Aretha's passing a reminder to continue racism fight

PUBLISHED: 19:16 23 August 2018 | UPDATED: 19:16 23 August 2018

Aretha Franklin pictured in 2012. Nick Conrad says her passing has reignited his interest in civil rights and that the fight against racism and bigotry must never stop

Aretha Franklin pictured in 2012. Nick Conrad says her passing has reignited his interest in civil rights and that the fight against racism and bigotry must never stop

Aretha Franklin has left a huge legacy of great songs - but also a reminder that she was a keen civil rights campaigner

Aretha Franklin’s passing last week has reignited my interest in the American civil rights movement. I hugely respect the sacrifice and determination of many in the black community to challenge the deep and abhorrent racism, which blighted America. Sadly, it hasn’t entirely been eradicated

I personally have reason to be grateful to all that stood up to oppression and discrimination. Their bravery, perseverance and sense of justice built the foundations of today’s more tolerant world. A world in which a black man, such as I, can walk down a street safely. A world where my skin colour is celebrated not chastised.

Racism, in all its odious and unwelcome manifestation,is sadly alive and well. Many of my Asian friends, especially Muslims, would attest to that. It’s only when you look back on the struggles of artists such as Aretha do you realise why challenging this regressive and unintelligent behaviour is so important for all humanity. After all, racism is man’s gravest threat to man. It’s poisonous. It’s toxic. The maximum level of hatred for the most pathetic reason.

It works both ways. I was recently engaged in discussion with a (black) friend, who in one breath quoted Martin Luther King and in the next delivered a shocking racist generalisation about white people.

I always admired Aretha despite the rumours that she was quite the diva! She became a Queen in American culture when black people were struggling to be recognised and heard. In a world where ‘the blacks’ were encouraged to make little noise she literally allowed her voice to power through. Her story epitomises the progress that has been made in America and the UK in the past half century. Her feminist anthems reached beyond the shallowness of the colour on an individual’s skin and resonated within the chambers of the heart – an organ which looks the same, regardless of the ethnicity of the owner. Aretha was a black woman. A proud black woman who didn’t present herself as an ingénue in the age where many black singers had to ‘conform to a certain role’ to be commercially acceptable.

New York based journalist Stereo Williams’ clever obituary identified Aretha’s role amongst other significant black artists. Aretha Franklin emerged as a black woman with no qualms about projecting that blackness to the world in all of its nuanced beauty. As Nina Simone become the voice of righteous rage and The Supremes became the faces of black glamour, Aretha offered a realness that could be just as assertive as the former while remaining as inviting as the latter.

My wife Emma and I settled down to watch Hidden Figures. Based on the ground-breaking book, the film pokes at the uncomfortable institutional racism at the heart of America fifty odd years ago. The film centres on the brightest black brains working at the heart of NASA. It reminds us how these women were made to feel like outsiders in their own country in small and large ways, even as they helped their nation to succeed on a global stage.

The film ignited the usual repulsion, admonishment and irritation when watching one human brutally deny another’s rights. I thought back over stories from my Mama Jean who remembered the ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’ signs that hung from houses for rent.

We should continue to challenge prejudice in all its odious manifestations. From the recent religious and political intolerance to homophobia, sexism, ageism and racism – bigotry is alive and well. Though there has been much progress, there is still much work to do. We must never stop fighting for what’s right. And though, at times,even I’m at a loss for words, we cannot remain silent in the face of such ignorance. I still believe the best days are ahead, that Martin Luther King’s dream will indeed be a reality, and that our commonalities will prevail over our differences.

To quote H.G Wells – Our true nationality is mankind.

See Saturday’s EA Heaven magazine in the EDP for a four-page tribute to Aretha Franklin

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