Aretha was My First Girl Friend*

Aretha Franklin was my first girlfriend in my early teen years. That happened this way: I grew up in a White, middle class, liberal neighborhood where it was cute for me, a Black boy, to “go with” these White middle class girls when we were eight years old. But when puberty hit, eleven, twelve, thirteen years old, it was no longer considered “cute” by the parents of these girls. And somehow — I don’t know what was said because I wasn’t there in their parent-to-child conversations — but somehow the message got across that it was no longer “cute” to be with Alexander.

My earliest memories of my Mother’s affection were of her telling me how beautiful I was. She had me believing that I was the prettiest kid on the planet. The feedback from the neighborhood didn’t contradict this sense I was getting — someone was always talking about how cute I was when I was a little boy.

In a hierarchical culture like this one — there is no more hierarchical culture in the entire history of humankind than that of the American middle class — there was always someone cuter, better looking, more desirable than you; this was well understood by me and probably everyone. Nevertheless, I was clear that I rated.

Not true once puberty hit. All of my male friends were suddenly getting “action,” the kind of action associated with puberty in this culture: they were “getting girls,” they were being sexual. They were experimenting with their sexuality. Of course, this takes varying forms, and takes place on many levels.

For me it was taking place mostly in my mind as I wasn’t getting the same kind of “action” as my male peers, who, until that time, I regarded as every bit my equals, and certainly in no way more desirable as a group than myself. But then again, “as a group” they were all White.

Then came Aretha. We are talking about the early 1960’s. WABC was the most popular music station in the town where I lived. We lived thirty miles north of New York City, and therefore, if it had come to my mind to want to hear Black radio stations I probably would not have been able to pick up the frequency from Harlem or Brooklyn.

But Aretha made the crossover to the White stations. I’ll never forget the reaction of some of my friends to “Respect”: “Oh, she’s so loud;” “Why is she screeching like that?” I can remember feeling anger at such reactions, and I also remember feeling pride — she was great, I was clear on that. When she first came on some of my friends just couldn’t get with it.

It was quite different for me. My father brought us to an African American church in early childhood, even though he was a communist (i.e., an atheist, a-religious); we went to hear gospel music, especially on holidays, the kind of music he grew up with as a child. Aretha put pop lyrics to this sound. “Worldly” themes were given a Black face, a Black heart, Black tears, Black pain. Talking about losing your honey, missing your partner, feeling rejected, all felt to me significantly more real coming out of Aretha’s mouth. I could identify. I can remember often coming to tears over songs like “Baby, Baby, Baby,” or “Natural Woman,” “I wonder,” “You Send Me,” “Don’t’ Let Me Lose This Dream,” “Since You’ve Been Gone,” “Aint No Way,” “Never Let Me Go,” or “Prove It.” These are tears from a thirteen year old child who hasn’t been around long enough to experience losing his girlfriend, being heartbroken over a failed love affair, or being rejected because she found someone new.

Yet as sure as I was sitting next to that radio alone in my parents’ kitchen, when she cried “If lovin’ you is so wrong, then I’m guilty of this crime,” tears would invariably role down my cheeks, as if it was me who was “bewildered, lonely and loveless without you to hold my hand…”

I wonder, my darling, Where are you again tonite? Are you holding someone else real tight? I wonder.

Aretha was like a bird, and when she sang, the strains of her voice were like fingers wrapped around my heart, squeezing it — the tears regularly rolled down.

Today, I see this connection with Aretha as one of my connections with my condition — a Black child in a hostile environment, uprooted and separated from my people. Aretha talked to me the way my people would have, had I had a regular relationship with them. I experienced intimacy through Aretha; in other words, feelings like being in love, being hurt by a lover, being jealous, longing; Aretha’s voice brought me to all these feelings.

Also, given the times, when Aretha was talking about getting respect, it had a meaning beyond boyfriend to girlfriend. It was about what we as a people were going through. When she demanded her “propers,” when she was screaming that she had to be treated right, she was doing what I was doing at the time — beginning to assert who I was as an African American.

All of this means to me, today, that Aretha was my first love. She showed me the ropes — what is at stake when we decide to open up our hearts, and demand to be loved and respected.

My heart, my heart is aching. I believe that I’m a fool, To let it go on breaking. Maybe I’ll wake up, And find that I’m mistaken. Ooh, but right now I wonder.

Part of the legacy of growing up a Black male for me included taking on the stereotype of the hunter in relationships with women. This culture prescribes rigid sexist roles for us in relationships and in our sexuality. In connection with this, one of the themes of an unhealthy self-image for me included playing the role of the hunter and connecting with women who played the role of the hunted.

Think for a moment what kind of culture assigns such gender biased and race biased roles. Sexually, one image of my unhealthy acting out has been that of the servant. This role came to me as a composite of many messages I got as a child in reference to what it means to be a good lover, what it means to be a man and what it means to be Black.

Today, my efforts to claim my full sexuality, my efforts to be all of who I really am, from my ancestors impulses rushing in my veins, to the future generations with whom I am pregnant — all of who I really am — have brought me back to my relationship with Aretha. Especially her crying: Aretha was like a bird asking with the prettiest sound known on the planet, “Be as good to me as I am to you…”

In my relationships today, I realize how important equality is to me. It’s not up to me to make any relationship happen. It’s up to both of us. It can really be no other way if we are going to survive and thrive — which after all is the goal. We want total liberation, and we want it in our daily life, not in some faraway vision. I find today that neither masochism nor domination, nor machismo thrills me, but that equality in the relationship makes me sexually aroused; it turns me on. Garter belts, big breasts, submissiveness, none of these turn me on. Equality is sexually exciting to me, it turns me on.

I wonder, I wonder, My, my, my, my, my darling, Where are you again tonite? Are you holding someone else real tight? I wonder.

Aretha taught me, early on, the price we pay for unhealthy relationships. She introduced me to being available to the feelings of hurt, pain, loss. I’ve learned since, because I’ve chosen the road of recovery and of liberation, that it is OK for me to treat myself with kindness and dignity, and to accept true love into my life. It is OK for me to demand equality, in all areas of my life, including my most intimate relationships, and to be available to learning how to achieve this with someone else.

Darling, you send me. Darling you send, Baby, you send. Honest you do. Darling, you thrill me. Honest you do.

Aretha thrilled me back then. Today, equality thrills me, being respected gets me high. Today, I send me when I honor myself enough to work for dignity, mutuality and consistent consideration in my most intimate relationships.

· Originally published: Lynn, Alexander. (1996). “Aretha was my first Girlfriend.” Boston, MA: Women’s Theological Center.