NOTE: The following two conversations were first posted last September 1st and 8th. You can see the original posts and comments here.
Was Michael Jackson Black Enough?
Willa: This week, Joie and I wanted to dance with one of those elephants in the room and address the recurring criticism that Michael Jackson wasn’t “Black enough.” We’re not talking about skin color. We’re talking about the criticism that began way back in the 1970s and 80s, when critics would look at his penny loafers and his public persona and say he wasn’t doing enough to embrace his Black heritage.
Joie: OK, this is a hard one for me. Not because I don’t know where I stand on this issue but, because this question makes me a little angry for a couple of reasons. One of them is that it’s a question that has been leveled at me on more than one occasion. I had a very middle-class upbringing and the schools I went to in the 1970s and ’80s were a pretty good mix of Black and White. But because I chose not to strictly hang out with only the other Black kids and instead had many friends who were White, suddenly I was trying to be a White girl. And this criticism came not just from other Black kids, but from one of my own siblings as well. Never mind the fact that I had more in common with the kids I chose to hang out with than I did the kids who looked like me. That, apparently wasn’t the point. But here’s the thing … I’m still not really sure what the point is and I don’t believe anyone else knows either.
My nephew, whom I adore, recently graduated from Morehouse College. It’s an all Black, all male campus (its female counterpart, Spelman, is just across the road). I asked him what he thought of this “Black enough” question and I have to admit I was a little saddened by his response. Saddened because he said that even on an all Black campus, there were guys who had to endure this same criticism – either because of the way they dressed (like fitted clothes instead of baggy or relaxed hair instead of natural) or who they dated (White girlfriends instead of Black). Well, by that standard, there are any number of Black people out there – both male and female (myself included) who are just not Black enough anymore! Why, oh why didn’t someone tell me that by relaxing my hair and entering into an interracial marriage that I was selling out my race! Oh the shame!! Guess it’s a good thing I’m a firm believer that we all come from the same race – the Human one!
Willa: Joie, that sentence, “I’m still not really sure what the point is and I don’t believe anyone else knows either,” really caught my attention. Because what exactly is the underlying issue here? I do understand the fear that a group’s cultural heritage will be lost. I really do get that. My grandfather’s grandmother was Potawatomi, but except for a few quilt squares they made together when he was a child and an old sepia-toned photograph, I have no access to my great-great-grandmother or to that culture. That’s all completely lost to me. If I’m filling out a form and have to check a box to identify myself, I check White. Even if I’m allowed to check more than one box, I still only check White. Genetically I’m a little bit Potawatomi, but culturally I’m not, and it would feel presumptuous to me to claim a connection to a heritage I know nothing about. I really regret that that heritage has been lost to me, but at this point it has.
At the same time, I find it very troubling when commentators, especially White commentators, criticize Michael Jackson or President Obama or any Black public figure for allegedly not embracing a more-traditional Black identity. For one thing, it assumes there’s only one definition of Black and that everyone who is Black should conform to it. I know if I were shopping at the grocery store in jeans and a t-shirt and a man came up to me and told me I needed to embrace my femininity, I’d be pretty taken aback by it – and a little offended, frankly. What right does he have to impose his ideas about what’s feminine onto me? I get to decide for myself what’s feminine and what isn’t, or whether or not I even want to be feminine, whatever that means, and I think most people would agree with me.
Yet somehow it’s OK for White commentators to impose their definition of what’s Black onto Michael Jackson. And generally when they say that, it doesn’t feel like it’s expressing concern for Black culture. It feels like a put-down, of a really manipulative and insidious kind.
Joie: That’s because it is a put-down. But here’s what really bothers me about this issue, Willa, and it’s something that you just touched on. And I would like for all of those doing the criticizing to really pay attention and understand this: what is a “traditional Black identity?” Because the truth is that whatever your response is to that question will undoubtedly be a stereotype. There is NO SUCH THING as a “traditional Black identity.” There are as many different “kinds” of Black people as there are shades of Black. We come from all walks of life, from all social and economic backgrounds – contrary to what the media would have you believe! And why is it that if I’m listening to Rap music and talking in slang, that’s OK but, if I’m listening to Heavy Metal and speaking articulately, then I have lost touch with my heritage? In my nephew’s words … why are we allowing pop culture to be the measuring stick by which we decide who’s “Black enough?” In order to really be Black you have to wear certain clothes and listen to/sing certain music and date certain people and speak a certain way? That’s just plain silly. And that line of thinking that insists all Black people must conform to a certain stereotype is, in a way, its own weird form of internal, self-imposed racism. I don’t understand that thinking at all. I mean, if all Black people went through life taking this view to heart, how much beauty and wonder would the world be deprived of because of it? Would there even be a Michael Jackson for us to discuss then?
So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, YES! Michael Jackson was plenty Black enough. And so are Darius Rucker and Charlie Pride, for that matter! Whoever said that music has to be color-coded? Who said that our Black public figures had to fit into some imaginary stereotypical pigeon hole in order to be seen as valid? Why can’t we simply take pride in the fact that Michael Jackson – a proud Black man – became the greatest, most celebrated entertainer of all time, beloved by millions the world over? Why can’t we take pride in the knowledge that Michael Jackson – a proud Black man – became the most influential musical innovator in the world; he never followed the trends, he set them! Why can’t we just celebrate the fact that Michael Jackson – a proud Black man – is responsible for the biggest-selling album in history? He will forever be known as the one and only King of Pop. A Black man did that! A proud, beautiful, strong, hard-working Black man did all that and so much more! Why can’t we just celebrate him instead of accusing him of not being “Black enough?”
I guess the real reason this question upsets me is because I find it extremely insulting that it is never asked of anyone else. No one ever asks is Jackie Chan Chinese enough or is Robin Thicke White enough? I mean really, let’s just look at that for a minute. Robin Thicke is a very talented singer with a really wonderful voice. But he sings R&B and he kind of talks Black and he is married to a beautiful Black woman so, I don’t know … I think maybe he’s sold out his White heritage. Is anybody worried about that?
Willa: That’s a really interesting point, and one I’d never thought about before. I’ve never once in my life questioned if I was White enough, and I’ve never felt I had to rein myself in or second guess myself or limit myself in any way to conform with my racial identification. I can wear my hair straight or permed or even in dreadlocks, I can have French toast for breakfast and sushi for lunch and fish tacos for supper, I can fall under the spell of a book by Toni Morrison or Leslie Marmon Silko or Maxine Hong Kingston, and it’s simply not an issue. Because I’m White and belong to the “dominant” culture, I can explore other cultures as much as I want and it doesn’t threaten my identity in any way. And no one ever questions that. I could be accused of appropriating someone else’s culture, which is a whole other issue. But I’ve never had to deal with the kinds of external criticisms or internal self-doubts you’re talking about.
Maybe that’s what Michael Jackson was referring to in the rap section of “Black or White” when he wrote, “I’m not going to spend my life being a color.” I believe Michael Jackson resisted anything that led us to limit ourselves, including our age, gender, nationality, sexuality, or racial identification. As you said, he “was plenty Black enough” – he was a direct heir of James Brown and Jackie Wilson and Sammy Davis, Jr., and was very proud of that – but he reserved the right to define for himself what it means to be Black.
Ideally, everyone should have that right of self-definition, of defining for ourselves who we are and who we want to be. Artists tend to experiment with that right of self-definition more than most people – and no one pushed that right of self-definition further than Michael Jackson did. He absolutely refused to be boxed in by other people’s expectations of him. If he wanted to wear red lipstick, he did. However, that resistance to cultural expectations has a long history as well. Josephine Baker and James Baldwin severely challenged the cultural roles laid out for them, but that doesn’t in any way suggest that they didn’t respect their Black heritage. Instead, they were extending it, and creating a new chapter in the history of Black culture. And as you described so well, Michael Jackson boldly created a whole new chapter all his own.
I think Michael Jackson was a transformative cultural figure who profoundly influenced how we as a people perceive and experience the differences that segment and divide us – differences of race, gender, age, religion, nationality, sexuality – and I believe he was the most important artist of our time. Not the most important Black artist. The most important artist, period. No artist since Warhol has challenged and changed us the way Michael Jackson did. And ironically, he accomplished that, in part, by defying the very constraints he’s accused of transgressing.
Joie: Wow. I love the way you put that: “…by defying the very constraints he’s accused of transgressing.” You’re so right. And I really believe it was his goal to unite the world – all races, all colors, all nationalities – through his gift of music. He once told reporter Sylvia Chase:
“When they’re all holding hands, and everybody’s rockin’ and all colors of people are there, all races… it’s the most wonderful thing. Politicians can’t even do that!”
The awe in his voice as he said those words to her is so real and so reverent, you just know that he truly is moved by the sight of it. You can feel it in his voice and I believe that he really felt what he sang in “Black or White”: “If you’re thinkin’ of being my brother / it don’t matter if you’re Black or White.” I believe those lyrics really spoke to him and were important to him. I think on the surface, it was seen by most people as a sweet,”can’t-we-all-just-get-along,” yeah unity type of song but, really it was a very serious message that he was trying to get across to us all. It really doesn’t matter if you’re Black or White, and all of the judging and the labeling is only serving to keep us all down. Is someone Black enough? White enough? Chinese enough? Puerto Rican enough? That’s not even a valid question. Certainly not one that anybody – of any race – should ever be asking of anyone else because only the individual can answer that question. Only I have the right to ask if I’m Black enough just like only you, Willa, have the right to ask if you’re White enough. And only Michael Jackson had the right to question whether or not he was Black enough. And I think he answered that question for us over and over again both in his art and in the causes he chose to support, like the United Negro College Fund and the Equality For Blacks in the Music World conference.
Not Gonna Spend My Life Being a Color
Willa: Last week Joie and I danced with one of those elephants in the room and discussed the question, “Was Michael Jackson Black Enough?” And we began by saying we weren’t talking about skin color. This week we are. We’re going to dance with a really big elephant and address the question of why the apparent color of his skin shifted from dark to light.
Joie: As Willa mentioned in our very first blog post, she and I have really drastically disagreed over this particular issue. For months now we have had very heated discussions on this topic, going back and forth and back and forth, and finally we seem to have met somewhere in the middle. But I think it’s important to note that we were not always on the same page on this one. In fact, we were polar opposites for a very long time, and we each felt very strongly about our points of view. But the following conversation is what finally brought us together, and made us each understand where the other was coming from….
Joie: Well, I have a first-hand account of sorts of the turmoil that Michael must have gone through. So, my mom was out of town at the funeral of a relative and, as always happens at those sorts of gatherings, it turned into a kind of family reunion. Anyway, she was startled to see a distant cousin of hers who has Vitiligo. Startled not because she wasn’t aware that the woman had the condition, but because she wasn’t aware of the new way she was treating it. Seems her condition had worsened in the past few years and her spots had grown more widespread. What she used to be able to cover up and hide with dark makeup was just too overwhelming now. So instead, she had resorted to depigmentation – removing the remaining dark pigment in the skin in order to produce a more uniform skin tone. My mother said her skin looked a lot like Michael Jackson’s.
So, that got me thinking about what it must feel like for a person with this disease and I tried to put myself in their shoes. Imagine this…. You are a music superstar. From the time you were a little kid you have been “major” famous. You had four number one hits by the time you were 11 years old and the world loves you. Oh, I forgot to mention that you are African American AND your career began during the late 1960’s in America. That’s right, say it loud… “you’re Black and you’re Proud!” Not only does the world love you; Black America really LOVES you!
Still with me? OK, good. Now imagine that the older you get, the more successful and more famous you become. You grow from a teenage music superstar into an adult music icon. You are a Rock Star! You are bigger than that Elvis guy (oh yeah, I said it!). Now imagine that at the height of your fame and popularity, your doctor tells you that you have a devastating, autoimmune disease known as Vitiligo.
Vitiligo is a disorder that causes a loss of pigmentation in the skin. Patients with Vitiligo develop white spots in the skin that vary in size and location. The disease affects both sexes and all races, but the distinctive patches of discoloration are most noticeable in people with darker skin tones. Because Vitiligo causes such dramatically uneven skin color, most patients experience emotional and psychological distress – especially if the spots develop on visible areas of the body, like the face, hands, arms, feet, or even on the genitals. Most patients often feel embarrassed, ashamed, depressed, and worried about how others will react. So, for an African American person who’s been in front of the camera for most of his life – and who has already been disillusioned with his own reflection because of severe acne as a teenager and a nose that he was never happy with – this diagnosis would be traumatic, to say the least. Especially if he were constantly confronted with cruel and unfair reporting from a biased media, basically calling him a liar and leading the very same public that used to love him into believing that he just didn’t like the color of the skin he was born with.
Sounds really awful, doesn’t it? This was Michael Jackson’s life. For years after the Vitiligo began, thousands, maybe even millions of people around the world believed that Michael Jackson was ashamed of his race and all because the media refused to believe him when he said that he had no control over the loss of color in his skin. In fact, it was only after his death when the coroner’s report confirmed that he did indeed suffer from the disease, that the world finally believed him. And every news story you read was basically saying the same thing: “Huh, I guess he was telling the truth after all,” or “Well, we finally got that mystery cleared up.”
OK, is it just me? Am I the only one who finds this scary? For years, this incredibly talented, kind-hearted man told us over and over that he had this condition and that it bothered him deeply because he loved his race and he was proud of his heritage and the media (both tabloid and mainstream alike) called him a liar who just wanted to be White. They laughed big belly laughs when the late-night comedians took up the charge and poked fun at his skin color and called him all sorts of unkind and hurtful things. They basically tortured him about his disease for the rest of his life, and now that he’s gone all they can say is, “Hmm, guess he was telling the truth.” I’m sorry but, I find that scary. And really, really sad.
I remember watching the Oprah Winfrey show years ago – way before she ever interviewed Michael – when her friend, Maya Angelou, was a guest. And I don’t know why this stuck with me but it did. Ms. Angelou said that when someone tells you who they are, you should believe them. She reasoned that they know themselves a whole lot better than you know them so, when someone tells you who they are, believe them! It sounds so simple. Yet, Michael told us over and over again who he really was, but no one ever believed him. That must have been so frustrating for him!
Willa: Joie, that is really powerful, and I absolutely agree with everything you just said. But I don’t think the story ends there. If we continue to imagine ourselves in his shoes, imagine you’re Michael Jackson, a deeply spiritual person who said numerous times that he felt he must have been given his talent for a reason – that he was put on this Earth and given his tremendous talent to fulfill some higher purpose. And he becomes a superstar, but he’s much more than that. He’s not just a famous singer and dancer. He’s also a transformative cultural figure who leads people to think differently about race, and he takes that very seriously. Can You Feel It, the first video he produced and developed, from initial concept through final production, beautifully expresses the idea that we are all one people, regardless of racial differences, and he returns to that idea again and again in his work. This is a concept he thought about extensively and cared about deeply.
And then, at the height of his fame, he discovers he has Vitiligo. And it is devastating and traumatic, as you say, and he begins wearing a glove and dark makeup. But the disease keeps progressing. More and more of his skin is losing its pigmentation – on his face, his neck, his arms, his whole body. And it is horrifying to him. But he’s a strong person with deeply held convictions, and he’s an amazing artist, with an artist’s sensibilities. And maybe he begins to wonder if he was given Vitiligo for a purpose as well, if there’s some reason why he has been put in this incredibly difficult position. He’s the most famous Black man ever, celebrated for promoting pride in being Black, and now his skin is literally turning white. How ironic is that? But it highlights a crucial issue as well. He’s been telling us for years that racial differences don’t matter – that we are all one people regardless of skin color. And now, the color of his skin is literally changing from dark to light.
Racism against Black people in America is nothing more than a web of lies that have been told and retold for centuries, and that we as individuals have more or less internalized to some degree. But at the heart of this web of lies is one central lie, the lie that all others radiate out from: that Black people and White people are essentially different. That is the lie at the very center of racism in America. And growing up in the South in the 1960s I received a lot of conflicting messages, but still I was told that lie over and over again in numerous subtle and not-so-subtle ways: you shouldn’t swim in an integrated swimming pool, you shouldn’t drink water from a water fountain immediately after a Black kid, you shouldn’t borrow a Black girl’s comb (which I did one time when I was “old enough to know better”). The unstated reason is that Black bodies and White bodies are essentially different and should remain separate. That was the message I was told again and again growing up in the South forty years ago.
But when Michael Jackson’s skin changed from dark to light, he proved that is a lie – he proved that Black bodies and White bodies are essentially the same – and he struck a shattering blow at the very heart of racism.
I have a White college friend who grew up with a Black housekeeper. One day the housekeeper was working in the kitchen and cut her hand, and my friend, who was just a child at the time, was shocked to see that her blood was red. Before that, she had assumed her blood was dark – as dark as her skin. My friend told me this story several times, generally with a laugh at how silly she’d been. But despite her laughter, I could tell this story was very important to her. It was one of those rare “Ah ha!” moments when your perceptions flip upside down and you’re suddenly forced to question things you thought you knew to be true.
When Michael Jackson’s skin changed from dark to light, I think he created an “Ah ha!” moment like that on a global scale. He had told us repeatedly through his music and his videos that we are all one people, regardless of skin color, and now he had a chance to prove it artistically. He could prove in a way that cannot be denied that our bodies are essentially the same, and he could do it in a way that even a child could understand. That is an incredibly powerful message, and he seized an opportunity to illustrate and broadcast that message in a way that had never been done before. And he expanded the definition of art in a way that had never been done before either. That’s why he was so misunderstood.
Joie: Willa, you make a very convincing argument. And I’m sure that, being the incredibly artistic person that he was, he probably did tend to look at things or approach difficult situations from an artistic point of view. So, you could be absolutely correct in saying that he made a conscious decision to turn his disease into an artistic commentary on racism. And you know, when we first began disagreeing over this issue I never would have imagined I’d say that but, there it is.
Willa: Well, as I mentioned in our very first blog, you’ve really changed how I see this also. This isn’t a new thing for me. I’ve been fighting this battle for years. I can remember going to grad school in the South in the mid-to-late 1980s, and almost every semester someone at some point would bring up Michael Jackson and the changing color of his skin. And they would almost always say something like, it was an incredible cultural phenomenon, but of course it was just a product of his own insecurities. He was creating this incredibly powerful cultural moment that was forcing White America, especially, to question some of our deepest racial prejudices, but he was doing it accidentally.
And I always questioned that. Why assume it’s accidental? He’s a brilliant artist, he’s been actively fighting racial prejudices for years, he’s obviously thought about this issue deeply – so why assume he doesn’t know what he’s doing? I always thought he knew exactly what he was doing, and I think the evidence backs me up. His dermatologist has said that he frequently called his face “a work of art.” And as I tried to show in both M Poetica and “Rereading Michael Jackson,” I think he tried to explain through his work – through his short films, especially – that his changing appearance began as a medical decision but became a deliberate artistic decision.
But until I started talking with you, I didn’t realize just how difficult and painful that decision must have been for him. I knew he was the object of a lot of snarky comments by White commentators that just made me heartsick. And I knew there were people in the Black community who felt betrayed by him and by the changing color of his skin. But I didn’t realize how deeply those emotions ran, or how painful the accusations of betraying his race must have been for him.
Joie: Oh, it must have been horrible! I always think about his interview with Oprah when he tells her,
“I’m a Black American, I am proud to be a Black American, I am proud of my race. I am proud of who I am. I have a lot of pride and dignity. It is something that I cannot help, ok? But when people make up stories that I don’t want to be who I am, it hurts me … I mean, it makes me very sad.”
Those are his words. And the emotion in his voice and the pain on his face as he said them were obvious. But now, as I look back on that interview, I notice that he also said this during that same conversation:
“But you know what’s funny, why is that so important? That’s not important to me. I’m a great fan of art. I love Michelangelo. If I had the chance to talk to him or read about him I would want to know what inspired him to become who he is … I mean that’s what is important to me.”
So, maybe he told us then and we just didn’t listen. Maybe he was saying, ‘Yes, I have this disease and it is horrifying and no one believes me but, I don’t care because I’m going to use it to educate you anyway!’