by Guest Contributor Keir Bristol
Television shows covering Whitney’s death focused most of their energy on her marriage to Bobby Brown and drug use. There was very little discussion of what her life was like before she was apparently using. Never mind that Whitney, as a Black woman, was a successful pop star while most other Black singers were automatically sifted into the R&B or Soul categories. There was barely any mention of an accident she had as a child that could have very well severely damaged her vocal cords, or any of the political and charitable works she had done, like her Welcome Home Heroes concert for the soldiers who had fought in the Persian War in 1991 or her support of Nelson Mandela.
Houston’s drug addiction and domestic violence issues devalue her as an artist and person to many. To these people, she is not categorized as an artist with a drug addiction, or even a human with a drug problem. She is categorized strictly as a drug addict like many Black female entertainers before her, Dorothy Dandridge and Billie Holiday included.
Why is Whitney given a bad name for being a drug addict, but people still idealize Kurt Cobain, Sid Vicious and John Lennon?
In Robyn Crawford’s obituary of Whitney Houston in Esquire, Crawford says, “The record company, the band members, her family, her friends, me — she fed everybody. Deep down inside that’s what made her tired. It was never easy. She never left anything undone. But it was hard.” There is obviously a pattern in the way our culture expects women of color to take care of everyone, to take care of herself last (if at all). Why are we so surprised when they crack? Why do we forget about their humanity?
Whitney was not only a drug addict. She was a mother, she was a wife, she was a daughter, a friend, and an artist. We know that she was a survivor of domestic abuse, which is a harder situation for Black women to deal with because of the racial injustice in the criminal justice system. We know that she was famous, so she was hypervisible and overcriticized for the decisions she made.
It isn’t fair to judge Whitney without keeping in mind that she was a human being, a Black woman, in a tough situation. African-American women are more likely to suffer from domestic violence than any other race. Women who abuse drugs and alcohol are more likely to suffer from domestic violence, and men who abuse drugs are more likely to commit it. It also isn’t fair to demonize Whitney for her drug abuse and its affect on her, but ignore its affects on artists like Jim Morrison, Michael Jackson, or Jimi Hendrix.
A Google search of Michael Jackson’s death brings up headlines like “King of Pop Michael Jackson Dies,” and “A Look Back at Michael Jackson’s Long and Accomplished Career.” Searching Whitney Houston’s death draws up headlines such as “Death of Whitney Houston Draws Attention to Problem of Prescription Drug Abuse,” as well as several articles combining the announcement of her death with the phrase “cautionary tale”. Here is where the Strong Black Woman trope comes in. I’m not saying that prescription drug abuse isn’t a problem, but why does Whitney’s death draw attention to that, and not to the dangers of domestic violence or superhuman expectations of Black women?