Aretha Franklin’s greatest lesson: Live with purpose, help others

(Reprinted from Detroit Free Press, September 2, 2018)

As hundreds of black-clad women gathered in a semicircle around the coffin of the Queen of Soul, serene, heartbroken and respectful, I am among them, standing near the front, when suddenly, I feel myself grow woozy.

It is a combination of emotion, heat, dehydration and sadness.

Lord, I cannot pass out during one of Delta Sigma Theta’s Sorority, Inc.’s most sacred rituals, the Omega Omega ceremony for Soror Aretha Franklin herself! So I slowly make my way through the sea of black and pearls to rest against a wall outside the rotunda at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

Instantly, a Soror, Juanita Anderson, sitting herself and holding a cane, places a hand on my shoulder.

She didn’t ask: Are you all right?

She didn’t ask: What’s wrong with you?

No, she quietly asks: “What can I do?”

This moment epitomizes sisterhood. It epitomizes the kind of womanhood, the kind of peoplehood to which we should all aspire. It epitomizes Aretha Franklin, as those who know her, love her, explain over and over in the week after her death.

She never asked: What’s wrong?

She asked her father: What can I do for the church?

She asked civil rights leaders: What can I do for the movement?

She asked her friends: What can I do to make you feel better?

And whether it was to make oxtail soup, write a secret check or host the party of the year, every year, where local unsung heroes mingled with superstars, Ms. Franklin proved how to love and how to do.

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