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Whitney Houston Funeral Puts African American Spirituality On Display

It was pretty big of the Houston family to let the world, via television camera, into Whitney Houston’s home going celebration, one of the most personal, most heartrending processes any family has to endure. In Whitney Houston’s case, the friends and family members who gave remarks about her life were mostly accomplished stage professionals who are used to performing in front of big audiences, but as CNN commentator Don Lemon so aptly stated, what you saw was pretty much an extended version of what happens at practically every funeral in a black Baptist church. The songs, some of their lyrics altered by the performers to pay homage to Ms. Houston, brought to mind the kind of musical tributes fellow bluesmen are reputed to make in honor of their own when he passes away.

Whether the cable news network head honchos know it or not, the Houston family actually helped them out by restricting them to a single pool camera to televise the proceedings. This meant there would be no cutaways, no reaction shots, no zooms on the tears rolling down the cheeks of the more photogenic mourners, just one lone lens trained on the podium that panned to the piano in front of the choir whenever someone was performing. The somber, elegiac mood of the sanctuary was projected right into my basement and the homes of millions of others as a result.

Thousands of Twitter users noted CNN anchor Piers Morgan’s amazement at the raucous singing, clapping, shouting and swaying exhibited throughout the service. Black viewers were quickly reminded just how foreign the African American community and its customs can be, even for the media’s most highly experienced and elevated journalists. Morgan was covering one of music’s most celebrated voices who, at times in her career, transcended race and ethnicity.

Houston’s Home Going: Authentic Black Church on TV & Twitter

I listened to the wonder in Piers Morgan’s voice as he watched people tell funny stories, or sing songs from the absolute bottom of their hearts, and I realized, after thinking about it for a moment, that I have only been to a handful of funerals that were not steeped in African American traditions. Outside of my own relatives, in fact, I can count on one hand all of the funeral ceremonies I’ve attended.   

For most people who did not watch the funeral live, the whole four hour affair will boil down to the pictures of Houston’s casket along with a couple of sound bites of the remarks by Kevin Costner and Clive Davis. An irony that mostly went unnoticed by news announcers, in their rush to latch onto the image of Kevin Costner as a familiar frame of reference, was the heartfelt, unvarnished testimony of Whitney Houston’s real bodyguard for the last eleven years, Ray Watson. Whether the remarks about the seminal moments of Ms. Houston’s life were studied efforts, spontaneous emotional outbursts, or sober-eyed acknowledgements of Houston’s well publicized battle with drug abuse, the nuances and minutia of these real life experiences the program guests recounted seemed to be authentic and true.

A buddy of mine asked me the other day “just what exactly is keeping it real?” I am going to tell him tomorrow that if he can see what the difference is between the funeral service for Whitney Houston and the public memorial service for Michael Jackson at the Staples Center, then he will finally figure out what “keeping it real” means.


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