Michael Jackson, who died unexpectedly at 50 years old yesterday, will be remembered as a musical and choreographical genius, as well as a troubled and lonely soul (image here from Resist Racism). What many people will not remember is that Jackson also spoke out against racism (opens long video clip, 9:10, of MJ’s anti-racism speech in Harlem, at Sharpton’s National Action Network, 2002). At about the 5 minute mark on that video, Jackson says:
“You’ve got to remember something, as soon as I started breaking the all-time record sales — I broke Elvis’ records, I broke the Beatles’ records — the minute I became the best-selling record in the history of all albums in the Guinness Book of World Records, overnight they called me a freak…”
In 2004, Jackson also called out the white performer Eminem for his racism and attacks on the black community. Others have argued that the real culprit behind Jackson’s career struggles following the phenomenal success of the “Thriller” album was racism.
Jackson’s cultural signficance is being variously interpreted, and much of it through a racial lens. Rev. Al Sharpton, in this short (4:19) video clip, talks about Jackson’s legacy as a pathbreaking crossover artist. Sharpton is standing in front of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, an important cultural icon in black culture. The local news here (NY1) is picking up on Jackson’s significance to black culture by stationing an “on the scene” reporter in front of the Apollo where people are constructing makeshift memorials to Jackson. In addition, the British press notes the weight of Jackson’s influence in black culture, reminding us that “twenty years ago, in America every black girl wanted to marry Michael Jackson.” This appears to be a much less prominent theme in the white-dominanted mainstream press coverage of Jackson, which seems intent on trivializing his influence to the level of a lunch box or worse.
Indeed, Jackson was not an uncomplicated genius. His relationship with young boys was troubling – to say the very least – and led to a trial in 2005 on child molestation charges. Although Jackson was eventually acquitted of all charges, his career – and perhaps, he – never quite recovered from this. He left the U.S. for awhile and lived in Bahrain, then returned recently and was planning a comeback tour when he collapsed and died.
Part of what was so compelling about Michael Jackson was the complex way that he embodied both race and masculinity. In piece written for the LA Times in 2005 at the time of Jackson’s trial, scholar Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University, and author of New Black Man, wrote this:
There is, of course, little tolerance for child molestation regardless of the race of the offender. Race, though, complicates such offenses when they occur across the color line, particularly given the history of black masculinity in American society — a history rife with outright fear and frenzy about black male sexuality.
Against this history, Jackson’s initial rise to fame is extraordinary. Jackson came to public consciousness as a member of the Jackson Five in the late 1960s, a time when blacks were demanding racial justice. That a group of five black males with woolly Afros could become teen heartthrobs for millions of American girls (and boys) of all races said a great deal about the changing dynamics of race relations in the United States.
When Jackson reemerged as a major pop star in the early 1980s with recordings like “Off the Wall” (1979) and “Thriller” (1982), he was so confident in his universal appeal that he could arrogantly claim that he was the “King of Pop.”
Jackson clearly understood that part of his global appeal lay in his ability to mute the stereotypes associated with black male sexuality throughout American history. Michael Jackson was Peter Pan in the eyes of white America. This image of the asexual black male is possibly the reason why some parents were willing to let Jackson spend time with their children; he was the antithesis of the black male brute that lies submerged in the subconsciousness of white America.
Indeed, throughout much of his career, Jackson was an exemplar of the “good black” — those such as Colin Powell, Michael Jordan and Condoleezza Rice who are set apart from “regular” black folk. This is not to say that Jackson was in denial about his “blackness.” The kinds of violence that he has enacted upon his face — the nose jobs and the apparent skin treatments — suggest that not only was he aware that he was black, but that he probably possessed a hatred of his once racially specific physical features.
Neal gets it right in his analysis here. Part of what made Jackson such an incredibly successful pop icon was his ability to subvert the stereotypes of black male sexuality as brutal and thuggish which was appealing to a white audience. At the same time, I think it’s fair to say that this came at a high price for Jackson, through “the kinds of violence he has enacted upon his face.” The failure of white people to understand this as a form of self-loathing rooted in racism perpetrated by whites only compounds the tragic sadness of this talented, and deeply flawed, man’s life.