Culture & Conversation Race

Aretha’s Funeral and the White Supremacist Imagination

Toni Bond Leonard

Rev. Jasper Williams Jr. spewed pompous, bombastic white supremacy rhetoric about Black women’s supposed failures at raising their children, especially Black boys—though Aretha herself was a single mother.

Last Friday, the nation watched and mourned during the funeral of Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin.

But it wasn’t just a funeral. It was what Black folks call a “homegoing” where family and friends fill a loved one’s earthly goodbye with remembrances and pageantry. From the casket style and floral arrangements to the burial attire, every detail is given painstaking consideration. In Black Christian traditions, the homegoing service marks a loved one’s return to the God from whence we came and is a way to honor the deceased.

Most of the speakers at Franklin’s hourslong service respected this important ritual—and Aretha’s own legacy. Except for Atlanta pastor Jasper Williams Jr.

Where to start to process it, even a week later? Williams ended his 50 minutes of remarks with a ridulous comparison that likened raising Black children in single-mother homes to “abortion after birth”—comments that have been called “offensive” and “distasteful” by Franklin’s family.

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It’s not entirely unusual for abortion to be invoked as an extreme metaphor in our discourse, as a sign of all that’s wrong with our society.

Williams’ trotting out abortion was simply the culmination of his jeremiad against Black women. He compared a woman’s womb to a house and made clear that Black women’s bodies are vessels to be controlled and manipulated according to the prevailing social, political, and economic tides.

Rather than pay homage to Franklin—herself a mother of four sons and a single mother for much of her life—Williams spewed pompous, bombastic white supremacy rhetoric about Black women’s supposed failures at raising their children, especially Black boys.

In a conservative religious diatribe filled with patriarchy and heteronormativity, Williams alleged that the Black community has lost its soul and its way, primarily because many homes lack a Black male presence. It’s true that Black women are more likely to be household heads and that their households often struggle to stay afloat. More than 8o percent of Black mothers bear the burden of providing the majority of their families’ economic needs.

But Williams’ twisted sense of Black masculinity—that it should rule Black life, that its absence is the defining element of Black culture—is deeply mired in a white supremacist ideology that uniquely smears Black women as incapable of raising productive, healthy families.

What Williams, of course, fails to highlight are the day-to-day realities of the lived experiences of Black life. Black people (women and men) face the brunt of the insidious structural racism that is threaded throughout the U.S. educational, employment, and health-care systems. White supremacist ideology both vilifies and pathologizes blackness, especially the bodies of Black women.

Williams’ remarks codify twisted racist imaginations of Black women as sexually immoral savages, having scores of babies out of wedlock who then drain government safety net programs. The fact that many Black families have lost Black women and men to mass incarceration has clearly been lost on Williams.

Ultimately, in Williams’ vision, Black women are the chief violators of what he believes to be God’s design for the home: a man and a woman yoked by marriage. Here again, Williams is disgorging racism and heteronormativity. He said just as much in his closing remarks that, “[t]he straights [read: normal] need to respect the gays [read: abnormal]” and vice versa. What seems like a comment that calls for mutual respect is, in fact, a dog whistle for heterosexuality.

And in the heteronormative way of life, the man leads the household. He is the head that guides the helpless woman. Author Toni Morrison sums up the fallacy of this thinking best, “I don’t think a female running a house is a problem, a broken family. It’s perceived as one because of the notion that a head is a man.”

I know where Williams is coming from: There is a strand of the Black church that measures Black women and men by their level of obedience to the norms and standards created by a white value system. It holds that Christianity is the only religion and the one true way to God, affirming Christian exceptionalism. Marriage is pronounced as necessary before sex, with sexual contact occurring only between a woman and man. Women are denied the reproductive and sexual autonomy to be self-determining; they are not deemed moral agents capable of deciding whether to have sex, let alone have and parent a child.

How “offensive and distasteful” that Williams used the occasion of Aretha’s homegoing to disparage Black women, children, communities, and even Black men by assuming their total power and their total absence.

Williams consistently referred to Aretha’s father, the late Rev. C.L. Franklin, whom he also eulogized. Did he use that eulogy to ask whether Black men could parent Black female children? In the process of celebrating Aretha’s life, he spoke of her civil rights activism and her shrewd business sense. But he also erased her, offering no accolades to her as a single mother and provider for her sons.

But to tell that story would have contradicted Williams’ toxic blend of white supremacy and respectability politics. If Black people just do the right thing, make respectable choices, lead pure lives, and pull ourselves up with self-determination and diligence, we can make ourselves and white people proud.

Williams did not properly eulogize Aretha. Yet he did leave us with a valuable lesson in decoding white supremacy rhetoric. His words must be heard for their true meaning, the horrible legacy of vilifying Blackness, Black bodies, and Black culture. We cannot let our silence make us co-conspirators in the pathologizing of Black bodies, especially Black women. It contributes to our invisibility within the very faith institutions we dominate and sustain.

And these messages are no less damaging because they are issued from a Black person. Black women allow our silence to be misconstrued as supporting ill-intentioned Black male religious leadership that’s content to serve white supremacist ideology. By doing so, we give them license to continue teaching erroneous interpretations of women’s lived experiences and uphold the Black church’s refusal to teach about reproductive and sexual health.

Just as we’ve trained our ears to hear the dog whistles regarding race, gender, and class, we must similarly call foul when Black religious leaders use their pulpits—their literal bully pulpits—to spew coded invective against Black women. Because we’re the ones who birth them, marry them, fill the pews, and tithe so these men can continue to disparage us.

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