thoughts and memories bumping against each other.
Most vivid are the memories I have of singing along and dancing to Aretha Franklin’s music. I can still see the tiny patch of cracked linoleum that served as a dance floor at Babe’s and Frank’s eatery. That place stood in the middle of a row of stores that faced the C. W. Henry School. My more extroverted classmates would demonstrate the latest dance steps while the rest of us who bought lunch there only on “orchestra day” would mix the odors of cheeseburgers and fried onions with the sounds blasting from the jukebox.
The next few years hosted countless basement parties where Aretha’s records orbited many a turntable. Her voice made its presence known at junior and senior proms and at the dance parties held at Curtis Hall where DJ’s spun her records while the live band took its breaks.
It’s uncanny but reassuring to discover how well I remember the lyrics of many of Aretha’s songs, while I have to think really hard to recall what I ate for breakfast two mornings ago.
The memories of Aretha singing at presidential inaugurations, at White House functions, at Paris’ Olympia Theater, at the Uptown in Philly, in the rec room of my teenage years, in my real-time family room, through my iPod’s ear buds to that place in my head where I store music, play different roles in different phases of my life. When you can’t play jazz or r and b on the piano, when your voice doesn’t allow you to sing your soul out, others do that for you. And you genuflect in appreciation of their talent.
Today, Aretha’s demands for RESPECT have fallen on deaf ears. Clearly women in general and women of color in particular are not respected by virtue of our humanity, nationality, and/or achievements. We are facing energetic efforts to push us into the way-back machine of ugly times in our nation’s history. We cannot ignore that which confronts us today. And that which confronts us today is identical to that which we thought was behind us: ignorance and fear of the other, the determination to debase others in order to accumulate and hold on to power/wealth, and the ability to manipulate the hatred that targets citizens and immigrants of color. Aretha’s call for respect is being smothered by calls for debasement.
A few days ago trump lauded Aretha Franklin’s talent. Days before that he used the word “dog” to describe his former aide. Despite their many, many differences Omarosa Manigault Newman and Aretha Franklin share the same ethnic and gender identities. While it’s true that calling someone out of their name is childish, what is equally true is that calling a woman of color “dog” inflicts a visceral and symbolic wound on all of us. It’s a wound that may scab over, but it doesn’t really heal. No matter how much our individual characteristics differ from those of Ms. Manigault Newman, we own the pain of having been labeled a dog. No matter how many times trump tweets the word “queen” to describe one black woman, he cannot disown the damage he caused when he labeled another black woman “dog.”
We are all Omarosa! We are all Aretha! And we refuse to be dehumanized!
Along with Lee Lynch, Renée Bess is the co-story collector for the 2018 Goldie Award Winning Anthology, OUR HAPPY HOURS, LGBT VOICES FROM THE GAY BARS. Renée is the author of five novels: LEAVE OF ABSENCE; BREAKING JAIE; RE:BUILDING SASHA; THE BUTTERFLY MOMENTS; and THE RULES. Her website addy is: http://www.reneebess.com