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Aretha Franklin, John McCain, and the Meaning of Legacy

I have always been fascinated by the intersections of politics and pop culture. It’s why my students will tell you that I often weave into my lectures references to what’s going on in sports and entertainment. I’ve been known to drop a relevant song lyric into a speech or ask how the backlash toward things like Nike’s new campaign with Colin Kaepernick or Cheerio’s decision to feature an interracial family become a mirror for broader social contestations of identity and power.

Last week my twin obsessions with politics and pop culture collided as I joined millions of viewers watching the remembrances of soul singer Aretha Franklin and Sen. John McCain. On the surface, it seems that these two American icons were remarkably different. Franklin was raised in the hardscrabble city of Detroit, Michigan where the depth of poverty is rivaled by the well of talent and tenacity of its residents. McCain on the other hand, was the son of a U.S. Navy Admiral whose military service provided the family with access to a level of comfort that eludes most. Both McCain and Franklin referenced the strength of their fathers in encouraging them to pursue their passions; dreams that took them in vastly different directions yet affirmed at death, their similarities in life. And perhaps most importantly, the challenge we all face in defining our legacy.

Aretha Franklin saw music as an avenue to empower and enlighten. She moved effortlessly across genres because she understood that the ability to touch people wasn’t confined by music tempo and vocal timbre. Instead, music was a way to bring together diverse groups of people to better understand what unites us in a mutual web of progress. McCain pursued public service as a means of strengthening democracy and addressing persistent barriers to success. To be sure, his vision of democracy dramatically differed from most who clamored for access. To say that these two held differing political views would be an understatement. While John McCain famously voted against a legislative effort to honor the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr with a national holiday, the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin sang at his funeral; a fitting tribute after spending much of her teen years singing at various events and rallies to support his civil rights efforts. Franklin offered her earnings to achieve the release of imprisoned Black Panther leader Angela Davis, while McCain voted against a 1990 Civil Rights bill that would have banned discrimination in businesses. She was majestic; he a maverick. Both were described as opinionated and particular; prickly and demanding; direct and determined; good humored and unflinching. Death has a way of masking our flaws and exalting our goodness.

In this political moment, the spectacle surrounding the passing of Aretha Franklin and John McCain reminds us of the many people who blaze trails propelled by a fierce determination in the face of uncertainty. Through great loss, pain, and tragedy, there are many who forge their own paths in spaces that were never designed to accommodate them. Watching the Homegoing for Aretha Franklin, I vacillated between shouts of joy as the Clarke Sisters assured us that our living is not in vain. I raised a fist in solidarity as Stevie Wonder rejected respectability politics and affirmed that Black Lives do indeed matter. I held my hand to my heart as the Reverend William Barber challenged his fellow ministers to put down distinctions of title, position, and status to unite under a common banner of sustained political engagement. Watching the service for John McCain at the National Cathedral I was reminded of the lure of civility that can soften our critiques and widen our perspective. Listening to Barack Obama eulogize his once ardent political foe I longed for the days when difference didn’t have to mean divisiveness.

And yet, watching both services, I was struck by a nagging sense of angst about who would take up the mantle of the causes they so fiercely believed in. I watched various elders take their positions unsteadied by age and disease, still firmly anchored in the pursuit of truth, healing, and justice for communities they have so long poured into. In their voices was a reminder that wisdom comes with a price. Who, I wondered, of our current generation of entertainers would use their celebrity to fund freedom movements the way Aretha Franklin and Harry Belafonte did? Who would continue to press us to remember people struggling in places like Flint long after the cameras have packed up and gone away? Who would perceive a call to action that uses public fame as a conduit for private investment as Beyonce, Jay Z, and Lebron James have? What artists, like Cicely Tyson, would continuously remind us that the classics can help us understand the present? What religious leaders, as voices of the spiritual womb of Black cultures, would look past the lure of becoming reality show celebrities to nurture the souls of people who feel crushed by the weight of supremacy and indifference? Who would heed the call to public service that recognizes principles are more valuable than party affiliations? Who will stand before this nation and before its myriad communities to appeal to humanity over hatred? And, how can we surround ourselves with people with whom we vigorously disagree, while never denying their right to believe or not believe? To paraphrase Dr. King, where will we go from here?

In his remarks, Reverend Jesse L. Jackson referenced the tragedy of seeing long lines for funerals and short lines for voting. As we stand two months from the important 2018 Midterm elections, let us help define the meaning of the legacy of those who came before us by resisting, building, and voting.

Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an associate professor of political science where she writes about American Politics, political psychology, and public policy. You can follow her on Twitter @KBDPHD.

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