This Sex Machine Kills Fascists

This Sex Machine Kills Fascists

I

On the morning of August 17, 2018, as Aretha’s voice possessed the heavy mid-summer air, I had to keep moving, obey the traffic laws, dig my fingernails into the steering wheel, weep, park and ignore the sidewalk harrassment of a “pro-life protestor” screaming at may back as I wiped the last bit of smeared mascara off my cheek.

When you’re driving in your car, there is nowhere to hide; a song can surge through your speakers and bring you to tears without warning. However, when you’re driving to work at one of Louisiana’s last three abortion clinics the day after Aretha Franklin died, you cannot afford to pull over. When there is work to be done, you have to do what you have to do.

I have worked at Hope Medical Group since 2008. Coincidentally, music is what brought me to reproductive health. While I was completing my Bachelors in English at Centenary College, I had a cover band called A.J. Haynes and the Monkey Business. It was a fun way to cover the absurd costs of books. We were asked to play a Christmas party at Hope — one of the best holiday parties I’ve ever been to.

After the show, I was hanging out with Robin Rothrock (the late owner and founder) and Kathaleen (the current administrator) over margaritas. Robin asked me how I felt about abortion, and I promptly responded that a woman should have dominion over her own body. I had never thought much about abortion before that moment — most people don’t until they are faced with a pregnancy. It’s always someone else’s story until it’s yours.

Hope had an opening for a job as a counselor, so I started working that next Monday. Working at Hope has absolutely informed my creative world. My art is a celebration of physical autonomy and of sexual freedom in the face of hegemonic oppression. When I express myself, I am paying homage to Black women and our intersectional experiences. When I am listening to patient’s stories at Hope, I am honoring their experiences.

For me, listening to Aretha Franklin is a symphonic arrangement of real stories. Her music represents to me both the ascent of a woman against systemic injustice and the daily struggles of every woman.

II 

But when she fell down into a body and came to this life, then she fell into the hands of many robbers…and they defiled her. [1]

Aretha is the eternal Queen of Soul. But what does it mean to “have soul”? As if it were a possession, something owned, barely wrangled from the bony vise of a world too eager to slap a price on anything made whole. Is it more than nostalgic sound commodified, more than mimicry or spectacle? Every time I hear that someone “has soul,” I’m always tempted to reply, “What do you mean?”

In many religions, “Soul” is a woman. In Hebrew she is Neshamah (נשמה), in Sanskrit she is Buddhi, in Greek she is Psyche (ψυχή) psykhe. Let’s not forget Sita of the Ramayana, Helen, Beatrice, Guinevere, Persephone, Bathsheba[2]. Let’s not forget that soul is a story of a woman’s survival, how a women makes space for herself, be it fortress or salvation.

And here is Aretha — the Queen among many who defined the notion of soul — transfigured not by some immaculate paternal redemption, but by the will of her own voice. Furthermore, by the other women listening, believing in a freedom her voice created.

In 1968 Aretha left Ted White — and his abuse — and created the anthemic song “Think.” She is liberation, if at least in that moment, and free from the stranglehold of a man who controlled her through fear.

Her only regret for repentance is not doing it sooner. “Freedom! Oh Freedom!” A house she made herself, a home out of no home. To deny the lineage and ownership of soul music to the bodies of women — and moreover, black women — is to strip “soul” of its meaning,  is a violent erasure of our experiences.  If you are going to lay claim to soul, you better be paying homage to these real stories of ascent.

But if she sighs and repents, she will be returned to her house.

III

Aretha’s voice reached beyond the confines of church hypocrisy, sexual abuse, physical trauma, and systemic injustice that she knew all too well — that almost every woman knows too well. Her voice soared above the culture of dissemblance, a la Jet and Ebony magazines, with whom she curated her pristine public persona of respectability. When she sings “cold, hard and cruel is a man who paid too much for what he’s got,” she is the woman sitting across from the desk in my counseling office, telling me how she was betrayed. When she testifies, “a woman’s only human/You should understand/ She’s not just a plaything/She’s flesh and blood just like her man,” she is the woman fighting for her body because no one else has.

No body is ready to be a mother at 13. And, in the words of Sister Song, when there is no access, there is no choice. No body is ready for the sound of their flesh hitting the tile after another blow from a lover’s unloving fist. No body is ready to have air stolen from their lungs. Perhaps there was something in Aretha’s songs that she wasn’t even ready to confess to herself…but she knew someone needed to hear her. This was work to be done.

IV

We got elected on Drain the Swamp, Lock Her Up, Build a Wall… - Steve Bannon

When Aretha refused Trump’s offer to sing at the inauguration, she knew she was one of the few people who could truly make him feel small, to reduce him with her resounding silence, a void no one could measure.

V

YouTube Aretha and James Brown and watch as powers collide and dance. It’s 1987, and Aretha was just inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — the first woman to be included in the ivory cannon of our oral tradition.

There’s a moment, a climax where you see James Brown in sweat and tears, leaning against the mic stand for strength. Perhaps the truth in her voice rattled him, made him have to witness the pain he allegedly caused many women. I’m inclined to believe women’s stories about violence and rape; perhaps Aretha did, too. No one would subject themselves to the prodding and jeering of the unforgiving public unless they had to.

What if in that moment, he is actually made weak; not clad in the histrionics of performance, but a reckoning. Aretha erupts, throws her hands in the air, alive with her own power. She has brought the Sex Machine to his knees, the only one who could.

VI

Dear —–,

I remember when you collapsed on my bed, weary from the push and pull of continents. Worlds colliding, code switching, traffic, sirens at your back, triggers. All I wanted to do was let you hold me, to feel the beauty of permission and love without pain.

I lit sandalwood to bring us back to some feeling of earth, every body’s ultimate resting place. And as To Be Young Gifted and Black spun beneath the diamond-tipped needle, we gazed at the world at our feet…places to be Daydreaming and I’m thinking of you as your hand slid under my shirt, hanging on for your life.

Becoming ourselves, we left our worries and our clothes on the floor. And as you got down on your knees in prayer between my thighs, I felt the way she must have wanted to — a natural woman.

Love,

A.J.

VII

I have come to claim

Aretha Franklin’s body

for the sake of my own.

I could not bear the dissection,

how one can be splayed,

a prop for respectability,

the spectacle of who dare misspeak of Soul

with silver forked tongues.

 

She has always worked for herself.

She is tired of being the bridge.

Still waters run deep.

She freed Angela

while she beat her own breast

on the bars.

No one spoke up,

not even the perfect mouth of Mister Soul,

who wanted Change and his cake and to eat her, too.

 

But I know what a woman wants–

I will love every inch of her

that she dutifully denied

while waiting for the rough hand that could caress

or cut her down,

sugarcane to the scythe.

We will hide in plain sight–

being invisible has proven just as deadly.

We will leave home because home is not.

We will find heaven in each others’ arms.

We will sing at the walls together

and watch them buckle.

 

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