Settle in, Loves…. This is about to be one bumpy ride.
I did not plan to write this particular blog for Black History Month, but three happenings I witnessed on social media pretty much forced my hand. Given the nature and source of these incidents, I thought this month might be perfect after all.
The first of these incidents was an African American artist’s “imagining” of how Michael would have looked today had he lived past 50 and without the effects of plastic surgery or vitiligo. The other was a vicious string of disrespectful, mean, and misinformed comments under a photo of Michael on a predominantly African American R&B page on Facebook. The third strike was a person who thought it was a good idea to post a question that asked if the members of this particular page felt “Michael Jackson should have gotten therapy in the 70’s before his body-image issues got out of control”. Unfortunately, I saw all of these within the space of one day. Talk about feeling defensive! After the initial rage and disappointment I felt about people’s obviously relentless need to dissect, discuss, and debate Michael’s psychological health and personal decisions, I was left with a feeling of… awe. It is simply astounding to witness just how personally Black people took-and still take- Michael Jackson’s physical changes. It says so much about us as a race and it made me wonder just how many of us understand why.
I have honestly had an intention to address the complex and divisive nature of Michael Jackson’s African-American fan base (a faction to which I so proudly belong) for a long time. It is a subject that simply cannot be ignored and like everyone else, I have some very strong feelings about it. Growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I was thrown smack-dab into the “Michael-Jackson-Hates-Being-Black-So-He’s-Trying-To-Be-White” era of Black public opinion. I heard all of the beauty shop/barber shop/kitchen table/school bus debates any Black child could expect to hear back in the day when my own perceptions of race, self-image, and cultural identity were being shaped. For the most part, I gathered that according to the majority of Black people I knew, Michael Jackson was a child who grew up being ridiculed for his African features (mainly his nose) and because of this, he developed a hatred of his looks that manifested itself into the rhinoplasty, hair straightening, and skin lightening that is (sadly) still the topic of many debates today.
As I re-examine this theory with my adult understanding of what race, culture, appearance, and exclusion from one’s own social group means, I realize a few things.
First of all, this is not just a Michael Jackson issue. Black people have been known throughout history to be obsessed with skin color, hair texture, and any other physical feature that can be used to identify a person as “Black”. By now, everyone with eyes should be able to see that Black skin can range from the ebony hue of Viola Davis, to the yellow undertones of Chris Brown, to the chocolate brown of Gabrielle Union, all the way to the olive-tan skin of Beyonce. This obsession with skin color is not something we have for fun, either. When you live in a place where historically, the darker you were, the more likely you would have been to be abused, sold, worked within an inch of life, and even killed, the memory of this travels down through your bloodline, family member by family member. Whether it was done consciously or subconsciously this psychological imprint was handed down through generations and it still resides in many of our heads. Colorism is very real. It is one of the many nasty side effects of living in a society that practices racism like some of us practice religion. The thing is though, race is a social construct. This means that although all human beings are scientifically proven to be 99.9% the same, skin color is the easiest way we can be divided, classified, and “kept in our places”. More than skin color does, one’s culture and heritage is what helps them make a connection within a particular group. Michael Jackson NEVER stopped being a Black man culturally, even when he lost the melanin in his skin.
When I consider it from this context, I realize that many Black people who criticize Michael still have a socially constructed understanding of what Black, or African American really is. Black is not just a skin shade. Yes, you can be identified as Black if you have African ancestry, but people with African DNA come in all shades as I mentioned before. In fact, every shade we witnessed MJ’s skin transform into is indeed a part of the “Black rainbow” of complexions we come in. When I think of the artist’s “imagining” of what MJ would have looked like today had he lived and as some of the commenters stated, “stayed Black”, I am reminded of just how narrowly we as Black people sometimes tend to define ourselves. In the artist’s creation, Michael has his same pre-1980’s features, which are beautiful, might I add. This is “the Michael” that is pretty much the universal favorite of Black people, especially ones from the Jackson 5 generation. And I can understand that. This is the Michael they fell in love with. The Michael who, along with the entire Jackson family, changed America’s collective mind about what the Black family was all about and could do when they remained a unit. The Michael in the picture I saw still looked a lot like those Afro haired, apple- jack hat wearing boys who had been told one too many times that their destiny was to end up working in a dead-end jobs for low wages, or be pimps, hustlers, drug dealers, and possibly even inmates in the prison pipeline. They certainly were not capable of being international stars. Not unless they magically became straight-haired, mop-tops like The Beatles… that is until Michael, Jermaine, Tito, Jackie, and Marlon suddenly appeared from Motown Heaven.
That’s BIG. It has been said time and time again because it’s true. Representation is a HUGE factor in a child’s development of positive self-image and esteem. If you are one of my curvy sisters, try and imagine how it would feel if suddenly we woke up and the world saw US as a beautiful body type. Instead of being ignored or misrepresented, we were finally being celebrated. Imagine if “Shape” magazine featured OUR shape on every cover. Imagine if instead of Jenny McCarthy being the gold standard of what’s beautiful, Melissa McCarthy was. That’s pretty much what kids growing up in the late 60’s and 70’s experienced when the Jackson kids hit the scene. We like to believe that having self-love and self-worth is entirely our own decision and to a degree, that’s true. But, seeing people who look, dress, talk, and act like you does a LOT. Especially in the media since it is such a huge part of our everyday lives. Michael was the embodiment of the American dream to millions of little Black kids back then, so I understand to a degree the bitterness and resentment they felt (and obviously still feel) when over the span of a few years he became less and less (physically) like that child who meant so much to them. It must’ve been like, “Damn! He made us believe we could fly…. and then he crossed over and left us behind!” There is so much anger and backlash that is rooted in hurt feelings over a cultural abandonment that never really happened!
To be a part of a group is a basic human need, no matter who you are. It brings a sense of connection when you can share similar experiences with those who share your physical traits and cultural background. When the people within your own group disown you by way of ridicule, disrespect, and shaming, it can be a very painful experience. It was bad enough that Michael had to deal with being a nightly punchline of the mainstream media. It had to hurt twice as badly when the cruelty was being delivered by the very people who had embraced him first.
When his skin got lighter, he did not magically become a White person. I don’t recall him dyeing his hair blonde, wearing blue contact lenses, or ever denying that Afro-haired, cocoa-skinned boy from Gary, Indiana was him. If he was attempting to erase our collective memory of his Black past by way of skin bleaching and plastic surgery, WHY did he always make sure to put photos and videos of himself as a child on a jumbo sized screen during each Jackson 5 medley he did on tour? Maybe he did that because he wanted us to remember who he still was! Even after his looks changed, there were just as many, if not more, bigots that wanted nothing more than to see Michael, the Black man who had outsold Elvis and The Beatles fall from grace. They never let up just because his color lightened. Too many African Americans lose sight of this fact when they argue that Michael “stopped being Black” in the 1980’s. We MUST stop battering that man’s memory because we perceived him as an outsider. If he was, it not because he chose to be. It was most likely because too many of us turned our backs on him once he didn’t look the part anymore. What a shallow, selfish version of love! To say that we could have only embraced this man or any person as long as they stayed within the parameters of what WE say is acceptable is just wrong. Sometimes, I see pictures of him with other Black people and all I can think about is how incredibly lonely he must have felt when the vitiligo robbed him of his beautiful brown coloring. I thank God he had the support of a handful of loyal friends, family, and the fans. No matter what color you are, if you stood by MJ during the bad times, you were his people.
Sometimes I want to get a huge megaphone and scream, “Pay attention, Black people! Michael was singing about a Liberian girl before most Americans even knew where Liberia was! Michael traveled to Africa several times, spoke with dignitaries and presidents about the state of affairs, and donated millions in aid. The African people famously crowned him “King Sani” when he toured the country in 1992 and I think it speaks volumes that in 1992, Michael had become very light-skinned due to the effects of his vitiligo. Michael Jackson, with his straightened hair, alabaster skin, and thin nose took us back to the Motherland in the “Black or White” short film to symbolically show you where all of it began. Michael’s “Remember the Time” short film took place in ancient Egypt when he could have easily done anything else.” He showed US as the kings and queens we were and you thought he didn’t know who he was anymore.
In reality, too many Black people were the ones unaware of who WE were. I see a lot of the same people who had negative words about MJ cheering on some of the biggest buffoons to come out of Black culture. There are plenty of rappers, singers, and reality TV stars whose antics regularly make me cringe for my entire race. While some were tearing him apart, he was delivering a message to us about our own greatness and our own potential. After centuries of fighting for freedom as a people, it’s funny how Michael was probably the freest man our culture had seen thus far. I feel this way because he simply refused to live by the narrow set of rules that have been historically set for men of color. He never performed an act centered on being a pimp, a player, a thug, a hustler, or any other hyper-masculine stereotypical Black male caricature. He was accused of being gay, soft, weird, and worse but he stayed true to himself. That is the real definition of freedom. He was never ruled by the rules of society and he did not apologize.
He never embarrassed us by playing the fool for any amount of money. The super-soft voice, the coyness, the class, and the refusal to be anything less than a gentleman were all a direct refusal to be anyone’s n*gger. Michael was constantly demonstrating to the world that a Black man is MORE than what this country repeatedly tells us he is. He was a multi-faceted, complex, human being. We might not have liked, understood, or agreed with every choice, but he always tried his best not to shame himself. I know he did that for all of us.
But. We. Totally. Missed. That.
I always say that Michael was the Blackest performer of his time, regardless of the controversy. When I say this, I obviously don’t mean the color of his skin either before or after the vitiligo. I mean in his mannerisms, his dancing, his style of dress, his awareness, and his experiences because Michael Jackson LIVED and BREATHED the Black Experience. Think about it. The more we know about our own history as Black people, the more we will be able to make that connection. Being a Black American means that there is an interruption in our collective history as Africans. Slavery stripped our ancestors of their languages, religions, tribal traditions, and all other important cultural practices. Most Black people in America, including myself, have a very narrow amount of knowledge about our roots since slaves were regarded as property and not people. But, your homeland LIVES inside of you, no matter how far you go (or are taken). Africa lives in each and every African American and Michael Jackson was no exception. Take a look at the dances he did, especially when he was just “freestyling”, or dancing with no choreography. That’s African dance, plain and simple. Some would argue that he took a lot of pointers from Fred Astaire, Gene Kelley, and other classic Caucasian dancers, which is true. But it was the way Michael did it more than what he was doing that made it African. There was a certain sense of rhythm he possessed, and he acknowledged this himself several times throughout his life.
Then there was the way he dressed. Everybody knows that Michael Jackson was a unique, stylish, and sharp dresser. Something I find particularly interesting is the fact that the military jackets he so loved and is well-known for wearing are part of a tradition that can be traced back to before the Civil War ended. Slaves on plantations were usually not given any new clothing to wear and so more often than not, they were tossed old, worn-out clothing from the plantation owners. It has been documented by a few observers that the slaves would use these clothes to make surprisingly creative outfits. Military jackets, old marching boots, and even soldier’s caps were often worn during the rare special occasion events such as Christmas. This was a way for enslaved Black people to express their individuality, even in the most oppressive of environments. This is a hallmark of the Black experience. We will turn the most oppressive of situations into a platform to shine. This refusal to be anything less than who we are resulted in the creation of jazz, gospel, hip hop, and R&B.
This was Michael Jackson. He was the ultimate in expression. The confidence he displayed by not giving a damn about wearing high-waters when it was considered out of style. The way he wore his mother’s jacket for Motown 25 because he knew it was right. The ingenuity he showed every single time he took nothing special and turned it into a magical experience. The way he used the rejections from Rolling Stone and MTV as a vehicle to show what he was made of. All of this was very, very…. Black. And still, too many people within his own culture accuse him of not wanting to be what he always was. He didn’t spend his life being a color, but he did spend it exposing the masses to his unique, proud culture. I don’t know why some of us saw that and others didn’t. I’d like to blame a lack of self-knowledge more than anything else. If you swallowed what the media spoon-fed you about one of our greatest heroes and brightest stars, I guess you would end up with a bad taste in your mouth. Thank God I followed my instincts!
I know that by writing this, I may or may not change anyone’s mind or opinion. That’s fine with me because I know enough to know that everyone’s truth is their own. I do not seek to make anybody feel guilty and I am not trying to be judgmental. I sincerely believe that most of the negativity and criticism that MJ got from some in the Black community stemmed from hurt feelings and misinformation. It just hurts me when I see the ones of us that attack him for “wanting to be White” or “turning his back on his own people” because they cause us to lose sight of the FACT that Michael Jackson did an immeasurable amount of good for Black Americans and he deserves much more from us. If you’re one of the people who swear by the opinion that his changes were due to self-hatred, all I can offer is this: IF Michael’s changes did happen as a result of self-hatred, why would you be angry at him for it? Wouldn’t this make you want to embrace someone more? Self- hatred hurts the person experiencing it more than anyone else. Since when does someone’s dissatisfaction with themselves mean they’re betraying you? If he hurt anyone, he hurt himself and that still doesn’t justify anyone sitting in judgment of him. Especially when, as a culture, we tend to spend the most money for things that make us look less like the way God intended us to look than ANYONE. He was not and is not the only Black performer whose looks changed over time. To make him the target of your criticism and ignore the others makes no sense. That’s just plain hypocritical.
I’m not writing this to lay claim on Michael Jackson. Although he was certainly a Black person, I understand that he was a true citizen of the world. He belonged to everyone who loved him and I believe he would not have wanted it any other way. I know that he lived a life that included all races, religions, cultures, and creeds. This is what made him so beautiful. I think that his level of dedication to being a man who could love and be loved by all confused many of us. A lot of people of all races seem to think that just because MJ famously sang that “it doesn’t matter if you’re Black or White”, he didn’t feel that his own Blackness mattered. I think that his lyrics were taken out of context. Michael most definitely saw us all as brothers and sisters, but that didn’t mean he had to ignore or deny his own culture to do this. It is perfectly possible to love your roots and love other people and their cultures as well. Too many people seem to see MJ as special despite his Blackness rather than understanding that he was special, Black and ALL. The entire package was what made him the amazing man he was and still is in our hearts. No matter what changed physically or why. He never turned his back on who he was and we should never turn our backs on that either.
I work in an elementary school and last week as I was walking through the halls, I stopped to admire the bulletin boards the classes had decorated in honor of Black History Month. One of them had hand-colored pictures of some of the greatest African American contributors to American culture. There was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, President Barack Obama, Rosa Parks, Louis Armstrong…. and Michael Jackson. My heart nearly leapt of my chest with joy! Not only because Michael is my all-time favorite entertainer, either. It was because these children had seen past all of the hoopla, all of the years of rumors and speculation and decided that no matter what anyone else thought, Michael Jackson was a hero fit to be mentioned alongside some of the greatest human beings of any race to ever walk the planet! It gave me such a sense of hope, I nearly cried. I realized right then that Michael’s contributions to this world will ultimately trump everything else. Because of what he did, so many other children can do things that would otherwise be a distant dream for them. Not just in music, but in all areas of life. It’s disappointing that Michael Jackson’s contributions have yet to be accurately measured due to the division among the main people who can serve as the barometer, but I have much hope that over the years, this will change.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to connect the dots between MJ and Beyonce, the dominance of hip hop music all over the world (MJ was a LOT of people’s first introduction to Black people and Black music), and the success of music-based networks like BET, MTV, and VH1. We should ALL be proud of that and all of the other amazing things this man did on the behalf of every Black child who was told he couldn’t. MJ was told he couldn’t top “Off The Wall”, not because he didn’t have the chops but because those numbers were simply unheard of for a Black artist at the time. But he knew what he was capable of. Like so many other African American leaders, visionaries, and activists before him, Michael refused to let the limitations others applied to him because of race stop him. Instead, he let it motivate him. The rest is music history. The rest is Black history. I love that all people in all places on the planet can embrace, respect, and understand what MJ meant. I have seen so many races of MJ fans staunchly defending his pride in his race and culture and it really warms my heart. If they can see past the lightness of his complexion in the later years and understand that they were looking at a proud, Black man who embraced all people, I know that his fellow African Americans can.
Michael Jackson was the culmination of YEARS of great, Black talent in this country, known and unknown. From the plantation, to the Minstrel-Era, to the Chitlin’ Circuit where MJ himself honed his talent, Black performers have always had what it took to dazzle the masses. Michael was blessed that he was born during the period he was born in because it allowed him to evolve right before our eyes. I like to imagine that his predecessors including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Sammy Davis, Jr., Sam Cooke, Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, and of course James Brown are up there in Heaven, patting him on the back and telling him “Thank you” for taking the torch they passed down to him and running so far with it that NOBODY can ever put the fire out.
Thank you indeed, Michael. Thank you, indeed.
I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoy sharing it with you all.
God Bless and thanks for rockin’ with me!
~Y. M. Fourney