Whitney’s ‘Homegoing’ And The Spiritual Divide

By Guest Contributor Tami Winfrey Harris, cross-posted from What Tami Said

Media coverage of singer Whitney Houston’s funeral evoked a disappointment I often feel as a black woman in America. It reminded me that many elements of black culture are still viewed as exotic and, in some cases, disdained as such.

Houston’s funeral, but for being broadcast live and attended by celebrities, seemed unremarkable in the context of other black Baptist memorials I have witnessed. There was rousing gospel; truth-telling; passion; equal doses of laughing and crying, clapping and shouting; references to Jesus; moving sermons; a few long-winded eulogizers; some preening preachers on “thrones” in the pulpit; a sense of sorrow, but a greater sense of joy–celebration of life and of a soul “going home” and being released from earthly sorrows. This is not to say that all African Americans grieve the same way or grieve in a Baptist Christian way, but for most black viewers Houston’s service was not completely alien.


But judging from CNN’s coverage, Houston’s home going was alien indeed to the greater public. There was a po-faced Don Lemon painfully explaining what a “wake” is, as if the vigil for the dead is some perplexing rite, rather than a ritual practiced by a host of cultures and religions since ancient days. Then someone noted that, after funeral services, the family might gather to eat and fellowship with love ones, as if that too was odd. It was all very National Geographic. Very othering. It rubbed me the wrong way.

But I suppose it is just that CNN knows its viewing public. When I went online to discover how other people had processed the memorial, I was surprised at the level of consternation I found. Folks wondered about the clapping and laughter and deemed it “disrespectful.” They marveled at the caregivers in white. They called the service an over-long “spectacle.”

It is oft repeated that 11 am on Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week in America. It is repeated, because it is as true today as when Martin Luther King, Jr., first said it. For many black Americans, grieving is inextricably tied to worship. So, if our ways or worship remain foreign to most Americans, so, too, will our ways of grieving. Watching black folks get spiritual, as many did during Whitney Houston’s funeral service, becomes an opportunity for cultural tourism.

Last Saturday certainly wasn’t the first and only time non-black people have viewed black worship as a spectacle. In an excellent post on Racialicious, writer Fiqah discusses the popularity of tours to Harlem’s black churches and how they are responding to tourists who pack the pews on Sundays–not to worship themselves, but to watch and record black parishioners worshipping. Fiqah quotes the Rev. Calvin Butts:

“This is not a buck-and-dance show,” says the Rev. Calvin Butts of Abyssinian Baptist Church, one of Harlem’s most politically powerful ministers [whose] church has resorted to passing out a flier to visitors, explaining how to behave during the service. Congregants complain that tourists annoyingly turn their cameras on the devout at prayer and snap away whenever a shout arises from the church’s “amen” comer.

I suppose we should be grateful that Houston’s service was a Christian one. Because popular culture generally turns African-influenced religions like Vodun or Santeria into evil and perversion or fodder for silly ghost stories. And a black Islamic service or an atheist remembrance may have been too much for America to bear.

If knowing and understanding a people is the first step to accepting them, then I fear we may never see a post-racial America. Because if reactions to Whitney Houston’s memorial and African-inspired ways of worship are any indication, hundreds of years after black folk first landed on these shores, our cultures remain foreign to our fellow Americans.

  • family friend

    Marvin Winans is a wonderful speaker and man of God the fact that he spoke is because he is a personal friend of the Houston family as are BeBe, CeCe and the rest of the Winans family.  Jesse didnt know Whitney as well as Marvin.  And you mentioned over the top, have any of them been a singing star like Whitney.  People grieve in their own way and not sure where you live but most Baptist churches I’ve been to for a homegoing service is this way.  And as a family friend who attended the service it was very endearing.  So it makes me very angry when others are disrespectful of the way a family wants to have their homegoing service for their loved one.  And if you didn’t like it then why did you watch it.  You sound no better than the rest of the folks that were negative.  I think Whitney was watching down to see all the love and support we have for her now and always.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=709197672 Allison Smith

     Where’s the outrage from the “Christian Right” on this assault on faith traditions?  Oh, never mind, I forgot….it’s only worthy of outrage when it’s about WASPs.

  • Anonymous

     Unsurprising since we aren’t even a people known for respecting the land, and rights to said land, of other nations both here and abroad. Spiritual void.

  • Cdj02

    I wanted someone to give the commentators a African American dictionary. I often heard: What is a home-going service? What is a Eulogy?  Though I was upset being viewed in fishbowl.  As a African American and Baptist tt was great to have something so cultural shown on international television. Unfortunately it was torn apart by spectators.

  • bjm

    I worshiped with the gathered congregation via TV and was grateful for the family’s invitation to be present.   

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Eldon-Pittman/100000503887632 Eldon Pittman

    There was absolutely no reason to televise the funeral.  It was a very private honor and the public should have been kept out.  Anyone who has lived in NJ, and know of the family firsthand..understands.  Pure snobs.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=827559801 Constance T. Blake

    I thought the same thing. One commentator said “They (the family) are calling it (the service) a ‘Home-going Service’ like we made the name up. I commend the family for making the service private. I almost preferred they kept the media recording to radio. It showed their lack of knowledge and acceptance of our (African Americans) normal practices.   

  • Kristen

    I wonder if Jesus is offended by the criticism of people who clapped at His name.  I am a Christian of European descent, and I was moved by Whitney’s Homegoing.  When my grandpa died, our family celebrated his life in a similar way: worshiping in his home church, telling stories of his life and how Jesus made him a different man. There was music and singing and some laughter– fewer “Amens” (and news cameras), but the spirit was similar.
    I think it is completely appropriate for believers in Jesus to celebrate someone’s passing by rejoicing in his/her new life: if we didn’t do this, you could wonder why we think Jesus is worthy of worship in the first place. The man conquered death. So while we are sad that our loved one is gone, we are not despairing. 

    We do not “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). This scripture was one of my favorites growing up, imagining Jesus returning for me in His glory. For Christians (Baptist or otherwise), death is not the final story, and we don’t pretend that it is.

    Not to gloss over the fact that both the media and other Americans could be more sensitive toward and aware of different cultures and ways of mourning. I think we all have a lot of growing to do in terms of understanding each other, but I just wanted to point out that some people were more offended by the Christian aspect of Whitney’s Homegoing beyond the Black culture we saw. Jesus said to expect this offensiveness. He knew people wouldn’t understand.

    Jesus also prayed that we would have unity: “I have given them the glory that You gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and You in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You sent me and have loved them even as You have loved me” (John 17:22-23). Amen!

  • Anonymous

    When my Mom passed in 2005, we had a service at the funeral home that featured my brother and niece doing remembrances, my other niece dancing  to ‘His Eye on the Sparrow’. There were tears and laughter. Afterwards, my white supervisor told me she’d never experienced a funeral like that before.

  • Anonymous

    I watched the funeral on CNN and I did get a sense it was another episode of “Negro National Geographic” (as I like to call it). The coverage did trail off into a “and this is how the black people do” session and I was surprised that even today there would need to be narration of a church service. Interestingly enough, I often felt discussions of the service itself in some outlets sometimes tried to divorce the style of the service from African American cultural tradition entirely through referring to it as a “traditional Southern Baptist” service and not mentioning anything about the affiliation to black spiritual practice in America and certainly not globally.

  • Filorotundo

    This is why I watched it on TV One.  No running commentary, just broadcasting.  Sometimes one needs to just take part of an event without having to view it through a lens that isn’t one’s own.  TV One was the only broadcaster that let me do that. 

    Even so, the videography was a *stark* reminder that Black people are needed in all aspects of production.  How much better would the broadcast have been had the person behind the camera known to include the choir director in all shots of the choir (sigh).

  • http://molecularshyness.wordpress.com jen*

    I had no idea this sort of “cultural tourism” thing was going on in Black churches.  This is highly offensive to me.  Worship is personal, and treating it as some sort of 18th c. anthropological study on those Others leaves me seething.  

    I’m glad that I am able to watch Whitney’s funeral (on YouTube – I couldn’t watch it live) without commentary.  Honestly, I would prefer that people not act as though it (or any other cultural tradition) is supposed to stand in as some sort of entertainment.  I just can’t believe people are going to churches and taking pictures of people during worship.  SO disrespectful.

    • Anonymous

       I’m very happy comments were disabled. Some people will have absolutely no sense or respect even for a funeral.

  • http://twitter.com/TheSuperAmanda Super Amanda

     Thank you for writing this.  The only uncomfortable feeling about the service was wondering how white America would process it. Allies were simply watching a funeral and saying goodbye to a great artist but many of those tweeters sounded like they wanted an excuse to be rude and prejudice.  “Maybe it’s a cultural thing but…” seems to be the new “Not to be racist or anything but….”. And to think of tourists acting so voyeuristic is dismaying to say the least.  Most likely anyone who ventures in is welcome because that was church is supposed to be about but I hope they understand that respect works both ways.

  • http://twitter.com/TheSuperAmanda Super Amanda

     Thank you for writing this.  The only uncomfortable feeling about the service was wondering how white America would process it. Allies were simply watching a funeral and saying goodbye to a great artist but many of those tweeters sounded like they wanted an excuse to be rude and prejudice.  “Maybe it’s a cultural thing but…” seems to be the new “Not to be racist or anything but….”. And to think of tourists acting so voyeuristic is dismaying to say the least.  Most likely anyone who ventures in is welcome because that was church is supposed to be about but I hope they understand that respect works both ways.

  • somethingfierce

    Thank you for this really interesting take. I am a white girl who grew up with a dad as a liberal pastor in Philadelphia in the 90s. He worked within a pretty diverse community and I have vivid memories of my first-ever funeral, at a black church with the hand fans going back and forth in the August heat. I like to think that these types of early experiences paved the way to a more culturally competent life and my engagement with anti-racism (like, thanks to them I know that clapping at a funeral is not alien). But at the same time I do know that if I went to a black worship service now, I would essentially be one of the white tourists that Fiqah is describing (no pictures though, come on), and I find myself wondering about how much of the experience my dad provided me with was a bit like drive-by exposure to Others for our cultural benefit. I don’t really know the answer and I think these types of questions are really tricky. Thank you for bringing them up.

  • Anonymous

    I like this post, and the continued exotification of Black Americans and Black American culture definitely annoys me.  I stopped reading those comments because they were quite infuriating.  

    We’ve been here as long as the people who originally stole this land, but we get treated like we just got here, and people think that we should be flattered and pleased they want to gawk at our “rituals”, touch our “hair” and co-opt and imitate/mock certain aspects of our culture.  

    And can we talk about the hostility that is heaped upon anyone who points this out?   I saw the post and comment in question, and someone explained that they were ushers and what I can only assume was a white person actually “CORRECTED” the person to say that “no, they were nurses.”  Except my aunt, who is definitely NOT a nurse wore this uniform when she was serving during church service.

    I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m tired of getting treated like a zoo animal while people who JUST got here are treated like their physical and racial differences are normal and not worthy of extra attention.

    Do those churches get paid for the cultural tourism?  I’m not a fan of these “let’s tour the black part of town and gawk at Negroes in their natural habitat” excursions.

  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

    Regarding CNN’s Don Lemon; this is why I really don’t think it matters if you have Black journalists working for mainstream media outlets. If he’s going to report in the same exact way that his White counterparts would while covering Whitney’s funeral then there really is no point in have diverse looking reporters if their reporting isn’t.  He had an opportunity to normalize this part of Black culture but opted to act as tour guide.

  • Eva

    Great piece.  I’m not surprised.  I mean most people worship with people who look like them.  Most people don’t go to worship services of people whose religions are different from theirs, so I didn’t view the response as disrespectful.  BTW, there are people who think Irish wakes are “exotic” even today.  Heck, some people think a Roman Catholic service is exotic.  I watched the service for Archbishop Dolan as he became a cardinal and the way the news commentators were going on, you would have thought no one in the world had ever seen a Roman Catholic service before. 

  • Kat

    I am ashamed to admit that I took part in such a “cultural tourism” thingy in school. It was part of a summer program at a major (supermajor- you would all know that name) US university that I was on. While it was one of the few moments in my life that I enjoyed being in a church, it was weird to me even then that we where doing this (I was a teen then).