It is said that black people show up and show out the most in the face of death. We tell grandiose stories about the ones we have loved and lost, carefully weaving their shortcomings together with the memories we cherished. Our grief is passionate and performative. We get huge portrait tattoos and customised t-shirts with the names and/or faces of our dearly departed. We take pictures of their bodies in caskets, or not in caskets. A black funeral easily doubles as both a sacred event meant for mourning and a celebration of life, and a sort of pageant where Black family and community unofficially compete for titles like Most Impacted, Best Dressed, and Superior Cook. Who made the macaroni and cheese is just as important as who prepared the body for the services. The point is that black people honour the hell out of their deceased. And there is an ironic joy to be found in it.
In the Internet Age, black people have taken this practice online and applied it to everyone from our immediate family to the celebrities that we admire. When Aretha Franklin died last week, black folks online came alive. We reflected on her legacy as the undisputed Queen of Soul. Our mothers and grandmothers shared what she meant to them over the decades. We hit Spotify in droves to hear some of her greatest hits. We humanised her experiences as a two time teen mom who still managed to break so many barriers for women in the music industry. We praised her commitment to the liberation of black people during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Our collective eulogy for her was, in many ways, exactly what you would expect for the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But it also wasn’t: there was a humorous undertone to our tributes that revealed the complicated relationship that black people have with death.
“Great gowns, beautiful gowns.” These are not Aretha Franklin song lyrics. But they may as well be given how they’ve bubbled up on Twitter since her passing. They came from an old Wall Street Journal video in which Franklin answered a series of rapid fire questions about other singing “divas” and Franklin said these four words when Taylor Swift was mentioned. Nothing about Swift’s voice, songwriting, or instrumentation. Gowns. In other words, Ms. Franklin was not impressed with Tay Tay, and we could all tell.
This was just one of the few instances in which the superstar threw expert levels of shade. She sent a fax to the Associated Press to fact check Dionne Warwick’s speech at Whitney Houston’s funeral, five years after she gave it. The point Franklin wanted to clarify was that she was not actually Houston’s godmother, despite the popular misconception that she was. Her rumoured beef with Patti LaBelle, another legendary soul singer, was immortalised in GIF form after she refused to shake LaBelle’s hand during a 2014 visit to the White House. Black Twitter has embraced these moments — when Franklin was a petty, shady queen — right alongside her discography.
With the help of social media and technology, our icons transition from living legends into something else when they die. We’ve absorbed a version of Franklin who is more than what she did for a living. We honour the parts of her that were human and imperfect, infusing her with the kind of normalcy that is usually denied to celebrities of her stature while they’re living. We engage online memorials that are created with our own collective joy in mind, and the retweets and likes that we amass in the process are proof. But Franklin’s death was a sign of something more. We needed her live, ongoing obituary to feel just as big as the career she left behind – and there’s a reason for that.
Death is universal. Everyone dies and when we do, most of us leave people behind who feel sad about it. However, black death — at least in the context of colonisation and anti-black racism — comes with a history of its own. We have been dehumanised and stripped of dignity in death. The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and racism has left too many of us to die violently, anonymously, alone, and forgotten. As such, our bereavement rituals are also a form of expression, love, and resistance. It’s how we say: if no one thinks so, we matter. We extol our own from all angles. Black people have been laughing in the face of death for a long time.
The sound of this jubilee echoes far and wide when we lose one of our icons — someone, like Franklin, who meant something to black people and black culture. When fame is also sprinkled into the mix, a practice that was already theatrical becomes a huge production. A moment of collective sorrow quickly becomes one of infectious festivity when we link up to talk about it in only the way that black people can.
I still hold firm that the best way to honour the lives of black people is to honour them while they’re still living. To use the popular saying: we should give people their flowers while they can still smell them. Ideally, people like Prince and Franklin wouldn’t have to leave this world with people bickering over their possessions because no one helped them set up their wills. But that’s not to say that cheeky posthumous humuor about them isn’t also important. Black people can’t escape death by any means, but with the help of memes and GIFs, we can certainly find some light in its inevitable darkness.