When I first heard of Aretha Franklin’s passing, I thought to myself, “Oh okay. Aretha is dead.”
Even now, admitting my shortsighted conclusion is embarrassing at worse and disrespectful at best. The Queen of Soul is literally a time capsule that bridges almost seven decades of civil rights within one, iconic being. It is only now after a day of reflecting that my millennial self is able to, at least partially, understand the weight of this angel receiving her wings.
Raised in the church under her father Reverend C.L. Franklin, singing those stomach churning hymns became lightweight tasks for the star in the making— all of which prepared her for serving as the biggest connector for my unaware, Gen Z self: flawlessly belting out Mahalia Jackson’s “Precious Lord” at Dr. Martin Luther King’s memorial service and nearly forty years later, singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at former president Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration where her hat made headlines. This one woman— the Queen of Soul— single-handedly timestamps the progress of civil rights for Black people in this country.
Starting with Dr. King, at the time of his assassination, he had just spoken at the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike on April 3, 1968 when they were protesting making $1.25 for 9 hours of labor and the racial undertones of white workers having showers made available to them while on the job. Meanwhile, the Black workers, who actually came into contact with waste, had no such access during business hours. In light of this, and in addition to other reasons, King delivered his famous “I Am a Man” speech in support of the strikers. The following day on April 4, King was shot and killed.
Outside of the Memphis strike, ‘68 was a year of moving and shaking for the civil rights movement and King’s death only exasperatedly fanned the flames of heightened racial tensions. Five days after King’s execution, on April 9, Ms. Aretha Franklin was ready to cry out to God for a community of grievers, leaning on her spiritual background to be a mouthpiece for the Creator. She conjured up an indispensable weight of longsuffering, hurt and the inaccessibility of freedom simply with the fruit of her lips— truly using God’s gift to comfort His people. And it is here that the Queen of Soul etches a timeline in a pain ridden United States. It is here that she becomes the voice for all those who felt silenced by King’s death. She carried the moral heaviness of an entire, divided country as a shield of protection while she delivered the very same people through a contemporary, yet historical, moment in time. The brunt re-metastasized itself when she was called upon to sing at Mahalia Jackson and Rosa Park’s homegoings, who are both civil rights icons in their own rights.
Oh, but there is a forty year old light that leads to the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama. A light that shines from the Black president, to his Black wife, to his Black children and a light that leaves the 1968 United States in a nearby shadow: dark enough to know that its pedestalled place will no longer be celebrated or tolerated, but close enough to remember that it happened and its history lives. The Queen of Soul sings about a land of liberty as another marker on her historical timeline inaugurates the first Black family to the country. More than that, however, The Queen saw a full circle in the civil rights movement: from MLK to BHO, she is the bridge of truth from which every generation has had the luxury to extract strength, relentlessness, self-definition and clarity and gain access to a deeper understanding of what it means to be Black and living in the United States.
And surely, this isn’t a rose-colored glass as if we’ve arrived and are reaping the full benefits of what is owed to us, but the fact that Aretha Franklin sings through genealogies and classes goes to show that legendary, iconic and trailblazer are understatements when even beginning an attempt to describe the impact this indescribable, incomparable woman has had on the world. Her distinct, soulful vibratos are groundbreaking notes that turnover the ground of racism, inequality and injustice to make space for seeds of unity, equity and peaceful longevity to flourish.
It is only now that a longtime fan of The Queen can truly step back to contemplate the magnitude of her entrance to heaven. It is only now that I can begin to discover what “a lil’ respect” looks like in my life and what pattern I want to establish it as. I actually attended an Aretha Franklin concert when I was a child; I did not understand the meaning or impact of her life’s work. So dearest millennials, do realize that a influence such as Aretha Franklin comes around once a generation… I would even argue once a century. Don’t take her for granted like I mistakenly did; heed her instruction because she lived through the nonsense that we are currently and actively trying to avoid a return to. Realize that there is more R-E-S-P-E-C-T to fight for and it can be expected to come in the next forty years.