God Is Still Working on Me Too
An Incomplete Story
Whitney Houston passed away on Saturday, February 11, 2012. I found out about her death from my twenty-one year old daughter who was at work and heard it from one of her customers. She sent me a text. It simply read, “Whitney Houston is dead.”
I texted her back “No!” I didn’t want to believe it, but I wasn’t surprised. It was well known that Whitney had battled with drugs in her past. I don’t pay close attention to the gossip shows nor do I read the tabloid magazines. I didn’t think that she was still doing drugs. I thought she’d conquered that demon. I had heard that Whitney was dating Brandy’s brother, Ray J. I knew that her death didn’t necessarily have to be drug related. My mind wondered if Ray J. were somehow involved. My mind grappled for answers as questions filled my head.
I turned to the entertainment channel, E! Of course, as always, a Kardashian program was on. The news ticker scrolled across the bottom of the screen announcing that Whitney Houston was dead at 48 years old. My inner librarian told me that I needed additional verification from a reliable news source. I consider E! to be an entertainment channel, a television "dot com" and not a legitimate news channel, a "dot org". I turned to CNN, a "dot org" to find out what had happened. I surmised that if this story were true, it would definitely be on CNN. Don Lemon appeared on the screen and reported that Whitney Houston, at the age of 48, had indeed been found dead in a hotel bath tub in Beverly Hills and more details would follow as they became available. I had turned 48, like Whitney, only six days earlier. (Bobby Brown turned 43 on that same day) A chill ran through me. My heart broke. I began to cry.
I have for some time now considered myself Whitney’s shorter, chubby, non-famous, non-talented twin. I became a Whitney Houston fan back in the summer of 1985 when the eponymous “Whitney Houston” album was released. That 33 1/3 rpm vinyl album lived on my turntable back in 1985, occasionally sharing space with Anita Baker’s Sweet Love or Sade’s Diamond Life . I was Saving All My Love for some imaginary married or otherwise unavailable lover all that summer, every evening of every day after work. I sang along with Whitney and the jazzy saxophone as she poured out her heart to her married lover telling him that although he had little time for her, it was okay because she was getting ready for him to come over that night and they would be making love the whole night through. Just scandalous, but I loved it! Even though she was creeping with someone else’s man (we assumed he was married) she was creeping with class. His wife probably didn’t deserve him anyhow.
Then there was the other jazzy, sax- filled tune, You Give Good Love . Whitney proclaimed her love for some man who was “The One” for her. She sang that she didn’t have to look around anymore because she’d found the man of her dreams. Her voice was exquisite and crystal clear. I understood and believed every word she sang.
We not only heard Whitney’s voice on the radio but we saw her on Music Television and on BET’s Video Soul hosted by Donnie Simpson. MTV was television’s toddler back then only having been existence for about four years. Videos by Black artists were rare on MTV. Whitney’s videos, however, were on rotation on MTV and of course on BET. We had a constant visual for those beautiful jazzy R&B songs. A visual of a young, gorgeous, cocoa-brown, Black woman. It was very rare to see Black woman portrayed in a classy way back in the mid 80s.
The following summer Whitney appeared on the scene again singing her newest songs. I won’t even pretend that I know the name of that second album nor will I pretend that I purchased the album. Here was Whitney wearing long, blonde spiral curls, dressed in an outfit that included every color of the rainbow and hopping around on the screen singing I Wanna Dance with Somebody.
My younger cousin Val was staying with me that summer and I remember telling her that Whitney had sold out and I refused to listen to her any longer. Whitney had lost me as a fan. I wanted more of the jazzy, smoky, love ballads. I wanted her to be more like Sade – more like Anita. Whitney! I wanted more Greatest Love, more How Will I Know, more Saving All My Love. I couldn’t get with my tall, slim, cocoa brown twin sister singing a song that in my opinion should have been a Madonna tune. Sell-out! That’s what she was. A sell-out. A few years later I saw Whitney win several awards on several different awards shows. The audience booed her at the Soul Train Music Awards and I wasn’t surprised. Some say she was overexposed. Others say she had betrayed her black audience with the pop music. I’d felt the betrayal. I’d taken it personally just like I was getting a check - like it was messing with my money. I was hurt, angry and disappointed.
I love all types of music. I grew up listening to everything from Lawrence Welk to the Oak Ridge Boys so for me it wasn’t so much the I didn’t like the song. I didn’t like the song for Whitney. I didn’t want her jumping around the stage singing about dancing with somebody. Hell, like me, she couldn’t even dance that well. (The dance moves were best left to Janet Jackson) I didn’t want her to wear long, blond, spiral curls. I wanted Whitney in a mushroom or a snatchback like I would wear. I wanted my old Whitney back. I was even willing to take the Whitney with the bow tied in her hair who wondered “How Will I Know?”
I did not want Whitney to cross over. What was the point in crossing over? Although these words wouldn’t be spoken until several years later by Leon playing the part of J.T. Matthews in the movie The Five Heartbeats, “Black folks is always crossing over something. Crossing over ain’t nothing but a double cross!” My sentiments exactly. Come on twin! Let’s just be true to the original audience, Whitney. We’ll always be your fans. Well, I was wrong. Crossing over worked out well for Whitney and opened the door for many other artists to cross over. Who knew? Crossing over worked out so well in Whitney’s music career that Kevin Costner decided to cast her to star in a movie opposite him. So now my taller, slimmer, talented twin who could sing would now be acting in a movie with Kevin Costner! We all knew that she could sang (sang being the superlative of sing for those who don’t know), but can she act?
I was a big Kevin Costner fan. Kevin had starred in that movie with Robert Dinero, The Untouchables where Dinero says, “Somebody messes with me, I’m going to mess with them.” I wondered if Whitney was going to kiss Kevin Costner - an interracial kiss on the big screen? Will there be a love scene in this movie? I also liked the song that was always on radio and playing on MTV and BET, I’ll Always Love You. Me, the self-proclaimed movie snob was definitely going to see The Bodyguard. I had to see this movie.
After the movie was released my mother even began to tell me that I looked like Whitney. Now when your own mother tells you that you favor someone, it has to be true. After all, who knows who better than your mother, right? My two year old daughter, just barely talking would squeal excitedly whenever she’d see a picture of Whitney on a magazine cover. She’d squeal and point, “Mommy!” People in the checkout lines at the grocery store would turn to look and then shake their heads in agreement. “Yeah, Miss! You do look like her”.
It didn’t stop there. Whitney and I also shared a smilar sounding nickname. My family and close friends call me Nissi, the universal, all-purpose, ghetto girl nickname as I refer to it.) Whitney's family and close friends called her Nippy.
I’d also hear comparisons to Whitney when she starred in the movie, Waiting to Exhale, the Terry McMillan book-to-movie starring Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine and Lela Rochon. This movie was important for Black women and for Hollywood. McMillan had written several books that the misguided or ignorant dubbed “male bashing” books. McMillan's books told honest stories about the frustration of the black woman in her efforts to find a good Black man with whom to have a healthy, functional relationship. Hollywood allowed the movie-going audience to see educated, successful Black men and women on screen, navigating their way through often dysfunctional relationships. Giancarlo Esposito, who played Loretta Devine’s baby daddy, introduced us to the down-low character. I’ll be damned if Whitney wasn’t breaking ground for us again! Go, Whitney!
Whitney and I unfortunately had something else in common. We’d both fallen for and married “proverbial “bad boys” – thuggish, sexy, playas for life. Men who we were told just weren’t good enough for us. Men who caused people to say “now you know she can do better”. My family couldn’t understand why I had married my husband. “He must have something on her,” they’d speculate. By this they meant that my husband could possibly be blackmailing me with information about me that I didn’t want anyone else to know. Another explanation was that he may actually have put “roots” on me. Putting "roots" on someone is a commonly held belief in the South used to explain illogical situations. It was speculated that he must have cast a love spell on me.Perhaps he had buried my panties in the back yard. It had to have been something because he’s not really the type of guy she usually dates.
I was the bookish, nerdy (but cool) church girl; an intellectual who loved all types of music; enjoyed all types of ethnic foods; enjoyed live theatre; museums; art; etc. Had the television series, Big Bang Theory aired back in the 80s and if it even deigned to feature a smart, nerdy, Black female character, that character could have been modeled after me. I was attending the most prestigious HBCU in the country and the man who would become my husband hadn’t completed high school. A great date night for him was catching the latest mind-numbing movie filled with gratuitous nudity geared to hormonal, teen-aged boys. (No wonder I’m a movie snob.) His representative (the man you meet early in a relationship who pretends to be what you tell him you like) took me to a nice, full-service, Chinese restaurant and afterwards we went to the movie theatre to see Steven Spielberg’s ET The Extraterrestrial. After we’d been together a few years rumors were abound that he was unfaithful and after we’d been married a while rumors started that he had children outside of our marriage. My marriage which hobbled along on one leg, finally collapsed under the strain of the rumors and the fact that we had little in common. He eventually became extremely controlling, manipulative, emotionally and physically abusive. I began to experience profound episodes of depression.
Again, Whitney and I shared a common bond. My husband was a very handsome young man. He was often told that he looked like Joe Dumars who at that time played basketball for the Detroit Pistons. Truth be told, I had no intention of having a long-term relationship with him when I met him. He was to be a summer fling. His ladies man reputation preceded him. It was not in my plans to be his girlfriend. My friends understood the initial attraction, however they also knew that he was just supposed be a “hit it and quit it” but my jerk-o-meter, like Whitney’s, wasn’t calibrated accurately enough to detect just how much of a jerk he could be. I would venture to guess that Whitney’s jerk-o-meter could have used some adjusting as well. I, like many other women, wanted to throw my panties onstage when Bobby Brown was touring with Guy; Bev, Bill, Devoe on the Budweiser Superfest tour back in 1989. Bobby was sexy as hell! He gyrated across the stage and worked the audience into a frenzy performing My Perogative. We all wanted to be Bobby’s Tenderoni. That entire album from the Don’t Be Cruel prelude to reprise was hot. Every song! Didn’t have to lift the arm to skip a song. Yes, I could understand Whitney’s attraction to Bobby. But Whitney, like me, didn’t understand that she was just supposed to hit it and quit it.
During the mid-90s, I began hearing that Whitney had problems with drugs. She admitted to Diane Sawyer and later to Oprah that she had a drug addiction. Again, I felt a kindred spirit with Whitney. I didn’t have a drug problem but I battled depression which made me feel as if I were battling a drug addiction. The depressions would be so crippling for me that my mother even remarked that my life had turned out just as if I were dealing with some type of substance abuse problem.
I explained to more people than I care to remember that Whitney was a round-the-way girl who was groomed, packaged and sold as a glamorous princess. She hung out with Arsenio Hall and Eddie Murphy. Whitney was doing her thing before Bobby came into her life. Bobby, in my opinion, was not to blame for Whitney’s fall from grace, although having a philandering, bi-polar, abusive husband was doing nothing to dissuade her from using drugs. Bobby had his demons. Whitney had her demons as well and as talented and beautiful as she was, she could not save Bobby and he definitely was no help to her.
Like me, if someone had asked Whitney before her death if she regretted meeting and then eventually marrying Bobby Brown, I’m sure she would tell them that had she not met Bobby, she would not have the best thing life. Whitney and I both gave birth in 1993. Her daughter, Bobbi-Kristina was born in March and she loved her dearly. My son was born in October and he along with my daughter, were beacons of light in the dark tunnel of my life and the flicker of joy in my broken and heavy heart.
Like me, Whitney stayed in her dysfunctional marriage much longer than she should have. She was raised in the church and sang in the Junior Choir. I sang in the Junior Choir as well, while Whitney sang lead. I was also a member of the Junior Usher Board. Whitney and I both were raised in a two-parent home. Whitney loved and believed in God. She believed in God’s goodness, God’s mercy, and God’s grace. She believed in the sanctity of marriage and she had faith that God would be able to work things out. I can picture Whitney, like me, praying about her marriage with family and friends and even sometimes with strangers – those believers who can sense your trouble. They’ll come up to you in the middle of the mall and say, “Let me give you a hug. God told me to come and pray with you.” I can picture her visiting ministers and therapists for individual counseling and maybe even couples counseling if Bobby was open to it.
Whitney, like me, had to make a decision. A very difficult decision. Because of the hardness of your hearts... Whitney and Bobby were unequally yoked. I divorced in 2002 after 13 years of marriage and 20 years (on and off) as a couple. She filed for divorce from Bobby in 2006 after 15 years of marriage and 17 years as a couple.
Whitney’s father passed away in 2003 at age 82 from complications from stemming from diabetes.. My own father succumbed to cancer the following year. On February 19th of 2012, Whitney was laid to rest next to her father. At this writing, it still has not been determined how Whitney died. As of this writing, the word “deferred” occupies the “cause of death” space on her death certificate. It has also been reported that her ex-husband, Bobby Brown, is planning to write a tell-all book about his life with Whitney. There are plans to do a movie about her life. But how will the movie end?
Her music is still selling. Sales of her music have spiked. People still cannot get enough of her voice – The Voice as she is called. The 20 year edition of the DVD of The Bodyguard will be released in a few months. The prognosticators and pontificators have predicted that she will earn more money in her death than in her life – just like the estates of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson before her. Whitney had completed filming a remake of the 1976 movie Sparkle playing the mother of Sparkle, played by the American Idol winner, Jordin Sparks. Whitney’s story, although she now lies in a silver coffin next to her father underneath unsettled New Jersey soil in the Fairview Cemetery in Westfield, is not complete.
At this writing, I continue to battle with a crippling depression that no anti-depressant seems to be able to trounce as a perpetual dark cloud continues to hang overhead. No anti-depressant lightens the load of the weight of the world- both tangible and intangible- that I carry on my shoulders. Each day I think it would be much easier if I, like Whitney, lay in the earth underneath the North Carolina soil next to my own father. However, like acrylic Lee Nails, I continue to press on each day.
The distressed face of Whitney’s mother, Cissy, is burned into my psyche. It is the picture of a mother experiencing life’s most unnatural and most cruel anomalies – having to bury one’s child.
The image of Cissy being helped down the aisle of the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, NJ as she follows the coffin which contains the lifeless body of her only daughter is constantly with me. I continue to press on because I am reminded that I am my mother’s only daughter – her only child. “My baby! My baby!”
I continue to press on second by second of each day after hearing reports of an inconsolably distraught, young, Bobbi-Kristina being taken away to the hospital. This weighs heavily on my already weighted soul. I continue to press on minute by minute of each day because I am reminded that I too have a young daughter who has reached adulthood and I now consider her to be my friend as well. “Mommy!”
I continue to press on hour by hour of each day because I am reminded that I too have a son born only seven months after Bobbi-Kristina. “Ma!”
So each morning when my eyes are opened and I am able to pull myself out of bed and my feet touch the floor, I continue to press on and thank God that like Whitney, my own story is still not complete.