At Whit’s End

“Fame can never make us lie down contentedly on a deathbed.”

— Alexander Pope, 1713

On the Monday following the death of pop music diva Whitney Houston, I was approached by a young woman who inquired whether I had heard that Ms. Houston had died.  I replied in the affirmative and, miraculously, somehow managed to refrain from saying something like, “Why are you surprised at the ‘sudden’ death of a person who had abused drugs for decades?”  I am glad that I held my sarcasm in check because the woman then said that the news was so upsetting that “she cried all weekend.”

I was stunned into silence and could only nod.  At the risk of sounding callous, the demise of Ms. Houston barely rippled the surface of my consciousness.  While I admit that I liked a few of the songs that she released in the 1980s and 1990s, for some time Whitney Houston had been little more to me than another pampered, drug-addled celebrity whose career had seen better days.  Her marriage to Bobby Brown and their reality television show did nothing to improve her image n my eyes.  Of course, none of this matters to the people who loved her before she became a star and, perhaps, in spite of her fame.  Their grief is real and deserves more respect than a soundbite on tabloid TV shows.

Perhaps we are too quick to accept the mortal departure of singers, musicians, comedians, actors, and other people who entertain us.  Do we expect — indeed, demand — that these individuals burn out in tragically spectacular fashion?  There are, of course, those stars who dance close to the line of self-destruction and are fortunate enough not to tumble irrevocably into oblivion.  (Yes, Robert Downey, Jr., I am talking about you.  And yes, I am eagerly awaiting the Avengers movie later this year.)  Redemption is big business, and always has been, especially in America.  Martin Luther understood that; and the rest is history.

The loss of Ms. Houston reminds us that prodigious talent often cannot shield those who possess it from the devastation of personal demons or bad choices.  To be sure, we mere mortals who cannot sing, act, or do anything else worthy of the blinding light of fame have many of the same burdens.  And with any luck, our secrets and slip-ups will never be the lead stories on the evening news or TMZ.

Better Red Than Dead

Off we go into the wild blue yonder,

Climbing high into the sun;

Here they come zooming to meet our thunder,

At ’em boys, Give ‘er the gun! (Give ‘er the gun!)*

Down we dive, spouting our flame from under,

Off with one helluva roar!**

We live in fame or go down in flame. Hey!***

Nothing’ll stop the Army Air Corps!1 

1 Robert MacArthur Crawford wrote what is now known as the “U.S. Air Force Song” in 1939. The original title and lyrics contained the words “Army Air Corps,” which I have used here.

Last weekend I finally made time to see Red Tails, George Lucas’ long-awaited and much-discussed epic about the experience of Tuskegee Airmen serving in Italy during World War II.  I was vaguely aware of the controversy swirling around the film: Lucas’ difficulty in securing financial and promotional backing for a “Black” project that had nothing to do with Tyler Perry; the interracial romance between two characters; the less-than-impressive box office receipts, etc.  However, none of these things explained why I was slow to add my pennies to George the Great’s coffers.  Rather, I was already quite familiar with the story of the Airmen and believed that I would not learn anything new from the movie.  I was, it turned out, wrong.

On the night I saw “Red Tails,” the audience was small but diverse.  Several young people of color were in the crowd, a fact that assaulted me with ambivalence.  On the one hand, I was glad to see people who might have a slight interest in learning some history, albeit served up in a form “based on actual events.”  On the other, I was apprehensive that the assembled masses would engage in a running — and loud — dialogue with the movie’s characters.  (Do not act surprised.  Black people are famous such cinematic interaction.)  I am pleased to report that my mixed emotions soon melted away as my senses were overwhelmed by scenes of the beautiful Italian countryside and the exhilaration of flight.

The movie took me back to a time when the freedoms I now enjoy without the slightest thought were denied to people who look like me.  Racism was not a theory; it was real, terrible, and an accepted fact of life.  The intelligence, ability, and patriotism of African-Americans were openly questioned, even in the face of a world-wide struggle against the unparalleled evil of fascism.  Indeed, there were moments when it was hard for me to tell which enemy was more reprehensible: the American officers who doubted and belittled the Tuskegee Airmen or the ruthless German pilots whom the Airmen desperately wanted to meet in battle.

While it obviously depended upon certain stock traits and characters, “Red Tails” also managed to depict African-American men who treated themselves and others with the respect that American society had denied them.  They were highly-trained professionals who took pride in what they did — and were willing to give the last full measure for a country in which they were, at best, step-citizens.  Moreover, the movie reintroduced us to the concept of shared national sacrifice during times of crisis, a sensibility that has proven to be elusive in the wars America has fought during the last decade.

When the last of the credits had rolled off the screen and the lights came up, I found myself feeling grateful to George Lucas for using his enormous wealth and influence to remind us that America is still very much a work in progress.  In our current age of economic dislocation, social media inundation (and alienation), and bitter partisanship in the corridors of leadership, it is encouraging to know that our heroes do not always have to come from a galaxy far, far away.