Willa: Hi Joie. So we’re back! Did you have a good summer?
Joie: Yeah, it was nice. We didn’t take a real vacation or anything but we did spend a couple of great weekends up at the Lake.
Willa: Oh, that sounds nice! I know how much you love the lake. I spent a lot of my summer camping and hiking with teenagers and pre-teens, which was a blast, and Joie, I just have to tell you this story. I was in Mesa Verde, which is such an amazing place with these beautiful 700-year-old cliff-dwellings. There’s something very restful and peaceful, and very spiritual about those dwellings.
Anyway, the second day I was driving along the top of a mesa with “Earth Song” playing on the stereo, and it was a gorgeous morning and just seemed so perfect. And then I looked to my left and saw four wild mustangs running along beside us! We went along side by side for quite a while, but gradually they came closer and closer so I slowed down, and one of them ran in front of me, spun around, and then stood there tossing his head up and down. It was magnificent! Later I talked to one of the guides, and he said there are about 150 wild horses in Mesa Verde but they usually stay down in the canyons grazing. But every so often they’ll come up onto the mesa tops. It was so incredible! Now I think about those wild horses every time I hear “Earth Song.”
Joie: Wow! Oh, I bet that was beautiful, Willa. So, how loud was your car stereo? Maybe they could hear “Earth Song” and they liked it!
Willa: I don’t know if they heard it, but someone did. I had three kids with me – a 16-year-old up front and a 14-year-old and 12-year-old in back. The 14- and 12-year-old were pretty excited, but the 16-year-old stayed expressionless the entire time – he seems to be going through a “cool” phase. But the next day, he came up to me and asked, “What was that song you were playing yesterday? The one that goes like this …” and then he sang the long “ah, ah, ah” section of “Earth Song” note for note – you know, the part in the video where everyone is digging their hands into the earth. I was blown away. So even though he didn’t show much emotion at the time, I think he got it. Something happened, anyway.
So today would have been Michael Jackson’s 54th birthday and I was trying to think of a meaningful way to commemorate that. So I started wondering what Michael Jackson himself would do to remember the birthday of a person he admired, and that reminded me of the song he wrote and performed for Sammy Davis, Jr., for his 60th birthday:
He only performed it that one time and it rarely gets mentioned, but it’s so moving. The lyrics are really powerful, and the look on Sammy Davis’ face as watches Michael Jackson sing those words … You can tell how much it means to him.
Joie: That’s true, Willa; from the look on his face, you can tell he is just so moved by Michael’s words. And really, when you listen to it, it’s not difficult to understand why. It is a very emotional and personal message Michael is conveying in this song. And you can really feel his depth of emotion as he’s performing this special song for one of his idols. Those words he’s singing obviously mean a lot to him. It’s quite moving.
Willa: It really is, and it’s also a very stylized performance, if that makes sense – it almost seems like a performance from another era. It’s like he isn’t just paying tribute to Sammy Davis, Jr., through his lyrics, but through these very stylized gestures as well. He also incorporates iconic poses that are distinctively his own, but they seems perfectly in sync with what’s gone before, so it’s like he’s demonstrating through his performance how his movements fit within this tradition of dance and gesture that’s gone before him.
Joie: Oh, I agree with you; I think a lot of his movements during this performance are very reminiscent of Sammy Davis Jr. and the way he moved. So, you’re right, it’s like he’s paying tribute through the song itself, but also through his movements.
You know, Willa, I haven’t listened to this song in a while but, do you know what strikes me as I watch that clip now? I can’t help but think about all the young artists out there now who are suddenly looking to Michael and citing him as one of their greatest influences. Artists like Justin Bieber and Chris Brown and others. They all look to Michael as one of their heroes just like Michael looked to Sammy Davis and James Brown and Jackie Wilson.
Willa: I see what you mean, Joie. The tradition is continuing on in a powerful way through this new generation of artists, and Michael Jackson played a very important part in furthering that tradition – he carried the baton a long way! But I also think there’s something very special that Sammy Davis, Jr., and Michael Jackson share in common, and that’s how they both broke through racial barriers – and paid a big price for doing that. As Michael Jackson sings so movingly,
You were there, before we came You took the hurt, you took the shame They built the walls to block your way You beat them down, you won the day It wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair You taught them all, you made them care Yes, you were there, and thanks to you, There’s now a door we all walk through And we are here, for all to see To be the best that we can be Yes, I am here ‘Cause you were there
I think he’s singing pretty explicitly about the racism Sammy Davis, Jr., confronted. “It wasn’t right” and “it wasn’t fair,” as Michael Jackson sings, but he endured it. “You took the hurt, you took the shame.” And because of that, “thanks to you / There’s now a door we all walk through.” I think that “we” he’s talking about in these lines is specifically black artists whose lives and careers were a little bit easier because Sammy Davis, Jr., broke ground for them.
Joie: Yes, I agree with you totally. And I also believe that there are many Black artists out there now who feel the exact same way about Michael Jackson. After all, if it hadn’t been for him and the racial barrier he knocked down at MTV, for example, there would be hundreds of other Black artists who may have never had their videos included in rotation on that station. Likewise, if it hadn’t been for Michael’s amazing cross-over success with the Thriller album, there could be hundreds of Black artists today who may never have tasted similar success.
Willa: I think that’s really true and really important, Joie, and I hope they’re able to draw strength from Michael Jackson’s life and career the way he seemed to draw strength from the stories of those who went before him. You know, when things were so bad for him after the molestation allegations came out and during the battles with Sony and the 2005 trial, he cited the struggles of those who’d gone before him, and seemed to gain comfort and strength from those stories.
And that makes me think about the title of this song. You know, last spring we talked about “Will You Be There,” and Kris, Eleanor, and Nina had a very interesting and very moving conversation in the comments section about the special symbolic connection between “I’ll Be There” and “Will You Be There.” As Kris wrote,
we have this child who starts out touching us with the purest, most angelic voice, telling us “I’ll Be There,” “just call my name, I’ll be there to comfort you,” etc. And he grows into this man who finds himself really honestly asking “will you be there for me,” and so sadly, it often seemed the answer was no. The two sides of that coin and the truth they tell about his life are very poignant for me.
I know what Kris means – it’s very poignant for me too. But I’ve been thinking lately that maybe there’s a third song in this series: “You Were There.”
I’ve been thinking lately that there was a small group who was always there to encourage him and give him strength and courage when he needed it, and it included people like Sammy Davis, Jr., James Brown, Chuck Berry, Jack Johnson, Mohammad Ali, Jesse Jackson, and Nelson Mandela – in other words, the black artists and fighters and political figures who had gone before him, who had walked that path before him, and experienced the same kinds of prejudice and persecution and ridicule he faced. Looking at that list, it’s pretty shocking how many were either imprisoned or threatened with imprisonment through no fault of their own – they were simply too powerful to be endured – and I think Michael Jackson drew strength from that knowledge.
Joie: Hmm. That’s an interesting thought, Willa. The idea that this song forms a sort of trilogy with the other two songs Kris, Eleanor, and Nina were discussing. In fact, I’d be really interested to hear their thoughts on your assessment – so ladies, if you’re reading, please weigh in.
You know, Willa, I think the best part about this song is that it’s just so sincere and heartfelt. It really is just a sweet little song, don’t you think? I mean, it was never recorded and never offered for sale or download as far as I know. Michael only performed it that one time that I know of and yet, I think most fans – even a lot of the new fans – have been aware of it for quite some time. I believe that’s because it’s always been sort of a “fan favorite” and so it’s been passed around from fan to fan. Sort of like when news of something really great spreads via word-of-mouth rather than by conventional promotion. I think that says a lot for this sweet little song.
Willa: I agree, it’s beautiful, though I think it’s a pretty pointed critique of racism – which is surprising in such “a sweet little song,” as you say. As with so much of his work, we can interpret it and respond to it on many different levels.
Joie: That’s very true and it is a “pretty pointed critique of racism” – as you say. But it’s also just really sweet and sincere as he sings a love song of appreciation and thanks to one of his idols. Either way you look at it, it is a very powerful, unassuming little song.
Willa: And a wonderful birthday present to one of his idols.
So you know, Joie, this is Michael Jackson’s birthday, but it’s kind of ours too – our first post was in August of last year. And Joie, I just wanted to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed our chats. You are so fun to work with, and so knowledgeable about everything MJ! I’m constantly amazed by how much information you have at your fingertips, and all the history you have in your head.
Joie: That’s funny, Willa. Maybe that’s why my head feels so crowded all the time; it’s all the MJ stats floating around up there! But seriously, I’ve enjoyed our conversations too. I have learned so much from talking with you. It’s been a very interesting year.
Willa: It really has been. So happy first birthday, Joie! And thank you so much for making this such a wonderful experience.
Joie: Happy Anniversary, Willa!
Willa: So I’m just going to be upfront about this and say that working on this week’s post put Joie and me into a terrible funk – the Great Depression, as Joie called it. It deals pretty explicitly with some very painful scenes from our nation’s history, including scenes of racial oppression and sexual abuse. But we felt it was necessary to provide that context to understand what happened in 1993, and everything that followed from that.
Joie: And Willa’s not kidding when she said it sent us both into a Great Depression. This has been the hardest conversation we’ve ever had and it stirred up some really negative emotions in both of us. For a while we didn’t know if we would get through it; we were even worried about hurting each other’s feelings.
Willa: We also didn’t want to hurt or upset anyone who reads this, and we’ve been especially concerned about new readers who may not know us too well. We gained a lot of new readers and new subscribers with the sex appeal post a few weeks ago, which was such a fun, feel-good post to write. Joie and I had a blast with it, and we’re planning to get back to some fun topics soon. In fact, we’re treating ourselves with a look back at Off the Wall next week.
But we both strongly believe that sometimes you just have to stand up and speak the truth, even if it’s unpleasant and upsetting. We believe the public’s refusal to look at things that are unpleasant is what allowed District Attorney Tom Sneddon to abuse the power of his office for so long. So while this was very painful to write, and while we tried to be as sensitive as possible, we felt compelled to speak honestly about specific aspects of our nation’s terrible history of racism and abuse.
Joie: So this week, we continue with our conversation about Michael as a sex symbol and why that was both a significant and a dangerous spot for him to be in. And we ended last week with a discussion of the time period – from the late 1970s to 1982 when Michael’s career really exploded with the release of Thriller – and how the cultural attitudes were in a state of flux. Things were shifting a little bit and the time was right for someone with Michael’s broad-ranging cross-over appeal, and he didn’t hesitate for a second. He stepped up and took full advantage of the moment and became the biggest star the world had ever seen.
Willa: Then in 1993, a White man, Evan Chandler, falsely accused him of a sex crime. Importantly, in a secretly recorded phone conversation, Chandler admits he has paid people to carry out “a plan that isn’t just mine,” saying,
“There are other people involved that are waiting for my phone call that are in certain positions. I’ve paid them to do it. Everything’s going according to a plan that isn’t just mine.”
He also says, “I’ve been rehearsed about what to say and what not to say,” and says there will “be a massacre if I don’t get what I want,” which is $20 million dollars. This is clearly an extortion attempt.
To understand what happened next, we have to go back in our nation’s history and look at some truly horrifying scenes. And we know this is hard to read. It was incredibly hard to write. But we both feel we can’t really understand what happened in 1993 without this background.
As we’ve mentioned before, there existed a cultural narrative that Black men were a sexual threat to White women, and this narrative was used as an excuse to oppress, demean, and abuse Black men and force them to be submissive. Black men who were not properly deferential could be tortured and killed. Importantly, the torture those men endured tended to focus on the parts of the body we designate as sexual, and their mutilated bodies were often displayed afterwards as a warning to other Black men.
So Black men weren’t just physically abused; they were sexually abused and put on display in very public ways. And this type of sexual intimidation wasn’t restricted to just a few isolated cases. It was systemic, and an integral part of racial oppression in the United States.
In urban areas like New Orleans, there were public whipping houses, and if you were a slave you could be sent there at the whim of your owner for something as trivial as having a defiant look in your eyes. The purpose of those places was to break your spirit and force you to accept the idea that you were a slave. Both men and women were sent to those places, and they did not whip you through your clothes. If you were a woman and were sent to that place, you would have to stand bare chested before a brutal man who made his living hurting people. He would bind your hands over your head to hold you upright as you were whipped, but he could also punish you in ways that were less painful physically but perhaps more damaging psychologically. He could molest you. He could take your clothing. He could force you to stand exposed for hours. He could demean and humiliate you as much as he wanted. And this was a public place with galleries for spectators, so there was likely a crowd of rough, jeering men who gathered in such places just to watch other human beings be hurt and humiliated.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe suggests that the intense humiliation women (and men) experienced in those places was as cruel a punishment in its way as the physical pain they endured from the whip. A beautiful teenager, Rosa, is caught trying on a dress that belongs to her mistress, Maria. As punishment, Maria writes out an order for Rosa to be taken to the whipping house to receive 15 lashes, “lightly” applied. An older woman tries to intervene on Rosa’s behalf, saying, “But could not you punish her some other way, – some way that would be less shameful?” Maria replies,
“I mean to shame her; that’s just what I want. She has all her life presumed on her delicacy, and her good looks, and her lady-like airs, till she forgets who she is; – and I’ll give her one lesson that will bring her down, I fancy!”
The intense shame Rosa will experience in that place is not accidental: as Maria says, “I mean to shame her; that’s just what I want.” That extreme public humiliation is intentional, and its purpose is to “bring her down” – to scorch her mind as well as her body and make her submissive – by forcing her to accept and internalize the idea that she is powerless, and a slave.
Joie: You know, Willa, I have not read Uncle Tom’s Cabin since I was in High School but I have to say, just the little snippet you’ve mentioned here makes me remember how uncomfortable – and angry, and indignant, and horrified, and outraged, and hurt – I felt reading it back then. It is not a pleasant or an easy book for a Black person to read.
Willa: Oh God, Joie. Some of those scenes are just terrible to read. I was in my 40s, and it was still really hard to take. And I can believe that reading it as a Black teenage girl would be a very different experience than reading it as a White middle-aged woman. Most of the worst things happen behind the scenes – for example, a weeping Rosa is sent to the whipping house and we don’t see her again – but still, it’s really painful and uncomfortable. A lot of White people don’t like reading that book either just because it is so painful, and because it can stir up a lot of feelings of collective guilt as well.
I know as a Southern White girl learning about slavery, I felt like I’d found out that my mother was a murderer. I just couldn’t hardly come to grips with it. And it really wasn’t that long ago. My grandmother loved her grandfather, and used to tell me stories about him and how kind he was. Looking back much later, I realized that he was 12 years old when the Civil War began. He was 16 when the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery. We tend to think it’s ancient history, but it really wasn’t that long ago. My grandmother’s grandfather was alive during that time, and we’re still dealing with a lot of those attitudes today.
Joie: No, it wasn’t that long ago. My mother’s great-grandfather was lost in slavery. Sold to another slave owner and never heard from again. That’s just four generations ago.
Willa: Oh God, Joie. That’s terrible.
Joie: And even though that book is fiction, it is based on the very real experience of slavery in our country. And it is largely responsible for creating and ingraining most of the racial stereotypes about Blacks that we know today into the collective American psyche.
Willa: You’re right, it’s fiction but it draws on the experiences of real people. Stowe’s husband visited a whipping house in New Orleans and wrote about what he saw there, including a naked teenage girl – a girl like Rosa – and scenes of just unspeakable cruelty. So a lot of the ideas for Stowe’s novel came from real life experiences.
But a lot of the racial stereotypes you mentioned – especially the stereotype of Uncle Tom – didn’t come from Stowe’s novel, at least not directly. Her novel was incredibly popular – the most popular novel of the 19th Century – and Vaudeville skits based on her novel became very popular as well. Those skits often featured White actors in blackface playing the role of happy slaves, including a happy Uncle Tom, and that’s where those stereotypes came from, but that’s not at all what her novel is like. Stowe’s Tom is no Uncle Tom. In fact, he is tortured and killed by his owner because he refuses to whip other slaves, or tell him where two slaves who escaped have been hiding. Judging Uncle Tom’s Cabin because of those Vaudeville stereotypes is like judging Michael Jackson based on Wierd Al Yankovic.
Joie: I completely disagree with you. While it’s true that Stowe probably intended for the character of Tom to be some sort of ‘noble hero,’ and the stereotype of him as a subservient old fool who bows down like a good little slave and does everything he can to keep his White master happy was perpetuated by the many stage productions that Stowe had no control over, her novel is completely responsible for many other racial stereotypes. The lazy, carefree “happy darky.” The tragic figure of the attractive light-skinned mulatto female who’s used as a sex object by all the White men. The plump, motherly, dark-skinned “Mammy” with the kerchief wrapped around her head like Aunt Jemima. Even the “pickaninny” stereotype of Black children – “wooly heads and glistening eyes.” It’s incredibly offensive and it came directly from the descriptions and illustrations in that book. And as you pointed out, in its day, it was the single most popular novel of the 19th Century.
I’m not discounting its significance as an invaluable commentary against slavery. I’m just pointing out its complicity in creating and perpetuating all those racial stereotypes that we still struggle with today.
Willa: You know, I don’t mean to make Uncle Tom’s Cabin sound better than it is. It was written in a very different place and time with a very different mindset, and I admit I winced quite a bit while reading it. But I think Stowe explodes a lot of those stereotypes by taking us inside the minds of those characters and making them real, human, complicated people – especially the women characters. The Mammy figure, Chloe, is a smart no-nonsense woman who says some pretty subversive things, and if Cassie had her way, she’d drive a stake through the heart of the man who forced her to be his mistress. She remains her own person and never becomes what he wants her to be. She’s no sex kitten. And Cassie is a crucial figure. One of the things I find so important about Stowe and the reason I keep referring to her is that, through characters like Rosa and Cassie, she shows the interconnections between slavery and sexuality – specifically, how abuse of power in terms of race, gender, and sexuality is intricately related and interwoven.
Joie: Ok. First, I never said the mulatto female characters were sex kittens, I said they were sex objects (there’s a big difference) and a racial stereotype. Second, and most importantly, we are obviously never going to agree or even meet in the middle on our opinions of this book so, we should probably just move on.
Willa: Ok. I shouldn’t have pushed that so hard. I apologize.
The idea I’m trying to get at is that racism and slavery are false ideologies – artificial human constructs – that are deeply abhorrent to the human mind. Everything within us rebels at the thought of being a slave, and it takes brutal measures to break us to the point where we’ll accept it. And in the American South, brutal measures were used.
And here’s the crucially important point, the reason it’s important to look back at all this terrible history: those false ideologies were “made real” by being “written” on real human bodies. Those ideologies were literally written in the scars of whips or chains or a branding iron, but they were also written in less obvious ways through sexual abuse or even the public gaze of White men who thought they had a right to dominate the bodies of Black men and women, and refused to acknowledge their humanity. And this other type of “writing” on the body is perhaps more damaging to the psyche than physical suffering because it focuses on the areas of the body we tend to designate as sexual. These areas are more intimate and therefore more closely aligned with our inner being and sense of self, so it is more wounding psychologically when those areas are abused.
This is part of our nation’s horrible legacy of racial/sexual abuse, and this is the background for what Michael Jackson faced in 1993. In that secretly recorded phone conversation, Even Chandler says,
“This lawyer I found – I picked the nastiest son of a bitch I could find. All he wants to do is get this out in the public as fast as he can, as big as he can, and humiliate as many people as he can. He’s nasty, he’s mean, he’s smart, and he’s hungry for publicity.”
In other words, Chandler wants to control Michael Jackson – he wants to make him submissive and force him to bow to his wishes – by threatening to publicly “humiliate” him in a sexual way by accusing him of a sex crime. This is simply an extension of what Maria wants to do to Rosa in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As Maria says, “I mean to shame her; that’s just what I want.” And in Michael Jackson’s final meeting with Chandler, when he refuses to pay him the money he wants, Chandler points a finger at him and says, “You’re going down, Michael. You’re going down.” Again, this is simply a modern variation of what Maria said of Rosa more than a century earlier: “I’ll give her one lesson that will bring her down, I fancy!”
When Michael Jackson refuses to give in to Chandler’s demands, the police are brought in, led by a White District Attorney named Tom Sneddon. Sneddon blindly accepts Chandler’s accusations despite all the evidence that it is an extortion attempt, and he sides with Chandler against Michael Jackson. Sneddon then uses his position as District Attorney to order a strip search. A few days before Christmas 1993, Michael Jackson is forced to stand naked on a platform while the most intimate parts of his body – the areas designated as sexual – are photographed and videotaped. If the civil case goes to trial, those photographs and videotape could be entered as evidence and made public in a courtroom.
The intense humiliation Michael Jackson was forced to endure during the strip search, and that he would have faced during the civil trial, is entirely in keeping with our nation’s horrifying history of racial/sexual abuse. Again, it is merely an extension of the humiliations slaves were forced to endure in the public whipping houses when the most intimate areas of their bodies – areas designated as sexual – were put on public display.
Joie: You’re absolutely right, Willa. And you know, I have always had a difficult time reading accounts of that strip search, and for the longest time, I thought it was just because it felt so much like reading the account of a rape. And it does. I mean, putting yourself in Michael’s shoes as you read what happened during that strip search, it just feels like he’s being gang raped by everyone in that room – the photographers, the videographer, the DA’s physician, the police officers that were in the room – everyone. It’s just so uncomfortable to read; it feels like such a violation.
But, until we began working on this post, I never realized that perhaps another reason I have so much trouble reading about that incident is because it also feels very reminiscent of a slave being publicly examined and violated and humiliated before being sold or whipped. I believe Aldebaran and I talked about it briefly in the comments section a couple weeks ago.
You know for many Black Americans, reading about, watching on TV, or even just talking about slavery in any deep and meaningful way is very difficult and uncomfortable to do. And, as you know, Willa, I’ve had a very difficult time contributing to this particular conversation. I felt paralyzed by it. When you first mentioned that we talk about this, I avoided it for weeks. And I was very puzzled by it for a long time until I really just sat and thought about the reasons why. Why was I having such a hard time with this one? And finally, I realized that this topic is just so unpleasant for me for so many reasons. Slavery is ugly and I don’t like to talk about it. And rape is ugly and I don’t want to talk about it. And trying to have a meaningful conversation about how someone you love and adore was humiliated and raped and made to feel like a common slave is … unpleasant. To say the least. It’s ugly, and I don’t want to talk about it.
Willa: You know, I felt that way for a long time. I’ve felt a deep connection to Michael Jackson since I was nine years old, and I always believed he was innocent, but I didn’t want to know any of the details. It was too ugly, plus I always felt his private life should be private. I never read any biographies of him while he was alive – actually, didn’t read anything like that until I was well into writing M Poetica, and noticed his later work kept pointing back to 1993. Then I felt like I had to learn something about what happened, just so I could understand what he was responding to and trying to convey.
And it was shocking. I didn’t know about the strip search. When I read a description of what happened that day, I felt physically sick for hours, just hollowed out inside – I can’t even describe it. And I definitely didn’t know about the photographs and videotape. As soon as I found out about them, I thought, Of course he settled. Of course. I would too.
But I didn’t know about them, or about that recording where Evan Chandler says, “Everything’s going according to a plan that isn’t just mine,” and says he’s paid people to help carry out that plan. I didn’t know Chandler’s son agreed to the allegations after being sedated, and I didn’t know the details of how Chandler interrogated his son – how he lied and threatened and manipulated his son until he finally agreed to the allegations. I kept hoping some evidence would appear that would prove his innocence. I had no idea that evidence was already available, but the police and press were ignoring it.
Looking back, I think Tom Sneddon was able to abuse the power of his office – and abuse and harass Michael Jackson – because a lot of people like me refused to look at the evidence and look at what was happening. You were a lot better about that than I was, Joie – you were working through the fan club to help make people aware, but looking back I feel like I was willfully, woefully ignorant.
Joie: Well I wasn’t working with MJFC then. There was no MJFC back in 1993.
Willa: I’m not just talking about 1993. I’m talking about the whole period from 1993 on. Tom Sneddon hounded him for years.
Joie: Well, that’s very true; he went after him with a vengeance and I truly believe he was obsessed with Michael. But, I was very much plugged in to what was going on, even before I started working with MJFC. I made it a point to follow what was happening. And like you, I didn’t want to know any of the details either. I don’t think anyone really wanted to look too closely into the details because it was such an ugly accusation. And I feel like I keep using that word – ugly – and I apologize for that, but I just can’t seem to get away from it in this conversation.
But in order to prove what we knew to be true – that Michael was innocent – and in order to educate others about the truth (since the sensationalized news certainly wasn’t doing it) we had to look at the facts; we had no choice. And the facts clearly pointed to extortion. And how Sneddon and his minions could ignore that and go on a witch hunt instead still floors me. And there is no doubt in my mind that if it had gone to trial, Michael would have been victorious. But I understand completely why he suddenly stopped pushing for his day in court after the strip search and I can’t blame him. I probably would have done the exact same thing. Even though settling made him look guilty. And it makes me think of that part in Frank Cascio’s book, My Friend Michael, where he talks about how Michael would occasionally bring that up, saying,
“I have the whole world thinking I’m a child molester. You don’t know what it feels like to be falsely accused.”
Willa: I agree, Joie. I would have settled. If that civil case had gone to trial, think of what that would have been like. Not only would it have been unbearably humiliating, it also would have served as a warning to other Black men of what could happen if they weren’t careful. In other words, it would have been an extension of the message conveyed by the bodies of Black men lynched in the past as a warning to be submissive. As in all those earlier abuses of power we talked about, the purpose of this intense sexual humiliation was to break his spirit – to control him, and subdue him, and force him to accept the cultural position set out for him – by “writing” this ideology on his body, by writing how powerless he was on the most intimate areas of his body.
But it didn’t work. It didn’t break him or control him or make him submissive. Instead, he became defiant – more openly defiant than he’d ever been before. The press called him uncontrollable, outrageous. It’s striking to me how many articles were written saying that someone needed to take control of him – his family, his managers, someone. And this isn’t a person who’s brandishing weapons or threatening people or causing massive property damage. He’s simply making people very uncomfortable through what he calls his “eccentric oddities.”
But his “eccentric oddities” weren’t random – they took a very specific form. He responded to the attempts to write the ideologies of racism and subservience on his body by completely confounding the way we read and interpret his face and body. He manipulated public perceptions of his face until it simply could not be read in conventional ways. Was he Black, or was he White? Was he masculine, or was he feminine? Was he handsome and desirable, a sex symbol, or was he ravaged by plastic surgery? Was he heterosexual? Homosexual? Bisexual? Asexual? Was he a pedophile or a victim? Innocent or guilty? Everyone who looked at him saw something different. We as a culture completely lost the ability to read and interpret his face and body because he scrambled the signifiers we’re used to reading.
And that wasn’t accidental. As he himself tells us rather explicitly through his work, it was an artistic decision. Specifically, the illusion of plastic surgery was an artistic response to the cultural constraints being forced on him, and it’s brilliant. In fact, as much as I love his music and his dancing and his films (and I do love them) I believe his face and body – and the illusions he created with them – are his greatest work of art. I believe future generations will look back at Michael Jackson and see him as a transformational figure, and the most important artist of our time – not the greatest singer or dancer or filmmaker, but the most important artist, period, including poets and painters and playwrights. And I believe they will see his face as his masterpiece.
However, his face isn’t just his most ambitious and most important work of art. It’s also an entirely new kind of art – an entirely new genre of art. It makes us uncomfortable because it is such a new kind of art and we don’t yet know how to interpret it. But it has the potential to “rewrite” the ideologies that have been written on our bodies, and alter the way we make sense of ourselves and our world. And that is truly revolutionary.
Joie: Willa, I agree with you that everyone who looked at him saw something different. But I tend to think that was our doing, not his. Everyone saw something different simply because people see what they want to see. You yourself told us back during our discussion of “Is It Scary” that “if you look at someone with compassion, you simply see them differently than if you don’t.” And those people who looked at him and believed that he was ‘ravaged by plastic surgery’ or guilty as sin, or crazy as a loon or whatever, simply wanted to see him that way.
But I do agree with you that, in time, the world will come to realize that Michael Jackson was in fact the most important artist of our time. And that statement has nothing to do with his music or his dancing abilities or his short films. Instead, it has everything to do with the fact that he – the most famous man on the planet, the most successful entertainer in the world – was given the great responsibility of proving to the world that Black people and White people are all the same. And that responsibility came with a disease that he was ridiculed for and teased about and tormented with for the rest of his life. But he handled it with so much grace and dignity and humility and bravery. And he tried his best to use it to teach us some very profound lessons along the way. And you’re right. That is very revolutionary.
Joie: Well, you asked for it, so here it is. As my girls, Salt-n-Pepa, would say … “Let’s talk about sex, baby!”
So, three weeks ago, a discussion of They Don’t Care About Us somehow ventured into the realm of Michael Jackson’s incredible sex appeal (that may have been my fault) and the comments section went wild.
Willa: Joie! Michael Jackson sexy? I’m truly shocked. My interest in Michael Jackson is purely academic, I assure you. I never once noticed those amazing eyes, or the incredible way he moved his body on stage, or that cute little tush in Thriller….
Joie: Well, since you never noticed any of those things, Willa, how about those luscious lips? Or the seductive way his voice pulls you in? Or that sexy little laugh of his? Or the wonderful way he filled out those amazing gold pants on the History tour….
Willa: I was wondering how long it would take you to mention those gold pants.
Joie: What can I say; I’m a very visual person! Anyway, Willa and I obviously hit on a little discussed taboo of sorts with many of you commenting that this topic is kind of the ultimate elephant in the room. And since this blog is all about inviting those elephants onto the dance floor, we thought we’d start the new year off by cutting a rug with the biggest elephant of them all.
You know, to be completely honest, Willa, I was more than a little surprised when we received so many comments asking for this discussion. I mean … I always saw Michael as unbelievably sexy and very handsome, and I knew that I wasn’t the only one out there who felt this way about him. As Aldebaran pointed out in a comment after that post, all you have to do is go to YouTube and it’s very easy to find these really sensual, fan-made videos that showcase Michael’s sexy side – a little guilty pleasure I like to call ‘MJ porn.’ And it is all over YouTube; there must be at least a couple hundred of them out there. So, I knew I wasn’t alone. (And by the way, let me just take this opportunity to personally thank all of those who have created said videos and posted them on YouTube for my enjoyment; you have no idea how much I appreciate it!).
But, I guess what shocked me was that so many of our readers asked for a “serious” discussion about Michael’s sex appeal and how the media fought really hard to deny him the sex-symbol status that he so easily deserved.
Willa: It’s an important question, but it’s difficult to talk about. Not only is it somewhat taboo, even now, it’s also very nebulous and subjective. It’s hard to identify what it is, exactly, that makes him so unbelievably hot.
Joie: No it isn’t; have you looked at him?!
Willa: I know, I know. But different people respond in different ways, and for different reasons. He was incredibly attractive, but not all attractive people are sexy. He was also very sensitive and kind, and passionate in his beliefs, and unbelievably smart, and very funny, and had that amazing voice, and could move like a panther, and have you noticed the veins in his forearms? I have to say, he has very nice veins….
Joie: And nice hands too, really big and masculine….
Willa: Anyway, it’s all very subjective, and for me personally it’s difficult to talk about simply because my own feelings are so complicated. They’re all mixed up with issues of race and deep cultural taboos and my own childhood, and it’s hard to sort that all out.
You know, from the first time I heard “Ben” on the radio, I felt this deep connection to Michael Jackson – just this overwhelming sense that he was a kindred spirit. It wasn’t sexual at all – I was 11 years old – it was just this comforting feeling that he was someone who looked at things the same way I did and felt about things the same way I did, and that he was someone I could talk to about things that were troubling me. And what was troubling me, for the most part, were the things I was seeing and hearing as they integrated the local schools. He really helped me through all that, and I still feel very grateful for that.
Then fast forward a few years, and suddenly he’s grown up into the sexiest guy you can imagine, and it was just stunning to me. I couldn’t believe it. It was like, Wow, you sure turned out well! That metamorphosis was amazing and wonderful, but also pretty confusing. He was gorgeous – the most handsome man I’d ever seen – but he was so gorgeous it was kind of alienating. He seemed so exotic somehow, with his sultry eyes and his hot bod and his boa constrictors.
But he was like my childhood friend and felt so familiar to me. So there was this weird conflict between the exotic and the familiar.
And then there was the ugly prejudice that White girls weren’t supposed to be attracted to Black boys. Especially in the South, White girls who dated Black boys were seen as disgusting, “white trash,” and even though I strongly disagreed with that, I couldn’t help but be aware of it. I knew what people thought of those girls. But he was incredibly sexy, and I was undeniably attracted to him – very attracted to him – and it didn’t feel wrong to me at all. Plus, as I said, he felt so familiar to me, and there was no way I could accept that the strong connection I felt to him was wrong. It was too important to me, and had been too much a part of me for too long to deny that connection.
So it was like this weird battle going on within me between the familiar and the exotic, the desirable and the taboo – between what my culture was telling me I should feel, and what I felt within myself.
Joie: That’s very interesting to me because my own experience is way at the other end of the spectrum. I guess I can understand what a confusing situation that would be for you, but as a little Black girl I never had to go through any of that. For me it was just the opposite really. Michael and his brothers were the toast of the Black community, the pride of an entire race of people so, it was not only natural for me to love him but it was even encouraged in a way. All young Black kids were encouraged to look up to them. So when he suddenly became this ultra sexy, super hot grown up young man, it felt very natural to me. In fact, I can tell you exactly when I had my first real boy-girl “thing,” if you will. It was the very first time I saw the Rock With You video. I was just hitting puberty when the Off The Wall album came out and suddenly, I somehow understood that those lyrics – “I wanna ROCK with you, all night” – were not really about dancing at all! And then the video came out and seeing him in that tight, sparkly silver jumpsuit and boots….
it was the first time I ever thought of him (or anyone else, for that matter) in an actual “adult” way, if you know what I mean!
Willa: Joie, seriously, you have revolutionized the way I feel about that song. It’s amazing. I can’t even listen to that song in the car any more. Talk about vivid imagery: “Relax your mind / Lay back and groove with mine.” Oh my. I mean, really. My, oh my. And they say cell phones are distracting. That song should come with a warning label. Someone is going to be driving along all blissed out and have an accident.
Joie: I know, right? And to this day, that song and video are still very special to me. But I understand completely when you talk about the “weird conflict between the exotic and the familiar” because I certainly experienced that as well. From as far back as I can remember, he was just always a part of my life – even as a very small child. And as you said, he was like the best friend that I could always talk to. But then, all of a sudden, he was A MAN, and making me keenly aware of the fact that I was now becoming a young woman! From that point on, my life-long obsession with Michael Jackson took on a whole new dimension; there was now this whole other facet to him and to my MJ mania. And over the years that mania only deepened as the songs and the videos got steamier and the pants got tighter.
Willa: So we’re back to the gold pants again, are we? You are too funny!
Joie: Oh, but it’s not just gold pants – there are also red leather pants like in Blood on the Dance Floor and red jeans like in Thriller, and various pairs of black pants – some of them even black patent leather like in the Come Together video and Scream – oh, and gray leather pants and also quite a few pairs of very nice looking blue jeans as well, so … uh … hmm? Um … what were we talking about … ?
Willa: I have no idea. I’m feeling a little distracted. But as long as we’re on the topic, how about In the Closet? What a truly inspiring film that is….
Joie: YES! Tight black jeans! Hair pulled back into a ponytail, form-fitting sleeveless t-shirt. Wonderful short film! Very … artistic!
Willa: Absolutely. And I love the way you put that. It’s very … artistic … on many different levels. It’s smart and funny and visually interesting (I love the silhouettes) and incredibly steamy. We can’t possibly talk about Michael Jackson’s tremendous sex appeal and not mention In the Closet.
Joie: Sex appeal! Right! That’s what we were talking about … is it hot in here?
Willa: Don’t ask me – I’ve been fanning my face with a dishtowel since we started.
Joie: Maybe we should open a window or something…. But, you know, the really intriguing thing about Michael’s sex appeal is that it is only spoken about in a sort of “hush-hush” way and only among fans.
Willa: I don’t know – I’ve visited a few forums where his fans aren’t very hush-hush at all. In fact, they can get pretty worked up sometimes. But you’re right, it isn’t talked about much outside certain fan sites.
Joie: Well that’s true, the fans can get a little bit raunchy sometimes (myself included). But, it’s not talked about outside of certain fan sites and I have never really understood that because he was such an incredibly sexy man and, at times, he was even what I would call overtly sexual – especially when he was onstage.
Willa: That’s true, he could be very sensual on stage, but as he told Rabbi Boteach, “I don’t think I’ve ever done anything offensive on stage, ever,” and I agree.
Joie: Oh, don’t get me wrong; I was not complaining!
Willa: But to get back to what you were saying earlier, it’s really interesting to me that, for both of us, our attitudes toward Michael Jackson evolved as he grew up, and we grew up. And the ways our feelings evolved were very similar in some ways and very different in others.
Joie: Yeah, I’d be interested to know how many others had a similar experience. And the fact that he was this undeniably, unbelievably sexy man – and that literally millions of women (and men) the world over felt this way about him – was completely and totally ignored by the media is really weird. Why was that? I think Ultravioletrae hit the nail on the head when she commented,
“The real issue is that society just couldn’t accept that he dared to challenge what a black man is ‘supposed’ to be. He just wouldn’t go and sit in that box. As a group we are completely blind to what happened and still won’t discuss it…. I think sexuality is at the heart of it. When J5 introduced their string of #1 hits, everyone went wild. But there was this uncomfortable dilemma that had to be dealt with – the tacit understanding that good little white girls do not fall in love with black boys. Without even having to be told, white girls knew this behavior wouldn’t be tolerated and they were directed to ‘more suitable’ white alternatives. The teen magazines of the day focused on Donny Osmond and David Cassidy.”
This is such a true statement and the “uncomfortable dilemma” that Ultravioletrae mentions only got worse over the years as Michael transitioned from this heartbreakingly adorable teen idol into this explosively sexy adult icon. And after the success of Thriller, he was literally the biggest, most influential artist of our time and that worried a lot of people. The establishment couldn’t let a Black man be rich, successful and sexually appealing to young White women too. That was just out of the question. So they did everything they could to convince the general public that he was freaky looking. He had altered his face by plastic surgery; what a weirdo! Getting a nose job? Oh my God, who does that?!
Willa: Elvis for one, according to Frank Dileo, but it was a much bigger issue for Michael Jackson because the shape of your nose has been designated a racial signifier. So when Elvis changed the shape of his nose, if that really happened, it was simply seen as an aesthetic decision. But when Michael Jackson changed the shape of his nose, it tapped into all these big unsettling questions about what it means to be Black, and it wasn’t seen as an aesthetic decision but as a commentary on how he situated himself in terms of race. Because everything he did was viewed through the lens of our racial history, everything was always so much more complicated for him.
Joie: And because he was the biggest celebrity our society had ever seen, everything he did was always so much more exaggerated by the media as well.
Willa: But I think you’re right: the larger issue is the taboo against sexual attraction between White women and Black men, and it’s a taboo on both sides of the equation. Not only is it shameful for White women to be attracted to Black men; traditionally, it’s also been very dangerous for Black men to attract White women. Black men have been tortured and killed for that, with their bodies displayed as a warning to other Black men. And this taboo wasn’t enforced only during slave times. In Malcolm X’s autobiography, he talks about being caught committing a burglary and receiving an overly harsh prison term, and he suggests his real “crime” wasn’t petty theft but dating White women.
Joie: Well you know, that whole sexual taboo surrounding the Black man’s size and prowess – that’s been the driving force behind lynchings throughout history. It makes me think of the lyrics to “Threatened,”
Every time your lady speaks she speaks of me, threatened
Half of me you’ll never be, so you should feel threatened by me
You know I love that song; it’s one of my favorites but, I never really thought of it in terms of race before, but I recently read a comment from AnaisKarim where she suggested “Threatened” could be viewed through that racial lens. I think she could be on to something.
But even today, in 2012, it’s an issue. Of course, no one really likes to admit it but, there are still lots of people out there on both sides of the racial divide who either outright disapprove or secretly cringe every time they see a Black man with a White woman. Just last month, I read a news story online about a church in Kentucky that does not allow interracial couples to join their congregation. They don’t care if Black people join their church – that is fine. But interracial couples are not welcome!
Willa: And there was an advice column in the newspaper a couple weeks ago with a letter from a Southern White woman. She was being shunned by her friends – people she had been close to her entire adult life – because they found out she dated a Black man a few times. It’s just unbelievable how entrenched some of those prejudices are, and how people mindlessly follow those prejudices.
And this taboo against sexual attraction between Black men and White women plays out in ways that can be very threatening and dangerous. In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the main character is a successful high school student, and he’s invited to give a speech about race relations to the town’s White leaders. (As I remember, his speech talks about how Black men can succeed if they maintain a proper humility.) But when he arrives to give his speech, he finds himself in a boxing ring with a bunch of other young Black men, and then a White stripper begins dancing among them as the lecherous town leaders look on.
The emotions of that scene are absolutely electric as the protagonist describes what he and the other young Black men feel toward this woman: desire, anger, compassion, hatred, and sheer terror that she will go too far and the White men will punish them for it. That dynamic Ralph Ellison describes so well of White men using White women as an excuse to punish and intimidate Black men has a very long and very ugly history.
Joie: Yes it does. A history rooted in racial violence and the blood of way too many young Black men who were lynched, beaten and/or killed for the crime of attracting – or sometimes even just looking at – a White woman.
Willa: Or sometimes the “crime” was political activism, but they were falsely accused of being a threat to White women to stir up a mob.
So how does that long-standing taboo against Black men being sexually attractive to White women play itself out when you’re the first Black teen idol and millions of women of all races think you’re the hottest thing ever? That’s a very complicated and very dangerous position to be in, and I think Michael Jackson was well aware of it. To Kill a Mockingbird was one of his favorite movies, and it’s the story of a lonely White woman who’s attracted to a Black man and kisses him, but when her father walks in and sees them, she claims the man accosted her. The story focuses on his trial, and even though his lawyer proves he’s innocent, the White jury finds him guilty. It does not have a happy ending.
Apparently, Michael Jackson watched that movie frequently during his 2005 trial to help steel himself for everything he had to endure, and the parallels and connections between that movie and his own life are chilling. I don’t think it’s coincidental that our nation’s first Black teen idol was falsely accused of sex crimes by an angry entitled White man. And I don’t think it’s coincidental that a White District Attorney blindly accepted that man’s accusations despite all the contrary evidence, and then used those false accusations as an excuse to hound and harass him for years. And I don’t think it’s coincidental that a largely White media (his self-appointed jury) repeatedly portrayed him as guilty even though the evidence clearly indicates he was innocent, and even though an actual jury weighed the evidence in the 2005 trial and found him innocent.
Joie: You know, I honestly never thought about it in those terms before but, you are probably exactly right. It wasn’t coincidental, and certainly not surprising either given the very fact that he was our nation’s first Black teen idol and he did draw the adoration of millions of young girls around the world – more than half of whom were probably White. The only way his story could have played out was with him being falsely accused of sex crimes by a White individual. History always repeats itself and with a Black personality of his magnitude, how could it have played out any other way?
Willa: You’re absolutely right, Joie. History does repeat itself, because we make it repeat itself. There are certain cultural narratives that we tell ourselves over and over again, and we keep forcing different people to fit into those same old stories again and again and again. So of course our nation’s first Black teen idol was falsely accused of sex crimes and attacked by an angry White mob – though in Michael Jackson’s case, the mob was equipped with cameras rather than ropes.
But the amazing thing is that, ultimately, the story did end differently this time because Michael Jackson subverted that narrative and tried to change it – he attempted to change that cultural narrative. It seems impossible, like moving a mountain, but he took it on. And while it’s still too early to tell how successful he was, the attempt itself is fascinating.
So next week we’ll look at a really huge topic: the interconnections of race and sexuality in our nation’s history, and what the implications were for Michael Jackson, and how he fought back.
Joie: For now here’s a little treat we recently came across and found fascinating. This is supposedly an alternate version of one of my favorite videos, Blood on the Dance Floor. Shot by Vincent Patterson, who also shot the version we all know and love, this one is said to have been done with a handheld 8mm camera and then purposely overexposed for the grainy result. The story is that Michael loved it but Sony was not pleased and rejected it. However, Willa and I want to point out that so far we have zero confirmation of any of that so, if you have any info that can shed some light, let us know. In the meantime, enjoy!
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!’