OPINION: Aretha Franklin’s unapologetic activism left a quiet, but resounding impact
At a time when Black women find ourselves under fire and scrutiny in the media, we should all pause and reflect on the great legacy of our dearly departed sister, Aretha Franklin.
The Queen of Soul was so much more than just the most powerful voice of her generation. She was a quiet activist, who never allowed intimidating forces of her time from stopping her from expressing her blackness or putting her money towards causes that would help her people the most. Not at all surprising since she is a direct product of the Black church, a sanctuary for pushing the agenda that Black lives matter long before people added that sentiment to signs and t-shirts.
Aretha grew up in Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father, the legendary C.L. Franklin, spoke powerfully from the pulpit. Many believe that she modeled his style in the way she sang. She grew up in the shadow of some of the most renowned singers and preachers of her youth. Folks like Dinah Washington, and the legendary Mahalia Jackson would often visit the Franklin home and church. It’s likely that she inherited her sense of her bold, unapologetic womanist attitude and her unwavering commitment to social justice from their influence, using her platform as an international sensation to further the causes most pertinent to the liberation, equality and freedom for Black people.
The moment that became clear was in 1970, when Aretha offered to post bail for Angela Davis, a member of the Communist Party, who had been charged with conspiracy, kidnapping and murder. Aretha believed in Davis when detractors told her to stay clear of the controversial activist. Labeled a terrorist, Davis’ bail was set at $250,000 and Aretha was willing to pay it all. It’s said that the only reason she didn’t post the bond was because she was out of the country at the time.
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) August 16, 2018
While Aretha was not overtly political, she well understood the power of her platform and used her voice for more than just singing. She was always a champion for Black people (sisters especially), and readily uplifted the country in our national times of celebration (the 2008 inauguration of our first Black President Barack Obama) and of sorrow (the 1968 funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)
She was a national treasure in more ways than one.
We may not have recognized her as such, but her activism was monumental. Aretha used her influence, money, and power to demand that women be seriously heard and seen. As her fame grew, so did her commitment to the Civil Rights Movement, performing at rallies and fundraising events. Dr. King, a close family friend of her father’s, even bestowed Aretha with the Southern Christian Leadership Award for her dedication.
She once said, “Being the Queen is not all about singing, and being a diva is not all about singing. It has much to do with your service to people. And your social contributions to your community and your civic contributions as well.”
In the age of Omarosa, and other unpopular images of Black women, we need to look to Aretha Franklin as our beacon of light. Better yet, we can learn from her example of how to better outreach to other Black women, lift each other up, encourage one another, and most of all, express our mutual love and R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
My all-time favorite Aretha song is the 1967 hit, “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman,” a pure declaration of both power and love. And, my fondest memory of that song is slow dancing in the ’80s to it as a 19-year old college girl wrapped in the arms of her handsome 20-year old college beau. I remember hearing the words move through the air, each of them telling my story.
This is a song about awakening your heart’s desire. A song about redemption and resilience and daring to love again despite all that life has thrown your way. Mostly, it’s a song about a strong woman at peace with surrendering deeply to her even stronger man.
As we all reflect on her brilliance, my heart goes out to my sorority sister and friend, Rev. Brigette Franklin, who is one of Aretha Franklin’s nieces. For her and her family, this loss goes deeper than just the passing of another internationally renowned celebrity. Lest we not forget that behind the diva facade was also a mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, cousin and dear friend.
“How protective she was of us. She was ALWAYS there when I needed her. At the end of every phone call she would tell me ‘if you need me, call me,'” was the text I received from Brigette after sending some words of condolences.
She offered this message on behalf of their family:
“Thank everyone on behalf of our family for all of the phone calls, text messages, social media post, emails, and inbox messages. We are so thankful for the many lives that our beloved aunt Ree touched.”
Collectively, the world has lost an amazing Black woman whose voice has been lauded as one of the greatest of all time. Her songs are so familiar, they are now quotable reminders that will keep her relevant for decades to come.
Her body may be gone, but Ms. Aretha’s soul still survives.
Sophia A. Nelson is an award-winning journalist and author of E Pluribus One: Reclaiming Our Founders’ Vision for a United America. (Centerstreet 2017)