Aretha Franklin's funeral fit for a queen

Family, friends and the many admirers of Aretha Franklin packed Detroit's Greater Grace Temple on Friday to celebrate the life, legacy and music of the "Queen of Soul."

Posted: Sep 3, 2018 11:38 AM
Updated: Sep 3, 2018 11:48 AM

Sometimes, a funeral unites people to make change. Other times, the book is simply closed on a lost past.

This weekend, at the Detroit commemoration of Aretha Franklin, Al Sharpton hailed her as "the soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement." That movement had its very roots in too many funerals.

At the 1955 funeral of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, Till's grieving mother invited thousands of mourners to view his open casket -- millions more had their eyes opened to the violence inflicted on the black body when Jet magazine published the photographs.

But the Western tradition of the game-changer funeral goes back centuries, past Mark Antony inciting Romans to avenge the murder of Caesar, to the Ancient Greeks. The classical model for a funeral oration has always been that given by Pericles, an Athenian statesman, during Athens' wars with Sparta.

Pericles oversaw the public funeral of soldiers killed at a pivotal point in the Peloponnesian War. He rallied support for the war with a reminder of the Athenian democratic virtues for which these soldiers had already chosen to sacrifice their lives.

"Our government does not copy our neighbors', but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy. ... Fix your eyes upon the greatness of Athens, until you become filled with the love of her; and then reflect that this supremacy was won by men who knew their duty and had the courage to do it."

John McCain, commemorated on Saturday at the Washington National Cathedral, was fond of quoting lines from Pericles' oration. So perhaps it was on his mind as he laid the blueprint for his own funeral. Like Pericles, his friends chose to praise McCain for that which he would have wanted most to be praised: his commitment to the highest standards of American public life. Inevitably, minds turned to the figure who, McCain felt, embodied the corruption of that American democracy: President Donald Trump. As the British playwright Lucy Prebble tweeted during the funeral, "it's rare for a funeral to have a nemesis."

President Barack Obama started his eulogy with a greeting to each of the other former Presidents and Vice Presidents present in the room: Bush, Clinton, Gore, and Cheney. Nothing made Trump's absence from the ceremony more conspicuous. The references to Trump continued, oblique, but clear.

Obama lamented contemporary politics with a line that could be a summary of Trump's Twitter feed: "So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage." Even George W. Bush, the most recent former Republican President, took a swipe at his co-partisan while praising McCain's lifelong opposition to "bigots and swaggering despots."

It was left to Meghan McCain, John McCain's daughter and seemingly his anointed political heir, to confront Trump directly. In a eulogy her father had requested she deliver, she remarked: "The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again, because America was always great."

In another moment, she seemed to take aim at Trump's failure to serve in Vietnam. "We gather here to mourn the passing of American greatness -- the real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice he gave so willingly, nor the opportunistic appropriation of those who lived lives of comfort and privilege while he suffered and served." Senator McCain was held for five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, after he declined early release, refusing to leave behind those whose release should have preceded his own.

Despite McCain's heroism, Trump notoriously mocked him during the 2016 election campaign. "He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured," said the now-President, who was exempted from the draft after a doctor diagnosed him with bone spurs.

But McCain's funeral was not the only farewell to an American icon this weekend, nor the only funeral to an icon recently insulted by Donald Trump. The friends and family of Aretha Franklin gathered on Friday, not for a funeral but a homegoing -- a service drenched deep in the traditions of African-American church and the civil rights movement.

While McCain's funeral recalled Eurocentric classical traditions (Athenian democracy, after all, did not extend to women and slaves), Franklin's evoked the scores of civil rights funerals at which she had sung, or at which her father had preached. The singer Fantasia performed a mashup version of the gospel anthem "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," which Franklin had performed at a memorial for Martin Luther King Jr., 50 years ago.

In Detroit, there was clear anger toward President Trump -- particularly after comments in which he claimed the icon had "worked" for him "on numerous occasions." Many noted that Franklin's long involvement in the black civil rights struggle should not have left her to be obituarized as entertainment for wealthy white men -- especially a man who once took out ads in New York City's newspapers to demand the death penalty for the Central Park 5, five young black men later exonerated of rape, in the wake of their arrest.

Early in the evening, Al Sharpton reclaimed her for his black-majority congregation, quipping at Trump that "she used to perform for you -- she worked for us."

The frustration finally bubbled over in a speech given by Georgetown Professor Michael Eric Dyson. After a crescendo of insults -- "you doppelganger of deceit and deviance," Dyson declared: "She ain't work for you. She worked above you. She worked beyond you. Get your preposition right."

But as with McCain's funeral, the call to political resistance was largely implicit. As befits a great artist, the moments that spoke most powerfully of Franklin's spirit were moments of poetry and song: Cicely Tyson repurposed Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem, "When Malindy Sings;" Pastor E. L. Branch quoted Longfellow: "'Dust thou art, to dust returnest' was not spoken of the soul."

Where McCain's friends told stories of bipartisan camaraderie, Franklin's were clear about the Democrat sympathies in the audience. If McCain's service was bipartisan, Franklin's was explicitly Democratic. Regretting that "we" lost Michigan by 11,000 votes in 2016, the Rev. Jesse Jackson lamented that the unregistered voters in black-majority Detroit could have swung the state. Rev. William Barber, who referred to Hillary Clinton as "the woman who won the popular vote for President," echoed his call for voter registration drives.

Is it possible for the funeral of any great activist to reach across the aisle, and yet stake out a clear political legacy to its mourners? As McCain's funeral ended, journalist Dara Lind asked on Twitter: "Can you have civility without chumminess?"

At both funeral services this weekend, mourners tried to answer that question. Former Democratic Senator -- now an Independent -- Joe Lieberman talked of telling jokes with McCain on the balcony of hotels in Jerusalem. But Lieberman's break with his own Democratic party demonstrates neatly that it's hard to keep ties with one political tribe while frequently cutting deals in the center.

Lieberman's pally anecdotes about McCain will not have wide outreach. Voters whose loyalties have been won by partisan promises are rarely keen on their representatives hobnobbing in international hotels with the opposition. When civility becomes chumminess, politics looks like the game of a clubbable elite.

At Franklin's funeral, the same questions were expressed in the visible tension between politics of respectability and radicalism. A testament to Franklin's broad church of friends, on the podium we saw radicals (Louis Farrakhan, whose presence drew controversy due to lifelong accusations of anti-Semitism) next to black conservatives (Rev. Jasper Williams Jr., whose eulogy was criticized on Twitter when it placed heavy blame for African-American poverty on the black community itself.

There were even swipes between those asked to commemorate Franklin. Barack and Michelle Obama sent a letter to be read on their behalf. Dyson, who has written widely on Obama's legacy as a biracial President, claimed in his speech: "Now, negros scared to say they black. Scared to show up at a too black place. That's why some black folk ain't here today. They sending letters, they don't want to get up in this blackness." As at McCain's funeral, we were left to wonder: when is it a virtue to be divisive?

There was one further question hanging in the air this weekend. Where do we go from here? Could we ever see Obama, Dyson and Williams organizing in the same civil rights movement? A rallying cry for voter registration is at least a start. At McCain's commemoration, former Presidents from the GOP and the Democratic Party were able to give speeches touching on the same virtues of civility and political self-sacrifice.

But on the frontlines of this November's election battles, the tone is still set by Donald Trump and his Twitter feed. To many American voters, the very bipartisanship of Saturday's gathering at the National Cathedral will testify to the herd mentality of a Washington elite.

Pericles had an advantage. If we believe his biographer, the historian Thucydides, his listeners shared his definition of his nation's values. They just needed an eloquent reminder. The broken body of Emmett Till exposed an evil so explicit that its presence in America could no longer be denied. But it is not clear that the vast TV audiences for Aretha Franklin's homegoing are all on the same page about racial justice. Nor that the millions who watched John McCain's funeral share his vision for America. Meanwhile, to many voters elsewhere in America, unity looks like weakness.

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