Aretha Franklin, Sexual Violence, and the “Culture of Dissemblance”

Aretha Franklin at the Ottawa Jazzfest, June 28, 2014 (Photo: Mike Bouchard, Flickr).

Many have proposed that Black American cultural expressions created in the New World — jazz, the blues, gospel, R&B, the drum, and spoken word — are all exemplary of what could not be broken in the initial passage and then, amongst the living. The radical history of Sterling Stuckey insists that Black creativity is a spiritual project of cultural retention—a circle, a mark of Black survival, as well as Black genius. Theorist  Richard Iton has expounded upon the ways that Black art has also birthed a political culture threaded through with “potentially transformative, thickly emancipatory and substantively post-colonial visions” of the world.  Aretha Franklin’s extraordinary artistry mirrored these traditions, and now her music lives on as legacy to both a spiritual and political project.

Franklin’s political legacy, one most often paired with the Civil Rights Movement, is also deeply connected to a centuries’ long pattern of sexual violence, childhood sexual abuse, and incest in the lives of Black girls and women. Many historians have provided detailed accounts of the ways Black enslaved women’s lives were ordered by the sexual violence of white men, Black men, and white women within the household domain and other spaces of captivity. The groundbreaking research of Thavolia Glymph and Crystal Feimster has recently helped shape the historiography of gender violence experienced by Black women during the Civil War and after legal emancipation. In the late 19th century, the myth of the Black rapist usurped attention away from the raping of Black enslaved women. “More than any other alleged crime,” Feimster wrote, “the accusation of rape brought white women and men together at southern lynchings.” Sexual violence against Black women, however, remained boundless as Black women migrated north and west and secured work, overwhelmingly, as domestics and servants in white homes. As historian Darlene Clark Hine once wrote, it was primarily “the threat of rape by white as well as Black males” that propelled Black women to migrate out of the south in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In Aretha Franklin’s 2014 biography by David Ritz, one encounters the painful details of a child whose life is first shaped by sexual violence at twelve and whose body is made sexually available to the teenagers and men around her, including lionized R&B men, such as Sam Cooke. The details of a life, a home, and a community ordered by sexual exploitation and gender violence abound. Franklin’s father and idol, described as “unorthodox on every level,” knowingly preyed on his pre-teen congregants and impregnated at least one 12-year old girl, Mildred Jennings, before leaving Memphis for Detroit. Although watchful parishioners began chaperoning their young daughters to church events, Jennings alone was punished for her own victimization — separated from her newborn, “banished from her home and church community,” and sent to live with relatives. C.L. Franklin remained the head of his church. Surrounded by a canonical community of Black musicians including B.B. King, Billy Preston, James Cleveland, and Ray Charles — and importantly, a close friendship with Martin Luther King — these men bore witness to C.L. Franklin’s ongoing abuse. As one example, B.B. King and Cleveland detailed his brutal, recurrent violence against his lover, gospel great Clara Ward, in their presence; Cleveland described them as the “church’s version of Ike and Tina.” Alongside a portrait of a prodigy and incomparable talent, the biography also details Franklin’s use of Jet and Ebony magazines as spaces to cloak her personal addictions and domestic violence from her fans, and to strategically fashion a public persona of success and respectability. On these magazine covers, Franklin is draped in gowns, strands of pearls, or bright African fabrics, and posed against a backdrop of domesticity — resting against a fireplace, a sofa, or nestled against her new love.

Such guardedness within the lives of Black women has been coined a “culture of dissemblance.” To protect the “sanctity of inner aspects of their lives,” Hine wrote in 1989, Black women learned to create an “appearance of disclosure, or openness about themselves and their feelings, while actually remaining an enigma” to the white world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This “self-imposed invisibility” allowed Black women to disassociate from violence at home and in the workplace; facilitate mental and physical survivals under hostile patriarchal conditions; and, importantly, internalize and promote “alternative self-images” tethered to so-called respectable, middle class norms. Simply put, faced with social conditions too commanding to be meaningfully challenged or overcome, Black women found a way to keep going, to keep working, and to manage the terror of violence by holing it up and tightly protecting its secrecy. Aretha Franklin, as her siblings described, was ingenious and masterful as an artist; she was also intensely guarded about the violence that informed her most intimate relationships.

While a “culture of dissemblance” has historically supported the psychic survivals of Black women who had, as Hine wrote, very little control over the social and economic forces within their lives, it has had profound consequences over time. Historians and theorists have focused primarily on two limitations of Black women’s use of dissemblance. First, the respectability that it mandated has marginalized women who embrace non-normative sexualities and labeled these sexualities as dangerous, individually and collectively. Second, Black women’s self-imposed silence has contributed to a void within the historical record regarding the interiority of Black women’s experiences with sexual violence, particularly in the context of Black nationalist and radical politics in the twentieth century.

I want to propose a third limitation: A “culture of dissemblance” in the lives of Black women has also nurtured and reinforced a custom of silence regarding intraracial and childhood sexual violence within Black communities, here broadly defined. This seemingly intractable custom of silence has been long curated and reinforced in Black communities, Black organizing, and Black intellectual work. Against a backdrop of enduring stereotypes about Black womanhood and a reactive protectionism extended primarily to Black men, the “culture of dissemblance” has helped minimize Black women’s and girls’ experiences of sexual violence. It has, at times, encouraged a short-sided historical narrative of plantation violence, emasculation, lynching, and mass incarceration while centering the experiences of Black men. Pragmatically, it has fostered a decorum of intracommunity censorship that pits Black women who remain silent, powerfully, against those who detail their own stories and name names. If the “culture of dissemblance,” as Hine initially described it, helps rationalize why Franklin never spoke about sexual abuse and gender violence during her lifetime, it also exposes the community that encircled a young prodigy and normalized the sexual violence that marked her life.

Within this fresh space of her memorialization, what would it mean to remember Aretha Franklin both for her musical legacy, as well as a historical legacy of gender violence against Black women? Could this way of remembering “gesture toward a reckoning of our own time,” and animate a kind of historical and social accountability in the present? What would it mean, for example, to celebrate Franklin’s song, “Think,” with its refrain of “Freedom! Oh freedom!” as a social anthem of its time, but also (by her own words) a self-reflection on intimate violence in 1968 – uncoincidentally, the same year she abandoned an abusive marriage? Specifically, how may this way of remembering those we extol better illuminate legacies of gender violence within Black aesthetic and political traditions so that violence against Black women is centered as a coherent logic within these traditions? Finally, what kinds of work would need to be undertaken in order to memorialize a trauma unique to Black women’s lives so that its silence may be broken and its historical anguish made public? Is such an endeavor even possible?

Perhaps the limitations of Franklin’s use of dissemblance in her past are best understood by what continues in the present. For many, Black women’s sexual violence continues to labor under a presumption that it is unknowable, necessary, and irrelevant, as in the past. The musical heirs of those who raped and witnessed with an aloof complicity during Franklin’s lifetime are alive in the present. They, too, are engulfed by the same culture that permitted a 12-year-old girl to be sexualized and impregnated by grown men, and  14-year-old Aaliyah Haughton to be seduced by a 27-year old R&B heir with a history of pedophilia. Discussing the impact of this history last August after her passing, Franklin biographer David Ritz spoke frankly about the musical culture that raised Aretha Franklin. “I can name you a dozen current R&B singers,” he stated, “who are the children of Marvin Gaye.”

Aretha Franklin will forever be our goddess – our Queen of Soul. She is also a Black woman whose life, like so many others, has been threaded through with histories of childhood sexual abuse and partnership violence — violence that she chose to build a fortress around. Yet, it is a violence that made Aretha Franklin unwell at times, despite the “culture of dissemblance” she employed, and it is a violence that similarly impacts Black women across class and ethnic divides.

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Rachel Zellars

Rachel Zellars is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Justice and Community Studies at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her work focuses on the history of slavery in Canada, Black migration through the Maritimes and into the Atlantic world beginning in the 18th century, as well as gender violence and disability. She is also a co-founder of the ​Third Eye Collective. Follow her on Twitter @rachelzellars.​