When Beloved Icons Become Black History

The tragic irony of coping with the recent deaths of Whitney, Don and others during Black History Month.

Rick Diamond/Getty Images; Kevin Winter/Getty Images; Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

In black culture, we do three rituals differently from other ethnic groups: get married, worship and bury our loved ones.

And in those three, we express ourselves more vociferously than in just about any other aspect of our lives. When we get married, we party hard. When we go to church, we see middle-aged women getting the "holy ghost" and when we hold a funeral, there's always a chorus of wailing.

Then there are those times we mourn the passing of someone we all know, even if that person didn't know each of us personally -- that "family member," in the larger sense, who found a way to bring something special into our lives, who connects us all. We become sad and we give condolences, then we slowly heal.

Sometimes, though, we are forced to bury such people more than once in a short period of time. And that has been a theme of the past few weeks in black pop culture. So far this Black History Month, we seem to have buried so many of our famous that it has become difficult to focus on the larger scope of black history.

So far we have mourned the passing of powerful R&B songstress Etta James, Soul Train impresario Don Cornelius, gospel prodigy David Peaston, opera pioneer Camilla Williams and, most recently and tragically, America's most beloved diva, Whitney Houston.

In the cases of James and Williams, we know that they lived full lives, and it becomes easier to let them go with a tear and a flower. Cornelius lived an equally full life, but the apparent suicide of a man who brought so much joy to us every Saturday is difficult to grasp. Peaston's death at 54, still young, serves as a reminder that maintaining our health is tantamount.

But losing Houston was the most unexpected of all. If it did not shock all of us, it certainly saddened us to know that her voice is now forever silenced.

The most difficult thing is that although these are pop-culture figures -- simply famous people whom we have come to know over the years through their work -- in our psyches they are family members. We have let these folks into our homes like cousins or aunts and uncles who bring gifts from faraway places.

As much as we complain about the lavish, decadent lives of the rich and famous -- and in many cases they do warrant harsh criticism -- there are those we lose who are like that brother we know was not perfect, but we loved him dearly despite his faults. We will never fully get over his loss. I can't think of a better example than Michael Jackson.

So although we have to bury another loved one this week, another family member whose voice was the sound track of our youths, there is a lesson in this that echoes in a saying that our parents keep telling us year after year and generation after generation: "Give me my flowers while I can still smell them."