Whitney, Self-Esteem and Success: Whose Life Will You Save?
I was sitting in the cinema when I watched the news on my iPhone.
Whitney Houston, dead, 48 years old.
Breathing stops. Immediately floods of memories rush into my mind: bursting into tears the first time I heard Whitney sing, “I will always love you”; wearing bright yellow / green pants and pink headbands in the ’80s to look as pretty as Whitney; all of us scratching our heads when she married Bobby Brown and the pride that black people experienced when he sang Star Spangled Banner to open the Supper Bowl. I remember her version being played over the public address system at school because we were so proud. Next breath. Whitney Houston. Dead. Bath. Hotel room. Pills Fade to black when I open my eyes in dark cinema with the credits rolling.
It has not been 48 hours sold since the news broke. There will be many stories and suspicions about the cause of death. The media is already looking for an addicting angle. I’m writing about Whitney because I want to talk about how self-esteem and success may have been the ‘drug’ that cost Whitney her life.
When I was a black girl from the Baltimore ghettos, I always wanted to be “big.” When I watched TV, I saw Whitney Houston as the biggest winner of all: beautiful, talented, and supported. Whitney became the standard of success in my young mind. I added to my cannon of ideals Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Celine Dion, Halle Barry, Angela Bassett, Tina Turner, Mary J. Blige, CC Winans, Oprah, any girl strong enough to be known by millions. I wanted to be ‘someone’. I kept asking God why they were so successful and everything in my life was so difficult. I have been envious, jealous and spiteful towards these amazing women. I have used them as my yardstick for success. You identify? I asked God, what about me? I am a good person. Hard work. I give everything I have. How come they, not me? Have you ever had that thought? It could be at work, in your family, or about someone famous. Well, I have and I have shaken an angry and frustrated fist to the sky many times.
As I was sitting in the dark at the cinema, I had a new thought. What must it have been like for Whitney to be grouped in the musical shadow of her mother (Cecily Houston)? The extraordinary career of his aunt (Dionne Warwick)? And the genius of his godmother (Aretha Franklin)? Let me be clear: I don’t blame her family for Whitney’s actions. We all walk our own way. I’m suggesting that it’s not hard to imagine how having such incredible influencers in your family could create a sense of having to prove yourself, a large dose of selfishness, or a deep level of insecurity covered in mascara and bravado. The spirit of the songs Whitney sang was directly influenced by family, culture, and history. Women have been rewarded for identifying with their relationships. Especially immortalized in music. Soul songs. Blues songs. Songs about love, betrayal and pain.
The songs that Whitney sang from her heart were about a man. Get a man. Loving a man. Keep a man. And if you think about when things started to change for Whitney, it started (publicly at least) when the world disagreed with the choice of her man: Bobby Brown. Like so many (black) women, she had been cultivated to love, honor, and cling to her man. Good or bad. When the world said no, Whitney sought her cure. When he found out, he also had to stop listening to others and even stop talking to people to shore up his choice of love. She would have to do it alone to stay true to her conviction. Everyone hated Bobby Brown for her. But she loved him. And it was that love, that righteousness about her choice, good or bad, right or wrong, that she would defend and fight for, at all costs.
We’ve all fought for the things we thought we had, whether it’s out of love or a point of view. Whitney is all of us. But I wonder. I wonder what would have happened if Whitney had known it was worth it separately from their relationship. I wonder if the message that had taken root in his heart was her it’s your best thing, as Toni Morrison said, and no man, record deal, Grammy, or blockbuster movie makes you valuable.
I wonder if Whitney’s self-esteem, her own internal relationship with herself other than people, places, and things, had been measured by peace and joy (rather than accolades, tours, and a man) would have changed the outcome of her life. . I think I would have. I say that success is a dreary, depressing second after self-esteem. When you don’t know who you are, your story, your family, or your friends can take root and impersonate the truth. I wish to God that Whitney had felt and understood, throughout her life, that her success was not Bobby, not money, not even Bobbi Kristina; My prayer for Whitney would have been that her self-esteem, her experience of the intrinsic worth that she naturally brings to life, was her success.
I open my eyes. The cinema is empty. Just empty popcorn boxes crumpled on the floor and half-empty soda glasses in chair cup holders. My prayer and my vision of Impossible Challenge for you today is simple and I ask you to pour this out on your daughters with passion: measure your success in terms of your experience of yourself. Your success is not what is outside, it is not your achievements and it is not a man. Golden woman. I know to myself that I don’t want the kind of success that Whitney experienced. The price is too high. We lost Whitney long before 3:55 pm yesterday. We lost her when she felt that no one could hear her. Then he did what we all do when survival begins: He stood firm in his choice. She was alone. She was alone. And she felt that no one understood her.
Dear Whitney, I’m very sorry I didn’t listen to you.
I am very sorry that we have joked and criticized.
I am very sorry to have judged you. We didn’t, at the community level, we didn’t listen.
We judged you, which only made you not trust us or listen to us.
So sorry. Please forgive me. Forgive us for our arrogance.
Look into your own life and see who you have judged. Clean it up. If you do, you have a chance to influence them. I did this with my sister Nichole, who was addicted to heroin. I stopped judging her and was able to influence her life just before she died. Nichole knew she was loved and had someone she could also tell all her secrets before she died because I talked about her success as a mother and she knew it was worth it. Whose life could you save? Whitney showed us how we got it wrong. How can you love someone, free of judgment, with an open heart, and do it right?