With ‘A Rose is Still A Rose,’ Aretha Franklin washed away our sins – and hers
It’s both an affirmation of self-love and an offering of forgiveness
In 1998, just months before she exploded onto the scene with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Lauryn Hill made a different sort of splash — as a songwriter and producer for Aretha Franklin.
Hill wrote “A Rose is Still a Rose,” which Franklin released that March. It was the title track of her 37th album, and it was the sort of song that connected generations.
Franklin appears in the music video as an older woman narrator dispensing advice. She tells the story of a teenage girl who falls for an older man on a motorcycle who turns out to be the hit-it-and-quit-it type.
Franklin comforts the jilted girl in the chorus:
‘Cause a rose is still a rose
Baby, girl, you’re still a flower
He can’t lead you and then take you
Make you and then break you
Darlin’, you hold the power
“A Rose is Still A Rose” was more than just lyrical balm for a woman who realizes she’s been used and discarded. It’s a rejection of slut-shaming, of the idea that a woman’s worth depreciates with every instance she dares uncross her legs. But as a song that speaks to black women specifically, it expands into an affirmation of self-love, one that refutes the racialized pejoratives of “welfare queen” or “fast,” which condemned black women as overly fertile and hypersexualized.
Franklin, who died Aug. 16 at 76, could have been singing to herself, and she could have just as easily been singing to my grandmother and a generation of black women just like them. Franklin became pregnant with the first of her four children when she was 12 years old, and gave birth when she was 13. She had another child when she was 15.
Now believe me when I tell you that I’ve been hurt myself
When he tells you that he loves you and sees nobody else
And now you’re so tough tryin’ to wear tight clothes and things
Tossin’ and flossin’, tryin’ to fill the void heartbreak brings
“Dad did everything in his power to make Ree feel secure, but I know insecurity invaded her spirit at an early age,” Franklin’s brother told her biographer, David Ritz in the 2014 book Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. “For all that she has achieved in her life, I think that basic insecurity has never left her. In fact, I believe it defines her — that and her soaring talent.”
When I was about 6 years old, my family hosted a Mother’s Day banquet for my grandmother at a Ramada Inn on Highway 55, close to her house in Holly Springs, North Carolina, to mark my grandmother’s contributions as a single mother and pillar of her community.
My aunt, Cornelia McDonald, organized it as a way to thank her mother Martha for raising 11 children, for scraping and sacrificing through extreme poverty as a sharecropper. My grandmother married my grandfather Charlie when she was 16 and he was 32. Charlie, a preacher whose favorite proverb was spare the rod and spoil the child, died when my aunt was 13. Given the abuse he inflicted, his death was largely regarded as a blessing in the McDonald household. He had a child by another woman, and my grandmother gamely raised her, too. Martha was a fixture at Chalk Level CME church in nearby Fuquay Varina. (Before the “C” in “CME” stood for Christian Methodist Episcopal, it stood for “Colored.”)
I don’t remember much about that night, except cameras and lights. The local news station showed up to interview this black family that had managed, against unfathomable odds, to not only climb out of poverty, but fête the matriarch who made it happen and regale her with poetry. We beamed with pride. Friends, family, and play cousins all turned out to pay homage to Martha.
Like Martha McDonald, Franklin was a young mother who’d cultivated her identity within the church. Black women often rely on their churches for solace, identity, and purpose. But the church can also be a place that gives harbor to abusers and puts their needs before those of its most devoted congregants. Franklin’s father, the Rev. Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, was a famous, charismatic preacher. But like my grandfather, he was also a notorious womanizer.
Franklin’s family lived in Memphis, Tennessee, before her father moved them to Detroit. Her mother was from Buffalo, New York. Franklin’s mother had a child, Franklin’s half-brother Vaughn, with someone else. She left the family, and took Vaughn back to Buffalo with her when Aretha was 6. She died when Aretha was 10. Aretha’s half-sister, Carol Allan, was the child of C.L. Franklin and a teenager named Mildred Jennings, according to Ritz.
Franklin grew up in the city. My grandmother lived so far back in the woods my aunt used to joke it took longer for the sunrise to reach their shack. But those were inconsequential differences. Neither of them ever fully dealt with the emotional ramifications of becoming mothers when they were still just children themselves, at least not publicly.
It’s difficult to peel back layers of trauma, but sometimes, it’s easier to sing about them. “A Rose is Still A Rose” falls along a continuum of Franklin’s feminist anthems, from the gender-bent “Respect” that she wrested away from Otis Redding in 1967 to 1968’s “Think” to “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves,” the 1985 collaboration she recorded with Eurythmics. But “Respect,” “Think,” and “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” are upbeat and assertive.
“A Rose is Still A Rose” is slower, more contemplative. Flowers are often invoked as metaphors for female virginity and this is a song about a woman finding the generosity to forgive herself. This isn’t a song that speaks to Franklin as an accomplished musical virtuoso and national treasure. It’s directed at the private Aretha we barely knew existed, the preacher’s daughter who was a mother of two before her 15th birthday. It is absolution, offered not to just Franklin, but a generation of black women just like her.
When “A Rose is Still a Rose” came out, my Aunt Cornelia was practicing forgiveness of her own. She was working with teen mothers in the Durham, North Carolina, housing project of Few Gardens in the hopes of breaking a cycle of poverty, shame, and few options. She wanted them to know that they, like Martha, could escape, that they weren’t worthless or bad people. She wanted them to know they were roses, too.
As much as it was a gesture of gratitude, the banquet was also one of forgiveness. Cornelia died in January 2017, but she spent her life attempting to forgive Martha for the emotional cruelty she inherited from her own inept parents and passed down to Cornelia and her brothers and sisters. They survived in part because Cornelia stepped up to play the role of parent to her younger siblings. She ensured they were cleaned and fed, and in the late ’60s and early ’70s, she entertained them with renditions of Franklin’s hits, especially “Respect.”
Franklin’s voice and her musical genius made her royalty. But the realities of her life, the pain she carried with her and put into her art, made her simultaneously a queen and a member of the family. With Hill’s lyrics, she didn’t just wash away her own sins, but ours, too.