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The Soul of a Natural Woman: Aretha & Me

 

By Stephane Dunn | @DrStephaneDunn | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in
Exile)

 

Friday, August 24, 2018.

 

For as long as I could do a sassy, child's lip sync to "Respect" and understand ‘hush’ which is what we children got if an Aretha Franklin song came on and we disrespected the need of mamas, aunts, and daddies to stop mid-sentence and listen in, she was mixed into the rhythm of my Black life.

Her voice, that voice, was there like the word “Soul,” which was part of the general lexicon of my childhood; it was part of Sunday mornings when we woke to Daddy playing his prized Gospel greats, his praise service while he sent us off to church without him. In Sunday school, Sister So and So or Mother Somebody preached how we had to take care of our souls and give it over to the good Lord while we were young and Pastor later beckoned every sinner to come down the center aisle for the saving of his soul.

It was the main word in the SooooouI Train we watched on Saturday afternoons and something the brothers in crazy colored bell bottoms and Kangol hats said in greeting each other or admiring a fine woman in throwback movies like a Cooley High or Cleopatra Jones. No one ever really defined it, but I got the sense of multiple meanings -- spirit, realness, Blackness, cool.


But as a young teen, it was listening to “Natural Woman” (written by Carole King) that I came to experience “Soul” as something live and deep down to the core, beyond one feeling or another, an emotional energy, a force within. Adolescence was a rough passage with troubles often at home and at school, aggravating the typical changes that were rites of passage from child to adult, from girl into woman.


Aretha’s singing pierced through my confusion and the stuff I couldn’t talk about aloud or articulate even if I could. It tapped into a longing – parts emotional, spiritual, and sexual desire too and spoke to the womanliness straining to emerge, the dueling angst and longing to be at once grown woman and carefree child.  

And when my soul was in the lost and found, you came along to claim it


After she took her own sweet time, and climbed, Now I’m no longer doubtful, you’re the key to my piece of mind. . . I was stripped bare and weeping. It was a long time, years, before I could ever make it through singing along off pitch but earnest.

And I just wanna be, close to you, you make me feel so aliive . . .

As I grew up and indeed got grown, it came to be a heartache song, my woman’s song, Black woman song, human being love anthem, the joy of feeling in love with a man song, the joy of loving self-song, and always a communion with the Divine.

That was soul.

Over the years, I’d have my Aretha months, days when it was just Aretha on repeat – gospel, blues, rhythm and blues. Sitting alone in my apartment in pajamas late evenings, lights dimmed, hours I’d sit, lost in song after song, alternately smiling and blubbering while Aretha told stories until I slept.

Years later, a decade ago now, I’d write a play about two black women celebrating the survival of the one, ironically, from cancer. They listen to music, talk sickness, deferred dreams, and the demonization of black women’s bodies. A song comes on, “Natural Woman” and the two women grab the hairbrushes and wail along, laughing then crying, ripped raw.

A week ago, driving home as the sun went down, stuck in traffic, drained, I’m skipping radio channels and hit the jackpot, Aretha and my song. I beat the steering wheel and wail along loud, twisting in my seat, whipping my head like a true wild woman and don’t care who might be looking. I’m in the car alone and Aretha is sanging.  

You make me feel like a Natural Wooooman.

The Queen of Soul has passed. But I will still have my Aretha evenings, my long drives home where she and I commune. I will have more Aretha sing alongs with my son and Aretha throwback singing fest moments with my sister friends. For now, I do as all true soul people should and bow down.  

The moment I wake up, before I put on my make – up; I say a little prayer for you, forever, forever, forever . . . .and I do love you.

RESPECT.


***


S​tephane Dunn is a writer and professor and the director of the Morehouse College Cinema, Television, & Emerging Media Studies Program​ (CTEMS). Her ​publications include the 2008 book Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films(U of Illinois) and a number of articles in mediums such as Ebony.com, The Atlantic, The Root.com, Bright Lights Film journal, and others. Follow her on Twitter at twitter @DrStephaneDunn and www.stephanedunn.com.

The Soul of a Natural Woman: Aretha & Me

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