It was one of those “American” moments: In 1991, Whitney Houston brought tens of thousands of Super Bowl fans to their feet, and left millions of viewers across the globe spellbound by her captivating rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.” It was just supposed to signal the start of the ultimate football contest, but its effect did so much more.
For two minutes and ten seconds, America stood still. If only for this brief moment in time, the nation, through the sound of her clarion call, felt united. The country, in the grip of war with thousands of troops in the Persian Gulf, stood in a moment of temporary solidarity. Whitney did that.
I was barely a teenager at the time, but remembered how glad I was to see someone so beautiful, poised and talented, a Black woman no less, holding court with the entire nation. And even if it was but for a fleeting moment, we felt like we were truly “One nation under God.”
What she did cannot be understated.
Her genius and God-given ability allowed her to do what so many others have tried, but failed to do. In that moment, it was evident that Whitney Houston had transcended the racial divide. Not many generations ago, it would have been unthinkable for a Black woman to perform such a feat. Americans would have been too reluctant to allow an African-American to corral an entire nation in song.
I believe that the world, at that time, became entranced by her radiance, not her race. Her ability was simply so undeniable that the color of her skin became a footnote instead of the front cover. Whitney was just Whitney. And America was just America.
The impression she left turned out to be a lasting one.
Whitney was a groundbreaker, allowing white America to feel just a bit more comfortable with an African-American in their living rooms. She, at that time, was the daughter every family was proud to claim. Little did we know, she’d leave an impact that paved a road that would eventually lead all the way to the White House.
Enter Barack Obama.
Who could have imagined that just seventeen years after Whitney’s whirlwind Super Bowl performance, the nation would elect an African-American to be the leader of the Free World? America has socially evolved to a point that even non-Black voters put aside any misgivings they may have had about race to elect the candidate who they thought was their best representative.
Whitney, like Oprah, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and the crossover cultural phenomenon known as hip hop, helped show that, at times, Americans can recognize a person’s skill more than their skin color.
While I don’t believe that Whitney’s 1991 Super Bowl performance magically erased the divisions that still persist among the races, nor am I under the impression that the link between her and the president is a direct one, I do think that having her represent and galvanize the nation at that time made the notion of electing a Black man to the presidency 17 years later a bit more palatable.
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(Photos: Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images; REUTERS/Rick Wilking)