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.