In the drawn out farewells for two singular Americans, we seem to have been struggling with a loss more profound than the deaths of a singer and a senator. In their passing, we could see how our country is slipping away. As the body politic grows sicker, both Aretha Franklin and Sen. John McCain represent balm in short supply.
“We gather here to mourn the passing of American greatness,” Meghan McCain said in her tearful eulogy at the National Cathedral on Saturday. She meant her dad, of course, but she could have meant Aretha, who was similarly eulogized the day before in Detroit. And the tears Ms. McCain shed could have been those of many of us who watched the days of funereal ceremony and wept for what we’re losing as a nation, a commitment to what George W. Bush referred to as “the defining ideals of our nation.”
Our angst is hastened by a virus being spread throughout the land as President Donald Trump ramps up the rhetoric of fear and stokes division in his cross-country campaign on behalf of candidates he sees as allies — or lapdogs — in his quest to position himself as an American equivalent of the international autocrats he so admires.
Perhaps because McCain was a self-deprecating media darling and provided so much access — something I was reminded of when Saturday Night Live re-broadcast a show he hosted in 2002 — news anchors, analysts and reporters tripped over themselves in their fawning. It was if everyone had become an “Entertainment Tonight” correspondent, using only superlatives in elevating him to the highest ranks of unblemished statesmanship. So did others. To Mr. Bush, the senator was “unwavering, undimmed, unequalled.” Fortunately, in his homily the Rev. Edward Reese brought us back to earth: “I am not recommending John for sainthood,” he said. “He was so very human…”
That is what most people could appreciate. Flaws and all, he was willing to step into the arena and, as Barack Obama said, demonstrate that “there are some things bigger than party or ambition or money or fame or power. There are some things worth risking everything for, principles that are eternal, truths that are abiding.”
That commitment to what Aretha might call “the old time way,” has been slipping away since Donald Trump took office 20 months ago. Now even the possibility of civil war seems less fantastical as right and left, Democrats and Republicans, Trump acolytes and everyone else become more intransigent.
Among the many constituencies that have suffered as the president tries to recast the United States as a white supremacist “America First” plutocracy, black people have a growing list of grievances. So honoring the Queen of Soul became an outlet for venting frustration, anger, longing and loss while reasserting pride and honoring resilience. Yes, her reign stretched far beyond black America, but Aretha Franklin was unapologetically black. In her music, the scholar Michael Eric Dyson said in remarks more meaningful than the drivel the official eulogist later spewed, she conveyed “the reality of the hurt and pain, the ardor, the ecstasy, the suffering and the reality that we had to confront as a black people.” And in her quiet commitment to justice, he said, from supporting Martin Luther King Jr. and Angela Davis to playing secret Santa to Detroit families who’d suffered tragedies, “she was about transforming the existence of black America.”
Now the official mourning is over.
If we are true to form, we’ll now spend days parsing Meghan McCain’s stinging rebuke of President Trump or debating whether the homegoing services for both Franklin and McCain were too political or trying to make sense of the Rev. Jasper Williams as he demeaned single mothers and the Black Lives Matter movement in an off-key eulogy for an unrivaled songstress who was herself a single mother of four sons. Even her family has denounced him.
While we are deep into replaying the highs and the lows, we can be truest to what mesmerized us about these two people by picking up their mantles. Like the singer admonished, we should say a little prayer, think and keep on climbing higher and higher — lifting others as we do. Like the senator, we should become more engaged in politics — starting with voting in unprecedented numbers in November’s midterm elections.
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.