When I learned of Whitney Houston’s untimely death, I was in the process of re-reading James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues.” Sonny, like so many entertainers struggled with addiction and the rigors of being an artist. I couldn’t help but think of Whitney. The tragedy of her death has resonated throughout our culture in both artistic and social contexts. It also ripped the curtain off the destructive underbelly of celebrity and its trappings.
We engage in the public consumption of images of the rich and famous as a way of life now. They live under an intensely bright and hot spotlight. Baldwin relates this quite eloquently. In the process of Sonny’s recovery from heroin addiction, he returns to doing what he loves best –playing jazz piano. Sonny’s older brother agrees to accompany him to one of his performances. The brother, seated in a dark corner of the club, watches Sonny and his band mates prepare to perform. While sitting there he contemplates just how many of them have struggled with addiction like Sonny and how they would negotiate Sonny’s homecoming performance. The narration reads:
Then I watched… while they horsed around, standing just below the bandstand. The light from the bandstand spilled just a little short of them and, watching them laughing and gesturing and moving about, I had the feeling that they, nevertheless, were being most careful not to step into that circle of light too suddenly; that if they moved into the light too suddenly, without thinking, they would perish in flame.
Baldwin provides a powerful metaphor for the dangers of the spotlight and stepping into it too soon. When I read that passage, I thought of this image of Whitney from her 2009 American Music Awards performance. She sang “I Didn’t Know my Own Strength.” It was a “comeback” performance in which Whitney was trying to reclaim her image. She is wearing white, which looks absolutely beautiful against her cinnamon caramel skin. The stage is black and Whitney is lit from the back with a piercingly bright spotlight. In that moment we can see her balancing darkness with light, hope with pain, insularity with exposure.
We loved her voice. We rooted for her comeback. But perhaps she moved into the spotlight too suddenly. Perhaps the flame from the light burned her in places no one could see. As I write this, there have been no rulings on the cause of her death. So I do not want to speculate what contributed to her untimely passing. But I love this image because it is how I would like to remember Whitney. Regal, angelic, light and dark, embodying the very essence of humanity and its many contradictions.
Stacie McCormick, PhD, is a literature scholar whose work focuses primarily on African Diaspora and Women’s literature. Presently she is working on a project exploring the black female body and how it is represented in print and visual culture (photographs, artist renderings, the theatrical stage, etc.).Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.