Clinging to the news reports, fans internationally waited and prayed for Queen Aretha Franklin’s health to improve. However when word came regarding her visitors coming to say farewell, people knew in their hearts that her time was quickly slipping away. She was “family”, because you knew Aretha could throw down on a special Sunday dinner. She was “famous” internationally, because once you dropped her name, the world knew exactly who you were talking about. Radio stations, internet broadcasts and television specials aired with 24 hours of the Queen’s music for several days. Then people started driving their cars across the country to stand in line for hours, to pay their final, earthly respects to the queen. The Nation of Islam arrived on the scene to protect her body, her family and all of the people who gathered peacefully to see her. The way the line wrapped around buildings and hallway was astounding, as members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. conducted her final ritual with the Omega Omega services. The Delta’s brought dignity and calmness to the museum, as thousands of members had flown in to ensure that their soror was laid to rest properly, as a lady of high-caliber. So as the Motor City stood still and rolled out the red carpet for the Queen’s final salute, the world recognized that Miss Franklin would never stand before a microphone again, belting out songs from her life.
One of the Queen’s sorority sisters, Profound Poet Nikki Giovanni, had written her eulogy almost 46 years ago, in a flattering, down to earth poem, about what she meant to the world in 1972. And another one of her sorority sisters, Dr. Millicent Marr Watkins Conley, had taken it upon herself to teach her very young class about a citizen of the world, through the Queen of Soul. She was all things to many people, and we all just wanted a little piece of her flesh to take with us.
RAISING ROYALTY: OUR QUEEN REIGNS FOREVER WITH HER PEOPLE
When I was in third grade, my beautiful and gifted teacher, Dr. Millicent Marr Watkins Conley (who is very much alive today) played Nikki Giovanni’s poem about a singer named Aretha Franklin. The poem was part of our reading unit and we pretended to be performers, wailing to Queen Aretha’s tunes during the 1973-1974 academic year.
So here comes this slim, pretty teacher, who pulls out the record player and plays the 1972 album (I did not say CD), “Truth is on its Way,” by a radical, young, militant poet, Miss Nikki Giovanni, with the backdrop music of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”
Dr. Conley taught us about political artists and how Miss Franklin was working right here in our fair city, with the young minister, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, and how Miss Franklin stood with Dr. King, which took courage and dignity to do properly. Dr. Conley was all about doing things right and properly. She said that Miss Aretha did not live a perfect life, but that we, her third grade children, had to do something with our own lives. And today, I am still trying to live up to Dr. Conley’s high expectations.
Dr. Conley taught us that we were to embrace Black women at all times and listen to their voices. Listen to the messages in those voices. And give honor to the stories told through those words, phrases and reflections. In other words, put some RESPECT on a Black woman’s voice. Give the lady what she is due.
But in third grade, you just want to grab your pretend microphone and perform your lines well for the teacher. I was not selected to “perform” as Queen Franklin for the Black History play. Sigh.
So when Queen Franklin made her transition recently (1942-2018), all of Dr. Conley’s lessons came flooding back to my soul. How many Chicago Public School teachers were educating their children about a musical genius?
Like Miss Franklin, Dr. Conley had to take care of her entire family. Like Miss Franklin, Dr. Conley had faith and trust in the Lord. Like Miss Franklin, Dr. Conley battled with health issues and kept on going with life. Media reports say that the Queen knew she had cancer for probably the last 10 years, but she had people to support and causes to endorse.
Sister/Soror Giovanni was ahead of her time, by pointing out that Miss Franklin sacrificed her life, her health, her peace of mind, her four sons, her sisters and brother, her husbands, and her church family to be the “Queen.” There was so much weight on her shoulders, yet she met the very high expectations from her fans, critics, preachers, teachers and just ordinary folks, all wanting a piece of her.
Giovanni writes, ” I’d vote YES, to her doing four concerts a year…And staying home…She needs a rest…It’s a shame how we are killing her.”
Dr. Conley did not waste our time with senseless work sheets and people we would never remember. Like Queen Franklin did not waste our time with dry music or empty songs. She produced music that would outlast our lifetime. The State of Michigan proclaimed her voice a natural resource. They knew there was gold in her lungs and placed her on their highest pedestal.
And no one could capture a song, a movement nor a moment like the Queen.
Giovanni writes, “She pushed every Black singer into Blackness…
She made Diana Ross get an afro wig…
You couldn’t jive when she said ‘You make me feel’…”
The Queen supported Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Nation of Islam financially, spiritually and emotionally, as she worked for justice for our people. She did all of this, as if she did not have her own troubles to bear. Her own rumors to kill. Her own life to lead.
In People Magazine, Aretha Franklin was quoted as saying, “I have the money…and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.” And she did sign those six figured checks that kept many civil rights organizations alive for the last 50 years.
So as we bid farewell to the Queen’s physical body, we know that her legacy will continue to live on in the hearts and minds of people internationally. As teachers continue to teach about the Queen, children will know that another icon has joined our ancestors eternally.
She left so much for us to consume from her body of work to “Think” about for decades. Yes, there were Grammy awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but what Dr. Conley taught was about her most important asset, which was her heart. And if our heart leads us, then our intentions will be pure and positive, said Dr. Conley.
As Sister/Soror Giovanni concludes with her poem, we all will have to do like Motown’s Temptation’s and , “Think about it, think about it, think about it.”
Research for this article came from Nikki Givoanni’s Poem, “Truth is on its Way”, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, People Magazine and the Esteemed Professor –Dr. Millicent Conley’s Third Grade Classroom at Bryn Mawr Elementary School (CPS).