Had she survived the journey, singer Whitney Houston would have turned 52 today. As one who traced her career to a solo performance of “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” at age 11, in a church, the superstar singer might have celebrated her birthday at a gospel brunch — an increasingly popular (and profitable) enterprise in the United States that marries soul-stirring black church music with traditional southern cuisine.
Instead, as the whole world knows, Houston was found face-down in a Beverly Hills hotel bathtub, dead of drug-related causes, on February 11, 2012. Televised to a global audience, her funeral was held at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey where, as a lifelong member, she’d first sang as a youth.
Fast forward and Houston’s only child, Bobbi Kristina Brown, 22, has just been laid to rest next to her mother. In an eery echo of the singer’s exit, Brown was found face-down in a bathtub earlier this year, in her Atlanta-area home. She died, in hospice care, on July 26, after months in a coma. Her death is reportedly under police investigation.
As I’ve pondered the deeply tragic “mother and child reunion,” it has not been lost on me that an openly gay funeral director played a pivotal role in the obsequies for Houston and Brown. Owner of the Whigham funeral home in Newark, Carolyn Whigham stands among the most prominent figures in the U.S. mortuary industry.
Famed for her military precision and the signature gold hearse emblazoned with the “W” of her surname, Whigham and her staff (among them her longtime domestic partner, Terry) oversaw the funeral service for Houston and arranged the private burial for Brown (whose remains were transported to New Jersey after her funeral in Georgia).
A licensed undertaker and chief executive in the mortuary business that her late father founded in the 1940s, Whigham is legend for her no-nonsense “my way or the highway” professional demeanour. Indeed, she once fired, in the middle of a funeral procession, a limousine driver who’d violated her strict protocols.
“Whigham… walked back to her limousine, slid over the hood, opened the door, told the driver to get out and take the bus,” noted a New Jersey reporter. “She took the wheel and the procession continued. On another job, Whigham … quickly dismissed four guys who had their foot on the limousine bumper while smoking cigarettes and eating fried chicken from a box on the trunk. She found replacements … and didn’t miss a beat.”
Talk about butch moves!
Whigham also takes an unrepentant “devil-may-care” stance about her homosexuality and is known to be a generous supporter (often behind the scenes) of queer concerns.
Call me crazy but I’m hard-pressed to countenance the anti-gay sentiments of Cissy Houston with her decision to entrust the remains of her daughter and granddaughter to a woman whose sexuality she condemns. To wit, throughout her life, Whitney Houston was rumoured to have had a lesbian romance with her devoted assistant, Robyn Crawford.
A former basketball star in New Jersey, Crawford dropped out of college, in the 1980s, to join the singer’s management team. She left the position after more than a decade, (likely pushed to the brink by Houston’s tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown). As of this writing, “dish” persists about the downlow Crawford/Houston love affair.
In a widely watched 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Cissy Houston told the media mogul that she “absolutely” would have been upset had she discovered that her daughter was gay. In an online comment about the broadcast, a writer put it this way: “Whitney’s own mother and family were a problem for her. Whitney could not be herself which most likely led her to mask her deep pain with heavy drugs.”
British activist Vernal W. Scott let it rip in his recent memoir, God’s Other Children. He’d met Crawford and Houston in 1991 when the singer made a surprise appearance at an AIDS rally that he’d organized in London, England. “Whitney’s divergence from her authentic self ultimately robbed her of her voice, her life, and one true love, Robyn,” Scott wrote. “So Cissy, I hope that you will one day overcome your homophobia.”
The hypocrisy of Houston’s rebuke of her daughter’s rumoured sexuality and her “now you see it, now you don’t” embrace of Carolyn Whigham evokes memories of the doublethink exacted upon Alice Walker following the success of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel,The Color Purple. The 1985 film adaptation of the book (and its author) were routinely lambasted by (among others) Willis Edwards, a black man who was then the president of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A publicity hound, Edwards dogged the film (nominated for 11 Academy Awards) for what he decried as its shameless promotion of homosexuality and “stereotypical denigration of black men.”
The longstanding reputation of the NAACP as a standard bearer for civil rights helped garner Edwards’ war against The Color Purple wide traction.
Blanked, the film did not win a single Oscar. About the controversy, Whoopi Goldberg (who played Celie in the movie), later fumed: “The Hollywood NAACP cost us every one of the Academy Awards. They killed the chances for me …. everybody — I truly believe that. And blacks in Hollywood paid a price for years to come. Because after all the hell that was raised, the studios … [feared] the picket lines and boycotts.”
In an astounding turnaround, Edwards later blasted Academy Award honchos for not honouring The Color Purple with Oscars. The contradiction brought to his attention on a national television talk show, he effectively shrugged his shoulders and declared black folk “a complicated people.”
Ya, think? As it happened, Edwards died of suspected AIDS-related complications, at age 66, in 2012 (a few months after Whitney Houston). “[He] was single and never publicly discussed his sexuality or how he contracted HIV,” noted his obituary in the Los Angeles Times.
Respected Halifax social worker, therapist and tireless community advocate Robert Wright knows first-hand the impact of the sanctimoniousness among (some) members of the black community on homosexuality. Raised in black church traditions, Wright endured a soul-wounding sting after he was asked to deliver, a few years ago, a sermon at the city’s vaunted Cornwallis Street Baptist church.
“Toward the end of the sermon, I talked about the challenges I face as an out gay black man and simply asked the congregation ‘How much space in your heart do you have for me?”, Wright told me. “Some folks were very upset and denounced my presence in the pulpit as an ‘abomination.’ But I’m still called on to broker dilemmas in the African-Nova Scotian community and to represent us on matters of social justice. As long as I leave my queer self at home.”
Wright made clear that Rev. Rhonda Britton, the celebrated pastor at Cornwallis Baptist apologized for the treatment he received by some members of her flock. Still, he has not found the strength to return to the parish.
Speaking elsewhere, the seventh-generation Haligonian maintained: “It is awfully hard to sit in the pew … where you know people love you on one level, but they are still trying to chase the demons with you on the other.”
As an out black lesbian, I’ll mark the birthdate of Whitney Houston, her untimely death, and the near unspeakable demise of Bobbi Kristina with heavy play of the singer’s “Lover For Life.” Here’s Houston’s sizzling live performance of the tune during her landmark 1994 concert for a new South Africa:
Note to Cissy: Be Blessed.
The author of Alice Walker: A Life Evelyn C. White is a freelance writer in Halifax.