In 1972, Aretha Franklin returned to her gospel roots with a live album recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. “Amazing Grace” remains the best-selling record by Franklin, who died this month at 76. And it’s still one of the most successful gospel albums of all time.
But not everyone in the gospel community was happy about it. Some of the older church people objected to Franklin including pop music on the album, such as the Rodgers and Hammerstein showtune “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” And they didn’t like her singing “You’ve Got a Friend,” by Carole King.
Franklin didn’t care. She borrowed from almost every musical genre, and she put her own gloss on all of them. So when she sang the number by King, a Jew from New York, Franklin rendered King’s “friend” as Jesus. Rodgers and Hammerstein were Jews, too, but that didn’t prevent Franklin from transforming their secular Broadway hit into a testament of Christian faith.
Indeed, Aretha Franklin’s entire career was a testimony to the wondrous mixtape of America itself. So she also stands as a powerful rebuke to our present-day cultural police, who are trying to prevent the type of border-crossing that Franklin personified.
Witness the frequent charges of “cultural appropriation” against anyone who dares to step out of their prescribed racial, ethnic, or gender space. A white poet for The Nation writes a verse in the voice of a black disabled man, creating so much blowback that the magazine issues a craven apology. A straight actress (Scarlett Johansson) withdraws from a role as a transgender man, after critics accuse her of “blackface.” And a white teenager in Utah becomes an Internet pariah for wearing a Chinese dress to the prom.
Never mind that people posting in China seemed to think that 18-year-old Keziah Daum’s dress was pretty awesome (which it was; Google it and you’ll see). To her antagonists in the blogosphere, Daum had trespassed into another race’s backyard.
“My culture is NOT your prom dress,” read the initial Twitter salvo by an Asian-American, which was shared thousands of times. “For it to simply be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience, is parallel to colonial ideology.”
Like Johansson, meanwhile, Nation poet Anderson Carlson-Wee faced charges of “blackface” for using African-American vernacular. And he pleaded guilty as charged, just as his editors did.
“Treading anywhere close to blackface is horrifying to me and I am profoundly regretful,” he wrote.
Let’s be clear: America has a hateful 400-year-old history of racist caricature. One of the many ways whites solidified their rule was by portraying other people as clowns, simpletons, and villains.
But comparing our present-day border-crossings to blackface radically distorts that history. Like other forms of racist parody, blackface was a deliberate and systematic project to demean African-Americans. When white people “blacked up,” as it was called, they weren’t borrowing from black culture; they were making fun of it. To state the obvious, black people never blacked up. Only white people did that.
There is no evidence — none — that Carlson-Wee, Johansson, or Daum were trying to deride or demean anybody. But to their detractors, it’s the transgression — not the motivation — that counts. Asked over Twitter whether a white writer should ever use African-American vernacular, black author Roxane Gay issued a terse answer: no.
“Don’t even try it,” Gay tweeted. “Know your lane.”
What if Aretha Franklin had followed that advice? She certainly wouldn’t have covered songs by the Beatles, Paul Simon, or Adele. She wouldn’t have sung an aria at the 1998 Grammy Awards in place of opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti, who was too ill to perform.
And she wouldn’t have struck Billboard gold with “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” which was also co-written by Carole King. In one of her most memorable performances, Franklin sang the song at the Kennedy Center when King received its lifetime achievement honor in 2015. The audience included our first and only African-American president, Barack Obama, who wiped away tears as he watched.
“Aretha helped define the American experience,” Barack and Michelle Obama said in a statement, after Franklin died. “She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human.”
That’s exactly right. And one of the ways she did that was by transgressing — and, most of all, by transcending — the categories that divide us. She was gospel, but she was also pop and jazz and rock. She was black, but she collaborated with whites and Latinos and Asians. She was American, but she belonged to the world.
Safe travels, Queen of Soul. All of us will miss you.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with Emily Robertson) of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools” (University of Chicago Press)