January 07


Thank You, Aretha by Katheryn Russell-Brown

Music was a big part of my childhood. It seems I was always either about to do or doing something related to music. I listened to songs while I got ready for school, in the car going someplace or another, and at the end of my school day. I would sit for long spells on the living room floor listening to entire albums—singing along, reading the liner notes, and writing out the words to the songs I liked. And dancing! I loved trying out the latest moves to my favorite songs—the breakaway, the typewriter, the four corners, and the penguin, to name a few.


What I especially loved was listening to music on the radio—on Berkeley’s KDIA (“Lucky 13”) with DJ Bob Jones. Sometimes the songs were so good he would play them a second time, saying, ‘That was so nice, I’m going to play that twice.” He did many, many double plays with Aretha Franklin songs.


I treasure so many things about Aretha’s music.  I love that she could take a song and give it her own indelible spin, such as “Respect” and “Say A Little Prayer.”  I love that she sang lyrics as if the words were written for her alone. Her signature shouts, moans, and melismas made me feel as if she was revealing secret parts of her life story. I love that she played the piano as fiercely as she sang her songs. Is there any better song beginning than the piano playing that kicks off “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman,” joined by Aretha plaintively singing “Looking out on the morning rain,” at just the right moment.


When Bloomsbury invited me to write a children’s biography of Aretha, I was surprised to find that precious little about her life had been written for little people to read. Her story is one that young people can warmly embrace.  Her story is one of grit, the hard work of cultivating natural talent, loss, perseverance, and grand success. It’s also the story of family.  Aretha’s father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, was a nationally known preacher, who had deep roots in the Civil Rights Movement.  Aretha experienced heartbreak early, losing her mother before her tenth birthday. She was devastated. Aretha, a longtime member of the choir at her father’s church, sang her first solo just a few months after her mother’s passing.


In Aretha, there was a wonderful convergence of Blackness, womanhood, and pride.  She always carried herself in a way that made clear she was proud of who she was.  She was “body positive” before that was a phrase.  She wore her hair in many wonderful styles—including an afro.  She wore clothes that ran the gamut from regal to hip. Illustrator Laura Freeman does a wonderful job of showcasing Aretha’s sartorial splendor. And Aretha fought for racial justice. She refused to perform for segregated audiences, did fundraisers for civil rights groups, and wrote checks to support civil rights organizations.


To me, Aretha is family. Her music, her voice, her firm stance on racial justice—the Aretha aesthetic—have been with me since I can remember. Her music has left such a deep impact on me in part because she recorded so much wonderful music, stretched over six decades. A Voice Named Aretha is my sincere thank you to Aretha for sharing her many gifts, her voice, her vision of the world, and her divine spirit.


Katheryn Russell-Brown is the author of Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, which received the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor, the Eureka! Honor Award, was nominated for the NAACP Image Award, and was named a Best Book of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, and the Center for the Study of Multicultural Children’s Literature, among others. She is a professor of Law and the director of the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations at the University of Florida. Katheryn grew up in a family of music lovers, where R & B was an integral part of the sounds of daily life. She lives in Gainesville, FL. Visit her online at www.krbrown.net.