by Mia McKenzie
When I heard about the death of Whitney Houston, I had just returned
home from a women’s self-defense course, where I am learning to defend
and protect myself against would-be “assailants.” What the news of
Whitney’s passing has got me thinking, though, is that, as a black woman
in the world, would-be assailants come in infinitely varied packages.
In some ways, the whole world is a would-be assailant against a black
I grew up on Whitney’s music. I have a favorite all-time Whitney fast jam and a favorite all-time Whitney slow jam (How Will I Know and Didn’t We Almost Have It All,
respectively), I own a Whitney greatest hits double CD, and I have
important childhood and college memories that are connected to Whitney’s
songs. Her music is part of the fabric of my life, the way Michael
Jackson’s is. When Michael died, I had a similar feeling of deep sorrow,
and the sad understanding that this world is just hard on black folks.
Just fucking hard.
Tonight I am thinking about the fifteen years of ridicule the world
put Whitney Houston through. I am thinking of the girl with the golden
voice, the “good girl,” who was only worthy of love and respect as long
as she maintained the image of herself that we demanded, as long as she
didn’t smoke crack or fuck (or God forbid, marry) nasty black boys, as
long as she was a credit to her race, as long as she looked and sounded
like the best of us, whatever that means. I wonder if she thought, at 25
or so, when she was on top of the world, that the world’s love for her
was real love. I wonder if she imagined that, if she stumbled, the
world, in its love, would scramble to break her fall, to lift her up
again, instead of piling shit on top of her and laughing.
I remember watching an interview with Bobby Brown a few years ago in
which he lamented people’s reactions to his and Whitney’s troubles,
lamented the fact that instead of wanting them to overcome their
difficulties, everybody just seemed to want to shit on them more. If you
think we’re in trouble, “pray for us to be better” he said. I don’t
think anyone was listening.
I wonder about Whitney’s life. I wonder what traumas and abuses she
suffered that drugs helped her to forget, at least for a little while
here and there. I wonder how many times, as a black woman in the
entertainment industry, she was told that she was too black, that the
albums wouldn’t sell as well if she wasn’t appealing enough to white
people. I remember reading that after they made “The Bodyguard” they had
her do all the lines over again, and dubbed them, because they didn’t
think she spoke well enough to be convincing as someone Kevin Costner
would fall for. I wonder how many times shit like that happened. I
wonder if she was told to stay skinny at any cost, to keep her slender
ass from becoming a big black booty. I wonder how often she was advised
to speak with less attitude and appear more humble because everybody
hates an uppity black bitch. I wonder what being Clive Davis’ anointed
favorite required of Whitney’s soul.
The world does not love black people. It especially does not love
black women. We are brutalized and ridiculed and made invisible
everywhere in the world, every day. It doesn’t matter that Whitney had
money and success. Money and success can’t trump skin color. Money and
success can’t erase hundreds and hundreds of years of ongoing misogyny
against black women.
Today I learned how to use my voice and my body to protect myself in a
dangerous situation. But the truth is that for me, for us, for Whitney,
the whole damn world is a dangerous situation. Our best defense is to
be just as dangerous. More dangerous. Dangerous enough to love ourselves
and each other a thousand times more than the world does not love us.
I wish I had loved Whitney Houston better. I guess it’s too late now.
It’s not too late, though, to love myself better. It’s not too late to love you better.
I want so much to do that.
Mia McKenzie is an award-winning writer and the creator of Black Girl Dangerous. She’s a smart, scrappy Philadelphian with a deep love of fake fur collars and people of color. She’s a black feminist and a freaking queer. She studied writing at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the winner of the Astraea Foundation’s Writers Fund Award (’09) and the Leeway Foundation’s Transformation Award (’12). You can find her short stories in The Kenyon Review andmake/shift. Her debut novel, The Summer We Got Free, is a finalist for the 2013 Lambda Literary Award and has been described by author and critic Jewelle Gomez as “a brilliant tapestry filled with exuberance and anxiety.” Her recent live performances include Queer Rebels of the Harlem Renaissance, Mangos With Chili Presents: WHIPPED! QTPOC Recipes For Love, Sex & Disaster, and Black Girl Dangerous: Mia McKenzie on Being A Queer Black Femme Nerd In A Ridiculous World, the last of those being a signature reading of her diverse works, performed at universities across the country. Her work has been published in The Guardian, quoted on The Melissa Harris Perry Show and recommended by The Root, Colorlines, Feministing, Angry Asian Man, and Crunk Feminist Collective, among others.