Aretha Commanded Respect

This is the seventh entry in the series Honoring Black History.

We lost an amazing voice and an amazing human being when Aretha Franklin died last year. Countless articles have been written about the positive impact she’s had on the struggles for both Civil Rights and Native American rights. Apart from her amazing voice and presence, the thing I will remember most about Aretha is her purse.

If you’re wondering what the hell I’m talking about, watch some of her live performances. Aretha would walk out on stage, purse in hand, and set it on the piano. Apart from the fact that she had some truly spectacular handbags, you might wonder what the significance was. Well, it was a revolutionary act rooted in the historical treatment of black performers in America.

You see, black performers were often robbed of income by shyster venue owners and booking agents. At the end of a gig, their promised payment wouldn’t materialize. If paid before the show, the money might mysteriously disappear from their dressing room. It’s appalling and happened with incredible frequency.

With a keen awareness of this reality, Aretha Franklin required payment up front for a gig. She put the money in her purse and she carried it on stage with her and placed it where she could keep an eye on it. Early on, it was the most practical way to protect herself from getting robbed of her hard-earned money. But later on, it became at once both an act of remembrance and of defiance. It said You (whites, mostly) have mistreated us and robbed us. I know that and you know that. You cannot and will not take advantage of me. I will not be a victim. Feel free to throw a “fuck you” in there too, though I’m not sure Aretha would approve of the language.

Aretha was an incredible performer. She remained committed to civil rights and equal treatment for all peoples, right up until her death. She demanded (and deserved) respect, but she gave it as well. She’s a truly unforgettable woman.


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