In the year since Whitney Houston left us, I have not been the same. I never met her. But I knew her.
I knew the girl who grew up in church, singing on the choir. I knew the girl who smiled as church mothers told her how pretty her dress was and said “thank you” when deacons snuck her an extra piece of pound cake at the annual church picnic. I knew the girl who graciously accepted the standing ovation after she sang her first solo or recited her first Easter speech. I knew the young lady who was thankful for the Bible she received for her high school graduation. I knew the young woman who struggled to reconcile her foundation of righteousness with the everyday demands of budding popularity and the complexities of human emotion.
I knew Whitney because, in many ways, we were the same.
Granted, I do not have millions of albums sold. No one will ever refer to me as “The Voice” and I will not be remembered for singing about unrequited love so effortlessly that it made everyone, for 4 minutes and 35 seconds, want that old thing back.
But I do know the pain of falling short and hearing a mother or grandmother say, “Now you know better.” I know the embarrassment of people laughing when the stench of your defeat hits their noses. I know the price of living under the weight of people’s perception of who they think you should be. And I know what you lose when you search, desperately, for moments when you can simply be yourself. Be free.
It would seem that this was Whitney’s plight. On the surface, she was a woman who, to many, squandered potential. She was beautiful. She had talent. She was witty. And homegirl had a smile that could make the heavens open. She had it all. And, like a tragic Lifetime movie, we watched it all slip away. She lost the adoration of many of her fans and the respect of some of her peers. In many ways, it seemed Whitney lost herself.
There were those who rushed to assess blame for Whitney’s painful spiral. It was all Bobby’s fault, we thought. Recently, we found a new place to focus blame for losing the Whitney we knew when her brother Michael confessed to introducing her to drugs. But no matter where we pointed our fingers, guilt still laid there at our feet. No one wanted to admit that, while Whitney was indeed a woman capable of making sound decisions, we did not make it easy for her. Forcing people to maneuver through constructed false realities is, both, repressive and demonic.
As a child, I was taught the importance of holiness, though the concept seemed a bit flawed. I wrestled with the education that not doing a host of things made me somehow right in God’s eyes.
If I didn’t drink, I was holy.
If I didn’t curse, I was holy.
If I didn’t lie, I was holy.
If I didn’t have sex, I was holy.
My identity, then, became encased in the ability to articulate who I wasn’t more than who I was. As I stand now, a year older and wiser, I refine my definition of holiness. For me, to be holy is to live authentically and unapologetically in the freedom of my creation. I believe we are created to bring light and goodness into this world. Anything that betrays that fact is not holiness. I am my holiest when my actions align with the truth of why God made me.
Walking in this reality is not easy. And, as a result, I compromised. At times, I have lived in opposition to myself, experiencing moments of wild abandon where my purpose didn’t matter. In private, in darkness, I rebelled. Many of us find fleeting moments of freedom in drugs, alcohol, sex, retail therapy, food, school, careers and the like. We wake up in stupors, sobering from not caring, only to find that pain is still there. For a few moments, we just wanted to be free. But we were not free. Whether it is living up to the unrealistic expectations placed on us by everyone else or finding painful mediums through which to escape, we are still in bondage.
Contrary to what people say, this life isn’t an easy one to navigate. I would argue that the church has not made it easy for us. Even the most well polished church girl struggles behind the scenes. We have perfected the performance of happiness. We know when to smile and what to say. Behind those smiles and words we fight to believe ourselves is the truth: we want to know freedom too.
But we can have it. We can be free of the church girl weight that so easily besets us. Our actions must be deliberate and intentional. We must choose ourselves. Our desire to look in the mirror and like what we see must be greater than the need to have others pleased with daily caricatures of who we are. We must listen to the voice inside that tells us when we are being inauthentic. It tells when we are not being holy. And we must fight. We must fight against everything that would try to make us deny that we are holy when we are, simply, ourselves.
Since Whitney’s passing, I have mourned her but also envied her. She does not have to deal with this anymore. The stigma of who she isn’t and the weight of living up to who she does not want to be is no longer her concern. A lot of people say they wanted Whitney to “win”. I don’t know what that means entirely. I just know I wanted her to be free to be her own person. I wanted her to be able to be the Whitney she wanted to be.
I want that for all of us. I pray we can have it while we are here.