With love songs and soul, Aretha Franklin, The Queen of Soul, helped a nation feel. With her help, we thrived, grew, and healed through the most difficult times of the late 1960s.
Her sweet and piercing melodies, delicately, punctured holes in our hearts, while she sang us through the turbulence of the civil rights’ movement.
She elevated our expectations with one word: R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
“We all require and want respect,
man or woman, black or white.
It’s our basic human right.”
We were to demand it from others, while carrying ourselves like we, damn sure, deserved it. We were to bestow it upon others, regardless of their race, especially if they were down for the cause. Aretha bestowed it upon her white, Jewish sister Carole King and her late husband Gerry Goffin, the writers of Natural Woman.
“I sing to the realists; people who accept it like it is…”
Aretha, tacitly, understood what it took to thrive and she shared her formulas of success with all of us:
“Being a singer is a natural gift.
It means I’m using to the highest degree possible
the gift that God gave me to use.
I’m happy with that.”
To the highest degree possible, her hair was impeccable, her skin flawless, and her clothes classy. When talking, she spoke softly. Her graceful, sweet tone assured us that we could also thrive, naturally.
Like Aretha, I’m happy with that.
We survived the late years of the great migration, occurring between 1916 and 1970. A time when over 6 million African Americans migrated from the South to the North, looking for an opportunity in the land of the free.
And by the late sixties, Aretha was the soundtrack of the journey.
I was in a Comet, Mercury that was white on the outside. On the inside, it was red with a soft leather interior. It had a huge steel steering wheel and wings over the tail lights. My feet dangled from the seat, and the burets on the end of my pick-tails jingled to Aretha tunes. I was a little girl on 1-75 with Georgia Mae, my mother, as she sped down the highway, away from her humble beginnings that started in a shack on the red dirt of Georgia before her Mom and Dad moved her to Tennessee.
Now we were headed North, on our way to the University of Michigan, where my mother would eventually earn a Ph.D. in Education. On the weekends, sometimes, we’d travel down I-94 to Chicago with a group of activists to Jessie Jackson’s Operation Push. I understand that he was by Aretha’s side in the final hours. We’d stay with extended family, my dad’s family, in Detroit until we were settled, just like so many other great migrators did. In the North, I’d cry every single day because I missed my Bigmama so.
And Aretha would say a little prayer for us as we sped down highways, searching for the best that America had to offer. As my Mom moved on up, she’d dance to Aretha’s music during the good times and cry to it when things weren’t going so well.
Although opportunities were limited for most African American women in the sixties and seventies and times were still tough, the women carried themselves regally. They thrived! They cared for their families, their neighbors, and their extended families. They went to church and dedicated themselves to community causes.
African American women carried themselves like queens because Aretha had set the tone. We were to love and daydream and pray. We were women deserving of the best, standing beside the Queen of Soul. Standing by our families, by our men, by the struggle. She quietly stood by Martin Luther King, Jr., while being a quiet warrior and activist. She sent checks to Al Sharpton and others to support their work in the movement.
By 1972, I knew every single word of Day Dreaming. I smoothly moved around my bedroom, fascinated with the song, enamored with Aretha, and daydreaming about all the wonderful love I would one day receive!
He’s the kind of guy that would say
Hey, baby let’s get away
Let’s go someplace, huh
Where I don’t care
He’s the kind of guy that you give your everything
You trust your heart, share all of your love
Till death do you part
Aretha had made it clear that good women loved!
We’d come through the great migration. We’d survived Martin Luther King’s assassination, and Aretha had given us permission to weep as she sang Precious Lord over his body:
Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m lone
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home
After the great migration, African Americans were living proof of the saying, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”
We were survivors, and no matter what, we thrived!
By the seventies, it was time to dance. We were thriving in Detroit, working for Chrysler and GM and Ford. We were driving GM’s Cadillac and Buick’s 125, and Pontiac’s Bonneville. We were sending money back to the South to relatives who had remained. And on Sundays, we’d cruise in my Uncle Virgil’s convertible Bonneville through Belle Isle Park. We had pensions and brick homes on Outer Drive.
We were Rock Steady.
Let’s call this song exactly what it is (what it is, what it is, what it is)
It’s a funky and lowdown feeling (what it is)
In the hips from left to right (what it is)
What it is I might be doin’ (what it is)
We were shaking our hips to the left and right with The Queen of Soul, who would never leave the city of Detroit.
And now we’re left with precious memories that will never fade. Even in her death, she provides the soundtrack for our souls:
Precious memories, unseen angels
Sent from somewhere to my soul
How they linger, ever near me
And the sacred past unfolds
Precious memories how they linger
How they ever flood my soul
In the stillness, of the midnight
Precious sacred scenes unfold
She will always be America’s Queen of Soul, and she will continue to provide a Bridge Over Troubled Waters in the difficult days to come.
We love you, Aretha Franklin.
Thank you for serving our souls.
Thank you for loving America through the dark days of the Civil Rights’ Movement!