– L. Arthalia Cravin
Two paradoxical events took place this week that should cause all of us to take a long hard look at America’s favorite pastime—hero worship. The same week of Whitney Houston’s sudden and shocking death Americans were getting “Lin Fever,” behind the New York Knicks’ first Asian-American basketball player, Jeremy Lin. New Yorkers and Americans of every stripe, including President Obama, have gotten what the media is calling “Linsanity” behind yet another “star.” We should all be very careful. Jeremy Lin should especially be very careful.
One of Whitney Houston’s top songs was called “The Greatest Love of All.” I sit at my piano and play the song often, including these very poignant lyrics.
“Everybody’s searching for a hero; people need someone to look up to.
I never found anyone who fulfilled that need; a lonely place to be,
So I learned to depend on me. I decided long ago never to walk in anyone
shadow; if I fail, if I succeed, at least I lived as I believe, and no matter what
they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity; because the greatest love
of all is happening to me…learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.”
Whitney Houston did not write these lyrics, but she sang it in a way yet to be matched by any other voice on this planet. It is too late to wonder if Ms. Houston lived by these words. What we do know is that American hero or “American Idol” worship was part of how Ms. Houston lived from the day that her magnificent voice was discovered. And herein lies the problem. With every “gift from God,” there is an attendant burden that is lost on all the hero worshippers. People who “rise above the crowd” are not only the object of praise but also the target of unkind arrows. Ms. Houston knew fame on a level unmatched in the world, but she also knew the “dark underside” of fame.
A few months ago a friend called me asking if I knew any voice instructors in Amarillo. I asked her why. She said that her 5-year old daughter “could really sing.” She told me that her daughter was always singing and pretending to be in front of an audience. I told her as bluntly as I could to let her daughter pass through the childhood fantasy phase of wanting to be in the limelight, but not to start to push her toward a singing career. I told her that she would be better off pushing her into the math and sciences, or into the medical field. I explained to her that there is a history of tragic ends for black female singers. I then gave her a list of names of black pop singers whose lives ended much too soon because of fame. What I explained to her is that the road to fame is long and lonely with days upon days of traveling here and there for one-night gigs in order to become known. When the applause stops too many stars return to lonely hotel rooms to try to drown the same feelings that they sing about in their own songs. I told her to imagine these singers standing before audiences of “loving couples,” singing love songs to them about romance and happiness while at the same these singers are often alone. The result is drug and alcohol abuse to drown the pain, just enough to get them through the next gig. And the cycle begins.
“A Hero Ain’t Nothing But A Sandwich” is a book written by Alice Childress in 1973. The first page of the book says this: Benjie Johnson is thirteen, black, and well on his way to being hooked for good on heroin. A lot of people would like to help…” The story of Benjie Johnson is the story of a young boy, a family, and a neighborhood trying to salvage one soul from despair and early death due to drugs. It is an old story that it is as true today as it was when written almost 40 years ago. Only the “drug of choice” has changed. All the underling reasons for drug use, both legal and prescribed drugs, now a national epidemic, remain the same.
And so for Jeremy Lin, the newest NBA scoring sensation—you should be careful about hero worship. You should be careful about your adoring fans. After all, the word “fan” is short for “fanatics” meaning people who show irrational zeal, extreme and unscrupulous dedication, or excessive attachment to a person or cause. Be careful of fanatics!! I understand that Sarah Palin is now one of Lin’s fans. I say to Jeremy Lin, be very wary of the motivations of some of those who cheer you on. As Childress explained in her book, a sandwich is “something else” slapped between two slices of bread- meant to be eaten. With Jeremy Lin—I say here we go again—the public is “eating him up” for now. The same thing happened to Whitney Houston. The public “ate her up,” until her voice began to fail …until she did or said something else that her “adoring fans” found objectionable. Then they spit her out. Whitney Houston found herself sandwiched been the demands of fame and a longing to “just be” Whitney. Too many people wanted Whitney to “revive her singing career” as if she had nothing else to offer this world but her vocal cords. After years of singing maybe Whitney really wanted to teach school. Plenty of people move away from “stardom” to successful and happy “ordinary” lives and careers. Maybe Whitney just wanted to be ordinary. Who knows? What we do know is that American style hero worship does not allow “their stars” to “just be.” They are required to live their lives always “on stage,” always smiling and playing to audiences and cameras—always trying to please their worshippers. It is a dangerous and deadly game. Just ask Elvis Presley. Ask Janis Joplin, ask Amy Winehouse. Ask Tiger Woods. Ask any former “star” what it’s really like to “live for fan applause.” There is a passage at the end of “A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich” that says this:
“I gave the adviser some advice. I say, “Some these big-time, celebrity-high-lifers can’t take care of themselves, they in as much trouble as you and Benjie.” So explain me no heroes. Yeah, and some of our neighborhood success stories are living off of Benjie’s veins, while they riding around in limousines and grandstanding to win everybody’s admiration.”
Rest in Peace Whitney Elizabeth Houston.
Copyright 2012 – L. Arthalia Cravin. All rights Reserved. No part of this commentary may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.