Not Gonna Spend My Life Being a Color
Willa: Last week Joie and I danced with one of those elephants in the room and discussed the question, “Was Michael Jackson Black Enough?” And we began by saying we weren’t talking about skin color. This week we are. We’re going to dance with a really big elephant and address the question of why the apparent color of his skin shifted from dark to light.
Joie: As Willa mentioned in our very first blog post, she and I have really drastically disagreed over this particular issue. For months now we have had very heated discussions on this topic, going back and forth and back and forth, and finally we seem to have met somewhere in the middle. But I think it’s important to note that we were not always on the same page on this one. In fact, we were polar opposites for a very long time, and we each felt very strongly about our points of view. But the following conversation is what finally brought us together, and made us each understand where the other was coming from…..
Joie: Well, I have a first-hand account of sorts of the turmoil that Michael must have gone through. So my mom was out of town at the funeral of a relative and, as always happens at those sorts of gatherings, it turned into a kind of family reunion. Anyway, she was startled to see a distant cousin of hers who has Vitiligo. Startled not because she wasn’t aware that the woman had the condition, but because she wasn’t aware of the new way she was treating it. Seems her condition had worsened in the past few years and her spots had grown more widespread. What she used to be able to cover up and hide with dark makeup was just too overwhelming now. So instead, she had resorted to depigmentation – removing the remaining dark pigment in the skin in order to produce a more uniform skin tone. My mother said her skin looked a lot like Michael Jackson’s.
So, that got me thinking about what it must feel like for a person with this disease and I tried to put myself in their shoes. Imagine this…. You are a music superstar. From the time you were a little kid you have been “major” famous. You had four number one hits by the time you were 11 years old and the world loves you. Oh, I forgot to mention that you are African American AND your career began during the late 1960’s in America. That’s right, say it loud… “you’re Black and you’re Proud!” Not only does the world love you; Black America really LOVES you!
Still with me? OK, good. Now imagine that the older you get, the more successful and more famous you become. You grow from a teenage music superstar into an adult music icon. You are a Rock Star! You are bigger than that Elvis guy (oh yeah, I said it!). Now imagine that at the height of your fame and popularity, your doctor tells you that you have a devastating, autoimmune disease known as Vitiligo.
Vitiligo is a disorder that causes a loss of pigmentation in the skin. Patients with Vitiligo develop white spots in the skin that vary in size and location. The disease affects both sexes and all races, but the distinctive patches of discoloration are most noticeable in people with darker skin tones. Because Vitiligo causes such dramatically uneven skin color, most patients experience emotional and psychological distress – especially if the spots develop on visible areas of the body, like the face, hands, arms, feet, or even on the genitals. Most patients often feel embarrassed, ashamed, depressed, and worried about how others will react. So, for an African American person who’s been in front of the camera for most of his life – and who has already been disillusioned with his own reflection because of severe acne as a teenager and a nose that he was never happy with – this diagnosis would be traumatic, to say the least. Especially if he were constantly confronted with cruel and unfair reporting from a biased media, basically calling him a liar and leading the very same public that used to love him into believing that he just didn’t like the color of the skin he was born with.
Sounds really awful, doesn’t it? This was Michael Jackson’s life. For years after the Vitiligo began, thousands, maybe even millions of people around the world believed that Michael Jackson was ashamed of his race and all because the media refused to believe him when he said that he had no control over the loss of color in his skin. In fact, it was only after his death when the coroner’s report confirmed that he did indeed suffer from the disease, that the world finally believed him. And every news story you read was basically saying the same thing: “Huh, I guess he was telling the truth after all,” or “Well, we finally got that mystery cleared up.”
OK, is it just me? Am I the only one who finds this scary? For years, this incredibly talented, kind-hearted man told us over and over that he had this condition and that it bothered him deeply because he loved his race and he was proud of his heritage and the media (both tabloid and mainstream alike) called him a liar who just wanted to be White. They laughed big belly laughs when the late-night comedians took up the charge and poked fun at his skin color and called him all sorts of unkind and hurtful things. They basically tortured him about his disease for the rest of his life, and now that he’s gone all they can say is, “Hmm, guess he was telling the truth.” I’m sorry but, I find that scary. And really, really sad.
I remember watching the Oprah Winfrey show years ago – way before she ever interviewed Michael – when her friend, Maya Angelou, was a guest. And I don’t know why this stuck with me but it did. Ms. Angelou said that when someone tells you who they are, you should believe them. She reasoned that they know themselves a whole lot better than you know them so, when someone tells you who they are, believe them! It sounds so simple. Yet, Michael told us over and over again who he really was, but no one ever believed him. That must have been so frustrating for him!
Willa: Joie, that is really powerful, and I absolutely agree with everything you just said. But I don’t think the story ends there. If we continue to imagine ourselves in his shoes, imagine you’re Michael Jackson, a deeply spiritual person who said numerous times that he felt he must have been given his talent for a reason – that he was put on this Earth and given his tremendous talent to fulfill some higher purpose. And he becomes a superstar, but he’s much more than that. He’s not just a famous singer and dancer. He’s also a transformative cultural figure who leads people to think differently about race, and he takes that very seriously. Can You Feel It, the first video he produced and developed, from initial concept through final production, beautifully expresses the idea that we are all one people, regardless of racial differences, and he returns to that idea again and again in his work. This is a concept he thought about extensively and cared about deeply.
And then, at the height of his fame, he discovers he has Vitiligo. And it is devastating and traumatic, as you say, and he begins wearing a glove and dark makeup. But the disease keeps progressing. More and more of his skin is losing its pigmentation – on his face, his neck, his arms, his whole body. And it is horrifying to him. But he’s a strong person with deeply held convictions, and he’s an amazing artist, with an artist’s sensibilities. And maybe he begins to wonder if he was given Vitiligo for a purpose as well, if there’s some reason why he has been put in this incredibly difficult position. He’s the most famous Black man ever, celebrated for promoting pride in being Black, and now his skin is literally turning white. How ironic is that? But it highlights a crucial issue as well. He’s been telling us for years that racial differences don’t matter – that we are all one people regardless of skin color. And now, the color of his skin is literally changing from dark to light.
Racism against Black people in America is nothing more than a web of lies that have been told and retold for centuries, and that we as individuals have more or less internalized to some degree. But at the heart of this web of lies is one central lie, the lie that all others radiate out from: that Black people and White people are essentially different. That is the lie at the very center of racism in America. And growing up in the South in the 1960s I received a lot of conflicting messages, but still I was told that lie over and over again in numerous subtle and not-so-subtle ways: you shouldn’t swim in an integrated swimming pool, you shouldn’t drink water from a water fountain immediately after a Black kid, you shouldn’t borrow a Black girl’s comb (which I did one time when I was “old enough to know better”). The unstated reason is that Black bodies and White bodies are essentially different and should remain separate. That was the message I was told again and again growing up in the South forty years ago.
But when Michael Jackson’s skin changed from dark to light, he proved that is a lie – he proved that Black bodies and White bodies are essentially the same – and he struck a shattering blow at the very heart of racism.
I have a White college friend who grew up with a Black housekeeper. One day the housekeeper was working in the kitchen and cut her hand, and my friend, who was just a child at the time, was shocked to see that her blood was red. Before that, she had assumed her blood was dark – as dark as her skin. My friend told me this story several times, generally with a laugh at how silly she’d been. But despite her laughter, I could tell this story was very important to her. It was one of those rare “Ah ha!” moments when your perceptions flip upside down and you’re suddenly forced to question things you thought you knew to be true.
When Michael Jackson’s skin changed from dark to light, I think he created an “Ah ha!” moment like that on a global scale. He had told us repeatedly through his music and his videos that we are all one people, regardless of skin color, and now he had a chance to prove it artistically. He could prove in a way that cannot be denied that our bodies are essentially the same, and he could do it in a way that even a child could understand. That is an incredibly powerful message, and he seized an opportunity to illustrate and broadcast that message in a way that had never been done before. And he expanded the definition of art in a way that had never been done before either. That’s why he was so misunderstood.
Joie: Willa, you make a very convincing argument. And I’m sure that, being the incredibly artistic person that he was, he probably did tend to look at things or approach difficult situations from an artistic point of view. So, you could be absolutely correct in saying that he made a conscious decision to turn his disease into an artistic commentary on racism. And you know, when we first began disagreeing over this issue I never would have imagined I’d say that but, there it is.
Willa: Well, as I mentioned in our very first blog, you’ve really changed how I see this also. This isn’t a new thing for me. I’ve been fighting this battle for years. I can remember going to grad school in the South in the mid-to-late 1980s, and almost every semester someone at some point would bring up Michael Jackson and the changing color of his skin. And they would almost always say something like, it was an incredible cultural phenomenon, but of course it was just a product of his own insecurities. He was creating this incredibly powerful cultural moment that was forcing White America, especially, to question some of our deepest racial prejudices, but he was doing it accidentally.
And I always questioned that. Why assume it’s accidental? He’s a brilliant artist, he’s been actively fighting racial prejudices for years, he’s obviously thought about this issue deeply – so why assume he doesn’t know what he’s doing? I always thought he knew exactly what he was doing, and I think the evidence backs me up. His dermatologist has said that he frequently called his face “a work of art.” And as I tried to show in both M Poetica and “Rereading Michael Jackson,” I think he tried to explain through his work – through his short films, especially – that his changing appearance began as a medical decision but became a deliberate artistic decision.
But until I started talking with you, I didn’t realize just how difficult and painful that decision must have been for him. I knew he was the object of a lot of snarky comments by White commentators that just made me heartsick. And I knew there were people in the Black community who felt betrayed by him and by the changing color of his skin. But I didn’t realize how deeply those emotions ran, or how painful the accusations of betraying his race must have been for him.
Joie: Oh, it must have been horrible! I always think about his interview with Oprah when he tells her, “I’m a Black American, I am proud to be a Black American, I am proud of my race. I am proud of who I am. I have a lot of pride and dignity….It is something that I cannot help, ok? But when people make up stories that I don’t want to be who I am, it hurts me….I mean, it makes me very sad.”
Those are his words. And the emotion in his voice and the pain on his face as he said them were obvious. But now, as I look back on that interview, I notice that he also said this during that same conversation: “But you know what’s funny, why is that so important? That’s not important to me. I’m a great fan of art. I love Michelangelo. If I had the chance to talk to him or read about him I would want to know what inspired him to become who he is….I mean that’s what is important to me.”
So, maybe he told us then and we just didn’t listen. Maybe he was saying, ‘Yes, I have this disease and it is horrifying and no one believes me but, I don’t care because I’m going to use it to educate you anyway!’
Posted on September 8, 2011, in Michael Jackson and tagged Can You Feel It, M Poetica, Maya Angelou, Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, racism, Rereading Michael Jackson, Vitiligo. Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.