“I’d never heard anyone say I was gifted. It was the first time I’d heard gifted and black in the same phrase. I felt proud. I felt valuable.”
August 19, 2018
Emma Lockridge was at work when a message flashed on Facebook telling Lockridge that Aretha Franklin had passed.
“I said, ‘I can’t work. I’ve got to go to her church,’ ” said Lockridge, 65.
“I’m going with you,” a co-worker, Leslie Mathews, responded.
The two women left their offices at Michigan United, a coalition that works for justice for all people, and headed to New Bethel Baptist Church, the church where Aretha Franklin’s star bloomed under the leadership of its nationally cherished pastor, her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin.
The way Lockridge and Mathews saw it, they had to pay their respects because Aretha Franklin had demanded and gained respect not only for herself, but for black women in particular.
She reigned as their queen — and not just because of her royal voice. They and countless other black women crowned her queen because she represented success and pride when that was in short supply for them.
“When she sang ‘Young, Gifted and Black,’ it brought about a pride in me,” Mathews, 60, of Detroit said. “I’d never heard anyone say I was gifted. It was the first time I’d heard gifted and black in the same phrase. I felt proud. I felt valuable.”
Lockridge said the image of Franklin, in African attire on the cover of her 1972 “Amazing Grace” album, still fills her with pride.
“Black women needed that assurance and pride because for so many centuries we’d had other people define who we were, and usually it was in negative terms,” Lockridge said.
University of Michigan lecturer Nesha Haniff said the way Aretha Franklin presented herself as a respectable, classy black woman was extremely important — especially during the civil rights era.
Haniff noted that civil rights leaders chose Rosa Parks as the face of the battle against segregation in Montgomery, Alabama, largely because her dignified demeanor showed someone who could be respected.
Franklin, she said, fit that same mode of respectability — and, in her own way, was an activist for black women and civil rights.“Aretha Franklin performed small revolutionary acts all the time, throughout her life,” Haniff said, citing for example Franklin’s offer to pay the bond of Angela Davis in 1970.
Haniff cited a column by Columbia University professor Farah Jasmine Griffin in the Nation magazine in which Franklin explained why she offered to post bail, despite the fact that Davis was a member of the Communist Party.
It had nothing to do with communism, Franklin explained in the article, “but because she’s a black woman and she wants freedom for black people.”
Other black women spoke of her impact as well.
Debra White-Hunt, 67, serves as artistic director of the Detroit-Windsor Dance Academy, which has performed for and choreographed for Franklin for many years. Franklin has presented them at public and private performances and supported them in other ways.
“Her life and her music is something we can all relate to,” White-Hunt said. “The joys, the sorrows, the ups and downs — it reaches beyond race and gender — but it touches us in a special way. We know she knows what we’ve been through because she’s been there. There’s that bond that we experience as black women.”
White-Hunt said Franklin served as a role model and inspiration for many of the young dancers because they saw a successful woman who had challenges but got through them.
Vera Cunningham, administrative director at East Lake Baptist Church in Detroit, started a sisters-to-sisters ministry at the east-side Detroit church led by her husband, the Rev. Michael Cunningham.
“She made us look at ourselves and demand respect,” Cunningham said. And it wasn’t just the song “Respect” that made her feel that way. “I remember singing, ‘We’re riding on the Freeway (of Love).’ That made you feel like you could get up and do whatever you wanted or needed to do.”
Franklin’s life story and look also inspired her, she said. Franklin was always stylishly dressed from her head to her toes.
“I take pride in how I dress and how I wear my hair,” said Cunningham, 52. “And a lot of that comes from seeing women like Aretha: well-dressed, all-around powerful women.”
The sister support group, based at the church, offers encouragement and assistance at events such as travel retreats, fashion shows and other activities.
Cunningham said Franklin set the example with regular events in the Detroit community that supported men and women alike, including regular picnics in the neighborhood where she grew up and annual gospel concerts where free food was served afterward.
“Those are the things we learned from people like Aretha Franklin — sister power,” Cunningham said.
That self-pride and empowerment trickled down to younger generations, said Cunningham’s niece, Clarisa Bourdeau, who’s in Detroit visiting from Atlanta.
Bourdeau said though many of Aretha’s early big hits were before her time, she learned them because her aunt and mother played them all the time, even after they were no longer on the charts.
“Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Think” stand out most.
Those songs now inspire a new generation like Bourdeau.
“She empowered me as a young black woman,” said Bourdeau, who graduated this year from Georgia State University and plans to go to law school. “She showed me that even when the odds are against you, you can survive and thrive and make a positive impact on your community.
“Her music and her life story helped me realize I can be comfortable in my own skin,” she said. “I can be accomplished and I can give back to my community.”
In 1992, Aretha Franklin was inducted as an honorary member into Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., an international public service organization comprised primarily of black women.
“Franklin was an exceptional vocalist and musician, who touched people with the delivery and message of her songs,” the national president Beverly Smith, said in an emailed statement to the Detroit Free Press. “As women, we were empowered by ‘R.E.S.P.E.C.T’ and ‘Think,’ and in later years, ‘A Rose is Still a Rose.’ The strength communicated in these songs continues to resonate with women today.
“Even as the ‘Queen of Soul’ she reflected Delta’s values as she was once quoted saying: ‘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.’
“What a gift the world was given in Aretha Franklin,” Smith continued. “She was indeed the ‘Queen of Soul,’ and Delta Sigma Theta is honored to have had her within this sisterhood.”
The sorority will hold a special memorial service — its final rites ceremony called Omega Omega for Franklin after Tuesday’s public viewing at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
Freelance writer Cassandra Spratling is a former longtime Detroit Free Press staffer.