MJ’s Art of Racial Equality

Willa:  A couple months ago we raised the question, “Was Michael Jackson Black Enough?” and we ended up really challenging the question. After all, what does it even mean to be “Black enough?” How do we define that, and what does that definition say about how we perceive and interpret racial differences?

Joie:  Well, I think during that discussion we came to the agreement that we can’t define that. No one can really say whether or not someone else is Black enough or White enough. That’s something that can only be determined by the individual, and I really feel that when this accusation is leveled at Michael Jackson, it’s really just masking something deeper.

Willa:  Absolutely. I think you are so right, Joie. It really seems like the people most threatened by Michael Jackson and most insistent on questioning whether he’s Black enough aren’t really talking about skin color at all. Instead, they’re using that as an indicator of something else. They’re speculating about the color of his skin, the shape of his nose, the parentage of his children, his relationships with women, his clothes, his hair, his penny loafers, his whole public persona, as external manifestations of his thoughts and how he sees the world.

In other words, they’re using his skin as a metaphor for his mind. And what they’re really saying is that his mind wasn’t Black enough. There seems to be this insistence that a “proper” Black man must have a Black mind, and Michael Jackson challenges that idea and calls the whole concept into question. What does it even mean to have a Black mind? What are the implications of judging him by that standard, especially when many of the commentators passing judgment on him are White? And does anyone, especially a White person, have the right to impose their definition of Black onto someone else?

We concluded that “Michael Jackson was plenty Black enough,” as you put it. However, he insisted he had the right to define for himself what that means. And in fact, everyone should have that right of self-definition.

Joie:  You know, Willa, I really do hate this Black enough question and I find it somewhat disturbing. That would be like me trying to tell you that you’re not White enough. I just find it sort of ridiculous that anyone would even attempt to impose their idea of how a certain race should “act” on others. I mean, isn’t that sort of the definition of a racial stereotype? And I wonder how interracial people feel about this topic. I’m sure this is something that they have a lot of experience with in a way. You know, they’re seen as not really Black but, not quite White either and again, I wonder who are we to determine whether or not they are Black enough or White enough? And why does it even matter? And I wonder about Michael’s children sometimes and how they see themselves and how this Black enough question affects them.

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Joie – and as Dr. Louis Henry Gates, Jr., suggested in his PBS series, Faces of America, most of us are mixed race if we look at this genetically. I am. You are. Especially in the U.S. most people are, with the possible exception of Stephen Colbert. He started laughing when Dr. Gates told him the tests they ran showed he was 100 percent White because that perfectly fits the persona he plays on his show. Dr. Gates even found that he himself has “more White ancestry than Black” – far more – though he still self-identifies as Black.

Joie:  That’s very interesting. And really funny about Stephen Colbert!

Willa:  Isn’t it? What a crack up! But this isn’t really a genetics issue. It’s a cultural issue. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, ever since we looked at You Rock My World  a couple weeks ago. The ideas generated by that video and by the fascinating comments that followed has this persistent criticism that Michael Jackson somehow wasn’t Black enough percolating in my brain all over again.

The central conflict of the video is between Michael Jackson’s character and the managers of a club. And as Ultravioletrae pointed out, all of those managers are White. There’s also this wonderful interlude in the middle of the video – just as the big face-off with the managers reaches a fever pitch, suddenly there’s a pause in the action as the everyday people in the club create a type of street music. As you described it, Joie,

“We hear the rhythm of the broom sweeping across the floor and the glasses clinking, the shoe shine guy buffing, the high heals clicking and the patrons tapping on the tables.”

And all of the people creating this street music are Black. Importantly, Michael Jackson’s character draws strength from this street music – he pulls the rhythms and energy of it into his music and then uses that beat and energy to defy the White managers. And he fights hard, flipping a henchman onto his back, punching the ringleader in the face, and ultimately burning the club down.

So we can actually look at You Rock My World as representing the conflict between Black musicians and the people who make money off them. And as Aldebaran pointed out in a comment, that conflict has a long troubled history, and Michael Jackson was very aware of that. As Aldebaran wrote,

“in Michael’s press conference about Sony and Mottola, he speaks of how black artists (like James Brown) were exploited by the music industry and how they ended up penniless and forced to perform into old age.”

Joie:  Aldebaran was right; Michael did speak out about that troubled history very publicly. And I’m glad you brought that up, Willa, because I believe that Michael’s participation in that conference proves unquestionably where his head was at, or how Black his mind was, as you put it. During that conference, Michael told the world exactly how he saw himself:

“I know my race. I just look in the mirror; I know I’m Black.”

Everyone always thinks that conference was all about Invincible and the shoddy way it was promoted (or not promoted) by Sony. But in actuality, the whole purpose of that conference was to fight for better contracts, royalties and distribution for Black artists. So, Michael didn’t only address racial issues in his own art, but he also became something of an activist in the fight for racial equality in the music industry as a whole. And this was a cause that was very important to him, as he said in his speech:

“I just need you to know that this is very important, what we’re fighting for, because I’m tired, I’m really, really tired of the manipulation….  they manipulate our history books. Our history books are not true; it’s a lie. The history books are lies; you need to know that. You must know that. All the forms of popular music from Jazz to Hip Hop to Bebop to Soul, you know, to talking about the different dances from the Cake Walk to the Jitter Bug to the Charleston to Break Dancing – all these are forms of Black dancing! …. What would we be like without a song? What would we be like without a dance, joy and laughter, and music? These things are very important, but if we go to the bookstore down on the corner, you won’t see one Black person on the cover. You’ll see Elvis Presley. You’ll see the Rolling Stones. But where are the real pioneers who started it? Otis Blackwell was a prolific, phenomenal writer. He wrote some of the greatest Elvis Presley songs ever. And this was a Black man! He died penniless and no one knows about this man. That is, they didn’t write one book about him that I know of, and I’ve searched the world over.”

I once read a really interesting blog post called “How Michael Got Gangsta With Sony Music Over Black Music and Racism.” It was all about that conference and I learned some things that I hadn’t known before simply because of the way the media distorted coverage of that conference. They deliberately made light of the importance and seriousness of the issue and instead tried to make it all about Michael being upset at Sony because his album didn’t do well but, that’s not what the conference was about at all; it was about fighting for racial equality and Michael took it very seriously.

Willa:  Wow, that’s such an interesting post, Joie. I didn’t know a lot of that either, and I think it does show where his mind was at. But I think the best reflection of his mind is his work, and fighting racial prejudices and other forms of prejudice is a critically important issue in his work, though it’s often handled in subtle ways. If we look at a chronological list of all the videos he helped produce and develop the concept for, fighting racial prejudice is a recurring emphasis throughout his career, from Can You Feel It, the first on the list, to You Rock My World, the last on the list.

Joie:  You’re right, Willa, fighting racial prejudice was a recurring theme in his work and that clearly shows what an important issue this was for him. And we see it in song after song and in video after video.

You mentioned Can You Feel It. You know, I remember when that video first came out and I thought it was the coolest thing! Videos were still very new at that point and just the whole visual for it with the special effects and everything – at the time, it was actually sort of cutting edge. But the amazing thing about this video is that, for the first time really, we get to see exactly what Michael’s message was – LOVE. His dream was to bring people together. People of all backgrounds, all ages – and most importantly – all races. From the very beginning, it was obviously all about love for him, and love has no room for racial prejudice. And I think that is ultimately the message behind this particular song and video.

Willa:  I agree, Joie, it is about love. That’s evident in both the lyrics and the visuals:  the video ends with everyone joining hands as they share a new vision of the future. And this was a groundbreaking video, both in terms of its special effects and some of the ideas it puts forth.

For example, through the lyrics he “tells us twice” that “we’re all the same / Yes, the blood inside of me is inside of you.” So as we were talking about earlier, he’s saying this isn’t a genetics issue – biologically, we’re all the same. Instead, it’s about perception, as he emphasizes through the visual elements of the video. He was very interested in the relationship between perception and belief throughout his career and, in this case, genetic differences such as skin color aren’t nearly as important as how we perceive and interpret those differences.

Basically, a few biologically trivial differences such as skin color have become artificially important cultural signifiers. As we all know, dealing with how we as a people perceive and interpret those signifiers became a huge issue for him a couple years later when he discovered he had Vitiligo. Importantly, he was already thinking about these ideas before he developed Vitiligo, and I think that strongly influenced his response as his skin began losing its pigment. And I strongly believe that his response revolutionized the way White America, especially, perceives and experiences those signifiers.

You know, Lorena wrote a comment last week about her work with Michael Jackson impersonators, and I’m so intrigued by the research she’s doing. Looking at her photographs, I’m fascinated by which signifiers they thought were important to duplicate when portraying Michael Jackson, and which ones they didn’t. As I look at them, they don’t seem to be trying to replicate his appearance, as celebrity impersonators generally do. Instead, they seem to be focusing more on capturing his spirit, his style, his personality, his way of being in the world, and that’s so interesting to me.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that, for me, Michael Jackson was Black – he fully embraced his Black heritage, he fought for equal rights on many different fronts, and he always identified himself as Black – but his race didn’t define him. Instead, he defined himself to an extent that’s rarely been seen before.

Joie:  That is so true, Willa. I love the way you put that! His race didn’t define him and I wish that everyone could get to that place where race doesn’t define any of us anymore and I think, with each new generation, we’re slowly getting there. Very, VERY slowly.

You know, that makes me think of a line from one of my most favorite movies of all time – “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” with Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. Sidney Poitier’s character is arguing with his father about his desire to marry a White woman and he says to him, “You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.” Basically, he’s saying that the older generation has to let go of their antiquated ideas about race if we are ever going to move forward. It’s a very powerful moment in the movie and it has always stuck with me because of it. And I think your statement of ‘his race didn’t define him’ is just as powerful.

So, next week we’ll look at some other examples of Michael’s work where he addresses the subject of race and other prejudices.

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About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member 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. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. 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.

Posted on December 1, 2011, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. I never really thought of it as an art before! I certainly do now!

    Perhaps the question is not really “black enough” or “white enough” because these are such weird and just plain silly statements to make. In the case of the people who ragged Michael mercilessly about his changing appearance, personal style, and private life, maybe they weren’t “human enough”. And by this I mean the qualities that most people should, but often don’t have. Humans take pride for advanced cognitive capabilities, empathy, capabilities in relationships, and acceptance of different things. Together, this is what should make up the mindset of any human being. When people believe every lie spoon-fed to them by the press, they show an extraordinary lack of cognitive abilities, more specifically, the ability to think for oneself. They don’t bother to do any research because, hey! There’s “information” about this subject out there already! Let’s all believe that! Empathy, or the ability to have feelings, is squashed when you keep saying, “He’s so weird, he’s nuts.” without regard to how he might possibly be feeling when you say it. Then teasing someone about a medical condition? I believe you guys mentioned it in an earlier post. I have a friend with Crohn’s disease. He’s much shorter than I am, and for that matter, shorter than most people in my school. People make fun of him, but as soon as they know what it is, most of the time, they stop. The people that continue to make fun of him are, interestingly enough, the same people that continue to rag on Michael with no signs of flagging. And only after it was mentioned in the autopsy did some people say, “Oh, well, I guess he was telling the truth.”

    By the way, did you guys read Exodus and Zenith? If so, what did you think?

    • Hi Emily. I did read Exodus and Zenith and, wow, they are intense. I can see why Earth Song reminds you of them. I think I was expecting something more like Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. (Have you read Herland? I think you’d like it. It’s an environmental utopian novel written in 1915.) But these aren’t utopian novels; they’re distopian novels – scenes of a world utterly destroyed, just like the burning forest scenes in Earth Song. But sometimes you need a glimpse of that dark future to make you more aware of the wonders of the present and wake you up, like Earth Song does. Maybe then we can avoid that bleak future. And they’re really powerful and absorbing. I want to read the next one. Do you know when it’s coming out?

      • I’m glad you liked them. I have them sitting on my night table, and the spines are quite worn already! I guess the prologue is a little misleading, considering the rest of the book reads more like a teen novel.

        I will look for Herland, thank you for the excellent suggestion. You’re so right. We need to see what might happen so we can do things to keep it from happening and be thankful for the good things that you do have now. I certainly hope we can swing our rhythm back in tune with that of Mother Earth’s.

        I’m not quite sure when Aurora, I think it’s called, is coming out. I would suggest looking at the author’s webpage.

  2. Great discussion–thanks, Willa and Joie. Emily makes a terrific point that are we ‘human enough,’ human in the sense of having the good qualities she specifies–the cognitive ability, the empathy, the tolerance, the equality. This is far more essential than are we ‘black enough’ or ‘whatever enough’. As Willa says, people are really asking ‘is his mind black enough’ and as Joie points out–that is ridiculous. This discussion reminds me of the lyrics to ‘Black or White’ in the rap section:

    ‘See, It’s Not About Races
    Just Places
    Faces
    Where Your Blood
    Comes From
    Is Where Your Space Is
    I’ve Seen The Bright
    Get Duller
    I’m Not Going To Spend
    My Life Being A Color’

    This is very intriguing–MJ was a poet–Where does our blood come from? and how is our blood different from the blood of other beings, not just humans? As Joie notes in Can You Feel it, he talks about the same blood being in you and me. When he says, ‘I’ve seen the bright get duller’ is he is talking about declining cognitive abilities? The morphing sequence is amazing–all races, all colors, male and female, many nations represented. In his short films he often gave us an image of global equality and oneness; for example, the 2 children in the Black or White, one black, one white, sit together on the globe of the earth. And he stands on top of the Statue of Liberty with all the famous buildings of the world behind him–wow! When I think that 500 million people saw the short film simultaneously, MJ really brought the world together–he was such a leader.

    About the media focussing on his face and all the ‘defects’ or ‘flaws’ they saw there and endlessly dissected, as Willa discusses, I have to ask–why did they focus on his face as if there was not a lot more to MJ, especially as a dancer, than just a face? One of the most powerful sculptures in the world is the Winged Nike–which sits atop a staircase in the Louvre. This amazing figure is without a head at all–and yet it is so powerful–full of energy, movement, and beauty. The media just put MJ in a bottle–or tried to. By focussing on the non-essentials, they completely missed everything about him.

  3. Sylvia J. Martin, PhD

    Michael sure got it right with those lyrics in Can You Feel It: “We’re all the same / Yes, the blood inside of me is inside of you.”

    Ok, tangent below on race. Please skip if not interested.

    As an anthropologist, I teach my students that “races” or racial categories are social constructs and aren’t even correct empirical terms – we cannot be reduced to bounded groups with bundled traits, which was the logic behind “race” as promulgated by 18th century scientific racism. Scientific racism was used to justify creating hierarchies between peoples of the world and applied in policies and governance. I suspect Michael did some reading up on this.

    Race is studied by many anthropologists today as an object of analysis, not a unit of analysis. But we do of course study racISM – the experience of being discriminated against and oppressed based on received notions of race.

    Even though the term race is still used a lot, and people are invested in the term, conceptually race is rather obsolete. There is far too much variation among populations (that comes from mutation, migration, diet, and environment among other things) to be able to fix static categories on people. And there is arguably as much phenotypic and genetic variation within populations as there is between populations.

    People in northern Africa, for instance, look different from people in southern Africa: phenotypes such as hair texture, skin color, and nose width vary widely. Have you ever compared people from northern China with people from southern China? People from northern China are generally taller and stockier. Northern Europeans can look very different from southern Europeans.

    Linnaeus, the 18th century botanist, was one of the first to typologize people by perceived biological and psychological traits. He grouped people into racial blocs with psychological dispositions attached to them (i.e. Asiatic peoples were “yellow and melancholic”; American Indians were “red and choleric”) as a way to create hierarchies between different biological “stocks”. These are not only incredibly value-laden groupings but also just not correct – not all Europeans are “white-skinned” (and “law-abiding”, as Linnaeus also claimed).

    A more accurate way to study human variation is to examine clines instead – the distribution of a phenotype over a geographic region, such as eyelid shape or eye folds. Today, we don’t group people into a discrete bloc based on their eyelid shape and attendant behaviorial characteristics. And after all – blood types don’t know “race”. Besides which, as Willa pointed out, most people are a mix…Colbert is one of the few exceptions!

    Michael was mixed “race” as he apparently had white and Native American ancestry as was common with West Africans brought to the US as slaves. He identified as black, largely because that is how the U.S. saw him (up to a point). And certain experiences of his, such as being excluded by MTV and manipulated by Sony, were informed by a larger history of racism directed towards African Americans. But throughout his life he certainly exemplified the diversity found within a “race”.

    • A number of years ago, I stumbled upon this book by Ashley Montagu: “Man’s most dangerous myth: the fallacy of race.” It was the first thing I thought of when I read this post. I’m sure you are aware of it, but others might not be. It was published in 1942, I believe…but Montagu is an excellent writer and very enjoyable to read. His main point, though, is that “race” is a social construct (as you point out), not a “reality.” It seems to me, that humans are always searching for ways to stratify people and separate the “other” from “me.” It disappoints me that we, as a human race, have not evolved any further than that.
      I think part of Michael’s point was, that we are far too busy focusing on such separateness, that we waste our energy that could be use to solve the problems of the planet.

      • Sylvia J. Martin, PhD

        Hi Midnite Boomer,

        I’m familiar with Montagu, yes. Another opponent to race as a “reality” is the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote “The Mismeasure of Man”. He’s also a historian of science and has shown that biological determinism is inaccurate (altough popular with conservatives).

        I agree with what you say about Michael’s trying to move the conversation in a different direction.

  4. I am curious about Michael’s Native American ancestry–does anyone have any info on that? Thanks.

    Yes, we do think of ‘race’ as discrete and fixed rather than continuous and evolving. The construct of ‘race’ is a way for people to identify themselves and be identified by others. Michael was proud of his race and heritage, but I think he wanted to go beyond race as a marker for dividing people–he was for a global unity, wanting us all to engage in unified endeavors, like ‘heal the world.’ On the other hand, he was subjected to racist efforts to impoverish, mock, criminalize, and humiliate him. This is a great title for the discussion: “MJ’s Art of Racial Equality”–it expresses what he was aiming for. He definitely elevated as much as he could other black artists–they appeared in his short films and in his music. Yet I think he saw music as universal–appealing and influencing the whole world, human and nonhuman alike. And he saw how much black musicians and writers had contributed to music and had not received their due recognition or compensation: ‘What would we be like without a dance, without joy and laughter, and music?”

    (I grew up in Michigan and I remember as a young teenager listening to Motown on my transistor radio all the time. There were so many great artists coming out of Motown then (50’s-60’s).)

  5. I only discovered MJ after he died unfortunately, can you believe it!! and now at 61 years of age I am totally, but totally hooked on him. Your blogs are a very welcome addition to my understanding of this genius wonderful wonderful man. I just L.O.V.E. his music and dance and everything about him. He truly was a prophet who was misunderstood in his own land, not to mention the planet, as they often are. But he will indeed be IMMORTAL and long after all the critics have gone, his music and deep spirituality will live on.
    Caro, Cape Town, South Africa

    • Hi Caro. I’m so happy that you have discovered Michael and have come to respect his art and his genius. Better late than never, right! Thank you for your very kind comments about our blog; you words are much appreciated.

  6. Thank you for this wonderful discussion. Would it be possible to discuss how MJ’s African-American heritage helped him to have a message relevant to diverse people in today’s world? Here’s what I’m thinking, he was a product of parents and a whole culture from the Jim Crow south, a nightmare on earth where I think African-Americans developed some beautiful and amazing survival skills. (Please excuse me writing on this subject as a white person, I am trying to learn and know I’m among friends.) Two of what might be survival aids are the concept of keeping the faith, which I see as meaning to keep faith in one’s self, community, and god when it is clear that the journey is long and possibly no relief is in sight. The other is the idea of striving for excellence as a way of claiming one’s value in life, even if placed in a demeaning position. Many cultures expose excellence, but I am wondering if there might be a different feeling about it in African American culture. I know MJ believed in this and I’m pretty sure he taught it to others. Something else that ties in to this theme is how a burst of comparative freedom can give rise to individuals expressing a gigantic spirit, maybe related to the magnitude of oppression that has come before. I think America has seen this with children of many immigrant groups. I think there might be more to this subject, do you think so too?
    Much thanks and love,
    Mindy

    • Hi Mindy. You’re right; Michael was the product of parents and an entire culture that decended from the Jim Crow south and he worked long and hard to overcome that old way of thinking that kept that generation grounded in racism. That’s sort of what I was getting at when I cited that line from the film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” with Sidney Poitier. In that same scene, Poitier’s character also tells his father that not until his entire generation has laid down and died will the dead weight of them finally be off the younger generation’s back.

      But you are also correct in saying that old way of thinking enabled African Americans with certain survival skills and faith has always been a big one in the Black community – faith in yourself, in each other and in God. Striving for excellence is also an important survival skill learned and passed down from that time. At least, it used to be and to many Black Americans it still is. However, when you’re stuck in an inner city situation with lackluster education opportunities and jobs that offer pay that won’t help you buy dinner for your babies, let alone pay the electric bill or keep a roof over their heads, striving for personal excellence sometimes doesn’t seem as important as doing whatever it takes to feed your kids. Please understand, I’m not condoning any sort of criminal behavior; I’m merely offering a possible explanation for it.

      Also, it’s not that the African American community isn’t interested in exposing excellence. But many times, as Michael pointed out in the conference for racial equality in the music industry, we are not permitted to expose excellence among us. Michael was telling the truth when he stated that our history books are filled with lies. History has been rewritten and “white-washed” to minimize the contributions of African Americans to our society.

      As for your suggestion that ‘a burst of comparative freedom can give rise to individuals expressing a gigantic spirit’…. this could be. It would certainly explain the phenomenon that is Michael Jackson, wouldn’t it?

      These are very interesting ideas that you have brought up and I agree that there is definitely more to this subject. And please know that you are ALWAYS among friends here! Even when discussing delicate issues like race.

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