Michael Jackson: Subverting Blackface Stereotypes

Willa: This week I’m so excited to be joined by Harriet Manning, the author of a fascinating new book, Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask, which was published recently by Ashgate Press, and Lisha McDuff, a professional musician and musicologist who wrote her dissertation on Black or White, approaching it in part as an example of “whiteface minstrelsy – or a reverse blackface minstrel performance.” Lisha shared some of her ideas about Black or White in a fascinating post with us last year. Thank you both for joining me!

Harriet: Hello. Thank you for having me.

Lisha: Thank you, Willa! It’s always a pleasure.

Willa: Oh, it’s always a joy talking with you, Lisha. And Harriet, there are so many interesting ideas in your book to talk about! But before we dive in, I’m curious to know how you first became interested in Michael Jackson, and in blackface minstrelsy. And then, how did you come to put them together?

Harriet: It started when I was learning blackface minstrelsy (the white theatrical parody of black dance, music and gesture). I was intrigued by the fact that despite its longevity (the tradition defined dominant pop culture throughout the 1800s in the U.K. and U.S.) it is considered long gone and its history is not widely known. I wondered how something so big could just disappear and pondered upon what form it might take today, when political correctness would no longer tolerate “blacking up.”

I did not know much about Michael Jackson but I got thinking: what if here was the legacy of blackface? I started studying the dance moves and the black stereotypes of the tradition and saw how Michael Jackson used these. A wonderful treasure trove opened: I had found the roots not only of MJ’s dance but also a mode by which to understand him and the various troubles he had to face.

Lisha: Harriet, that is so fascinating and I must say it’s been an eye-opening experience reading your book – not only for understanding how blackface minstrelsy is reflected in Michael Jackson’s work, but for understanding the minstrel show as “the first sellable pop form” of music. I think I’m just beginning to comprehend how prevalent this form of entertainment was at one time. So much of popular music can be traced back to blackface minstrelsy and I don’t think I was fully aware of that before.

Willa: I wasn’t either. I had no idea it was so incredibly popular, and for so long. Its popularity fluctuated, of course, but it held sway for over a century.

Lisha: That’s pretty incredible when you think about it – it’s such a huge cultural blindspot. As you were saying, Harriet, despite the minstrel show’s mass appeal in the 1800s, blackface parody seemed to vanish and it seems that most of us don’t have a clue as to how popular it once was. Was there a particular event that caused the British and American public to suddenly become aware of how offensive blackface parody was? What happened that caused such a dramatic shift in consciousness?

Harriet: The tradition became increasingly self-conscious in the mid-1800s with the lead up to the Civil War and then the abolition of slavery in the U.S. It fell out of vogue as its publics became uneasy with its racial content. The blackface mask then just became a stage convention and the overt racist material was removed. Then the mask itself disappeared.

Lisha: Interesting, since much of the same racist content still persists, but in a more subtle form. I’m so curious about what got you interested into really digging into this and uncovering even more about blackface minstrelsy?

Harriet: Blackface minstrelsy was part of a Black Music course I was doing for my music degree. I was really shocked by it. People need to know about it.

Willa: I agree. We do need to know about it, in part because we still see its influence today. On rare occasions we’ll see modern performers in blackface, like in Neil Diamond’s 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer. I can still remember how shocking that felt at the time, seeing Neil Diamond in blackface. And in the Do You Really Want to Hurt Me video by Culture Club, Boy George correlates the prejudice he’s been experiencing with racial prejudice, and there are pews of silent witnesses in blackface. Here’s a clip:

Lisha: Blackface is a really interesting choice in that clip, Willa, used very effectively as an “in your face” way of expressing how irrational and unconscious prejudice is.

Harriet: Do you read Boy George as equating racial prejudice with a sexual one?

Willa: I do. How about you, Lisha?

Lisha: Yes, I do. I’ve noticed that in a lot of discourse regarding gay rights, racial prejudice is used as a way to show how people have historically felt justified in discriminating against others, only to have their beliefs later exposed as terribly foolish and uncivilized. For example, it wasn’t so long ago that there were laws on the books restricting interracial marriage, just as today we still see laws restricting the rights of same sex couples.

Willa: That’s true, though I don’t know that civil rights leaders have always appreciated having their movement correlated with the LGBT movement. But there are a lot of parallels, as you say, and I think Boy George is subtly suggesting that in Do You Really Want to Hurt Me.

He’s on trial – we’re not sure why, but it seems to be because he expresses his sexuality in unconventional ways, or maybe it’s just because he’s different more generally. And the people judging him – the “jury of his peers” – is comprised of people in blackface acting in ways that enact the white stereotypes of blacks that were a staple of blackface minstrelsy. So he seems to be saying that, just as the dominant white population imposed their fears and prejudices onto blacks through blackface, the dominant straight population is now imposing its fears and prejudices onto him. And he’s doing it in a very “in your face” way, as you say, Lisha.

Lisha: Pun intended. It’s interesting how Boy George is looking backwards historically in this video, at a 1936 night club and a 1957 health club in London, as if re-examining old attitudes about race, gender and sexuality that need to be updated.

Harriet: Indeed blackface minstrelsy historically explored issues of sexuality and gender “under the mask” essentially because race and sexuality are profoundly aligned by their reliance on a “norm” (white and straight) and a different “Other” (black and gay).

Willa: I didn’t know that before – that the blackface tradition parodied gender and sexuality as well as race – and was very intrigued by that aspect of your book, Harriet. I’d really like to talk more about that today.

Lisha: I’m intrigued by this too. It really helped me understand how relevant the early minstrel shows are to Michael Jackson’s work.

But there is a fairly recent example of blackface I wanted to mention because I found it so surprising – a comedy act called “The Jackson Jive” that aired on the Australian variety show Hey Hey It’s Saturday in October 2009. Unbelievably, this act was performed as a “song and dance tribute” to Michael Jackson following his death.

The performers and the host of the show seem completely unaware that this type of blackface parody could come across as offensive – not even the YouTube poster appears to have a problem with it! However, Harry Connick Jr., who was a guest on the program that night, said he would never have appeared on the show had he known such an act would be included. From my own (American) perspective, it’s shocking that anyone would find this kind of ridicule to be an acceptable form of entertainment.

Harriet: Absolutely. Also, what I noticed was that as the presenter invites Harry Connick Jr. to express his grievances, it apparently needs to be explained why: because the skit could be considered offensive “in his [Harry Connick's] country.” This implies that it is only America’s “problem” in a comment that then functions to get the show “off the hook.” Seriously not happy with that at all.

Willa: That’s a good point, Harriet. And Australia does have a long history of racism – just look at how the Aborigines have been treated – though their history is very different than ours. They didn’t have the institution of slavery that existed in the U.S. for centuries, but there were slaves in Australia and they do have a tradition of racism.

Lisha: No doubt about it. But one of the interesting things to me about this clip is how it demonstrates the geographical nature of racism. I think Harry Connick Jr. is right – this skit would have been perceived in a totally different way in the U.S. In fact, I don’t believe “The Jackson Jive” skit would air in the U.S. at all. I just can’t imagine any American broadcaster airing a blackface comedy act that ridicules race in this way. It’s not something I think Americans would tolerate, maybe because blackface parody is such a painful part of our history.

Harriet: It would never have aired in the U.K., either. I do admire Harry Connick Jr.’s explanation as to why he is offended. It reminds me of the problem with the golliwog (the manifestation of the blackface minstrel character with full moon eyes, wide smile, and woolly wig). The golliwog’s defenders say it is harmless, fun, and cute, but its history (rooted in racial ridicule) makes it none of these.

The clip makes me think of the 2004 Eminem video Just Lose It (discussed in my book), which provides another example of this sort of lazy racism (and in the form of a more overt contemporary “blackface” performance).

Willa: I like the way you express that, Harriet – “lazy racism.” That’s an excellent way to describe both of these. I hadn’t seen that “Jackson Jive” clip before, Lisha, and it’s thoroughly depressing. It’s especially troubling that they are performing “Can You Feel It” in blackface since that song is explicitly about overcoming racial prejudices, as Joie and I talked about in a post last August. It’s just horrifying to see this – and as you point out, Harriet, there’s an insinuation that if you find it offensive, it’s your problem.

As I remember, there was a similar feeling about the Eminem video when it came out – that if you were offended, you just didn’t have a good sense of humor and it was your problem. And it played fairly regularly on MTV, which is just as shocking as the “Jackson Jive” skit airing in Australia. Here’s a link to Eminem’s Just Lose It, though I want to warn readers that it’s really disturbing:

Lisha: The Eminem video is about as offensive as it gets, to my way of thinking. If Americans are tempted to claim the moral high ground for political correctness and for not tolerating a literal “blacking up,” then this video puts it all back into perspective. Harriet, you’ve pointed out that Eminem continues the tradition of minstrelsy with this white version of hip hop, parodying Michael Jackson in a way that is “in keeping with the harshest white portrayals of black men in traditional minstrelsy.” That’s even putting it mildly, don’t you think?

Harriet: It is, Lisha, yes. We should know better now, especially Eminem, who built his whole identity around his alliance with black artists. Eminem also went out his way to deny there was a problem with the video, which makes it even worse.

Willa: It really does. I hope these performers, including Eminem, evolve to a point where they are thoroughly ashamed of themselves someday. But this kind of overt reenactment or reference to blackface is fairly rare now, isn’t it?

Harriet: Overt references to blackface are rare, yes. This is for two reasons: firstly, because it is all too often a history “better off forgotten,” and secondly because, as the application of the mask has became increasingly socially unacceptable, it has been forced underground to become more subtle.

Willa: But while subtle, it can still have a powerful effect, as you discuss in your book. In fact, you suggest that the blackface tradition has had a pervasive influence on our perceptions of racial differences that is still very much alive today. For example, you point out that for a full century, blackface performers promoted a stereotypical view of blacks as violent and oversexed, with a secret longing to be white and to dress like upper-class whites – and this was generally presented in comic ways through the figures of the black dandy and the ignorant slave, Jim Crow.

And we still see those stereotypes today. Black men, especially, are all too often portrayed as violent and sexually aggressive, a prejudice that has significant legal and cultural implications. It may be one reason the police and public were predisposed to believe the 1993 allegations against Michael Jackson, despite all the evidence.

And white commentators often accuse Michael Jackson, and even Barack Obama, of being “too white” or “not black enough.” What they’re really saying is that Michael Jackson and Barack Obama don’t fit their stereotypical ideas of what it means to be black – stereotypes that were forged or at least deeply reinforced during the decades of blackface minstrelsy.

Harriet: Yes, blackface minstrelsy’s constructions of blackness, including the idea of black male hyper-sexuality, profoundly inform ways of thinking today. I don’t think it was any coincidence Michael Jackson courted accusations and persecutions for inappropriate (read “dangerous” and “uncontainable”) sexual activity. Black stereotypes today are all rooted in minstrelsy: blacks as mad, bad, and dangerous is today’s version of the most popular blackface character, Jim Crow, who was uncouth, unpredictable, and untrustworthy. This is a fundamental and direct legacy.

There are other ways blackface minstrelsy continues in contemporary pop culture as well, and not least in the form of the white appropriation of black music, dance, and gesture, usually without credit and in “whiteface.” But the legacy continues underground in another way: in the work and self-presentation of black performers.

Willa: Which as you point out in your book, is a very complicated performance – black artists “performing” their race for white audiences. And as you point out, that continues today in the violence, misogyny, and hyper-sexuality of much of hip hop.

Harriet: Yes, historically, black performers were denied access to the blackface minstrel stage until well after its heyday (after the Civil War). When they were finally allowed to present themselves in minstrelsy, they too wore the mask and played into the stereotypes of the tradition: black performers seemingly “gave in” in an apparent act of self-ridicule and disgust.

However, it has been suggested that there was much more to it than that, that black entertainers were actually working a double parody that said “if this is what you want me to be then this is what I will be” and they played to hitherto unseen extremes. So, it would seem they performed, sometimes or always, with a wink in the eye to in fact undermine the tradition’s racist constructions, and black audiences knew this (while whites tended to miss it).

Willa: This is such an important idea, and one of the most fascinating aspects of your book, I thought. And we see Michael Jackson overtly expressing this idea of “if this is what you want me to be then this is what I will be” in “Is It Scary,” for example, where he repeatedly sings, “I’m gonna be / Exactly what you wanna see.”

Harriet: Exactly. Another example is the whole Wacko image, much of which (in its early days at least) was generated by Michael Jackson himself. Mad, bad, and dangerous is what he repeatedly “told” us he was, not only in his music but also in his life. Looking at Michael Jackson, and indeed, hip hop acts, in this framework becomes really insightful.

Lisha: You know Harriet, that is absolutely incredible when you think about the lighthearted and fun part of the mad or “Wacko image” that MJ himself supposedly promoted (Bubbles and the hyperbaric chamber) and the fact that he put out two albums that are actually titled Bad and Dangerous!

Willa: I hadn’t thought of that, Lisha! You know, the first place I know of that phrase being used is Lady Caroline Lamb’s 1812 description of Lord Byron as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” so it’s been around a long time. And interestingly, Byron and the other Romantic poets fostered that bad boy reputation, encouraging the public to see them in that way, just as Michael Jackson did to some extent. But I hadn’t linked that to the titles of the Bad and Dangerous albums before. That’s interesting.

Lisha: It’s also an interesting strategy for dealing with the child star/teen idol image that has been so difficult for adult performers to shed.

Harriet, you go into some detail about Michael Jackson putting on the blackface mask (I’m thinking hyper-sexualized, hyper-criminalized, rather than a literal blackface) using the panther dance in Black or White as an excellent example, a song that explicitly deals with race. I’ve always been intrigued by how Michael Jackson morphs out of the black panther to find a fedora hanging on the gate next to a pool of light, similar to what we see in live performances of “Billie Jean.” He then puts on the hat and steps into the “spotlight” to “perform” his race, gender, and sexuality. This scene always evoked blackface minstrelsy to me and I think you have identified precisely why this is so. But there is also something that feels radically different about it, too. Do you feel this as well?

Harriet: Yes, Lisha. The panther dance to Black or White is a good example of Michael Jackson playing the blackface minstrel character of “mad, bad, and dangerous.” He runs amok throwing trashcans, smashing windows, and acting out the animalist characteristics of the wildcat. Michael Jackson gives us (the white audience and music industry) exactly what we want, meaning white-created ideas of black masculinity.

However, what is different is that it comes after a happy vision of racial harmony (the main video in which “it don’t matter if you’re black or white”) making the performance of “mad, bad, and dangerous” an angry critique. It is a critique in its sheer extremity. It is a double parody.

The fact that Michael Jackson was condemned for the video and forced to issue a public apology shows how, as an audience, we cannot cope with the reality of its message.

Willa: I agree, and the panther dance is still excluded from the “official” Black or White video on Vevo, so apparently we still can’t cope with the power of his message, more than 20 years later.

What was most interesting to me in the Black or White section of your book, Harriet, was how you identify specific elements of the panther dance that you see as directly evoking and reworking the tradition of blackface minstrelsy – for example, his splayed-leg stance when he’s dancing on top of the car. Before I read your book, I didn’t realize that posture came straight out of blackface, and it seems significant to me that we see it in Black or White – which is a direct protest against racial stereotypes – and nowhere else in his work. I was really struck by that, and I think it’s important to nail down some of those details.

So in addition to the obvious “blacking up” of the color of the skin, what are other significant characteristics of blackface? What I mean is, are there certain gestures or dance moves or costumes that, when you see them, you immediately think of blackface minstrelsy?

Harriet: Yes, Willa, there are certain “blackface” gestures, and Michael Jackson embodies them all. The staple moves that made up the dances of blackface parody (dance was central to the performance as it reinforced the idea of black bodiliness) are all those of Michael Jackson’s own dance: angulated limbs with knee bends; spins and turns; toe stands (emphasizing the heel, as well as the toe, as slaves were traditionally portrayed as having large, flapping feet); sliding movements; and the crucifixion pose (originally down on one knee, arms outstretched in a visualization of black servitude).

Of note, in later blackface minstrelsy – when black performers took to the stage – white gloves would often be worn (made famous by Al Jolson in the movie The Jazz Singer) along with ankle cut pants and brimmed hat.

Lisha: Utterly fascinating. This opens up a whole other dimension to Michael Jackson for me.

Willa: And for me as well. For example, I had always assumed Michael Jackson adopted the white glove and the short pants with white socks to call attention to the movements of his feet and hands while dancing – and I still think that’s a large part of it. But then I think about Fred Astaire in blackface in “Bojangles of Harlem,” as Lisha and I talked about in a post a few weeks ago, with his cartoonishly large white gloves and the white spats on his shoes, and I wonder if there’s more going on as well – if Michael Jackson is reworking the blackface tradition as you suggest, Harriet.

If we look at the white glove and white socks that way, it’s remarkable that while that costume was designed to portray blacks as buffoons – as objects of mockery and scorn – Michael Jackson reclaimed that costume and made it elegant. Just think of how beautiful he looked at Motown 25. But he’s wearing the costume of blackface: the “white gloves … ankle cut pants and brimmed hat,” as you described it, Harriet. That’s an incredible transformation of how we “read” that costume.

Lisha: Amazing!

Willa: It really is – it’s mind-boggling! I know we’ve all seen the Motown 25 performance a thousand times before but here’s a clip, and just look at how beautiful and elegant he is:

Wow. What a powerful act of reclamation and transformation.

Lisha: Stunning. And think of how often this iconic look has been admired and emulated all over the world.

Willa: And rightfully so! He’s completely redefined what that costume means and made it part of something many performers – including white performers – can only aspire to.

It’s also fascinating that you link the “crucifixion pose,” as you call it, Harriet, with supplication and “a visualization of black servitude” – I’m thinking of Al Jolson’s outstretched arms in The Jazz Singer – especially since many of Michael Jackson’s critics have interpreted that gesture in the opposite way, as evidence that he saw himself as the Messiah. So again, when we read him through the lens of the blackface tradition, it leads us to a radically different interpretation.

Harriet: This is it! What you say, Willa, lies at the heart of my reading of Michael Jackson and his genius and how, I believe, we should attempt to understand him.

Like the traditional blackface mask – through negotiations of racial, sexual, and gendered identities – Michael Jackson was amazingly clever at being readable in multiple ways and, furthermore, not just in multiple ways but in notoriously contradictory ones. This was a key reason for his enormous popularity (he could speak or “sing” to the individual and be what they wanted him to be). However, at the same time, it also allowed his downfall, providing fodder for his detractors. The “crucifixion” pose visualizes this: it was at once an image of black servitude and megalomania. The altered pallor of his face, his “mask,” also symbolizes this: his critics read it as black self-loathing but was it not rather a utopian vision of racelessness (“white” as not Caucasian at all but colorless)?

Traditionally denied to black performers, the blackface mask was reclaimed by Michael Jackson. In fact, he turned it inside out. Together with his lyrical and rhetorical calls for brotherhood, he completely obliterated it. No contemporary performer has ever come near to this.

So, that Michael Jackson danced out the dance moves of the traditional minstrel show really is just the start!

Lisha: Once again, I have to say I am absolutely amazed. Just when you think you might be on the way towards grasping the depth and breadth of Michael Jackson’s work, something like this comes along and blows your mind all over again.

Harriet, how common is it to see these dance moves and gestures in contemporary song and dance? For example, Willa and I talked earlier about Michael Jackson’s connection to Fred Astaire, and how often Astaire is cited in Michael Jackson’s work. But what is rarely mentioned is how much Astaire and the entire Hollywood musical genre owe to black dancers, including those who performed in the early minstrel shows.

Harriet: Blackface moves and gestures appear a lot, from tap dance to hip hop.

Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly took many black cultural gestures and ideas but never formally acknowledged this in tune with the entire production of the Hollywood musical genre, in which black performers were denied a part. This repeats the process of blackface minstrelsy: the denial of black self-representation but the white luxury to play with it. That Michael Jackson continually fought with criticism and condemnation for his self-representation, from his skin color and facial features to his angry panther characterization, also repeats this painful process.

Willa: I agree. It still astonishes me that white commentators feel they have a right to define what it means to be black, and then try to impose their definitions onto him. To me, that is the very essence of blackface – whites imposing black stereotypes onto blacks – so in that sense, the blackface tradition is still very much alive.

Lisha: So true. I’m thinking the “African warrior” scene in Black or White has a lot to say about white-created black stereotypes, when Michael Jackson makes his very first appearance ever with such light, “white” looking skin. In contrast to the other ethnic dance scenes in Black or White – which feature traditional dancers wearing their own authentic regalia – the black “African” dancers are dressed in obvious stage makeup and film costumes. They dance in a Broadway/Hollywood style of dance and their faces are smeared with white ash and painted in highly-stylized tribal designs. I see this scene as a parody of African-American dancers “whiting up” for the camera, performing their “African” heritage according to needs and expectations of a primarily white audience and white film industry. You could even think of African-American performers “whiting up” for the camera as Michael Jackson’s own “tribe” – the whiteface not used as a black parody of whites, but as an expression of the reality that black performers have tailored their “African-ness” to suit white sensibilities. In this way, the scene for me has much in common with the panther dance.

Willa: That’s so interesting, Lisha. I’d never thought about that until I read your dissertation. It’s interesting to think that they are “performing” black, especially since they’re then revealed to be on a Hollywood set, not in Africa. It reminds me of something James Brown said in a 1973 Jet magazine interview that Charles Thomson recommended and Destiny tracked down and shared with us last week:

I know I can act. All Blacks can act. The only reason we survive today is because we’ve had to act a certain way for the white man. Too many performers accept roles to act in movies when in truth they’re not allowed to act at all.

As you pointed out, Lisha, the “African” dancers in Black and White enact this “performance” of race that James Brown is talking about, and it’s also a very interesting reworking of the blackface tradition, on many different levels.

However, as you point out in your book, Harriet, blackface minstrelsy wasn’t simply a forum for promoting racial stereotypes and ridiculing black men and women, but actually a complicated brew of contradictory impulses. For example, in describing white appropriation of black gestures and dance moves, you say it was motivated by both “love” and “theft” – in other words, an appreciation for black expression as well as an impulse to steal it.

Lisha: “Love” and quite a bit of literal “theft”! Many whites have become quite wealthy exploiting black, musical, intellectual property.

Willa: That’s true, from blackface on through jazz and rock and now hip hop. And this “theft” not only enriches whites but also erases the achievements of black artists from public awareness. Joe Vogel talks about this in “The Misunderstood Power of Michael Jackson’s Music“:

The King of Jazz, for white critics, wasn’t Louis Armstrong, it was Paul Whiteman; the King of Swing wasn’t Duke Ellington, it was Benny Goodman; the King of Rock wasn’t Chuck Berry or Little Richard, it was Elvis Presley.

And there were also complicated forces at work, psychologically, in this dual motivation of “love” and “theft.” As you point out, Harriet, minstrelsy mocked black men while also providing white men with a way to express and work through a sublimated “envy,” which was a fascinating idea to me – especially since Michael Jackson himself suggested a number of times that the backlash against him was motivated by jealousy.

For example, in your discussion of the “wench,” a white male enactment of black female stereotypes popular on the minstrel stage, you write that minstrelsy “showcased a bold and very public appreciation for the black male body in which cross-racial identification, including the envy of a supposed unsurpassed potency, lurked.” As you point out, this “presumed sexual potency” was very threatening “at a time when physical ‘manliness’ was especially important to white male working-class self-respect.”

So blackface minstrelsy certainly allowed white men to propagate hurtful stereotypes about what it means to be black, but it was much more complicated than that. For one thing, it also allowed those same white male performers and audiences to work through what it means to be white and male.

Harriet: Exactly, and this is where is gets very complicated. Recent documentation of the blackface tradition has brought to the fore the “love” that it also could have been seen to embody. These accounts argue minstrelsy was a way by which white men and woman could in fact secretly indulge and be close to blackness in a society in which this was otherwise condemned. Linked to this are theories arguing for (cross-racial) homosexual expression, in the transvestite “wench” stereotype particularly.

What is really most important here, though, is to understand that the blackface mask had the capacity to be inherently contradictory, and that Michael Jackson lived up to that.

Lisha: I find this kind of subterfuge in Michael Jackson’s work so delightful and nothing less than brilliant. I’m thinking about the film Ghosts, Harriet, and how you have interpreted some of the issues he addresses in this work.

Harriet: Ghosts (to which I devote a chapter in my book) is a masterpiece of turning ideas upside down, and documents in its narrative all of the racial stuff, dance, and imagery we have talked about. Through the film’s story of a scary “Maestro” character (played by Michael Jackson) being run out of town by villagers (who in turn get spooked by the Maestro and his “family” through dance and play), Ghosts embodies key issues we have noted: racism in the ridicule of the “Other” or the “different”; dance moves steeped in minstrel gesture; the process of the performer “giving others what they want to see” yet at the same time critiquing and undermining it through extremity of exaggeration.

But Ghosts also theatricalizes the mutilating impact that all this stuff must have had, and continues to have, on black performers. This comes in a powerful section near the end of the narrative. After the confirmation that the Maestro’s guests (despite having been “treated” to an awesome display of dance and song) still demand he leave town, the Maestro admits defeat and surrenders. With the aid of computerized special effects, we witness the disintegration of the Maestro. In an uncomfortable scene we watch the disappearance of Michael Jackson as he pounds first his fists and then his face into the ground so that he crumbles away until there is nothing left of him but dust.

Is this not what we saw in Michael Jackson’s real life too? An adherence to the performance of the constructions and traditions of blackface minstrelsy – to the blackface mask – that in the end was devastational, and the world just stood back and watched?

Willa: Yes, though in Ghosts the Maestro’s self-destruction is revealed to be an illusion – a performance designed to bring about important changes in the emotions and perceptions of the villagers. So once again – as in the blackface tradition – Michael Jackson is providing his audience with the stereotypes they’ve come to believe, and then exploding those stereotypes.

Harriet: Sure thing. Again, Michael Jackson turns our perceptions upside down; he turns the tables. Unlike the Maestro, however, not even Michael Jackson had the power and genius in “real” life to come back from the dead.

Lisha: Or maybe he did! For a sizable number of new fans, like myself, Michael Jackson’s work suddenly came to life in 2009, almost like a resurrection.

Willa: And he predicts that in Ghosts as well. After the Maestro dies, he comes back to life as a huge stone statue – a living work of art.

Harriet: Interestingly, it wasn’t long, back in June 2009, before rumors circulated that he wasn’t dead at all and that his death was a hoax.

Lisha: Yes, a very small handful of people said that, yet the media is so anxious to attach that to Michael Jackson fans in general. I’ve actually read quite a few news stories portraying Jackson fans as mad, bad, and dangerous – even suggesting that if Michael Jackson fans get angry, people should fear for their lives! Maybe the media and the public need the fans to play this role now that Michael Jackson is gone?

Willa: That’s an interesting take on that, Lisha. It’s true many media outlets seem determined to portray his fans as Wacko, but I hadn’t thought of it that way before – that now we’re filling the role of Other that he once filled.

Harriet: I wonder if it is rather a last ditch attempt to regulate Michael Jackson. Meaning, if his fans are understood as being hysterical or insane then his success and genius – his cultural and racial work – can be undermined and history rewritten. This relives the central process of blackface minstrelsy, whereby the black performing figure is molded and used by others and others’ needs; and, as was unfortunately the case with Michael, at the cost of the performer’s selfhood at best; his life at worst.

Lisha: I have a sinking feeling you might be right about that.

Willa: Hmmm. I don’t know – I think he subverted that in important ways, and reasserted his selfhood in ways we don’t yet fully understand. What I mean is, I think he resisted and rewrote the cultural narratives being imposed on him, just as he rewrote the meaning of the costume of blackface minstrelsy.

I feel like I’m not expressing myself very well, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t see his life as tragic. It’s certainly true that terrible things happened to him, but he fought back in creative and incredible ways. It’s like, if a promising athlete is paralyzed and spends the rest of his or her life on the couch imagining what might have been, that’s tragic. But if they somehow manage to achieve wonderful things despite their disability, then it isn’t tragic. Just the opposite. It’s inspirational. That’s how I see Michael Jackson – tragic things happened to him, but he responded in ways that continue to amaze and inspire me.

Lisha: No argument there!

Willa: So Harriet, I had one last question for you. Your book is fascinating and I’d love for all Michael Jackson fans to be able to read it, but it’s pretty expensive – as academic books often are. I just looked on Amazon and it’s $90 for the hardback, and even the Kindle edition is $70. That’s pretty steep. I think publishers price academic books so high because they generally don’t sell very many copies, so they need to charge more to cover their costs, and because they’re thinking most copies will be bought by university libraries where multiple readers will have access to them. I’m worried though that fans who don’t have access to a university library and can’t afford to buy it won’t be able to read it. Is there a less expensive way for fans to gain access to your book?

Harriet: My publisher has agreed to consider paperbacks next summer if sales are strong. In the meantime, a 50 percent discount is available for fans. Just go to http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781409455103 and use this promotional code at checkout: A13IEC50. Fans can see more of the book and its illustrations at www.facebook.com/michaeljacksonblackfacemask.

Willa: You have some wonderful illustrations in your book and on your Facebook page, including photos from the shooting of Say Say Say where Michael Jackson seems to be evoking the tradition of blackface minstrelsy, as Joie and I talked about a little bit in a post last fall. He’s wearing a kind of variation of the blackface mask, but more clown-like and with painted tears in his eyes, which for me transforms the meaning of the mask from something burlesque – a comedy – to something much more somber and heart-felt – a tragedy.

Lisha: Well, it will probably come as no surprise to anyone that my favorite illustrations are the ones focusing on Black or White, since I am already on record as considering it one of the finest works of art of the 20th century! There are some really fascinating illustrations from the early minstrel shows in your book – juxtaposed with screen shots from the panther dance – that are of tremendous value to anyone interested in seriously studying Michael Jackson’s work. Harriet, your contribution to the already impressive body of scholarly literature on Michael Jackson, especially in regard to Black or White, is very significant indeed.

Willa: I agree, and I hope you publish your dissertation someday as well, Lisha. We need more Michael Jackson scholarship! Thank you both for the work you have done, and for joining me to talk about it. It’s been fascinating.

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About Willa and Joie

Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old. Joie Collins is one of the founding Team Members of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old.

Posted on January 2, 2014, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 71 Comments.

  1. Willa, Lisha, and Harriet,

    Happy New Year to all of you and thank you for this excellent discussion. I haven’t yet read Harriet’s book or Lisha’s dissertation, but I look forward to very much to reading both of them. I taught the “Black or White” short film to a group of college freshmen this past semester as part of a unit on racism and inequality in a composition class. The students were fascinated by the film and by the secondary sources I shared with them. Next time I teach it, I will definitely ask the students to read excerpts from Harriet and Lisha’s work as well. As you mentioned at the end of the post, Lisha, it’s so satisfying to see the growing body of good scholarship on Michael’s artistic work.

    Just a couple of observations relevant to the discussion:

    1. I can’t recall if you’ve posted on this before, Willa, but it would seem that the Jacksons’ TV show contained elements of minstrelsy as well in some of the comedy sketches performed for various episodes. Perhaps this was also one of the reasons that Michael was not fond of doing that show.

    2. All of you probably know about Spike Lee’s film _Bamboozled_, a brilliant, satirical critique of the minstrel tradition, but just thought I’d mention for any readers who haven’t seen this important but often overlooked film.

    Thanks, Harriet, for the tip about the discount code for your book. I just tried to use it on the North and South American site for Ashgate (since I live in the U.S.) and the site said that the code was not valid. Does it work only for the U.K. site? I plan to ask my institution’s library to purchase a copy, but of course I want to get my own as well, and the price break would help.

    Best wishes to all and many thanks for your ongoing work.

    • Marie, Sandra, and others who emailed us – We’re really sorry but apparently the code doesn’t work for North and South America. Harriet was unaware of that and will talk to her publisher and try to resolve the problem as quickly as possible. We’ll post a note as soon as it’s resolved.

      Oh, and Marie I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t seen Bamboozled but will try to do that soon. Thanks for the recommendation!

    • Harriet Manning

      The discount code has now been activated for the US site. Please see my post below. Thank you for your interest in buying copies.

  2. i also just tried ordering the book from the North/South American site, and the code was not valid.

    This is a fascinating discussion, and very disturbing. I could not watch more than a few seconds of that Australian video. Very upsetting.

  3. Happy New Year to all!

    Another wonderful and insightful post. Thank you Willa, Lisha and Harriet.

  4. Willa, Lisha and Harriet,

    A great new year to all of you, and thanks for the superb discussion!

    Topics of this type should be encompassed in any serious analysis of race and ethnicity, which I believe concerns not only America but a large part of our globe. In the country I was brought up I felt I had to almost annihilate my Greek heritage which I naturally didn’t do, I perfectly perceive what you all mean. We are now fortunate for experiencing the outset of real scholarship concerning Michael, a fresh air we all need, including Michael himself.

  5. Thank you for brining up the pricing issue… I’ve been eyeing this book for quite some time as I’m buying all scholarly works on MJ, but the price of this one is absurd. Kindle version costs virtually 0 in production, and they charge $70… I would probably pay $25 – just because it’s about MJ, but $70 is absolutely ridiculous.

  6. Just saw this picture of the K-pop act miss A, thought I should share it! It’s a beautiful tribute to the elegant Motown 25 look: http://www.allkpop.com/article/2014/01/miss-as-min-and-suzy-make-a-tribute-to-michael-jackson#ixzz2pFTMqEPQ

    I’m also seeing in the news today that Britney Spears references the look in her new Vegas show: http://www.contactmusic.com/story/britney-spears-honours-michael-jackson-in-las-vegas-show_4008947

  7. Happy New Year everyone.

    Thanks for another fascinating blog as always. Found it interesting from an American point of view, but of course being a British by birth/South African by choice citizen I have witnessed another kind of racism, almost of the worse kind in apartheid, and can only thank God that it is ended and we are now becoming the “Rainbow nation” that we in fact are. I came to SA in 1985 so by then apartheid was almost over all bar the shouting so to speak, but I have many friends who were involved in “the struggle”.

    Here in Cape Town we have our own version of ‘coonism’ in the Kaapse Klopse, and I was once privileged to see a few of them in concert at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens a few years back.
    Have never been to the actual carnival as the logistics of getting there are far from easy in terms of traffic and crowds, but I am thinking that next year I must make the effort. I don’t know how to make links to websites, but for anyone interested just Google Kaapse Klopse and there are several interesting articles on the subject.

    Just off topic, wishing Katherine and kids all the best today in court, and please remember to light your candles for them folks.

  8. Harriet Manning

    Thank you all for such positive responses.

    To those of you trying to buy the book, thank you so much and I am so sorry that there has been trouble with the discount code. My publisher, Ashgate, is looking into it and I will let everyone know when it has been resolved. I don’t want anyone paying the full amount!

  9. Harriet Manning

    The 50% DISCOUNT CODE for ‘Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask’ has now been activated in the US. Apologies to all of you who had problems ordering. Just go to: http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781409455103
    For US orders select:
    ‘GO TO NORTH AND SOUTH AMERICAN SITE’ (top right of screen)
    USE DISCOUNT CODE at checkout: A13iec50

    I would love to have feedback and so glad lots of you have enjoyed this blog. My thanks go to Willa and Lisha.

  10. I found a very interesting article about the Australian Jackson Jive incident : http://www.ub.edu/dpfilsa/jeasa22stratton4.pdf
    “To some extent, it appears that Connick was mistaken when he claimed that blackface would not anymore be acceptable in the United States. Certainly, in 1993 when Ted Danson went in blackface to a roast for his then partner the African American film star Whoopi Goldberg at the Friars Club in New York there was outrage. However, since then there has been a limited amount of blackface which has often been understood as pushing the boundaries of taste. As John Strausbaugh puts it, since the Danson misstep, ̳blackface, unconditionally banned for decades …, has crept back into the public arena‘ (14). Indeed, in 2002: ̳A group of blackfaced University of Tennessee students went to a party as the Jackson Five‘ (20). However, it should be noted that this did not go unpunished. After complaints were filed the fraternity from which the students came was suspended. Nevertheless, in the United States blackface has made a public reappearance, often in the form of a knowing self-awareness.”

    Another interesting quote from this article:
    “Strausbaugh argues that:
    Lore recycles if it continues to serve some function in the culture. Blackface and other forms of ethnic humor persist because they continue to say something to us about relations among us below the polite surface of today‘s multicultural discourse. (26)”

  11. Hey Hey’s Jackson Jive explain: why we did it

    http://www.thepunch.com.au/articles/hey-heys-jackson-jive-explain-why-we-did-it/

    “We all underestimated what the reaction would be, but in the end it was our decision to go on air dressed the way we did. The worst consequence of what we did is that the skit has raised the question of are Australians racist.

    We’re genuinely horrified that our mistake could cause people to think that.

    Out of the six of us, only one is Anglo-Celtic Australian. I’m Sri Lankan-Australian, there’s an Indian Australian, a Greek Australian, an Irish-Italian Australian and a Lebanese Australian. We’re all Australian.”

    • Wow, Sandra. I just had a chance to read this article and I’m really shocked. When they claimed on the show that they done the act 20 years earlier and won, I assumed this was a joke about Michael Jackson’s vitiligo, since they showed the clip of his character in blackface 20 years prior, and now he is in whiteface. Also, when these performers claimed to be a plastic surgeon, anesthetist, psychiatrist and cardiologist, etc., I again thought this was a joke in very poor taste at Michael Jackson’s expense. But, if it is actually true, I’m even more offended! How could medical professionals make light of what happened to Michael Jackson?

      • Yes, that is why I wanted to post the article – they seem oblivious to the pain they caused by their act. The article by Jon Stratton that I posted goes into Australian attitudes about race. Very complicated, involving the aborigines.

  12. This article lists modern blackface events that have occurred at American universities and in movies since 2000

    http://kmschultz.hubpages.com/hub/Why-is-blackface-racially–socially-and-politically-incorrect

    • You beat me to this one Sandra! I love this article and hope people will take time to read it. Thanks for posting your research, we’ll have many different viewpoints to think about and discuss.

  13. “Was there a particular event that caused the British and American public to suddenly become aware of how offensive blackface parody was? What happened that caused such a dramatic shift in consciousness?”

    It’s not that whitefolks suddenly saw the light, no pun intended. You seem unaware that the NAACP made the eradication of minstrel shows a prime aim, starting at the turn of the last century. EVERY social and cultural advance for black Americans has been paid for with blood, sweat, and tears, and more blood. The efforts and agency of black Americans are constantly downplayed in mainstream media. To this day, there are white Americans who don’t know that black soldiers fought in the Civil War. (There were more than 180,000, and I am a proud descendant of three of them.) Even those who should know better think that MTV started playing Billie Jean because Michael.was just so talented, and they completely ignore the relentless, sophisticated campaign he fought to make it happen.

    The excuses posted here for present-day blackface are appalling. Citing Ted Danson’s appearance at the Friar’s Club is particularly inane. Besides ending his longterm relationship with Whoopi Goldberg, both of them suffered career setbacks for their stupidity. And those proud Australians could not possibly have believed that their blackface act would not have caused offence. They’re just trying to cover their butts.

    In her book, does Ms. Manning proffer an explanation of how Michael Jackon could be the heir to a tradition that had disappeared by the time he was born? Most disturbing to me – she seems to believe that MJ willingly made his skin white. What does it take for people to understand that he suffered, greatly, from vitiligo? One could start with the autopsy report.

    • Hi VC,

      I agree with you 100% when you say “It’s not that whitefolks suddenly saw the light,” I guess I’m still waiting for that to happen! I’m afraid my questions were oversimplified in an effort to keep the conversation flowing, so let me try to explain myself a little better.

      What I meant by a “dramatic shift in consciousness,” is that when the US was formed in the late 1700s, slavery was a legally sanctioned, socially accepted institution that most US citizens were comfortable with. By the 1800s, blackface minstrelsy, the inhumane mockery and ridicule of African slaves, was a wildly popular form of entertainment for (white) US citizens. However, something happened that caused a small minority of citizens, influenced by a variety of factors, to set laws into motion that would abolish slavery and by 1870, ex-slaves were granted full citizenship and voting rights. Eventually, enough people came to see blackface minstrelsy as an unacceptable form of entertainment causing its popularity to sharply decline. So, what happened between the 1770s and the 1870s, that caused this shift in awareness to happen?

      Here’s a short clip by Professor Laurence Glasco at the University of Pittsburgh that sums it up much better than I can, if anyone is interested: http://www.library.pitt.edu/freeatlast/civil_war.html

      I also agree with you, VC, that there are huge blindspots in our awareness when it comes to the human history of our nation and our continent. Many thanks for taking time to comment.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response, VC.

      With regards the last two issues you raise …

      Given the popularity and longevity of blackface minstrelsy, the fact that cultural forms don’t just disappear but move on and evolve, Michael Jackson’s embodiment of key blackface gestures and his knowledge of historical creativities, should the question not rather be: how could Michael Jackson NOT be an heir to the blackface tradition?

      Finally, nowhere above, nor in my book, do I personally endorse the understanding that Michael Jackson ‘willingly made his skin white’. I don’t doubt that vitiligo was at play. However, I don’t think that, ultimately, we should get caught up in the reason why his skin changed colour but rather focus on the result, which was a very bold and spectacular obliteration of racial categorization by appearance.

      Michael Jackson has forced us all to question the very meaning and value of ‘race’.

      I hope this clears up your queries, and thanks again.

    • “Ms. Manning … seems to believe that MJ willingly made his skin white. What does it take for people to understand that he suffered, greatly, from vitiligo? One could start with the autopsy report.”

      Hi VC. Actually, that was probably me implying that he “made his skin white.” I agree “that he suffered, greatly, from vitiligo.” He said it, his family said it, his friends said it, Oprah Winfrey said it (apparently he rolled up his sleeve and showed her the white patches on his arm after their 1993 interview), the autopsy report confirms it, and so do many photographs taken during his life. I believe it – I believe he “suffered, greatly” as you say – and I’ve believed it for more than 20 years.

      However, I don’t believe that’s the full story, as Joie and I discussed in one of our very first posts. (Here’s a link.) I think Michael Jackson was an artist to the core of his being – the most important artist of our time – not just musician or singer or visual artist, but most important artist, period – and I think he transformed the effects of his disease into the most profound act of performance art of the 20th century. And I believe it had a earth-shattering impact on racism in the U.S. and around the world – he shifted the tectonic plates in a way no one else had been able to accomplish.

      To me, to see him simply as a victim of vitiligo denies the tremendous power of his art.

      For example, I agree that the NAACP has worked long and hard to fight racial stereotypes, many of which were propagated by blackface minstrelsy and later blackface performances on stage and film. And they have been effective in raising awareness and removing those blatant depictions of blackface that were so common in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. But those stereotypes haven’t disappeared – they’ve just gone underground, as Spike Lee shows in his film and Harriet discusses in her book.

      And this more subtle racism – this kind of psychological blackface – is much more difficult to fight. How do you organize a protest against something so diffuse and nebulous? It has an extremely powerful effect – it’s one of those cultural narratives that shapes our perceptions and beliefs, and those of our children and grandchildren – yet it’s so disseminated it’s hard to get your hands on it and fight it.

      But Michael Jackson did – he found an artistic way to fight it. And in doing so, he not only permanently changed us, as a culture, but also redefined our understanding of art and what is possible through art. That’s why I think he was the most important artist of the 20th Century. And I believe the reverberations of his art will be felt for a very, very long time.

  14. Another interesting article. I hope you don’t mind me posting these, I just wanted to learn more and was doing some google searches. Have I offended you, VC? You seem upset with what I have posted.

    http://www.popmatters.com/feature/162955-darkest-america-black-minstrelsy-from-slavery-to-hip-hop/

    • Hi Sandra. Finally had a chance to read some of the articles you linked to – very interesting! Thanks so much for posting these.

      This one was especially interesting since it really talks about how black minstrelsy (blackface performed by black actors) can be read multiple ways – as buying into oppressive stereotypes, but also as resisting and subverting those stereotypes, or “signifying” on them, which reminds me of Henry Louis Gates’ incredible book, The Signifying Monkey. I also didn’t realize until I read this article what an important role the Trickster played in black minstrelsy.

      btw, there’s also a discussion of costumes that includes an interesting reference to Michael Jackson:

      When given a grander stage, African Americans took these traditions to spectacular extremes in slave festivals like Pinkster, Negro Election Day, and Jonkonnu. There blacks paraded in gold chains, silk stockings, ruffles, silver shoe buckles, and recycled Revolutionary War uniforms ornamented in ways that predicted Michael Jackson’s 1980s attire.

      It’s really interesting to consider that his “costume” – like the one he wore to meet President Reagan at the White House, can be read as “signifying” as well.

  15. Found this on youtube–(from Blacks and Vaudeville, PBS documentary)

  16. Harriet, do you discuss the Chitlin Circuit in your book? the Jackson 5 started out in those clubs, and I was wondering if there had been a history of blackface in the acts that performed in those clubs.

  17. Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture
    John Strausbaugh http://books.google.com/books?id=l5TH3Smr8FcC&dq=chitlin+circuit+blackface&source=gbs_navlinks_s
    Penguin, 2007 – Political Science – 370 pages

    “- No history is best forgotten, however uncomfortable it may be to remember. The power of blackface to engender mortification and rage in Americans to this day is reason enough to examine what it tells us about our culture and ourselves. – Blackface is still alive. Its impact and descendants-including Black performers in “whiteface”-can be seen all around us today.”

  18. Harriet, I ordered the book last night, using the discount code. Thanks for looking into this and getting it resolved! I appreciate your sensitivity to the difficulties that most individuals would have paying full price for the book.

    Meanwhile, for those who are interested in Spike Lee’s film _Bamboozled_, here is a link to the striking montage of various blackface and stereotypical images that ends the film:

    Here is a link to the full film:

    Best,
    Marie

    • Hi Marie. Thanks for sharing the links, and for bringing Bamboozled into the discussion. I watched it last night and parts of it are really painful, but it was so fascinating, and so relevant to what Harriet discusses in her book.

      Spike Lee constantly juxtaposes traditional blackface (characters with burnt cork on their faces) with a kind of psychological blackface, meaning white characters appropriating blackness but also defining it – defining what it means to be black. For example, the main character, Pierre Delacroix, writes scripts for television shows. He’s also a Harvard-educated black man with tailored clothes and a refined speaking voice. His boss, Thomas Dunwitty, a white man, wants him to develop stories that are “more black,” meaning they are a closer fit to his ideas of what it means to be black. As Dunwitty tells Delacroix early on,

      I grew up around black people my whole life. I mean, the truth be told, I probably know niggers better than you, and don’t go getting offended by my use of the quote-unquote N-word. I have a black wife and two biracial kids so I feel I have a right. I don’t give a goddamn what that prick Spike Lee says. Tarantino was right – “nigger” is just a word. …

      The material you’ve been writing for me is too white-bread. It’s white people with black faces. … You got your head stuck so far up your ass with your Harvard education and your bullshit pretentious buffy ways. Brother man, I’m blacker than you. I’m keeping it real. … You’re just fronting, trying to be white.

      This other, more subtle kind of blackface – of whites defining and appropriating blackness – is something Harriet talks about quite a bit in her book, like in her discussion of Eminem. (In fact, she quotes one critic, Eric Olsen, who claimed “Eminem is far blacker than Michael Jackson.” Unbelievable.)

      Harriet approaches this in a really interesting way, I think. She talks quite a bit about “authenticity” and how, early in his career, Eminem proved his authenticity – his “blackness,” as it were – through use of “hardcore hip hop tropes of violence, misogyny and homophobia articulated through coarse language and ghetto slang.” And as she shows, this lines up precisely with the early blackface depictions of blacks as violent, crude, and oversexed.

      So as Harriet traces through her book, the overt blackface of the 1800s has been replaced by a more subtle, more psychological kind of blackface – the kind that says Michael Jackson wasn’t “black enough” – and for me, this really opens up a new way of looking at all that. I also think this shift from a physical to a psychological kind of blackface is what Spike Lee is depicting in sophisticated ways in Bamboozled.

    • Watching spike lee film, very interesting

  19. Sandra Faikus O’Brien says, “Have I offended you, VC? You seem upset with what I have posted.”

    No, I’m neither offended nor upset. I am fascinated by the willful ignorance displayed by commenters in the links you have posted. I wonder why ostensibly intelligent people can’t see the difference between makeup intended to make a white person look plausibly black, and burnt cork blackface. Are people really that dense? In Tropic Thunder, which was a farce, Robert Downey, Jr actually looked like black man, to my African American eyes. Who on earth looks like a blackface character, with black skin, and huge white lips?

    One of the “Jackson Jive” was a Sri Lankan- Australian physician. Sri-Lankans and South Indian natives tend to be very dark-skinned, in fact, some anthropologists say they have the darkest skins in the world, definitely darker than MJ and his siblings. I wonder if the doctor would get the joke if he were depicted in blackface and called Little Black Sambo (which was a book about an Indian boy, not an African)?

    Reading comment after comment from proud Australians declaiming “there’s no racism in Australia” was positively surreal. I actually enjoy Australian films, and I especially seek out the ones about Aboriginal life. A current favorite is The Sapphires, the true story of four Aboriginal girls who went to Viet Nam to sing R and B music for American troops. Another is Rabbit Proof Fence, the true story of two little Aboriginal girls who were stolen from their families and institutionalized, but made their way back home by walking over a thousand miles through the outback. Those movies most definitely portray Australia as a profoundly racist nation. Even the romanticized potboiler Australia doesn’t gloss over it. The country wouldn’t exist without its racist policies against the native black population, yet these bozos can’t or won’t see it. What a crock! I did like the commenter who described the Sri-Lankan as a wannabe “honorary white man”. We just call them Uncle Toms.

    • Thank you VC, I am glad I have not offended you. I am white, and thus cannot feel how hurtful this topic would be to a black person. It is so painful to discuss, but I want to understand.

    • “… a wannabe ‘honorary white man.’ We just call them Uncle Toms.”

      You know, it’s really interesting to look at this expression – to be an Uncle Tom – within the context of blackface minstrelsy since that’s where it came from. As I understand it, those are its origins – not Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel.

      The main character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is no Uncle Tom – far from it. In fact, he is tortured and ultimately killed by his owner because he’s so rebellious and defiant, though in a quiet, Gandhi-type way. His third owner, the sadistic Simon Lagree, orders Tom to whip other slaves, and he refuses. Lagree vows to break him and whips him instead, to within an inch of his life, but he still refuses. Later Tom encourages two other slaves to escape, and they do. Lagree knows Tom knows where they’re hiding and tortures him to force him to reveal where they are, but he doesn’t and ultimately dies.

      That’s the character of Tom in Stowe’s novel. And he gained the sympathy of white readers in the mid-1800s to such an extent that it became the most popular novel of the century, and helped inflame resistance to slavery. Abraham Lincoln credited it with causing the Civil War. Uncle Tom should be seen as an important figure in the fight against slavery, but he isn’t – not at all. Instead he’s seen as an appeaser, a suck-up, someone willing to betray his own race to appease whites. How did that happen?

      Apparently, it’s because of blackface minstrelsy. In addition to song and dance numbers, they often included dramatic sketches, and scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin were especially popular. But those sketches completely misrepresented Tom (just as blackface minstrelsy misrepresented blacks in general) and he was recast as a happy slave who wanted nothing more than to please his master. That’s where the character of Uncle Tom comes from, but it has nothing to do with Stowe’s novel.

      It’s fascinating and instructive, in a terrible sort of way, to see how minstrelsy was able to reshape public perceptions of Tom – a distortion that continues to this day.

      • Josiah Henson, a brave and industrious runaway slave who came to prominence in Canada, referred to himself as “Uncle Tom” in his expanded autobiography. I suspect that the use of term by black folks refers to the plantation custom of calling beloved older slaves “Uncle” and “Auntie”, as in Aunt Jemima Pancakes and Uncle Ben’s Rice. The only way to become beloved by the enemy was by being complicit in their agenda, a fact which was not lost on the other slaves. It’s exemplified by the character of Stephen, played by Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained. And in 12 Years A Slave, a harrowing film, the mostly black audience I saw it with roared with laughter at the house slave who chastised Solomon Northup for daring to stand on “Massa’s” porch.

  20. I was browsing through an article about Czech puppetry, and how MJ is a common subject, and that led to an article about marionettes and various stage performances involving MJ. I found this wierd Japanese act. Is it blackface? Is it offensive or just fascinating? It has the white gloves, prominent lips, black face, but it is so otherworldly. Here is the video. http://youtu.be/VYhP2aXTbQs

    • Gosh is that interesting MJ is a common subject in Czech puppetry! To me, the style of puppetry in this Japanese MJ act is similar to the style of puppetry director Julie Taymor often uses to personify spirit, such as in this performance of Mozart’s “Magic Flute.” What do you think? (about 1 minute in) http://youtu.be/Zo1rjapa0ic

      • Yes, I watched your film clip and saw the men in all black, like shadow men. you say represent spirit? So perhaps the Japanese performers also were portraying MJ as spirit.

        Here is what I was looking at regarding MJ puppetry:
        “It didn’t take me long to figure out that folks in Prague are passionate about their puppets. My observation confirmed that puppet shops with Pinocchio, Charlie Chaplin, Superman, Michael Jackson and Elvis could be found on nearly every block, in yet another puppet shop. Prague has over 20 specialized puppet shops, 30 puppet makers, and a puppet museum! Puppets may just about outnumber people in Prague where residents take their puppets quite seriously. There’s even a Czech Puppetry Guild and UNIMA (International Puppetry Organization) founded in the 1930s. Puppet history courses are offered at the National Academy of Theatre and there are several puppet museums within an hour’s drive from Prague.”

        http://blog.mysanantonio.com/cards/2014/01/pragues-passion-for-puppets/

    • OMJ, Sandra. I think I need time to get my head round what that might be about. It certainly feels very blackface.

      Interestingly, blackface minstrelsy can be understood as a kind of puppetry, its black characters (the puppets) being worked and controlled by white actors (the puppeteers).

  21. Ms. Manning, thank you for answering me personally. I do believe that you may be unaware of how much African Americans despise blackface and minstrelsy, and anything that smacks of it. It’s not like its traditions were cherished and lovingly handed down. There have always been black performers willing to ‘cut the fool’ for whites for a paycheck, but they are not admired for it by most African Americans. One of the most offensive elements of the “Jackson Jive” debacle was the ‘coon’ act choreography, which bore no resemblance to any actual Jackson staging.

    I could not disagree with you more when you write, “I don’t think that, ultimately, we should get caught up in the reason why his skin changed colour but rather focus on the result, which was a very bold and spectacular obliteration of racial categorization by appearance.” I suppose that the lighter skin allowed white people to ‘forget’ that Michael Jackson was a black man, but he never represented himself as anything other than a proud African American. Certainly black Americans don’t think of him as anything else. In the US, black identity encompasses people of a wide variety of skin tones. Some of our most revered civil rights heroes are people who wouldn’t even be considered black in other countries. Vitiligo didn’t make Michael race-neutral any more than suntans, or blackface makeup, make white people race-neutral.

    • Hello VC, I totally agree with you. The blackface history is despicable, isn’t it, and certainly should not be cherished by anyone. My theory (and that is all it is) is that Michael Jackson could be seen to have taken this terrible racist history and reworked it, turned it on its head, in order to powerfully critique and question it.

      I also agree with you big-time that Michael Jackson was proud of his African-American heritage. His songs say it all, don’t they, especially ‘They Don’t Care About Us’? It makes me cross when people suggest ‘he didn’t want to be Black’.

      Perhaps I did not explain myself very well, but what I meant was that Michael Jackson forces us to question if race is about appearance. When you say black identity encompasses a wide variety of skin tones, you are saying the same thing: that being Black is not about skin colour at all, but rather about culture, shared history, heritage and life experiences. Michael Jackson showcased this amazingly well because, even with vitiligo, he was Black.

      What I am trying to articulate is that Michael Jackson did not obliterate being Black, far from it, but rather race as strict biological fact, which, as you highlight really well, is a myth, because ‘our most revered civil rights heroes are people who wouldn’t even be considered black in other countries’.

      • Ms. – I hate to be pedantic, but I wrote that SOME of our most revered figures in the civil rights movement would not be considered black in other countries. By leaving out the word “some” when you quoted me, it becomes a very different and inaccurate statement. MLK was our giant, and I’m certain he would be considered black everywhere in the world.

  22. Out of curiosity, I took a look at clips from the UK Black and White Minstrel Show on YouTube. While they may not be representative of the entire series, what I found most striking is that, despite the name, it appeared to be a cheeseball variety show and not a minstrel show at all, featuring men with white lips and dung-colored faces, not traditional blackface, and scantily-clad white women doing generic routines.

    Here’s an example of minstrel traditions incorporated in a contemporary setting, but without blackface, They Both Reached For The Gun, from the musical Chicago:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFDvMP0zayk

    The original Broadway staging was even more traditional, with dancers in gloves and straw hats seated in rows. There’s more to a minstrel show than make up. Years ago, I saw a musical in tryouts called The Last Minstrel Show, starring Della Reese and Gregory Hines, who were brilliant. They played minstrel performers soon to be out of a job because the NAACP and other black organizations were determined to shut them down. Life imitated art – it was picketed by black protesters as demeaning and the show never made it to Broadway.

  23. Thanks to all for a great discussion and great comments. Again, I am learning so much. I really like your theory, Harriet, that “Michael Jackson could be seen to have taken this terrible racist history and reworked it, turned it on its head, in order to powerfully critique and question it.” I think you make a really good case, and I look forward to reading your book (thanks for the fan discount.)

    Also, this statement really caught my eye — “The staple moves that made up the dances of blackface parody (dance was central to the performance as it reinforced the idea of black bodiliness) are all those of Michael Jackson’s own dance…”

    I think this black bodiliness or embodiment in dance is key to how the dominant culture used blackface performance to devalue black culture and how MJ used elements of blackface performance to turn the tables and re-value black culture.

    I believe that MJ was the embodiment of embodiment – which in our culture is an extremely risky thing to be – as the sine qua non for full humanity in our culture is mind, not body, and those who have been traditionally associated with body rather than mind (women, blacks, indigenous peoples) have been relegated to a subhuman status, to be treated as mindless matter and feared or reviled as animals, representing fleshly appetites, bestiality, you name it.

    Defining people as less than fully human relieves the dominant culture of any moral obligation towards those whose lands or bodies they want to use for their benefit. Embracing embodiment in the form of blackface dance moves, refusing to accept the mind body split, re-inventing body not as mechanistic matter, but fully alive flesh down to the tip of each long expressive finger, MJ challenged the entire house of cards western culture is built on.

    .

  24. Thank you for yet another gem! I just ordered your book, Harriet.

    I have to say that I hate the ”stealing” paradigm you once slipped into when discussing the dealings of white and black artists:
    ”For example, in describing white appropriation of black gestures and dance moves, you say it was motivated by both “love” and “theft” – in other words, an appreciation for black expression as well as an impulse to steal it.”

    When a white artist draws on the work of another white artist, it’s usually called ”inspiration”.
    When a white artist draws on the work of a another artist – who just happens to be black – many people are quick to call it ”theft”.

    Of course, credit should be given where it’s due, and it is not fair when a gifted black artist is ignored, and a (less) gifted white artist gets all the praise.

    That aside, while I do think this ”apartheid” way of viewing art history has some validity in the United States – after all, segregation was/is a real thing in America – I don’t think the general discussion gains a lot by lumping artists together in skin-tone based blocks, where natural artistic exchanges are viewed in a very negative light (jealousy, theft, mockery etc.)

    I found an article that claims that
    ”Michael Jackson Steals from Bob Fosse”:

    http://bolesblogs.com/2010/09/27/michael-jackson-steals-from-bob-fosse/

    I don’t think that’s a very constructive way of starting a discussion about inspiration and the sources of art! :-)

    • Hi Bjorn,

      Although the use of the terms theft, stealing etc. may not be especially helpful, I have to disagree with you regarding the following statement: “I don’t think the general discussion gains a lot by lumping artists together in skin-tone based blocks…”

      Music– and all art — is a cultural, not a racial, expression and the terms “African American” and/or “black” as well as “white” or “Western” or “European” refer to culture as well as skin color. Art as an expression of culture can not be discussed separately from culture. African American culture is unique and powerful and has had a huge impact through music and on music in the US and all over the world. There is no way to separate an artist and his art from his culture. And why would you want to?

      Although skin tone and culture often go hand in hand, I think that in discussions of art, we need to separate the two. Denying that such a thing as black culture exists does not seem very helpful.

      Although skin color is genetically programmed, culture is culturally programmed. One of the most powerful tools of cultural programming is art. In the US, the greatness of MJ’s “black art” has transformed — and continues to transform — white cultural attitudes toward black culture.

      Through the global reach and the power of his music, music and dance that are firmly rooted in black culture, Michael Jackson was/is reprogramming human consciousness.

    • Bjorn,

      I believe Harriet is drawing the paradigm of “love and theft” from the writer Eric Lott—one of several scholars who, in the 1990s, started writing about blackface minstrelsy in more nuanced ways than previous researchers. For the most part, the earlier scholars aw the form as more *purely* a matter of racist exploitation, rather than involving a more complex mix of demeaning representations of enslaved blacks AND a kind of admiration or desire. (I hope I’m not misrepresenting this idea too badly, Harriet. I’ve gotten through the first two chapters of your book so far, and I’m enjoying it tremendously. I haven’t yet read Lott’s book, but I look very forward to it.)

      Lott’s study, “Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class” was first published in the early 1990s, as were a handful of other books that reflected the new thinking; and in the first chapter of her book, Harriet very deftly distinguishes between earlier and later scholarship on the subject.

      At any rate, my view is this: given the history of political and economic inequality that has always been part racist society (especially in the U.S), we don’t quite have the luxury of regarding these practices —“taking,” “borrowing,” etc.— as entirely symmetrical. White musicians always did stand a substantially better chance of representing themselves AS themselves, as well as of owning the means of production and receiving the profits from it in the entertainment business, whether on the stage, in film, or in the recording industry. A huge swath of what we know as popular music today—and even popular entertainment more generally—owes its very existence to African American forms of musical melody, rhythm, and dance that were developed during the period of slavery and beyond.

      So I’d just like point out that that’s why it may be problematic to talk about sources of inspiration in art as an invariably politically neutral and value-free phenomenon. Moreover, race isn’t necessarily skin-tone based, as you put it (and as VC and others here have pointed out).

      Nevertheless, it’s a complex legacy, as Harriet and other scholars have pointed out.

      Thanks so much for this rich discussion, everyone…. I’m sure I’ll have more to add (and a particular question for you, Harriet) a bit later.

      • @Nina and Eleanor

        Thank you for your thoughtful replies.
        I agree there is a specific black American culture.
        The points you make about the cultural borrowings not being symmetrical, make sense. Black artists have not enjoyed the same level of freedom as their white counterparts.

        I still don’t like the word ”stealing” in this context.
        I think an artist – no matter his cultural background – should be free to draw inspiration from whatever inspires him. She should not feel herself morally confined to her own culture (even if that culture is the dominant one).

        I’m just tired of all the rants about ”white/black artists stealing black/white culture”. (Just do a google search.)
        It reminds me a bit of a Nazi propaganda drawing I once saw, which depicted America as a ”black man stealing white culture”.
        Do non-Japanese who learn karate steal Japanese culture? Do women who enter work positions traditionally occupied by men steal male culture?

        It must be possible to talk about cultural influences without calling it stealing! :-)

  25. I wanted to post something that might be of interest to this discussion. It’s a very eloquent and powerful speech I heard at a blues symposium, given by the extraordinary blues harmonica player, Sugar Blue.

    This speech was delivered in the context of a panel discussion where blues musicians were given an opportunity to voice their concerns about the economic realities they face (frankly, whites profiting from black intellectual property). I have to say, this speech was like an arrow through the head for me. I really appreciated what Sugar Blue had to say and asked him for a copy of his remarks. He was kind enough to share them with me:

    BLUES and the SPIRIT SYMPOSIUM – May 18th, 2012 [Dominican University, River Forest, Illinois, USA]

    In memory of Koko Taylor, Willie Dixon, Honeyboy Edwards, Pinetop
    Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and my contemporary, Michael ‘Iron man’ Burks,
    I am reminded of the incredibly bountiful legacy that our forebears have left
    us, of the trials that they endured and of the assault on their legacy by
    those that would arrogate the cultural heritage of our people.

    The Blues stood witness in the slave quarters,
    where we knew the lash
    and in the shacks of tenant farmers,
    who knew the backlash.

    Working from sun to sun, sharecropping for slave wages, or no wages, in a
    Jim Crow system that denied the equality promised by emancipation.
    The comforts and securities of a decent meal and safety in their homes
    that their labors should have afforded them,
    were nonexistent.

    Lynch mobs, fueled by the evil of racism, alcohol, fear and hatred,
    slaughtered men, women and young boys for a Sunday afternoon’s
    diversion after church services.

    Women and children picnicking and playing games under the burned and
    mutilated corpses,
    hanging in the trees as they swayed gently over them in the summer
    breeze.

    The dignity, joy and fellowship, stolen from the taskmasters on a back
    porch or at gatherings to break bread and share the day’s travails moved
    with the rhythm and rhymes of the Blues.

    Music made for the people, by the people
    and full of the laughter, love, loss and pain of Life’s day to day struggle to
    survive.

    This is a part my heritage in which I have great pride.
    Paid for in the blood, that whips, guns, knives, chains and branding irons
    ripped from the bodies of my ancestors as they fought to survive the daily
    tyrannies in the land of the free, where some men were at liberty to murder, rape and lay claim to all and any they desired.

    From this crucible the Blues was born,
    Screaming to the heavens that I will be free, I will be me!

    You cannot and will not take this music, this tradition, this bequest, this
    cry of freedom and dignity from bloodied unbowed heads,
    without a struggle, as fierce as the one that brought us in chains of iron
    beneath the putrid decks of wooden ships
    to toil in pain but not in vain!

    We’ve been redlined, deadlined and headlined,
    from Mississippi to Harlem, from Cabrini Green to Compton, Detroit and all
    across this nation!

    These Blues are not of you or for you, though some are about you!
    These Blues are in spite of you, Mister Charlie!
    These Blues are mine and my children’s,
    as they were my grandfather’s and his father’s!

    That is Blues Power…
    The literature of an unlettered people that gave birth to the sentiments that
    inspired the oratory and writings of Douglas, Dubois, Wright, Parks,
    Washington, King, Tubman and those who will follow.

    Listen! Learn…

    And one day, if you understand what is hidden in the rhymes, it may free
    you enough so that the rhythm can move you to a place where we may truly
    share this music, this poetry, this voice that called out in this land of the
    free, for justice, so that America can be the land of the free in more than
    name only.

    That is the legacy of The Blues to America and to the world.

    Sugar Blue

  26. Bjorn, as you point out, there’s been a lot of discussion about white people ”stealing” from black musicians. That’s a common formulation, one which I’m finding kind of simplistic; it’s not very helpful in terms of understanding of what’s really at stake here. Scholarship has revealed more complexity going on within the densely tangled skeins of influence that have permeated blackface minstrelsy and just about every subsequent form of popular entertainment.

    So I don’t know that anyone wants to “forbid” anyone else from using what source material they wish. There have been some cases of (allegedly) outright theft, of course. You may be familiar with this one: in 1963, a girl group called The Chiffons released a song called “He’s So Fine” in 1963; then, in the ‘70s, they filed for copyright infringement against George Harrison, for his song “My Sweet Lord” whose tune resembled theirs. Then there was Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen,” which became the tune of the Beach Boys’ song “Surfin’ USA.” By 1966, Berry was able to get credit as co-composer of the song.

    Then, of course, there’s the Beatles, Elvis, etc….. what they lifted, what they borrowed from Little Richard and many, many other black musicians.

    It seems to me that when it comes to blackface minstrelsy and its progeny in particular, the trope of “Love and Theft” (as opposed to “Love OR Theft”) is useful in describing an admixture of motives which, even unconsciously, operate whenever cross-cultural influence is in play…. which is nearly all the time!. There has long been a lot of cross-pollination and borrowing, as well as pilfering, going on among and between genres in American music—-and internationally, as well. The cross-influences that have occurred in the musical performances of American Jews and blacks could, in itself, easily be the subject of many volumes (and probably is)!

    But the historical reality is that injustice and asymmetry remain in force when one group clearly has more political, cultural, and economic power than another. (Therefore, women entering formerly male professions—an example you gave—is a different story altogether—and what was that about Nazi propaganda?) And some elements of blackface minstrelsy persist in their most pernicious form: to wit, the many young people who got themselves up in blackface, redface, yellowface, and brownface disguises this past Halloween; an insulting display that drew much well-placed criticism.

    Thanks so much, Lisha, for bringing this powerful, impassioned poem by Sugar Blue. Its beautiful and disturbing images keep us apprised what really lies at the heart of this matter.

    • Nina, thank you once again for your reply!
      I don’t know a lot about ”cultural studies”, so I’m learning a lot!
      I can see what you say about the ”love and theft” trope being useful when discussing the blackface tradition.

      I was talking about the very idea of ”transracial stealing”, which I think is a dangerous misconception:

      1. ”To steal something” means to take someone else’s property away from that person (with the egoistical purpose of enriching yourself). It is a negatively loaded concept; a person accused of stealing automatically becomes an outcast from the ”good society”. (In Europe, for example, many people have a very negative attitude toward the Roma people, ”because they always steal”.)

      2. A cultural tradition is not a ”property” like a house or a cell phone. Greek dances were invented by Greeks, but do not ”belong” to the Greeks.

      3. People who say that (white) musician X has ”stolen” something from (black) musician Y, automatically cast X in the role of ”thief”, and Y in the role of ”victim”. (The thief receives scorn; the victim receives pity.) X has, essentially, ”taken something that he should not have taken”.

      4. THAT is nonsense, because all cultural expressions – all Art, indeed – belongs to humanity. If a white musician learns something from the black American culture, or a black artist seeks inspiration from the white American culture, they should be commended for their courage and curiosity – not be ”boxed” by a ”thief” label.

      I may have gone too far with the Nazi propaganda example. (It is always risky to ”throw the Hitler card” in a discussion!) Of course, little rants on the Internet cannot be compared to the horrendous racism of the Nazi regime.

      My point was: The historical atrocities aside, for me, _as a principle_, there is not a huge gap between the propaganda poster depicting America as a ”black man stealing white culture”, and people innocently describing someone like Eminem as a ”white man stealing black culture”.

      True inspiration is not ”theft”.

      To finish off my own little rant here, let me quote Michael Jackson – a black man who was often accused of ”stealing” from white artists (Bob Fosse, classical composers etc.):

      Heal the world/ make it a better place/ for you and for me/ and the entire _human race_

      • Bjorn, perhaps you are not aware of the many incidents of theft of black American music, by white writers and publishers. Not “inspiration”, theft. Black artists had to assign the rights to their music over to white publishers and label owners if they wanted to record. Michael Jackson was painfully aware of major black performers and composers who, after years of hard work, found themselves penniless, and he vowed that it would not happen to him. He was set to take possession of his master recordings in 2009. (He should have gotten them years earlier, but his lawyer botched the paperwork, which infuriated him.)

        These problems persist to this day – just this week, the heirs of Marvin Gaye settled a suit with Sony/ATV (ironically) over Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. Of course white composers have been embroiled in copyright disputes, too, but ripping off black artists has been standard operating procedure in the US since the recording industry began, as it was historically difficult for them to get justice in the courts.

        • VC, you’re right. There are some real stealing episodes, like the Marvin Gaye one you mentioned. (I wasn’t aware of that one, and there must be many others that I don’t know, as you say, since I don’t live in the US). I watched MJ’s speak against Sony, and I know that it angered and pained him a lot the way many black performers were treated.

          When someone copies, say, an entire song without giving any credit to the writer, that IS theft, and THAT is totally unacceptable.

          I’m just opposed to a too dogmatic ”black-white” thinking.
          I’ve often seen people accused of ”stealing” something just because of their race (like Eminem ”stealing” black culture or MJ ”stealing” [white] Bob Fosse dance moves). THAT was what I protested about. :-)

          If a white man feels the urge to rap, he should be free to do so (and if he has a real talent of his own, noone should accusie him of ripping off black artists). If a black man feels the urge to be a country singer, he should be free to do so too (as indeed several black Americans have done).

          Yes, in real life many, many black artists have not been treated fairly. Thank you for adding some real-world perspective to my digression about the idea of ”theft”.

  27. Shortly after Michael Jackson died, WNYC, a radio station in New York, invited Tricia Rose, (professor of Africana Studies at Brown University) to the Brian Lehrer Show to talk about Michael Jackson’s legacy. This is an excerpt from the call-in portion of the show:

    http://www.wnyc.org/shows/bl/2009/jun/26/michael-jackson-black-or-white/

    The Brian Lehrer Show
    “Michael Jackson: Black or White”

    LEON WYNTER, [author of American Skin]: Good morning, Brian. How are you?

    BRIAN LEHRER: Good, how are you doing?

    LEON WYNTER: Well, thank you. You know, it’s funny, the comment you just read, about confusion essentially, and race, and culture, and identity here. It still actually continues. The exchange that your guest had with the earlier caller, who didn’t realize Michael Jackson was black until afterwards. It goes to this larger thing, I think, of… and your guest still sort of repeats it in this kind of black cultural nationalism thing. The fact is, whether you’re talking about as far back as Louis Armstrong as such, or as Duke Ellington, or eventually even as Michael Jackson, ultimately, it’s not so much that it was an attempt to create or push a black music into America, it’s deeper than that. As I wrote, American music, American popular culture, has always from the start been a miscegenated affair. Something that’s always been developing, but with the imposition of the fact that larger white American could not be allowed to openly identify. And the triumph, the importance, which I wrote about, I made so important in my book was: Michael Jackson was the first, sort of brought along the Jackson 5, the first black act, whose commercial might was so great, that literally a Fortune 500, a Fortune 100 company, Pepsi, was willing to bet the farm saying that we have no problem pushing 100% identification, we don’t care which kids have his poster on the wall…

    BRIAN LEHRER: Those are great points, and in case you don’t know, Tricia Rose, I don’t know if you two know each other. Leon Wynter, author of the book “American Skin,” and Tricia Rose, do you want to react to any of that?

    TRICIA ROSE: Well, yeah. Leon, it’s nice to meet you over the phone, we’ve never met or spoken before. But I will quibble a little bit with this notion that I’m making a black cultural nationalist argument. To claim there are Black musical traditions does not mean they are exclusionary. That would be saying like there are European musical traditions, of course they borrowed from various parts of the world, but they have points of origin and they have identities. In fact, you can’t make sense of the power of their hybridity and change in the world unless you understand some of their origins. That doesn’t mean you hold onto origins as a purity factor, that’s absurd. And that I would never argue.

    “There’s no doubt many cross racial exchanges have built all the music of America. But it has elements of those traditions, particularly those fostered by people of African descent, have legacies and traditions. And those legacies and traditions have not just been randomly expressed. They have been cultivated and they have been institutionally despised.

    “Now individuals are not responsible for that, but our institutions are. For example, you look at music departments around the country today, the study of African American music is quite limited in that tradition. The study of European music is rather extensive. So what we have here is a cultivated illiteracy about these traditions which then force us into a conversation about the only way to talk about who we are is in terms that don’t acknowledge the specificity of what we brought.

    “Now I’m all about the exchange, personally, publicly, politically, musically. But I don’t see one as antithetical to the other. And I don’t see why we have to deny that power of the fact that soul, R & B, all the traditions that Leon mentioned, come out of mostly segregated black communities with traditions that are profoundly valuable. I think we can have both.”

    • Interesting interview, Nina.

      I especially like —

      “Now I’m all about the exchange, personally, publicly, politically, musically. But I don’t see one as antithetical to the other. And I don’t see why we have to deny that power of the fact that soul, R & B, all the traditions that Leon mentioned, come out of mostly segregated black communities with traditions that are profoundly valuable. I think we can have both.”

      This is a very complicated topic — especially where dominant cultures and non-dominant cultures are involved. And what I have to say may or may not have any bearing on this particular blog topic. But somehow, these thoughts have come to mind as I have been reading the blog and the comments —

      Underlying any discussion of cross-cultural pollination, I always assume that there are two utopian visions involved. One utopian vision wants everyone to be alike — all differences obliterated; the other wants to celebrate difference, to value it. The trouble with the first vision is that, where a dominant culture is involved, obliterating differences often means that the dominant culture absorbs the non-dominant culture and obliterates it, rather than the differences. My preference is the second vision.

      I love and value Michael Jackson precisely because he is black, consciously and deliberately black.I believe that his power as an artist has a great deal to do with the fact that his art has roots in “mostly segregated black communities with traditions that are profoundly valuable” — especially to a white culture that is in deep trouble.

      Western culture, especially as manifested in the US, is sexist as well as racist. Theoretically, women have made great advances over the last 50 years. However, it seems to me that only women who can emulate men have been admitted to the club. Women are valued insofar as they are ersatz males. Women have never yet been valued for being women. In a patriarchal culture, women as women have only utilitarian, not intrinsic, value. The proof is that most of the activities that traditionally have been associated with being female — child care, teaching, cleaning, housekeeping, etc. — are still minimum wage. And women — especially black women — and their children make up something like 80% of the people living below the poverty line. So, are we any less sexist than we ever were? And, as a society, are we better off having obliterated the domestic sphere? Maybe women have had to go through this phase of proving themselves to be as good as men before they can then reclaim the value of traditions associated with being female. I don’t know.

      Just as women are valued for being ersatz males, blacks are rewarded in our culture by becoming or being culturally white. But Michael Jackson turned the tables. He was highly valued precisely because he remained culturally black and made white culture want to be like him. An amazing accomplishment. The cultural aspect of his value lies in the fact that he made white people value black culture in ways that no other artist ever had. People all over the world emulate him, dress like him, imitate his moves, etc.

      If we, as a dominant white culture, obliterate differences, if we do not recognize and value them, then where can we go for alternatives to a way of life that has become a way of death? I think Michael Jackson’s art awakens and enlivens a dead and dying white culture. He gives us hope. At least that’s what he did for me. To quote “Cry”

      “Stories buried and untold
      Someone is hiding the truth, hold on
      When will this mystery unfold
      And will the sun ever shine
      In the blind man’s eyes when he cries?”

      Michael Jackson, drawing on his traditions, “stories buried and untold,” makes us feel. And when we feel, when we cry, we are no longer blind, we can see.

    • @Nina. Thanks for sharing this interview! The radio guest mentioned reminds me of my late grandmother: She had absolutely no idea MJ was black! One day she came to me really shocked. She had seen a televised interview with Janet Jackson.
      ”Did you know, that Michael Jackson guy you always listen to, is actually black! It’s unbelievable. I watched his sister, and she was so sweet and natural. How can a person change his skin colour like that?” She pondered a bit and added:
      ”It must be something he has eaten.”

  28. On the topic of borrowing, etc. —

    Here’s a little excerpt from the Wikipedia article on Elvis Presley. To me, the most interesting part is the last line, showing that Dewey Phillips thought it important to “clarify his color.”

    “[Elvis] adored the music of black gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe.Like some of his peers, he may have attended blues venues—of necessity, in the segregated South, on only the nights designated for exclusively white audiences. He certainly listened to the regional radio stations that played “race records”: spirituals, blues, and the modern, backbeat-heavy sound of rhythm and blues. Many of his future recordings were inspired by local African-American musicians such as Arthur Crudup and Rufus Thomas. B.B. King recalled that he had known Presley before he was popular, when they both used to frequent Beale Street….Interviewing Presley on-air, Phillips asked him what high school he attended in order to clarify his color for the many callers who had assumed he was black.”

    I was a teenager in Memphis at this time and listened to Phillips’ show “Red, Hot, and Blue” regularly. Phillips was one of the first DJ’s to play black music on a white radio station. I guess he thought it would make white kids and their parents more comfortable if they knew Elvis was white. Sell more records???

  29. Sorry it’s so late in the day, but I meant to post some other thoughts I’ve had.

    Harriet, I really appreciate the ways you’ve noted the similarities between specific dance steps and postures that were commonly found in blackface minstrelsy and elements of Michael Jackson’s dance style. Also, you’ve noted how the camera and editing serve his performance in the Panther dance coda to “Black or White.” (My field is film, so I thank you especially for being attentive to these details!)

    Another thought arises from this. If I’m not mistaken—from everything I’ve read so far, which isn’t much—blackface minstrelsy was done for comedic effect, to get a laugh out of the audience. This is a kind of laughter that, I think, would require psychic distance (as an analog of the physical distance one has from the performers in the theater). And Michael, by his own estimation, didn’t excel at comedy; he even mentioned this is his autobiography, “Moonwalk,” where he noted his aversion to performing in the ways that were required of him on “The Jacksons” Variety Show in 1976-77.

    But in my view, he was a great tragedian, as we might sense from his overall repertoire: of some of his best songs, his vocal style, facial expressions, and sometimes his choreography— in everything from “Billie Jean” to “She’s Out of My Life,” and certainly the Panther Dance.

    This is where the medium of film (as opposed to theater) becomes important. While comedy can thrive in the broad gestures and frontal tableaux of live performance, tragedy (especially of the kind Michael seems to evoke in the Panther Dance) would require closeups, for many reasons. Above all, we need to see the expressions on his face to get a sense of the mood that correlates with his dance moves, and to understand his gestures in a dramatic context. This performance could not happen without a camera and without editing.

    In your book, you discussed something about black subjectivity as something that’s historically been imperceptible to white audiences (if I’m remembering this correctly). With Michael’s Panther Dance in “Black or White,” the spectator is asked to grapple with the subjectivity of the character: what he means *to himself,* not simply what he may mean *to an audience.* He is not to be defined—if anything, he will choose his own definition, and, make no mistake, it will change in short order.This, it seems to me, is really key as a departure from the traditional stereotypes we see in minstrelsy and other forms.

    The Panther Dance is a set piece in itself, almost a character study. It proposes no obligation to tell a story, or even to replicate the more accommodating tone (you might say) of most of the film that went before. So it gives Michael Jackson free reign to materialize—at times explosively—-deep knowledges that were unavailable to many black performers before the advent of cinema and a (too slow!) shift in racial consciousness. His solitude in the street is one element that brings to many white viewers’ experience, as you mention in your book, an uneasy awareness of black anger—-but the anger is felt, this time, from the *inside,* eliciting a (perhaps uncomfortable) sense of identification, as opposed to just presenting a looming threat, posed from without—-and therefore containable.

    I’m sure there’s much more to be said on these topics, and I look forward to reading the rest of your book, Harriet! Everyone, thanks so much for your insights.

    • Nina, thanks for your valuable comments and I am so glad you are enjoying the book.

      Blackface minstrelsy was often designed for comic effect (such as on the professional theatrical stage in the mid-1840s) and it remains best known for its harsh ‘comedy’. But through this (over the years and among its different publics and practitioners), blackface minstrelsy expressed very serious attitudes concerning race, class, gender and sexuality and often in critique of dominant values. For the most part, blackface worked all these forces under the protective shield of the comic mask.

      That is, until Michael Jackson. In the Panther Dance to ‘Black or White’, the comedy of the blackface tradition has been stripped away, forcing the audience to address its seriousness. In the process, as you say Nina, Michael Jackson is choosing his own definition of Self, and through the white-created stereotypes that traditionally denied black self-expression (black male stereotypes of rage, unpredictability and bestiality). This was a bold move and indeed the surge of criticism it prompted revealed many were not ready to be faced with it.

    • “With Michael’s Panther Dance in “Black or White,” the spectator is asked to grapple with the subjectivity of the character: what he means *to himself,* not simply what he may mean *to an audience.* He is not to be defined — if anything, he will choose his own definition, and, make no mistake, it will change in short order. This, it seems to me, is really key as a departure from the traditional stereotypes we see in minstrelsy and other forms.”

      Hi Nina. It’s so interesting to think about Michael Jackson’s expressions of subjectivity as a cinematic experience. I hadn’t really thought about that before and it’s fascinating to me, especially since I see the way he complicates subjectivity – for example, frequently adopting multiple subject positions within one work – as one of the defining characteristics of his art. But I’m a literature and lit crit person, so I usually come at this through the text, not through the cinematography.

      For example, one reason I’m convinced “Monster” and the other so-called Cascio songs are really Michael Jackson’s work is because of the complicated way they play with multiple subject positions. In “Monster” there’s a repeated refrain of “Monster / He’s a monster / He’s an animal” sung by a chorus of voices, and that seems to represent what the (generally white) chorus of media commentators are saying about him – that “he’s a monster,” a pedophile, “an animal” who can’t control his sexuality (a stereotype that comes straight out of blackface minstrelsy). But there’s also a lone voice, his voice, singing something very different:

      Everywhere you seem to turn,
      there’s a monster
      When you look up in the air,
      there’s a monster
      Paparazzi got you scared like a monster,
      monster, monster

      In other words, he’s saying the media photographers and commentators are the true monsters. And so we have these competing voices singing at and against each other, presenting the views not only of separate ideologies but separate subjectivities. The refrain is white, condemning, attacking, while the verses are a totally different point of view – black and under siege. That’s really complicated to do, yet Michael Jackson does it effortlessly, again and again.

      I see this same juxtaposition of multiple subject positions throughout Black or White – in the lyrics, the music (as Lisha has pointed out so brilliantly), and in some of the images (like the white suburb at the beginning juxtaposed against the multicultural scene on the city stoop during the rap). But I hadn’t thought about it the way you’re talking about it – about how “the medium of film (as opposed to theater) becomes important” because “it gives Michael Jackson free reign to materialize — at times explosively — deep knowledges that were unavailable to many black performers before the advent of cinema.” That’s really fascinating. As with many of your comments, I’m going to need to ponder this a while.

      • Willa, yes. I think it’s fascinating to look at the many ways Michael “voices” a character—even, at times, through his dance! And across many different media & practices, I think it’s true that he occupies different subject positions.

        In film, *identification* (with a character or another entity) works similarly to the ways it does in literature; but there are different mechanisms going on as well. I think it would be fascinating to take a close look at the many ways Michael “narrates” himself as a “character” (who we might consider a hybrid of “Michael Jackson” and a constructed, fictional personage) across his short films.

  30. The ‘love and theft’ paradigm has triggered a really good discussion here, which has brought to the fore the real complexities of the subject of cultural exchange.

    As Nina points out, the term ‘love and theft’ refers to that used by Eric Lott in his account of the early history of blackface minstrelsy.

    The paradigm is used by Lott, not in a broad discussion of cultural exchange, as in here (where ‘theft’ is not always helpful), but very specifically in relation to blackface minstrelsy and at a very specific moment in its history. At the historical moment Lott focusses on, dance and song (the two main cultural tokens of blackface) were very directly linked to the culture of slavery and had played important roles in the construction of black identity. Because, at this time, black entertainers were denied involvement in blackface minstrelsy, there was a process at play that could be called ‘theft’: black people being robbed of being able to represent themselves and being robbed of self-respect, while white actors earned money and acclaim.

    But the nub is that ‘love and theft’ is deployed by Lott primarily to introduce the idea of ‘love’ (largely overlooked before the 1990s) in accounts of blackface. This refers to the cross-racial desire and interaction that was in the mix of blackface minstrelsy, especially among the underclasses where races mingled more freely and found an alliance through some of its gestures, often without the mask. ‘Theft’ and its complications aside, Lott does make a good argument and adds important material to the understanding of blackface, a tradition built on contradiction and oppositional social forces that alternated and rubbed along together at different periods over many, many years.

    Michael Jackson was about love. While at times he critiqued blackface ideas and charismatically reclaimed a terrible history of black representation traditionally denied to black performers, he also brought this love of Lott’s back into the frame … He had the vision to heal the world and he certainly achieved this in the context of blackface minstrelsy.

  1. Pingback: Dancing With The Elephant – Michael Jackson: Subverting Blackface Stereotypes – Michael Jackson Academic Studies

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