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Nadra Kareem Nittle

Was Whitney Houstonís Funeral Too Black for Mainstream America?

By February 29, 2012

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Nearly two weeks have passed since the home-going service of Whitney Houston on Feb. 18, but the singer's funeral continues to attract attention both on entertainment programs and in the blogopshere. I watched most of the service live on an ABC affiliate with no commentary. Apparently, those who watched the funeral on stations such as CNN had a different experience. Not only did running commentary accompany the service, but much of the commentary centered on breaking down black church traditions, which rubbed writer Tami Winfrey Harris the wrong way.

The website Racialicious.com featured an opinion piece by Harris Monday explaining why CNN's coverage of the funeral made her cringe. She described Houston's service as follows:

"There was rousing gospel; truth-telling; passion; equal doses of laughing and crying, clapping and shouting; references to Jesus; moving sermons; a few long-winded eulogizers; some preening preachers on 'thrones' in the pulpit; a sense of sorrow, but a greater sense of joy-celebration of life and of a soul 'going home' and being released from earthly sorrows. ...for most black viewers Houston's service was not completely alien. But judging from CNN's coverage, Houston's home going was alien indeed to the greater public."

She notes that CNN anchor Don Lemon pointed out to the public what a "wake" is and that another reporter mentioned that after the service, the mourners would likely gather together for a meal. She found these explanations "very othering," akin to a spread in National Geographic about the funeral rites of a people far removed from mainstream society. Harris became even more unsettled when she went online and saw individuals tweeting that they found the clapping during the service disrespectful or the caregivers in white puzzling. People online also complained that the service was too long.

Are cultural divides to blame for these reactions? Perhaps. Some people may not realize that black church services, be it for a funeral or Sunday morning worship, tend to be much longer than your standard white church service. It's not unusual for Sunday morning worship at a black church to last for at least two hours. In contrast, I've found services at white churches to run far shorter--75 to 90 minutes. I can see how someone with no experience at a black church would conclude that Houston's funeral service was an "overly long spectacle." As for the "caregivers in white," your average African American likely grew up seeing these women in church. They're not nurses, as some viewers mistook them for, but ushers. And perhaps because I grew up going to black churches, I don't find the fact that the mourners at Houston's home-going service laughed and clapped. It was supposed to be a celebration of Houston's life rather than a somber event. Moreover, those familiar with black American culture know that call-and-response plays a key role in church services.

Although I am black and have attended more black church services than I can remember, I've mostly attended churches with mixed-race congregations in adulthood. I've gone to funerals for people of Caucasian and Latino descent, but those services were Roman Catholic. The differences between Catholic and Protestant worship stood out to me much more than the ethnic backgrounds of the dead and their loved ones.

The day after Houston's service I went to my local church, which a white pastor leads. He actually commented on Houston's funeral service but not to criticize it. Instead, he applauded the family for choosing to mourn the singer in her home church rather than in a secular setting. Because of the Houston family's decision, "The whole country got to go to church," he remarked. For Christian viewers, shouldn't that have been the point and not whether the people on screen worshipped in a way they found unfamiliar?


March 5, 2012 at 1:54 pm
(1) Nadine says:

I found the service uplifting. I am an African -American Catholic, but was raised by a Baptist Mother.
Yes, it was long, but Whitney got sent to God by her home church and that is what America should have seen. A loving mother sent her daughter home the way she was raised.

RIP Whitney

March 7, 2012 at 11:42 am
(2) r. dejesus says:

Amen! I felt the same way.

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