While social media, television, radio, print, and blogs shed tears and doled out rightful praise for the Queen of Soul after it was announced last Thursday morning that she died, there was one comment on our Instagram account that raised a pause-worthy remark. Under a clip of Aretha Franklin’s tribute to Carole King at the 2015 Kennedy Center Awards, someone asked, in reference to Ms. Franklin’s fur coat worn during part of the performance, “How many animals had to die for that coat. Loved her voice, but all I see when I see that coat is suffering. RIP Aretha."
Thank goodness the author of the comment didn’t write that on Twitter – it’s difficult to respond in 280 characters.
To answer in a longer format, let’s zoom back to 1939 when an internationally cherished opera singer, Marian Anderson, a person of color, was denied a stage at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The hall was owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution and it had a segregated auditorium and it only let white people perform on stage – ironic since the first casualty of the American Revolution was Crispus Attucks, a man of color who was shot to death in the Boston Massacre of 1770. Attucks’ daughter, Phebe, by all accounts part Native American and part African, would have actually been the first daughter of the revolution. (Sock it to you, DAR.)
But back to Anderson. Her DC performance opportunity being revoked from Constitution Hall upset one DAR member, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, to such a degree that she very publicly resigned her membership to the organization. At that point, DC was forced to find a stage, a big stage, for Ms. Anderson and the crowd she would bring out.
The serving Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, decided that the Lincoln Memorial, which faced the vast Washington Mall, could accommodate a large crowd. Good choice on the Secretary’s part, because an estimated 75,000 people representing every shade of skin showed up for Ms. Anderson’s concert.
Ickes escorted Ms. Anderson down the stairs of the monument right before the performance. He introduced her succinctly, and appropriately, saying: “Genius – genius draws no color line. And so, it is fitting that Marian Anderson should raise her voice in tribute to the noble Lincoln, who mankind will ever honor.” And Ms. Anderson crossed to the microphone and started her concert with “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” While wearing her God-given black skin and something else – something that is now carefully protected in the Smithsonian Institution – specifically, a black fur coat. (Not for nothing, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” is the song that Aretha Franklin sang at Barack Obama’s first inauguration.)
Ms. Anderson’s record turnout at the Lincoln Memorial was beaten when 250,000 people showed up to watch Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. Ms. Anderson, her talent, and her fur coat, perhaps set the stage for him almost a quarter of a century earlier.
Now, let’s travel ahead half a century. Another King, singer-songwriter Carole King, who sometimes seems to have written half the songs we’ve ever heard, was being honored with a Kennedy Center Award in 2015 (interestingly, Ms. Anderson was the first recipient of this prestigious award). Aretha Franklin, for whom King wrote “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman,” was there to give a tribute. She entered the Kennedy Center, stage left, wearing a big fur coat. She crossed to a grand piano, sat down, and sang “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” in front of the first black president and the first black first lady in America’s history.
Toward the end of the song, she stood up from the piano and sang a crescendo to the audience, dropping her fur coat on the floor while belting the specific lines: “you make me feel like a natural woman”. Consciously or not, by dropping that fur coat on the stage, she completed a circle. Marian Anderson put on a fur coat and sang praise to a country that wouldn’t allow her to sing at a place called Constitution Hall, and 76 years later Aretha Franklin dropped off that coat while performing in front of a black president at the Kennedy Center, less than a mile away. Like Ms. Anderson, she showed the world that she didn’t have anything material that the most esteemed white people didn’t have. And, by dropping the coat, she signaled that those things were less important than the meaning of her words.
The person on Instagram who wrote the comment quoted above was right. When the commenter looked at the fur coat on Aretha Franklin, he or she could see suffering. Perhaps what the person was really seeing, knowingly or not, was more than the torment of skinned minks. Perhaps the commenter was seeing the 620,000 Americans who died in a fight about slavery. He or she saw Woolworth counter sit-ins, the 3,500 lynched African Americans emotionally portrayed in Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” the riots of Selma, the cries of Nina Simone, the Jim Crow that still plays out in venues like gerrymandering, or the color palette of the homeless in the richest nation in the world.
Indeed, the commenter saw suffering and was right to bring that up on a day when so many were celebrating the life an iconic American.
But what the Instagram commenter missed was that the coat of many colors dropped on the stage floor by Ms. Franklin might have been a symbolic celebration of how great America could be. Or, at least how great it could be whenever Aretha took center stage. As Secretary Ickes said, “Genius – genius draws no color line.”