I’m not normally phased by celebrity death. Death is part of reality. Yet something hit me really hard about the passing of Mary Wilson this past Monday at the age of 76. She is not just a founding member of The Supremes, the most successful all girl group of all time. She is larger than any mere concept of celebrity, despite being caught in between the tragedy of one of her teammates, and the ego of another.
The Supremes have a special place in Black people’s lives over the last 60 years. The Supremes represented beauty and possibility. Beauty and possibility that had rarely been seen before, been seen consistently. A little bit more of that beauty and possibility seems less realistic with Mary Wilson now gone. It would be a disservice to mourn without acknowledging how many triumphs Mary had, as a Supreme. I would be criminal to ignore the way she soared as a woman far beyond the adjacency of the institution she helped build. I’m always in awe of the steadfastness of which she almost single-handedly preserved the legacy of The Supremes without owning it.
Born March 6, 1944, I highly recommend, if you want to gain a grasp of her power in storytelling, get her books: Dreamgirl- My life as a Supreme, Supreme Faith, and Supreme Glamour. We all know those magic stories, the talent show she and Florence met at, them being the Primette sisters to the Primes to be Tempting Temptations. If you don’t, your history lessons have failed you in teaching fairytales come true, and that they’re always bittersweet, and in American Capitalism, rewards individualism over the collective.
Mary chose to be proud of a legacy that stretched from her being a 14 year old in 1958 to 1959 Detroit til the last time she closed her eyes Monday night, 76 and dreaming of the next projects she had planned for herself and her teammates post everyone getting a COVID vaccine. Tributes from Martha Reeves and La La Brooks highlight ideas to get back out there, get on with life and get happy. She fought for Black women to be validated, to be seen. She loved on Florence Ballard’s legacy, understanding as she matured more of the sexual trauma her friend long gone suffered, and how that haunted even Flo’s brightest accomplishments. She made the most of her fame, trying to make sure all of those that played the same stages as her got the recognition they deserved.
Visibility matters in trying to survive American Capitalist Society. While you might say “Mary who?” Wilson, alongside Ballard and Ross showed Black women as individuals within a collective, with a sense of humor and radiant talent, on radio, on televisions, even, in movies, albeit rushed. The Supremes were everywhere, and made millions for others but not themselves. Mary Wilson remembered Flo died not exactly penniless but not rich. She found out for herself the only way to make it was to stay in front of the camera, in front of the mic. She knew that was important for all of those she cared about.
She’s the singer that gave us the Truth in Music Act. She was fighting to get reparations to descendants of singers that died in poverty at the time of her death. She was a tireless Ambassador that traveled the world, just check the Humpty Dumpty Institute’s tribute to her. Not many people in celebrity culture die with so much praise for what they gave back with their fame. I knew some of what she had done, but not all. I honestly hope, for all she did as an entertainer and activist, she gave time and rest to herself.
The legacy Mary Wilson leaves behind is intense in its razzle-dazzle but also, oddly, out of sight, out of mind for the masses. We’re 60 years on from the start of her journey to prominence. As a culture, the United States disposes of all it consumes at an alarming rate. This includes people.
It still burns in a way I never thought a celebrity passing would, 5 days later. Maybe it’s because she was so vibrant. She still seemed twenty five years younger and frozen in age. She transcended time, reminding us that a someone from “The Projects” could hob knob with Kings and Queens and glare at them in the shadiest of ways because they pointed out her wig.
She was Supreme and sublimely human.
I’ll miss her.