Aretha Franklin, remembered as the “Queen of Soul” to fans worldwide, died on August 16, 2018. Deborah McDowell shares a personal account of a time in October 2010 when she organized a symposium at the University of Virginia in Aretha’s honor. Ms. McDowell is the Alice Griffin Professor of English and Director, Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies in the College & Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
I was passing by the Paramount Theater on a dusky evening earlier that July, just as they were mounting the poster in the “Coming Attractions” window. I stopped dead in my tracks, then immediately said to myself, “If Aretha is coming to Charlottesville, we need to honor her at the University of Virginia.” I contacted Richard Will, then chair of the McIntire Department of Music, and we set about organizing an afternoon symposium, which I proudly titled “Respecting Aretha Franklin.” Moderated by Claudrena Harold, Professor of History and African American Studies here at UVA, the panel featured Daphne Brooks, Professor of English and African American Studies at Princeton University (now at Yale), Waldo Martin (currently Professor of American History & Citizenship at UC Berkeley), Scott Deveaux, professor in our Music department, and Barbara Edwards, a local gospel vocalist extraordinaire.
Aretha was to have made a surprise appearance, joining the other panelists for an afternoon session on the stage of the theater. We had cleared these arrangements with her management ahead of time; we just couldn’t advertise that she would be present. Alas, Aretha, under doctor’s orders, had to cancel in the end, which may well have been at the start of the long illness that claimed her life, but we went ahead with the show and had a high old time.
Of course, apart from “Respect,” there are so many, many pieces in Aretha’s song book which have sustained me over the years, but perhaps none like, “I Say a Little Prayer,” which she sang at her final public performance last November for Elton John’s AIDS Benefit.
She was in evident decline, but she did there on that stage what she always did: sing through, above, and around the pain, inviting us to do the same. Though her flesh was sagging from her frame, and her skin showed that unmistakable pallor of chemotherapy treatments, she stood there upright, confident in that Chanel-length white fur jacket and beaded gown and she slayed. She slayed. I would like to believe that in this valedictory performance she was saying a prayer for herself. She was certainly saying a prayer for us, her faithful fans, who would be left behind to mourn her, but also to take comfort in the sheer benevolence, in the love supreme, in the amazing grace that was her music for all the ages.