What Whitney Houston Taught Me
Single-Minded: As a black girl from a small town, I learned who is "the greatest love of all."
"Can you believe these little fools wanted to perform in blackface?" I heard her say over the phone to someone back home. In the end I performed a solo "Wind Beneath My Wings" after three weeks of private singing lessons and won third place. I always say people expected me to be good.
The next year, I was poised for the top prize. A friend of the family sent over an emerald green dress made of taffeta and black velvet with voluminous sleeves that looked like fancy swimmies. My mother dyed a pair of lace stockings black to match. My "heels" had bows on the front that were bigger than my fists. I'd even gotten a perm. Now all I needed was an actual song to sing.
It had been decided that I'd do another solo, which was perfect, since no one would sing with me anyway after my mom had made such a fuss the year before. Plus, I'd grown in confidence in the last 12 months. Sure, I still stood out, but I was no longer the new kid on the island -- just the black one.
Bette Midler had worked for me the year before, so I flipped through her songbook at the local karaoke bar where my mom worked while I waited for Frances to finish her shift. None of the songs on the Divine Miss M's playlist spoke to me; everything sounded old. "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy"? My choices were limited. Frustrated, I almost resigned myself to forgetting the whole thing.
Later that night, my mom gave me a crumbled printout of "The Greatest Love of All," and I screamed. Of course! What had I been thinking? I set out to memorize the real lyrics, immediately replacing my misheard version of the song. It was "and if by chance that special place," not "and if by lance that freshal face." The more I learned, the more I understood why my mom had chosen it for me.
The song was about confidence. It was about loving yourself, hugging yourself and depending on yourself. A hard but necessary lesson for any little girl, but especially a little girl drowning in a fishbowl without someone to look up to -- or someone who even looked like her outside her own living room. "The Greatest Love of All," I'd eventually figure out, is so obviously (but sometimes so elusively) your own. A black girl named Whitney Houston taught me that.
I think I came in third again that year. The song ran on too long, according to the judges. So I was docked a couple of points. My mom called that a "technical knockout." And the rest of my friends said I'd been robbed. "You were amazing," I heard over and over that night from the mothers and fathers of children who called me names that you learn only from adults.
My singing career didn't take off after that; something about me was not really able to sing beyond the occasional small-town talent show. But I'll never forget the lesson Whitney's lyrics taught me and no doubt countless little girls all over the country: Screw the people who don't believe in you, because the most important relationship you'll ever have is the one you have with yourself. I learned to stop looking for "someone to look up to" and looked in the mirror.
Whitney Houston Through the Years
In honor of the legendary singer, who died Feb. 11, we remember her life and career through photos.