I skipped church on Sunday. But as a friend told me when I mentioned feeling slightly guilty about it, we’d already spent hours in the house of the Lord.
Much has been written about Aretha Franklin’s epic funeral — the performances, the speeches, the controversy, the marathon length. While many complained (or watched in awe), those of us who grew up in the Black church weren’t surprised it took hours (and hours) to send the Queen of Soul up yonder.
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Back in the day, church was a day-long affair. You went from Sunday School to a three-hour service to a fellowship dinner with the congregation, then right back to church again. And if anyone “got happy,” as the old folks called it, and started dancing in the aisles, there was no telling how long you’d have to wait for the preacher to open up the doors and invite new (or backsliding) members into the fold. The church of my childhood was always a marathon, full of prayer and praise and sermons that seemed to stretch on forever. It was nothing to hit the door at 8 a.m. and return home long after the sun had clocked out.
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It’s why Aretha’s homegoing felt so familiar, and, in many ways, comforting to me. It reminded me of watching my grandfather in the pulpit, singing and sweating, and slaying souls for God. It reminded me of my mother’s piano playing, and the women in the church humming and hyping the preacher up so he would finally find his way to Calvary. It reminded me of sitting through sweltering summertime services at churches where the air conditioning was bad, but the choirs were so good you couldn’t help but stand to your feet.
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As one of the speakers said on Friday, Aretha’s homegoing service wasn’t for her, it was for us.
It served as a reminder of our ability as Black folks to celebrate even when we’re sad; to dance and joke and sing through our tears; to find joy in every moment of life. As I tweeted during the service, Aretha’s funeral was an “expression of peak Black American culture,” and encompassed our beauty as well as our faults.
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Of course, the ministers on the rostrum personified this contradiction to a tee. Bishop Charles H. Ellis III’s groping of Ariana Grande was an all-too familiar reminder of the inappropriate church hugs many of us have suffered through over the years. And while Rev. Jasper Williams chose the Queen’s funeral to shame single Black mothers and discount the Black Lives Matter movement by regurgitating the myth of so-called Black-on-Black crime, others used the moment to harken back to our ancestors fight for freedom.
After all, the Black church is where Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, and others planned anti-slavery revolts and where Martin Luther King, Jr. — who toured with Aretha in the late 1950s — galvanized a community, then a nation to believe in his dream of racial justice.
Underneath all of the pomp and circumstance of Aretha’s funeral lay a longstanding tradition of resistance, celebration, and a call to action. It’s why speakers like Rev. William J. Barber II, founder of North Carolina’s Moral Monday Movement, said Aretha’s “singing was revelation and revolution in major key” before imploring people to go out and vote in November, and why Michael Eric Dyson called out the “lugubrious leech” in the White House.
While many will continue to debate the appropriateness of such a long, and star-studded homegoing service, there’s no denying one thing: Aretha loved US. And her commitment to the Black community and our traditions were on full display for the world to see during her glorious final act.
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