Michael Jackson RIP


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.



  1. This is the writing I have been looking for on MJ’s death. I find him incredibly complex, troubling and troubled.

    I think the intersection between race and alleged molestation is one that has to be noted. Individuals with related charges (not necessarily the same) like Pete Townsend seem to be relatively unscathed and untried in the public’s eye.

  2. Jessie Author

    Thanks, Zombie Mom. I find him a difficult figure to talk/think/write about – he’s neither the “positive role model” (as someone in front of the Apollo on the local news referred to him as), or simply the “perv” (as the NY Post is calling him). He’s both and neither of those. Mainly, I think I just felt sorry for him. He seemed so lonely.

  3. Danielle

    Learning of his death yesterday inevitably led me down memory lane to my childhood in the early 80s. Two songs particularly struck me: Heal the World and We are the World, as ones geared toward social justice. These provided my first glimpses of global suffering as a very young child and those images have remained with me. For that, despite everything has shrouded his life, I am deeply appreciative of his legacy.

  4. I can not presume to know what went through Michael’s thoughts or soul. When something is not understood, why must we put a label to it?

    Michael was right to say ‘after breaking all records, he was called a freak.’ I will then be a freak lover for the rest of my day’s.

    To the Post: Fluck U! To call one is to know one!

  5. Thanks so much for this. I realized, when I was still crying this morning, that I am not just crying to MJ, but for all the black boys today. I wrote a blog post about with a link to your article. So important…I am grateful for you doing this work.

  6. The respect that many black men deserve only comes with their death: Think of many of our past leaders who have fallen. I expect that the media and the world will treat him far better now that he is gone than when he was alive. For those who don’t, there is either a sheer ignorance at play or the blinding influence of American racism. RIP MJ.

  7. Joe

    Lynn, many people felt the same way. The amount of interest and concern about MJ set Internet records. CNN: “CNN reported a fivefold rise in traffic and visitors in just over an hour, receiving 20 million page views in the hour the story broke.”

    In addition, No one yet has done a real story on how his speaking out firmly on racism in the record industry (he was very courageous in doing that several times) may have played a significant role in his so-called “decline.”

  8. Jeff B.

    Michael Jackson was no doubt a towering, iconic figure. He transformed the course of modern music and is the last real great artist that ranks along with Sinatra, Beatles, Elvis and others of their league. His music and huge humanitarian efforts are phenomenal. His worldwide impact is real. There are literally HUNDREDS of positive quotes on MJ from a myriad of media figures from all over the world – politicians, artists/musicians/music industry personnel, actors/actresses, athletes, professors, critics, journalists, etc. (and they span generations too!). Even the aftermath of his death is tremendous, such as the “online meltdown,” the rise of MJ product sales, etc. I could post pages of his seminal contributions and achievements to popular music, but that would digress from the blog here. He was the Elvis of the 1980s, simply put.

    I doubt an artist of MJ’s stature will ever come about again. He’s one of the most influential and greatest artists in all of history. But to say “MJ wanted to act white” is too simple as he was a complex person. He wanted a better world, a world where we all didn’t let artificial distinctions get the best of us. He wanted to “Heal the World.” He was a symbol of transcending confines, and that showed through his music and humanitarian efforts.

  9. Hi tere!

    I am sad that Michael is gone and I am still very much in mourning over the loss of his fantastic gift… it’s sooo easy for those who are living in OBSCURITY to sit back and judge what happens emotionally to a 5-year old who enters a surreal life as a world entertainer and does not have normal socialization with children his own age…

    It’s so easy for those who have lived in OBSCURITY all of their lives to sit back and judge how someone else has handled parental abuse and perhaps even sexual abuse… and label them “pervert” and “weirdo”…

    I choose to respect the genius of his music and allow GOD to address his failings as a man….

    Rest in peace, Michael. You’re free.


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