Mourning Black America
Convivium, 13 September 2018
The Queen of Soul’s funeral proved a last battle ground for the legacy of Martin Luther King
The death and funeral of Aretha Franklin was observed not so much as musical occasion or an American occasion, but as a black American occasion. Partly that was because Aretha came out of, and always remained part of, the black Church. Partly it was also due to politics, because politics leaves nothing alone in America today – not sports, not music, not funerals, not anything.
To celebrate Aretha’s life and music is to celebrate the black Church which, from slavery to the civil rights movement, was the essential vehicle for the preservation and flourishing of black culture. I had a little experience of that the day before she died at a prayer vigil at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, the church Aretha’s father pastored for decades.
Politics was also at play. The funeral was eight hours long; a unique genius of the black Church is the capacity to hold epic-length funerals for its most prominent figures. At one point on the main dais behind the casket was Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Bill Clinton. All four preachers, one might say, as Clinton is a better preacher than most when he takes a fancy to it. And all four politicians too, three of them having run for president. And all four rogues too, more or less.
In the event, it was not that motley collection of dubious characters that garnered controversy, but the principal eulogy, given by the Reverend Jasper Williams, an Atlanta pastor and long-time friend of the Franklin family. Thirty-four years ago, Williams was the eulogist at the funeral of Aretha’s father, the Reverend C. L. Franklin.
I listened to the entire eulogy – some 50 minutes long – on the radio in my car. At several points I almost drove off the highway. The Reverend Williams preached with vigor and neither self-doubt nor self-restraint. He only lightly touched upon Aretha’s life or her music or her faith.
Even lighter were his touches on the central Christian mysteries of the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. What he did, at length, was to survey the state of black America, and he found it wanting. His refrain was both a lament and an indictment: “Black man, have you lost your soul?”
He chronicled, again at length, two of the phenomena wreaking havoc on the lower third of black America – black on black violence and fatherlessness. About the latter, he said that a fatherless home is “abortion after birth.” Some thought that an off-key note at the funeral of a single mother of four.
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