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A Scholar’s Grief: Bereft – Whitney Elizabeth Houston, Shared Loss, and Full Circles

I love Whitney Houston. 

It seems like yesterday when I first heard her spine-tingling rendition of “I Will Always Love You.” I was in Bellevue, Wash., in my little used, red Mazda 626, headed to the old Group Health Credit Union. The year was 1992. 

As I waited at a stoplight, the song came onto the radio. and, so stunning was her pure, virtuoso vocal performance, I simply could not move. It was nothing less than a tour de force.

The sound of honking horns eventually made me snap out of my Houston-induced paralysis, but not before hearing “The Voice,” as she is affectionately known in the music industry, hit “The Note,” in what immediately became her signature song. 

It was extraordinary. Yes, Dolly Parton wrote it, and sang it well … but our Whitney owned it.

I can remember such minute details because this was one of those rare occasions—on the timeline called life—that you recall exactly what you were doing when it occurred. And Whitney Houston has given all of us many such moments.

Another was when she sang the National Anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl. Houston belted out a rendition of the notoriously difficult, usually staid song that will likely never be matched. And she made it look so easy, as she stood there, on the world stage, looking ever so beautiful … and so happy. 

At that moment, as Time declared, Whitney Houston became “the voice of America.”

But, in stark contrast, the ultimate Whitney moment, and the saddest, was last Saturday evening, when we learned of Houston’s premature transition into the ancestral realm—at a very young 48. When I first saw mention of it on Facebook, I just assumed it was one of those urban legends. 

But, alas, it was true. She’s gone.

For a time, as I watched the non-stop media coverage—and as I tried to explain to my young daughter why mommy’s eyes were red—I was in a state of suspended disbelief.   

The finality of it all did not really hit me until that Monday morning, when I was once again in my vehicle listening to the radio, this time to a musical tribute to Ms. Whitney.  

As I listened to just a small sampling of her many chart-topping hits, the magnitude of her gift—and of our loss—struck me, once again, like a bolt of lightning. It was only then, away from my daughter Khepera’s wise eyes, that I let the tears flow freely down my face.

I seriously considered returning home and taking a bereavement day. But, on auto-pilot, I continued the trek to work.

Just moments later, standing before my students, fighting back the tears, I used the day’s lesson on writing logical arguments to try to make them understand the power of music … and that the world had, arguably, lost the best female vocalist of all time, certainly in my lifetime.

Some of them couldn’t quite understand all the fuss over the death of a singer. “It’s not like she was Michael Jackson,” one young man volunteered. Floored, I explained that, although different, they were both great … and loved.

And just as with MJ, even when Houston fell down—as we all do at some point in this life, I told them—we still loved her. We just prayed that she would get back up … and stand tall, once again. Once and for all. But it was not to be.

Using some of the classic strategies for building effective arguments—statistics, authorities, analogy, comparison and refutation—I laid out the case that, as a singer, Whitney Houston was, in a word, peerless.

First, with more than 400 major awards, including six Grammys, two Emmys, 22 American Music Awards, and 30 Billboard Music Awards, the Guinness Book of World Records, in 2009, listed Houston as the “most awarded” female singer ever.

Which explains why, after word of her death spread, one great singer after another offered testament to her unmatched musical gift: Chaka Khan, Lionel Ritchie, Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Beyonce, Babyface, Janet Jackson and the who’s who of music. They all stated categorically that Whitney Houston was the greatest singer they had ever heard. 

Even the notoriously hard-nosed Simon Cowell, who has built an empire on his penchant for chewing up and spitting out aspiring singers, sounded almost tearful on CNN, as he described Houston with superlatives.

“Ever since doing this job, particularly doing talent shows over the last 10 years, the number one singer anyone ever wanted to emulate, if they really wanted to be a superstar, was always Whitney. … She was the benchmark, she truly was,” said Cowell.

But it was Jennifer Hudson’s impromptu tribute to Houston at the Grammy’s that, perhaps more than anything, demonstrates Whitney’s singular talent. Hudson, rightly considered one of today’s best female vocalists, provided a beautiful rendition of Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” 

But, even JHud’s stellar rendition paled in comparison to Houston’s towering standard.

And beyond the mere power of Houston’s “instrument,” her heartfelt songs tackled some of life’s most profound questions: “How Will I know?”  “Where do Broken Hearts Go? 

Ever versatile, Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” promoted self-love. And, in a bit of stunning paradox, she even succeeded in making illicit love sound sweet and innocent in “Saving All My Love for You.”

Not to mention her glamorous looks, which validated the oft-underappreciated beauty of Black women, both on magazine covers and on the silver screen, with a string of box office blockbusters: “The Bodyguard,” “Waiting to Exhale,” and “The Preacher’s Wife.” Speaking of which, it still seems surreal that her eagerly-awaited movie “Sparkle” will now be released posthumously. 

Even now, it is still hard to believe that I am writing about our Whitney in the past tense. For days now, I have been struggling mightily to find the words to convey what she meant to me and to so many around the world.

Ultimately, it was the statement of the family of Nelson Mandela, read on CNN, that gave me something upon which to build. “Whitney Houston was an extension of our family. We are bereft,” they said.

Seizing upon the word, which I had not heard used in this context, I looked it up. I knew that to be bereft means to be deprived of something or to lack something needed or expected. What I did not know is that bereft is a form of the word bereaved.

And this is the heart of the matter.  

It goes without saying that the death of Whitney Elizabeth Houston has left her family bereaved. But it must be acknowledged that legions of fans-all over the world-feeling a tremendous sense of loss, are also bereft.

That’s why this writer was so relieved, and grateful, to learn that the Houston family had reconsidered their initial decision to have a private, “Invitation Only” funeral at New Hope Baptist Church in her beloved Newark, N.J. The services will now be broadcast around the world, from a single camera feed.

The venue is only fitting, as this is the beautiful church in which Houston first sang publicly. She has come full circle … and Whitney Houston’s circle spanned the globe. No doubt record numbers of people, worldwide, will now “attend” her funeral, this Saturday at high noon. 

Still, many in “New Ark” are clamoring to personally pay their respects to their precious hometown girl.

Thus, although it doesn’t seem likely at this point, many believe that her body should lie in state, with a public viewing. The family would not need to be present for this.

Just as her fans lined up to buy Houston’s concert and movie tickets, fans should now be able to line up and stream past her casket, whether it’s open or closed. No doubt, many would probably love to bring flowers and other tributes, and even take pictures.

Even at the end of two days, they would have to turn folks away, but this would allow the fans, particularly Newark natives, to be able to properly mourn Whitney Houston, the pride and joy of the state.

And this is not just a Jersey dilemma. The Washington Post article “As Whitney Houston’s family seeks private time to grieve, fans seek a place to do the same,” illustrates my point.

In Los Angeles, it has become a tradition that, whenever a major celebrity dies, fans lay flowers and other gestures of sorrow and tribute on the star of the deceased on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Houston had no star, leaving Angelenos with nowhere to express their grief.

To be sure, I know that the media have gone overboard with coverage of her recent troubles, but I wish someone close to the Houstons could convince them to allow her loving fans—without whom she would not have enjoyed such stunning success—to share her loss in a meaningful way. Just as in her very public life.

In the end, however, I know that it is a family’s absolute right to make whatever funeral arrangements they see fit. I respect that.

I just think that a public viewing would not only be gratifying for the fans, but also for the Houston family. Seeing the massive outpouring of love for their beloved “Nippy” would, I submit, be salve to their broken hearts. And to ours.

Whatever the case, just as millions around the world are proclaiming, “I will always love you,” Whitney Elizabeth Houston. Godspeed …

Dr. Pamela D. Reed is a cultural critic, public speaker and associate professor of Africana literature at Virginia State University. Her book, Black POTUS: From The Ideal To The Real: Collected Essays On Barack Obama, Race and American Culture, is forthcoming this fall.

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