News of a meaningful death can stop a moment and expand it into something that echoes for an entire lifetime. On the night of Whitney Houston’s death, five years ago this week, someone opened the door to an over-capacity house party and yelled the news into the center of the room. The room, mostly black and all dancing, emitted the usual brief and noisy rattle of disbelief before everyone reached for a phone or a remote. In the brief moment between the person declaring her death and someone turning on a television to confirm it, I escaped to the roof of the house alone. I sat, gazing out into the swallowing darkness, and Whitney Houston was still alive because she hadn’t yet been confirmed dead by the scrolling news on my cell phone or someone on television wearing a suit. She was still as I had just seen her in a photo the day before: glowing, triumphant, aging perfectly. I imagined then, as I still do, that if we can’t run from death, at least we can forestall the news of it for a bit longer when it comes for the people we love.
The next day, I counted up the money in my savings account and considered the cost of flying to her funeral. It seems absurd, in hindsight. Black people are, by nature, storytellers — myth-makers of the highest order, willing to attach whatever we need to a person to ensure that they can keep living, even after they are gone. It makes sense, then, that so many of our heroes don’t feel distant, even if they never knew of our existence. Whitney’s music was so vital to the interior of my young life that she, herself, became a fixture, someone I thought of myself as growing with, until she was gone.
I didn’t go to the funeral, but I watched it from miles away, and it felt like losing a small part of a home I felt safe in.
Whitney was the first pop star who I knew was a pop star, because I heard my mother singing her music in the house when I was a child. This was my sole marker for what a popular musician was: any musician who made my mother happy enough to lend her voice to a brief opportunity for harmony. In the ’80s, when Whitney arrived, she was both part of a lineage and entirely singular. She was from Aretha’s vocal line, and as marketable as a young Diana Ross, at a time when the potential for a young black star to be marketable was much higher than it had previously been. Her first two album titles carried her name: 1985’s Whitney Houston and 1987’s Whitney. On the cover of the former, her skin is a shade darker brown than it looks on the cover of any albums that followed. She isn’t smiling on that cover like she is on others. Later, her smile would become a signature. She was a person who smiled wide — with all her teeth, which were impossibly perfect — making it seem like she was always in on a good joke. But on the cover of Whitney Houston, her lips are only slightly parted. Her hair is slicked back and a string of pearls rest along her neck; the sun sits over half of her face. This is how I first saw Whitney. In the years that followed, when she became a star and then a spectacle, when white pop fans refused to see her race until she behaved in a way that they feared, I would return to the picture on the cover of her first album: Whitney Houston from Newark, New Jersey. Black, young, defiant, and, at that moment, ready for whatever came next.
Thinking about Whitney brings to mind the Robert Hayden poem “Full Moon.” It is, perhaps, the single poem about the moon that holds up, rising above all cliché. More than anything, it’s about something spectacular becoming less so as more and more people feel it within reach. Beyond the moon’s romance, it was also a device of freedom. It gave slaves hope, a small dream of freedom. The poem is largely about longing for a time when the moon’s power was impossible to measure; instead, the author becomes content with a world in which the moon is simply another thing in the sky, taken for granted, forgotten when the clouds roll over it. People have come to expect this spectacular thing, to the point that they’ve stopped counting on it for magic. It is "no longer throne of a goddess to whom we pray."
The message is that greatness can only be unexpected for so long before it becomes routine and pushes the great to some collapse. With Whitney, the first decade-plus seemed impossible. She was polished and presented in a way that set her firmly on the edge of titanic and fragile. She was a black pop star in the era of Michael, Prince, and Janet. But she was a black pop star who, at first, avoided the societal pitfalls of being black, a woman, famous, and powerful in a country that is often only comfortable with a person being one of those things at a time, and sometimes not even then. Her image was cleaner around the edges than that of most of her peers. She avoided tabloid drama and sang about love and romance as if in a black-and-white movie. If there was sex in her songs, it was gently implied. She was stunning on records and stunning in front of the camera. In the 1995 film Waiting to Exhale, she stood out in a cast of brilliant, seasoned women. By 1998, she’d found a way to reinvent her sound and not fade away with My Love Is Your Love, despite it being her first album in eight years. On the cover, she smiled wide.
The thing about the Hayden poem that I often think of is that maybe, deep enough into the metaphor, it is about the things and people we don’t offer grace to, despite them doing consistent and impossible work. Be it the moon, which once carried a people to freedom, or someone who lived for more than 10 years as a vision of near-perfection. I think of the things and the rooms and the understanding that we don’t always afford black women. I say “we” and mean many: those of us who are not black women. What I think Hayden was getting at is that when it’s impossible to fathom how something so grand can exist, you might stop trying to. And then, when the impossible seems to become ordinary, it’s easier to dismiss when the fall comes.
Whitney was so perfect for so long that even her greatness became routine, even as awards and critical acclaim continued to roll in during the late ’90s, when she was at her vocal best. By that time, the landscape of pop and R&B had changed, and the young women who grew up with her, perhaps holding her first album cover as I did, were making hits in her image: Brandy, Monica, Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child. These artists weren’t exactly her competition, but she was one of the last stars to survive the turn of the decade and manage consistent relevance. With a younger crop of voices doing equally exciting work, even though Whitney was only settling into her late thirties, her transition into a legacy act accelerated.
I am descended from a long line of black women who were perfect for longer than I deserved them to be, and I watched some of them suffer for it in ways both large and small, in ways that I have both access to understanding and no ability to understand. When Whitney started to get thin, when she became erratic in public and in interviews, people varied between treating it as comic relief or as an attack on their childhood sensibilities. For some, it felt like the change happened overnight. To me, it felt like Whitney’s desire to stop hiding what she was finding comfort in. In the videos from the early 2000s, if you have no knowledge of the turmoil rattling behind her marriage to Bobby Brown, they look like two black people deeply in love, acting as our aunts and uncles might at a cookout. So many black people I knew allowed themselves to believe there were no drugs at all, even when there was the weed at the airport or the startling interviews. It seemed, through another lens, like Whitney was just getting free, finding a freedom she was surely owed, after all she’d given. It was another denial, another way to take only the parts of a woman that we needed for ourselves and close our eyes to the rest.
The best Whitney Houston video that rarely gets circulated is from the 1988 Grammys. Whitney, nominated for three awards that night, opened the show with the hit song “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” It was her third year in a row performing at the Grammys, but her first time opening the show and her first time with such an elaborate set. A massive stage was filled with backup dancers and singers, a full band, and smoke machines. It’s a brilliant performance, largely because it’s a performance where you can see an artist getting more comfortable as it goes on. Whitney, first in a yellow top with broad shoulder pads, a giant butterfly belt buckle, and large high heels, stiffly and delicately walks along the stage, occasionally and awkwardly attempting the choreography with dancers more skilled than she is. In the middle of the six-minute performance, there is a pause for voice-over announcements and Whitney exits the stage while the band continues to play. As the song’s chorus arrives again, she bounces back to center stage in a white dress, complete with new dancing shoes. She comes in right on time, hits one of her signature power notes, and shakes herself off before bounding through the crowd looking for a dance partner, then spinning into the embrace of a tall black man and whipping her arms, almost on beat, while smiling. This performance isn’t one of the iconic Whitney videos because it’s clunky, especially in the first act, but that second act makes the whole thing worth it. The brief moment when Whitney reemerged newly and fully comfortable with herself, running to dance with anyone to a song about dancing with anyone, even if she wasn’t the best dancer.
That Whitney is my favorite Whitney: the one who kept coming back, new and surprising. When I finally let myself read of her death, I didn’t want it to be from drugs, and I feel guilty for that, for thinking that the only honorable way out of addiction is by beating it and living to be a success story for the masses to point to. It was even harder to bear because, just before she died, it seemed like her magic had returned. Her final album, 2009’s I Look to You, was upbeat and energetic. She sounded like she was crawling out of the drama from her crumbled marriage. Even when the album’s tour flopped, it still felt like she was walking back into our memories as we had unjustly frozen her there, like she was striding out for the second act again, new and ready to dance.
Instead, on the night before the 2012 Grammy Awards, Whitney Houston was found submerged in a Beverly Hills hotel room bathtub. One night before the show that she made her own, year after year, she lost the fight against a long and aching shadow. Attempting to measure that which one does or does not deserve is an unfair game, but I think all the time about how we did not deserve Whitney Houston. We didn’t deserve to watch her triumph, and because of that, we were incapable of watching her struggle. Through no fault of her own, she reset the bar. She was good at both the work and the performance, until keeping both going for an entire lifetime became too much, and I want to honor that Whitney too.
My mother, another black woman who was too perfect for too long and who was not given enough for it, died in 1996. At the time, Whitney was at the height of her powers. It’s trivial to imagine that we cross over to an afterlife thinking about pop musicians whose songs we once sang in our homes where only our children were listening, but when I hold the picture of Whitney Houston on her first album, an album I saw in my childhood home, I hear my mother’s voice singing, and I can’t help but think about my own unfair expectations. The desire for all of my most beloved heroes to be young, alive, and celebrated forever. For the people to know their power and to always look upon it with wonder, as if they’re seeing it for the first time. I think of the echoing declaration at the center of Robert Hayden’s poem:
“Some I love who are dead
were watchers of the moon and knew its lore;
planted seeds, trimmed their hair,
Pierced their ears for gold hoop earrings
as it waxed or waned.
It shines tonight upon their graves.”