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Summer Rewind Series, Week 2: Race

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!’

Seems That the World’s Got a Role For Me

Willa:  This week Joie and I are excited to be joined by Sylvia J. Martin, a Research Fellow at the University of California at Irvine with a Ph.D. in anthropology. Sylvia’s work focuses on socio-economic relations in commercial media industries, and this research has led her to study Michael Jackson’s art and cultural impact, both here in the U.S. and overseas while living and working in Hong Kong on a Fulbright scholarship. She is interested in the public and media discourse about Michael Jackson, and has conducted interviews with people who worked with him. She recently published an article in Social Science and Modern Society that explores how, in her words, “Like Superman, Michael Jackson is an American icon who went global.” Thanks so much for joining us, Sylvia!

Joie:  Sylvia, can we talk about that word “icon” for a minute? Sometimes I think that we tend to use that word a little bit too much these days and it seems to have become somewhat trivialized. But when someone or something reaches “iconic” status, it really is a big deal in our society, isn’t it? Can you tell us exactly what it means to be an American icon and what that means when thinking about Michael Jackson?

Sylvia:  Great question, Joie. I think that an icon, in the context that we are using it, is someone who captures the sentiment and style of a particular moment, who represents the essence of a specific time and/or place. Objects and places can also be iconic; for instance, the Chrysler building may be considered “iconic” of the Art Deco movement. Yet at the same time, an icon has the potential to transcend its particular time and place, to be noteworthy outside of its immediate context.

Willa:  Like the Mona Lisa has become iconic, or Munch’s Scream? Or even Einstein’s wild hair or Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair? They’re all instantly recognizable outside their immediate context, as you say, and they all seem to evoke specific connotative meanings that transcend their literal meaning. For example, Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair isn’t just something that moves him from place to place – it also seems to represent the poignancy of a brilliant mind trapped inside a failing body.

Sylvia:  Exactly, Willa. Like McDonald’s is iconic of, or epitomizes, the global spread of American products and “values” (fast food for people on the go, affordable meals for families), sometimes at the expense of locally produced food.

So as I discussed in my article, Michael was an American icon because he wasn’t just topping all the charts in his own industry – he was also hailed at the White House, at the Superbowl, at the U.S. military ceremony. Many consider him the quintessential American performer of the 1980s; his domestic success reflects the struggles and accomplishments of the American Civil Rights movement. Yet for decades since, he has found fans in the former Soviet Union and China (some of the U.S.’ Cold War foes), Iran, and India – places with vastly different political and economic trajectories than America’s.

Now, the term “icon” carries religious connotations, in which it is a representation of a deity or revered religious figure, usually in the form of a carving or a mosaic. A comparatively secular, contemporary icon such as Michael may also generate a following, a mysticism. He certainly seems to have! To put fan reverence in context, in India, Bollywood film star Amitabh Bachchan is considered almost divine by many of his fans. And in the south of India, Tamil fans build temples for their favorite stars. So this religious connotation for a celebrity icon is observable across cultures. But it’s also worth pointing out that Michael’s reach isn’t just a result of his tremendous talents; it’s also facilitated by our globalized cultural economy – by global capitalism.

Willa:  I was really intrigued by that aspect of your article, Sylvia, and how you suggest that Michael Jackson’s iconic status abroad served a political function as well. As you wrote,

“Jackson’s music and life narrative were upheld at home and abroad as compelling evidence of the ascendancy of American individualism, entrepreneurialism, multiculturalism, and consumer capitalism.”

Yet at times his work also provided a sharp critique of American life and politics, especially in terms of racial prejudices, as you point out as well. So how do you see these two somewhat contradictory impulses playing out, both globally and domestically?

Sylvia:  It’s challenging to be both a poster boy and a provocateur of sorts. Outside of the U.S., for the most part people seem to appreciate that he spoke for the mainstream and the marginalized. Within the U.S., it was trickier to pull off, but in the 1980s, at the height of his American solo career, his musical critique had a very light touch. His critique became more explicit as he experienced extortion, media slander, and the pursuit of “justice” by American individuals and agencies with considerable state power.

Joie:  That’s a very true statement. Once he experienced the negative side of fame – the extortion, the media slander and the ‘trial by tabloid’ that ensued – he became much more outspoken in his critique of the social ills that plague us.

Sylvia:  Exactly, Joie. And lets look at one of the “American values” Michael came to epitomize – individualism. His reading choices reflect that value (Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the writer Ralph Emerson). But Michael also expressed, repeatedly, the need for community; he spoke of caring about and acting for the community, our reliance on each other, and he put that communal value into action. And some of that he did at a time when President Reagan was withdrawing state support for social services for low-income people, and promoting the “Pull yourselves up by the bootstraps” ideology.

Lyrics like “We are the world” and “Make a better place / For you and for me / Heal the world we live in / Save it for our children” – note the references to “we” and “our,” to the collective. There are so many lyrical and visual references to the importance of community in Michael’s work. Sure, he happily collected the many accolades awarded to him personally, but he also acknowledged his predecessors, the community of musicians from which he came, and he was a huge philanthropist. And just this one example – of how he represented individualism and, at the other end of the spectrum, community – shows that he had a very broad appeal. Maybe the people filling up stadiums around the world to hear him perform weren’t always consciously thinking about how broad a spectrum Michael represented, but they were filling them up nonetheless, and empowering Michael’s iconicity (and market value).

Now, when Sylvia Chase asked him in 1980 on a 20/20 interview how it felt to perform for hundreds of people, Michael responded that they held hands and rocked and “all colors of people are there, all races, it’s the most wonderful thing, and politicians can’t even do that.” While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, in general, it is hard for politicians to gather a diverse group of people at venue after venue as Michael did.

Willa:  That’s true, and I don’t know that politicians are able to get them holding hands and rocking the way Michael Jackson did.

Joie:  Yes, I have to say that I don’t think that was an exaggeration on his part at all. It is nearly impossible for politicians to bring people together in that way!

Sylvia:  Well, I think some presidential candidates (not to mention political activists and monarchs) have inspired multicultural groups of people to chant, cheer, clap, salute, and stomp their feet in very large numbers. Fleetwood Mac’s performance of “Don’t Stop” at President Clinton’s Inaugural Ball comes to mind – and actually, Michael was there. He even joined Fleetwood Mac and the Clintons to sing on stage! But no, American politicians probably couldn’t bring people together in the way that Michael was talking about, with actual handholding.

Anyway, to just step back and look at the broader cultural context in which Michael became so prominent in the 1980s, we probably should recall that a few charismatic black male speakers in the U.S., such as Fred Hampton (the activist who formed the Rainbow Coalition) and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., met untimely deaths just a couple decades prior to Michael’s American peak. I’m not saying that Michael was a political activist or that he was their protégée, but with racism always just under the surface, or on the surface, there were definite risks for black men who tried to speak to a plurality of people, who reached across boundaries that others have worked hard to keep in place.

So in light of this history, perhaps it’s not surprising that Michael faced some backlash for occupying such a broad spectrum, and for being able to get so many people to congregate in one space, over and over. And this is why I quoted James Baldwin in another piece, “Remembering Michael Jackson: Moonwalking Between Contradictions” – Baldwin identified that such unprecedented success and attention on Michael could not be separable from America’s role as a “dishonest custodian of black life.”

As Michael told Rabbi Schmuley Boteach, a lot of the white press didn’t like that he played to stadiums full of screaming white girls around the world, and I think Michael was right to a large degree. By the way, I spoke with a male photojournalist who covered Michael over the last few years of his life, and the journalist was not only bewildered as to why so many women found Michael and his masculine, androgynous, and feminine aspects so sexually appealing, he was clearly bothered by it.

Joie:  Really? That is so interesting to me. I’m always fascinated by the fact that so many looked at him and saw him so completely differently. Everyone in the media always tried to make him out to be this weird-looking nut-job with a freaky face but yet, millions of others saw him as very handsome and incredibly sexy.

Willa:  I’m fascinated by that too – that different people could see him in such radically different ways. He really did seem to reflect back the expectations and biases that each of us brought to him. And I think you raise an extremely important point, Sylvia, and one that hasn’t been addressed nearly enough. The way he challenged notions of gender and sexuality are every bit as threatening as his transgression of racial boundaries – maybe even more so – and directly tie in with the police actions against him, as well as the media and public backlash.

Sylvia:  Exactly, Willa. Michael profoundly challenged white, American, male heteronormative sexuality, caught up as it is in issues of race and “authenticity.” The “confusion” Michael caused is unforgivable, as Susan Fast also mentions in her article, “Difference that Exceeded Understanding: Remembering Michael Jackson 1958-2009.”

Willa:  Yes, as Susan Fast puts it so well in her article,

“Please be black, Michael, or white, or gay or straight, father or mother, father to children, not a child yourself, so we at least know how to direct our liberal (in)tolerance. And try not to confuse all the codes simultaneously.”

With so many of our most fraught divisions – of race, gender, age, sexuality, family – he didn’t just cross the boundary, but inhabited an in-between space right at the intersection. And that’s what was so “unforgivable,” as you say.

Sylvia:  Yes, he “confused” musical codes (as Lisha pointed out in her discussion of “Black or White“), and he also confused normative social and sexual codes. And it’s that impending confusion that Baldwin referred to in his comment about Michael’s success tapping into America’s discomfort over sexual roles and sexual panic. Anyway, in the process of dealing with backlash over various matters, Michael saw that some of the problems he had identified, particularly in the U.S., were not going away, and in fact deserved more critique (such as racial prejudice and media ethics) which he addressed in his later work. He saw that despite, and in fact maybe because of, his unparalleled success, he was becoming something he probably had not thought he was in danger of becoming: a criminalized black man.

Joie:  I don’t know if I’d agree totally with that statement, Sylvia. I think for every Black American man, the thought that you could one day very easily, and through no real fault of your own, become “a criminalized Black male” is a very real one. So I couldn’t say that thought had never crossed Michael’s mind before. In fact, I’d be willing to bet money that it probably had at some point. I think that’s just a fact that all Black American men live with, no matter how successful you become.

Sylvia:  I totally agree with you that in all likelihood, Michael knew he could be criminalized. However, I didn’t say the thought had “never” crossed his mind but that he “probably” had not thought he was in danger of becoming criminalized. There is quite a difference.

The reason I said he “probably had not thought he was in danger” is that from what I’ve read and heard it was possible he was at times understandably lulled into a false sense of security by having a private security detail (Bill Bray, etc), access to top lawyers, and institutional accolades. In other words, his class location and profession complicates the race issue because he had access to resources that many non-famous and middle to working class people do not. I am not saying that he wasn’t as much of a target as any other black man, nor am I saying that his visibility rendered him immune – in fact in my comment regarding the threat to charismatic black speakers I’m suggesting that Michael was also very much at risk. But, as much as Michael knew he was a target because he was so famous, I still think there were times when he thought he might have access to more protection from being criminalized than a non-celebrity Black man.

Willa:  This is a really complicated issue, I think. In Randy Taraborrelli’s biography, he describes the moment in 1993 when Jordan Chandler’s mother and step-father first warned him about Evan Chandler’s threats:

Michael didn’t take them seriously. “Oh, this kind of stuff happens to me all the time,” he told them. “People are always trying to get money out of me. I’ll have my people work it out. Don’t worry about it.” However, when they played Michael the tape Dave had made of his conversation with Evan, Michael became anxious. “He sounded so angry,” Michael told me of Evan Chandler in an interview months later. “I knew then and there it was extortion. He said it right on the tape. So what I did then,” Michael told me, “was turn it over to [lawyer] Bert [Fields] and [private investigator] Anthony [Pellicano] and I decided to try to forget about it”

When Taraborrelli questions him about this, he responds:

“I don’t think like that,” Michael said bluntly. “I don’t live my life in fear.”

But then I think about something he told Gerri Hirshey in a Rolling Stone article ten years earlier, not long before the Thriller video came out. She wrote,

He is known to conduct his private life with almost obsessive caution, “just like a hemophiliac who can’t afford to be scratched in any way.”  The analogy is his.

That line has always stuck with me – just imagining what it must be like to feel you have to live your life that way, with the “obsessive caution” of a hemophiliac. So I think he tried not to “live my life in fear,” as he told Taraborrelli, but he was a student of history, especially Black history, and the U.S. has a long troubling history of “criminalizing” successful Black men. And he was the most successful Black American man ever. So he was a huge target – for the police, the tabloids, the critics, everyone – and I think he was very aware of that.

Sylvia:  He was indeed aware. And as we see in the example you cited, he turned the issue over to a pretty high-profile lawyer and private investigator, probably hoping it would be resolved without much damage.

Joie:  Willa, I love that Hirshey interview and that comment has always struck me as well. Especially the last sentence – “The analogy is his.” That means those were his words; he described himself as “a hemophiliac who can’t afford to be scratched in any way.” Knowing that this is his description of himself and the way he guards his private life is very telling, I think.

Willa:  I agree, and you know, it’s tragically ironic in hindsight, but several people who knew him have suggested that one reason he spent so much time with children was because he thought they were safe. Adults could betray him – and had – and he was concerned about that, but he trusted children. And I think he was right in feeling he could trust children. If you look at what happened in 1993 and in 2003 leading up to the 2005 trial, the accusations didn’t begin with children – they began with adults.

Sylvia:  I have to quote the Marxist art critic, David Walsh, here who wrote some of the most astute coverage of the 2005 trial verdict right after it was announced. Walsh hones in on what I believe was at stake: Michael’s perceived threat to “American values.” Walsh writes,

In the brutality of a Sneddon one sees in microcosm the character of the American ruling elite: ignorant, reckless, embittered, endlessly pursuing anyone and anything that hints of opposition or the “counterculture.” Why was Michael Jackson actually on trial? Because his lifestyle is different, even bizarre; because he is perceived to be gay; because he is black. In the paranoid, pornographic vision of the extreme right, whose perverse mental life deserves to be analyzed by a Freud, Jackson represents a provocation and threat to “American values.”

So, the man who was once the top-ranking Western pop star in the former Soviet Bloc according to the Voice of America, and who was celebrated by both Republican and Democrat administrations, ends up becoming a threat to “American values.” The King of Popular music and culture becomes the “counterculture.” Look at how he’s now moved (or, been moved) across the spectrum.

Willa:  It’s really pretty shocking, isn’t it? And it’s like a replay of what happened to Charlie Chaplin during the Cold War – in fact, that’s almost the exact language that was used against Chaplin. So this isn’t just a race issue, though race played a very significant role.

Sylvia:  Yes, ideology and larger political circumstances play a role here, too, as they did with Chaplin. The moralizing among America’s “ruling elite” after President Clinton’s affair, which was echoed by some of the media, probably led to greater scrutiny (and distortion) of Michael’s high-profile, unconventional lifestyle. I’m also reminded of the 2003 live webchat with Bjork, when people wrote in questions to her, and Michael was one of them. She responded to his question about the influence of nature on her music, and then extended some support to him remarking, “It’s like in the US right now, it’s illegal to be an eccentric.”

Willa:  What a great quote!

Joie:  It is a great quote!

Willa:  And she’s right.

Sylvia:  And regarding “American values,” here again, we see the contradictions play out; yes, the U.S. valorizes success … but when we are faced with all the complications that it entails and the human frailties behind it, we turn on it. When Michael took the unconventional step of forming surrogate families such as he did with the Chandlers and friendships with kids as a way to compensate for his loss of childhood that was sacrificed in order to attain that “all-American” success, the reaction in many quarters was to immediately sexualize and therefore criminalize it.

The media-entertainment industrial complex in particular has a long history of sexualizing children. (I showed my students Shirley Temple’s 1932 “Baby Burlesks” films and they were rather shocked to see her, in diapers and aged 3, dance in a “playfully” seductive way.) So it’s not so surprising that many in the media-entertainment industry took the easy route and in turn rushed to sexualize Michael’s relationships with kids. I do think that Michael made some unwise choices along the way, but this “beacon” of the post-Civil Rights American dream was made to pay for the full expression of his art, and the humanity that fueled it. And he paid for his multi-faceted iconicity.

Willa:  He really did – he paid for it most painfully. Well, thank you very much for joining us, Sylvia! We’ve really enjoyed talking with you.

We’ve also begun work on the Lyrics Library and just posted the lyrics from the Off the Wall liner notes, so want to invite everyone to come check it out when you get a chance.  We’re hoping it will be a fun and useful place to share ideas and gather information about Michael Jackson’s lyrics.

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcY1f9ja6NQ