Aretha Franklin's Sketch of Black Femininity
May 16, 1975. Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images.

Aretha Franklin's Sketch of Black Femininity

The iconic musician embodied the trials and tribulations that all black women could relate to, and provided the blueprint to alleviate them.
August 17, 2018, 2:45pm

Aretha Franklin was always on the defense. From advocating for the release of Angela Davis, to always keeping her mink on her at all times, to wiping her biography of anything “dark and gritty,” to demanding her payments in cash before any performance, Miss Franklin has always required what her earth-shattering 1967 “Respect” plainly spoke, in all its forms: self-worth, accountability, privacy, and freedom. That breakout hit is often cited as a morale boost for both the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements. And in all of this—her music and her life—she embodied the trials and tribulations that all black women could relate to, and provided the blueprint to alleviate them. Yesterday morning, it was announced that Franklin died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 76, but her timeless quantification of black femininity will endure the test of time.

Miss Franklin was not a woman without hardships. Her father, an influential preacher, succumbed to alcoholism and domestic abuse when Miss Franklin was at a tender age; her mother was driven to leave the family when she was six years old, only to die four years later; her first husband, Ted White, also abused her before they divorced after eight years, in 1969. That same year, a shoot-out between radical collective the Republic of New Africa and the Detroit police occurred at her family’s New Bethel Baptist Church. Join these personal troubles with the Civil Rights Movement tumbling towards its bloody meridian, and you get a woman moored, forever manicuring her reality to prevent further mistreatment. Rather than being carefree, she sported her control like a fine broach on her favorite mink.

In Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self Recovery, bell hooks articulates how contemporary black womanhood demands constant vigilance and resistance. She writes, in the introduction:

“In a revolutionary manner, black women have utilized mass media (writing, film, video, art, etc.) to offer radically different images of ourselves. These actions have been an intervention. We have also dared to move out of our “place” (that is away from the bottom of everything, the place this society often suggest we should reside). Moving ourselves from manipulatable objects to self-empowered subjects, black women have by necessity threatened the status quo.”

Such is the essence of Aretha Franklin’s hits. “Respect,” for starters, functions as a bargaining tactic: Miss Franklin, taking the role of a lover, reminds her paramour that she’s got what he wants and needs, and in return asks only for a li’l respect. It’s easy to see why the song became an anthem for progressive movements of the 60s and 70s; she reworked the song from Otis Redding two years after he wrote it, re-contextualizing it through a feminine lens and producing a call-to-arms for sexual liberation. And aside from Miss Franklin’s voice buoying the song like it’s riding rolling thunder, the pop-savvy activist or social theorist could easily apply its lyrics to America. If you’re like James Baldwin, you, too, love this country enough to criticize her perpetually. We, the people, do give her all our money, and we do have all that she wants and needs (that being labor, of course). All we demand is a li’l respect in return.

“Think,” released the following year, works almost like a spiritual progression to “Respect”: Instead of asking for some decency, she places the onus of her treatment directly onto her lover. “You better think,” she demands. “Think about what you’re trying to do to me.” With this song, she vaguely references her lover’s wrongdoings in order to declare that it’s his job to care for her. She does her duty for him; he’d better do his for her—or at least think of the consequences. The song came when that of its kind was needed: 1968 was a particularly tumultuous year both politically (Dr. King was assassinated only a month before the record dropped) and personally (she and her husband had reached the nadir of their relationship) for the world and Miss Franklin. It was time to stop giving and start demanding.

And then there’s “A Natural Woman”. A sensual ballad, Miss Franklin elevated an innocuous hit into a soulful hymn reaching out from the radio and touching the hearts of black women everywhere. It opens with a familiar sensation for many of us, who are sick and tired of feeling sick and tired: “Looking out on the morning rain / I used to feel so uninspired / And when I knew I had to face another day / Lord, it made me feel so tired.” But then she croons about the validation love from her partner gives her, as a defeated black woman, in a world hellbent on beating her down: “You make me feel / Like a natural woman.” It was, no doubt, a holy experience to project oneself into this song, to soak in the nectar of someone’s love, during the most wretched stretch of history in which black women were barely considered people, let alone women—forget someone worthy of sex and love.

It’s this energy that she carries throughout the rest of her life. In David Remnick’s 2016 New Yorker profile of the artist, Tavis Smiley states that “There is the sense in her very often that people are out to harm you. And she won’t have it. You are not going to disrespect her.” One could say this about most black women in America, the very same who are denigrated for their anger or considered “aggressive” when simply trying to be assertive. Clinical psychologist Dr. Inger E. Burnett-Zeigler summed up the causes for this perceived anger for The New York Times:

“Black women are more likely than white women to have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from childhood maltreatment and sexual and physical violence. They are more likely to have stress related to family, employment, finances, discrimination or racism and safety concerns associated with living in high crime neighborhoods. Black women are more likely to be depressed and when they are, their symptoms are more severe, last longer, and are more likely to interfere with their ability to function at work, school and home. Black women are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness.”

So, it’s no wonder hooks considers regaining control of black women’s place in the world “revolutionary,” and this is precisely what Miss Franklin sought to do. When she offered to post Angela Davis’s bail in 1970, she stated that she was singularly concerned with the case “because she’s a black woman and she wants freedom for black people.” According to Smiley, Aretha “authorize[d] her own reality” in a manner that continues to inspire young black women—most recently and visibly, Beyonce—to gain control of their lives within the preventative circumstances that are American life. “Don’t ever underestimate the power of the personal,” Smiley said. “‘Respect is not just a song to Aretha. It’s the mantra for her life.” And it should be ours, too.

Kaila Philo is a writer based in Washington DC. Follow her on Twitter.