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.
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.
Posted on January 2, 2014, in Michael Jackson and tagged Al Jolson, Black or White, blackface minstrelsy, Boy George, Eminem, Ghosts, Harriet Manning, hip hop, Lisha McDuff, Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask. Bookmark the permalink. 71 Comments.