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The Last National Anthem

Michael Harriot Aug 17, 2018. 15 comments

Aretha Franklin was not the Queen of Soul music.

Although it is named after the music genre that emerged in the ’50s, all music is soul music. Jazz is soul music. Hip-hop is soul music. I imagine that there is someone right now eating a double kale club sandwich with extra mayo, drinking an avocado-flavored almond milkshake bopping to a Taylor Swift ditty that touches their soul.

No, Aretha Franklin was not the Queen of Soul music.

She is the Queen of Soul.

A soul is an undefinable thing. It is impossible to describe why Aretha’s voice sounds like catfish frying and feels like sitting in your grandmother’s lap in front of a space heater. I am not equipped with enough word-knitting ability to weave a tapestry out of the favor some almighty thing has bestowed upon this royal voicebox.

But I can show you.

Here, my dear, let me show you America. Allow me the honor of showing you the essence of a people. Here is a Queen. This is a soul.

It was Nov. 24, 2016, a day often referred to as the American Thanksgiving—a holiday dedicated to a theft and a massacre. On this day, two weeks after America selected its 45th president, and a scant few months before a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers would choose to kneel before the playing of the national anthem, the announcer at Ford Field in Detroit announced the queen of soul.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he began. “To honor America, Miss Aretha Franklin!”

That was a lie.

America knew it. They did not like Aretha Franklin’s version of the national anthem. The average length of the last 10 national anthem performances at Super Bowls was just under two minutes. Aretha’s took almost five. People criticized it immediately. They complained that it was too long. Too filled with variations. What they really meant was that it was too soulful. Too black. It did not honor America.

I do not care about the national anthem, Thanksgiving or America.

I do not hate the “Star Spangled Banner.” It is a song about a war, deadly explosions and slavery. Like most black people, before Colin Kaepernick’s protest, I stood out of indifference, not deference. The national anthem was like a red light at an empty intersection, you stop because you are supposed to; because you are trained to do it. But it is not my song.

I do not hate Thanksgiving. It is a holiday commemorating a genocide and a theft. I love the food. I even hold hands with my family as we go around the table and list the things for which we are thankful. I love dressing (not “stuffing.” Stuffing is for people who like Velveeta macaroni and prefer pumpkin-based desserts to sweet potato pie). I value my time with my family. But it is not my holiday.

I do not hate America. It is where I live. But I know what this country is. I do not worship America because it is not a deity to me. I understand that this nation seldom giveth and often taketh away. Especially for me. We have felt its wrath. We know that—unlike Aretha—America does not have a soul.

But I was in front of my television, watching this as it happened, surrounded by my family and the smells of our bounty. Staring into the television, I said, to no one in particular:

“Wait. How did they get a grand piano at the 50-yard line? And why is Aretha wearing a fur coat inside?”

Then Aretha began to play. And she sang. And I my eyes welled. And she sang. And it was too long. And she sang. And the announcer became a liar. And she sang. And the people were right. She did not honor America.

She honored us.

I remember how the chatter in my house stopped when she began singing. It was as if someone was about to say grace. As if grown folks were talking. As if church was about to begin. By the end, when she almost made the entire crowd at Ford Field break into a holy ghost shout, I am sure I could hear us breathing in unison. Not just the people in my house—us. Black people.

As my family stood there in silence, just watching and listening, not in reverence as much as they were in awe, one of my family members sitting on the couch behind me—I never asked who— muttered, almost under their breath:

Jesus, Queen.”


Come here, my love and let me show you a thing.

Look at a people who have built a nation. Look at this nation we have built; have transformed into a home that is still hostile to us. That often refuses to give us protection and shelter. That still tries to crush our spirit and spit us out the back door. There is a song about that nation. But Aretha did not sing it. She refused.

To be sure, she sang the lyrics. She kept the melody. But nothing that came out of Aretha Franklin’s blessed mouth that day was about bombs bursting in air. It was a Thanksgiving grace. It was a gospel hymn. It was a hallelujah. It was everything black that ever was and ever will be. It was for us. It was about us. It was our bloody, unbroken, triumphant spirits wrapped in perfumed sackcloth.

And perhaps, that is why they could not appreciate it. Because America does not have a soul.

A few months later, Donald J. Trump would become the president of this great land referenced in that lullaby to murder and enslavement. The end of that 2016 season would signal the last time anyone would talk about the “Star Spangled Banner” at a football fame without controversy.

It is probably one of the few times I have been proud of that song. I am sure that it was the last time. My pride that day had nothing to do with the black president, the troops, the flag or America itself. It was about that unkillable thing buried deep inside us. It was about that unstealable essence that spilled from Aretha’s lips.

On that day, before the blackballing of a young prince, we stood on the knife’s edge between the first black president and the first orange white supremacist in chief. And we looked into the coming darkness knowing that we had seen it before, and we will likely see it again. And Aretha sang. And we were not afraid of those motherfuckers. And Aretha sang.

And we are still here.

And we are here.

Still.

And once, we had a Queen.

... Of soul.

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