A few years ago, I was trying to figure out what I thought it meant for black women to be considered icons. This was a consideration that had been lingering from some years prior when I saw Congresswoman Maxine Waters in some setting with black male politicians who all referred to her as an icon and acknowledged her iconic presence before they spoke. Most striking was that as attention was drawn to Waters’s iconic status, she was never given space to say a word. It was as if her status as an icon spoke for her. So being an icon, I thought, means your frozen, trapped, or captured in what others make of your identity. You don’t get to make a new sound; And she didn’t. Waters did not utter a word. Is this what happens to all black women who get turned into icons, I wondered. If it is, is this a worthwhile pursuit? Is it in any way tied to a pursuit of full humanity and dignity? What about when the designation has been imposed and not pursued? How has this designation impacted those black women? Are there other avenues for recovery? So I began thinking about those iconic black women. What was the narrative of their iconic representation and what was the historical subjectivity that might be buried underneath it.

It became a fascinating project for me to consider what I thought about this. One of the first women I thought about was Sojourner Truth because I had read historian Nell Irvin Painter’s wonderful biography of Truth that counters so much of what we take to be her life. For instance, Truth had not been enslaved in the South but in the North thus she did not speak with a southern accent. In fact, she spoke Dutch and the accent of this heritage that she acquired while enslaved then as a domestic servant in New York lingered throughout her life. Most revelatory was the fact that the famous “Ar’n’t I A Woman,” speech that gets attributed to her was the creation of feminist and abolitionist Frances Dana Gage. According to Painter, Gage revised an impromptu speech Truth had given to include the famous line and this led to the creation of an image of Truth we still live with. Not only do children perform this speech during Black History month in February, but famous actresses and noted authors have dramatized the speech as it appears attributed to Truth in Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove’s book Voices of a People’s History. Here’s an example of Kerry Washington performing the voice of Truth:

There’s an entire series of these Zinn presentations. One of the more recent public performances of the dramatization of the famous speech attributed to Truth occurred in 2009 when a bust of her was installed in the Capitol building. Cicely Tyson dramatized Truth on this occasion:

Ultimately, Painter decides that

“We need an heroic ‘Sojourner Truth’ in our public life to function as the authentic black woman, as a symbol who compensates for the imperfections of individual black women…”

But what about those Black women who, I was surprised to learn, young folk don’t remember or recognize as icons, how do they function? The young black women who were in attendance for a semi-public presentation of some of these ideas provided me with an opportunity to connect past and present because one of the icons I chose to discuss did not register as important though there was some general familiarity with her. The woman was Billie Holiday.

“Do you even know the movie Lady Sings the Blues?” I asked. Crickets. Diana Ross? Billy Dee Williams? Crickets. Ah, I know, how about this song:

Billie Holiday first recorded “Good Morning Heartache” in 1946. Diana Ross revived the song when she played Holiday in the biopic Lady Sings the Blues in 1972. Scott’s contemporary stardom enabled me to generate greater interest in Holiday’s life. Of course these young women recognized photographs of Holiday but they had not thought much about her legacy, her music, or her impact on them. Because so many folk have covered Holiday’s catalogue, it enabled me to introduce them to other women or merely contemplate other black women I would have considered icons (i.e. Natalie Cole). Whitney Houston was the most consistently cited black woman we discussed alongside Holiday.

Unlike those who consider the final years of Holiday’s career her worst, scholar Robert G. O’Meally contends that these years amplify her artistic understanding. As drugs had ravaged her instrument, Holiday did not surrender it completely; instead, O’Meally contends, she learned how to command her voice in the state it was in to tremendous emotional effect. In other words, despite an inability to wield her voice as she had before drug abuse took its toll, Holiday recognized the difference and asserted the change meaningfully in terms of how she sang. So how would Whitney Houston respond to the impact of an altered voice?

On Saturday night when I learned that Whitney Houston had died, I quietly thought about Billie Holiday. They were both relatively young women when they passed. Holiday was 44 when she died in 1959. At least as O’Meally hears Holiday, one can think that she had defined herself anew by the time of her demise. I wonder if there will be a way of thinking of Whitney Houston along those same lines. I heard a news reporter say that it was clear that Houston was trying to sing in a lower register. Perhaps time will enable listeners to appreciate the difference.

Although we do not know yet what killed Houston, we do know that she had a history of drug abuse. Unfortunately for her, she had to suffer her addiction publicly. I spent much of my early years surrounded by drug addicts of all kinds and it was always a very sad tableau. I knew some who were strung out on heroine because everyone else around them was doing it and they weren’t strong enough to define their own experiences; I knew some who were alcoholics because of a past pain that they could never properly or adequately address; I knew some who snorted cocaine because people had deeply disappointed them. I considered myself fortunate because my mother never had any chemical dependencies and could always provide me with relief from the sadness that overwhelmed my father. As a child, I remember the tremendous relief I felt when I did not have to suffer his sadness alone and there were other adults around. Interestingly, I preferred his occasional bouts of anger to his sadness. So I wonder about the life of Whitney’s daughter Bobbi Kristina. I wonder how she made sense of her mother’s sorrows in the face of such abundance. I imagine sorrow making sense in a context of deprivation. I can only imagine how confused she was growing up in the presence of her mother’s obvious talent and the luxuries that that talent afforded and having to make sense of the great sorrow that characterizes an addict’s life.

I think when my father died, he had made peace with many of his demons. So I thought he was able to end his life well. I wonder what will bring Bobbi Kristina peace. I feel such sympathy for that child. Her’s appears to be a life constituted by so much of the stuff this culture highly prizes. She was introduced to fame, fortune, and glamour. I’m sure she was surrounded by many of the markers of her mother’s achievements: platinum records and countless statuettes; iconic photographs taken by esteemed photographers; expensive clothes designed by designers who are themselves iconic; stays in some of the world’s most famous hotels; rides in some of the costliest cars. But since this culture celebrates such stuff, they can’t really tell you how empty it all is. I’m sure that little in her experience would have prepared her to question the  meaningfulness of designer clothes, expensive cars, and grammy awards–except her mother’s sorrow. Her mother’s sorrow should tell us all about the insignificance of what consumer society tells us is the stuff of life.

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