Black Man in the Mirror
Any of the following jargon can essentially be boiled down to this: I love Michael Joseph Jackson. Always have. Always will. I don’t dance, but I know how to moonwalk. (Don’t ask. I won’t do it for you. You’ll just have to ask my mama or one of the homies if you don’t believe me.) My favorite song of all time is “Human Nature.” Off the Wall is better than Thriller. “Smooth Criminal”—the 9-minute version with the orgy in the middle, not the radio edit—is the greatest music video ever made. I’ve watched Moonwalker more times than I’ve seen Back to the Future, Please, Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em, and Coming to America (80’s babies stand up!), which is to say a lot—I’m talking bailout money numbers. I love the Gloved One so much that this post was supposed to be up Tuesday, but his death made me feel like I had, indeed, been struck by a smooth criminal. Forget Annie. Summer, are you ok? These are my mourning pages. I’ll try not to bloviate.
In many ways Michael Jackson crystallizes blackness. Totally wacko, right? I don’t think so. As I remember Michael Jackson, I am recalling just how black he was—and I am not referring exclusively to his (last) name, or his marriages to white women. Though I don’t find blackness simple, this statement is no effort to oversimplify Jackson or his life. Obviously, he was a deeply complicated man—such complexities need a dissertation, not a blog entry—and there are plenty of people who have and will (continue to) discuss the ostensibly less-than-stellar aspects of his very public existence, especially the last 15 years—in between ads for Woody Allen’s new movie, of course. But what I do want to do is give tribute to the way he continued to be a part of a larger black community and cultural tradition, even as he became increasingly isolated from it (and the rest of the world).
Joe and Katherine Jackson, Michael’s parents were, like umpteen other Negroes of that generation, born in the South. Joe, part of that second wave of black migration north, left Alabama at the beginning of the United States’ involvement in World War II, first relocating to Oakland, CA, then eventually settling in northwest Indiana. There, he met Katherine, who as a toddler had emigrated from Arkansas to the same area. Northwest Indiana, comprised of a cluster of smallish cities with factories for vertebrae, attracted scores of Katherine and Joe Jacksons with its manufacturing jobs and seemingly less overt discrimination. Joe worked for U.S. Steel in Gary while Katherine stayed home with kids; it would take a couple of decades and the factories to bail before we really saw just how tenuous this version of the effort towards black “normalcy” was. But that’s another story. Don’t let The Music Man fool you. Gary, Indiana, about thirty miles east of Chicago—the heart of black publishing (one of the last interviews MJ gave was to Ebony)—is one of the blackest towns you’ll (n)ever visit. The Jacksons grew up there, and as different as they were, they were part of a working-class black Gary community that wept and repped hard for Michael when he passed. After all, 2300 Jackson Street isn’t just the title of a song.
Joe and Katherine’s kids are my parents’ age; Michael was just a few days older than my mom. As a kid growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana (in the northeast corner of the state), I knew several kids with fathers (why always fathers, I don’t know) from Gary, each of them with a Jackson story to tell: memories of the Jacksons performing in a talent show at Roosevelt, or of how small the house was, or of Joe Jackson’s, um, disciplinary ways. I know how pre-crack Black communities like Gary’s worked; I never doubted the memories.
I can neither fully appreciate nor share the enthusiasm my mother shows as she limns her memories of The Jackson 5ive. But I know one thing: before everything else, Michael and his brothers were black teens idols. Their stardom was cultivated in local black talent shows and on the stage of the Miss Black America Pageant. It was a performance during Amateur Night at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater that led to the brothers signing with Motown, where they quickly became the centerpiece of the company that was so instrumental in distributing black music to the white masses. For years, they were the face of Right On magazine and Soul Train regulars (the only place where lip-syncing is totally acceptable).
And I know that even as a solo artist, Michael, despite his apparent eccentricities, continued to fit into the larger context of black cultural production and the black experience in America. By the time I was old enough to develop my own healthy obsession with Michael Jackson, he had already integrated MTV (that’s where I met him), and compelled the channel to air the videos of other black artists. As much as he adored Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, Michael was the embodiment of so many black artists who had prepared the world for him: Little Richard, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jackie Wilson, and of course, James Brown. His 70s ‘do landed him a space in the Hall of Afros next to Angela Davis and Don Cornelius. He taught us things: activator is flammable. Michael Jackson was magic (not in the Bagger Vance sense); the sidewalk LIT UP for him. With a unique and oft-imitated fashion sense, MJ subtly reminded us that blackness is nearly always the conduit of the cool.
Even as his skin lightened and the opportunity to make jokes about his blackness increased, Michael Jackson’s life and work reflected a commitment to the same community from which his increasing stardom distanced him. He not only co-wrote “We Are the World,” he gave millions of dollars to the United Negro College Fund, the NAACP, and for sickle-cell research. He worked with auteurs Spike Lee and John Singleton. Before the advent of the ankh tattoo era, before neo-soul, Eddie Murphy and Iman played the pharaoh and queen of Egypt in Michael Jackson’s video, “Remember the Time.” (Peace and blessings.)
Perhaps nothing spoke to Michael’s blackness more than the way he’d been treated by the media, especially during the decade and a half before his death. As easily as they deified Elvis, the media seem to have difficulty understanding the convoluted nature of the Jackson saga. They interpret Joe Jackson’s emotional disconnectedness as unacceptable and bizarre rather than, perhaps, a symptom of more complex, deeper issues. (After all, the elder Jackson does come from a group of people who have not always benefited from connecting emotionally to their children. That said, reppin’ your new record company is bogus.) They concentrate on Joe Jackson’s child abuse rather than offer a more nuanced claim: that, despite how problematic it and he were, Joe Jackson was willing to do nearly anything to get his children out of Gary, Indiana.
Even as they continue to “honor” MJ, the media cannot help but address the scandals that plagued his later life. The way the public obsessed over and scrutinized his sexuality, including the charges of sexual abuse, was a constant reminder of his blackness, as if sex and crime are the only ways one can understand a black man.
Above all, it was tragic, but fitting that he died of cardiac arrest at fifty. Had it not been for that mysterious, off-screen car accident, that’s how (damn, damn, damn) James Evans would have died. Jackson died on the brink of giving even more to a world that didn’t give him much to begin with. And what is blacker than giving your body until it is no longer useful? Gone too soon.
So yes, for me, Jackson’s life both symbolizes and helps illuminate and appreciate a certain trajectory of blackness in this country. It is the way I’ve begun to understand the significance of a person who is in many ways beyond words. In life and death, he was and continues to be so complicated that many of us who desire to go beyond simplistic explanations are relegated to speechlessness or fragments. But we seek to understand him, nonetheless. He deserves that much. It’s the least we can give to someone whose (black) genius has touched so many of us so deeply. Because we are all accomplices in his death. Yes, there is blood on the dance floor. But there is also blood on our hands.
Rest well, Brother Michael.