In Remembrance of Aretha Franklin and the Power of the Female Voices of the Black Church
Growing up a Black girl raised by her southern grandparents in 1980s Detroit, the sound of the Baptist church choir is as much a part of my memories as any birthday party or the first day of school. I spent my formative years sitting in a pew at Unity Baptist Church, where my grandmother was in the senior choir. I can still smell the bag she kept her choir robes inside of — think mothballs, peppermints, and white diamond. It was in this church I fell in love with the sound of Black women’s voices singing gospel music.
Let’s be clear, there was no shortage of amazing male voices, even children who sang like angels. However, the sound of these women, even as a child, gave me pause. I was entranced. I felt what the good Christian women called perfect peace as they belted out their soprano anthems of praise, thankfulness, and remembrances of “How I Got Over.” There I would watch my grandmother walk into the sanctuary down that long blue aisle with a purse on her arm, swaying in perfect harmony with her fellow choir members as they marched in like a fierce army.
What I was hearing were the voices of women mostly raised in the South. These women of Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas were the Jim Crow South's daughters. In their voices was always the sting of that reality and the glory of overcoming. As they sang “What a Friend We Have In Jesus,” I discovered my courage, fortitude, and a place I could run to on dark days — the voice of the Black woman singing in reverence.
Today as I learned that our beloved Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, had become an ancestor, I wept openly. Like many, I was a big fan, in awe of this woman who, like me, had spent her days sitting and learning from a church pew. Her presence and voice were larger than life. However, I fell deeply in love when my grandfather introduced me to Aretha, the gospel artist.
In our basement is where we kept the record player and albums. This is where my grandfather would introduce me to many great artists. The first time he played Aretha’s “Amazing Grace,” I found myself stuck in that same place I had been all those Sundays before at church. It was THAT voice. The sound of a black woman singing in church from a place of awareness of her present, while the past drove the song from the choir stands and directly into your soul.
Hearing her voice felt like sitting in my grandmother’s lap as she stroked my head and comforted me after I fell off my bike or the memory of sitting between her legs getting my scalp greased. In Aretha’s voice was a familiarity I couldn’t ignore. A beauty. The joy of the women from my life who sewed their wisdom, love, and grace-filled correction into my life daily. Women who wailed as they sang of joy coming in the morning. Letting us know that when in doubt, “You Will Never Walk Alone.” They knew this better than I could ever imagine. They had survived a life that made my life possible.
In Ms. Franklin’s voice, I still find the same peace of that church pew, of my grandmother’s lap or the soft hands of church women who grabbed my face and spoke words of affirmation over my life, words that still keep me.
I no longer go to church regularly. I do know the times I’ve gone in recent years, the choirs still sound good, but it isn’t quite the same. Something is missing; I suspect it’s the voices of a generation of women who have gone from living to ancestors. Their voices and guidance are leaving this world. I cried as I thought about them in the same context as the Queen, but then I recalled something I heard both my grandmother and Ms. Franklin sing, “God Will Take Care of You.” I imagine one day I will say these same words to the little girls in my life. I will become this thing I long for; in that transformation, these women will live on through my soft hands and affirmations.
Until that day, I gently hum “Mary, Don’t You Weep” as I remember THAT voice.