“You’re here with this beautiful sun tan, and everyone’s trying to get on the beach”—Little Richard on Blackness
Millennials occupy a peculiar position generationally. Unlike (most of) our parents, we never lived during a time where Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and Malcolm X were not archived to black and white photos on a wall, or circumscribed to dated videos and rare anecdotes. For millennials, these greats remained fixed as cultural constellations beyond mortal reach. Thus, for these greats, we were lucky to share the world with Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Prince, Toni Morrison, it feels as though the stars have fallen from the sky. Their deaths hurt for obvious reasons but, but significantly because of the loss it embodied. What I mean here, is that their deaths symbolize the end of an era; their deaths place a period on a space in time where you had to use what you had, a time where talent was a requirement, not just a word. Yes, there were trends that public figures followed, but these stars mark a time where originality mattered and proved a cause for celebration—where their greatness inspired others to channel the greatness in themselves. The contemporary climate thrives on conformity, emphasizing inauthenticity as a core cultural value. This collective value betrays a praxis designed to stifle human potential. So, in part, guided by constellations, so many fail to see because they are too consumed in the media, which vehemently socially reproduces the hegemonic demons that stymie evolution.
I say all of this to say that Little Richard’s significant impact is not something to take lightly. A black man who mastered racist ideology to change music forever, Richard Wayne Penniman exhibited rare courage.
Richard stands out because not only did he possess a perceptive gaze, but he proved fearless in sharing his perspective. He knew that his flamboyance exuded the social castration necessary for him, a black man, to do what he loved in a racist, white hegemonic world. Little Richard was not the first or the last black person to create a mask to wear in front of the white world, but he exhibited a sign of rare bravery in sharing his truth. Specifically, he turned his “doings” into a discourse, illuminating both pedagogy and purpose to what appeared innocuous showmanship.
It is in sharing this truth, that Richard emphasizes that you need not be oblivious or silent about racism to exist in this hegemonic space.
“If I, (Little Richard) Were White, There Would be no Elvis.”
In his song, “A Whole Lotta Woman,” soul singer Sam Cooke says “I got rocking chair that rocks.” This line best conceptualizes Little Richard’s musical contribution—the natural rhythm, or soul which he manifested with a rock now known as rock and roll. Little Richard– a creative genius behind a genre infiltrated by America’s undeclared consumer culture– archives a page in the black narrative that we as a collective must never forget to remember.
As Little Richard’s life delineates, white abduction and appropriation of black cultural contributions remain inevitable in this white supremacist space. However, while they can abduct the flower, they cannot seize the soil. The soil encompasses our soul; that’s what lives on after our hearts cease to beat. Soul, that which seasons the words of a language designed to work against us, is also the essence that emanates in the air after we can no longer physically walk the earth.
Little Richard is ours, our north star—our cultural constellation. Like the plethora of black souls who light up the night sky, Little Richard remains what we feel when we look within and the soothing sight we see when we lookup.
Little Richard, thank you for your invaluable contribution. Rest in Power.