It don’t matter if you’re black or white…or does it?

[Editor's note: Not surprisingly, pop icon Michael Jackson has come up more than once in ARP discussions of race, self-esteem and Eurocentric beauty standards. How does one explain to children a young, black man seeming to morph into a white woman? How does one explain to children an icon of black music--a Motown star no less--that seems to hate his blackness? With the passing of pop icon Michael Jackson, we thought we would re-post some pieces about him, written by ARP contributors. Next week, columnists will weigh in on how to address the King of Pop, his passing and the ensuing media circus with children.

The following post was written by ARP columnist Deesha Philyaw. It originally appeared on her blog, Mamalicious, as part of a "32 Days of Black History Blog Carnival."]


I’m going to kick off our 32 Days with a complaint:

Whether it’s Black History Month or any other time of the year, it bugs me when black folks’ contributions in entertainment or sports are emphasized over our achievements in other fields like science, law, education, or public service.

And yet in our inaugural posts, Yvette and I are writing about black music. But that’s because it’s Friday, the day of the week we’ve chosen as our day for music, the soundtrack to our lives, yaddayaddayadda…

Before I get started, I want to point you in Yvette’s direction. She’s put together a cool playlist of “Protest and Social Commentary” songs. Raise your fist, and check it out.

Here, I want to talk about uber-entertainer, showman extraordinaire Michael Jackson.

young mj

My fellow Anti-Racist Parent columnist, Liz Dwyer, blogged about trying (in vain) to hide the above magazine from her young sons, who are fans of Thriler-era Michael Jackson. Liz’s boys had a hard time believing that Michael Jackson had become “a white lady.”

I’m right there with you, kids. I wish I could have frozen Michael in time, from about 1968 to 1986.

If I squint really hard, I can remember Michael before Bubbles and “Blanket”, before the Peter Pan syndrome and the suspect sleepovers, before the sham marriages and money troubles. I choose to remember the icon, if not the flawed man, who sang:

“Let me fill your heart with joy and laughter…”

I remember The Jackson 5 cartoon (vaguely), and doing the robot in my grandparents living room to “Dancing Machine.” I divided my elementary school crush efforts between Michael Jackson and Rodney Allen Rippey.

(Actress Kim Fields immortalized her crush with the song “Dear Michael.” Remember that?)

“Damned indecision…and cursed pride…”

Seeing Michael on the cover of the Off the Wall album brought me back down to Earth. Michael was no longer the little brother-frontman for The Jackson 5. He was a grown man, making music for grown folks. At 8-years-old, I had never known a lover’s rejection, but that didn’t stop me from belting out “She’s Out of My Life” like I knew.

“Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” is one of about 5 songs that will get me on the dance floor no matter who’s watching, no matter if I’m the only one dancing.

“There’ll be no darkness tonight…”

I don’t have anything to say about the genius of Thriller that hasn’t been said fifty-leven times already, so I’ll share a story:

1983, 7th grade, my best friend Iyana*’s attic bedroom. There are ten of us there, ranging in age from 9 to 15. Five boys, five girls. Two twin beds. You do the math. With the lights out, the nine-year-olds played DJ, spinning “Lady in My Life” between giggles, a few dozen times (this was before CD’s and track repeat).

Today, the parent in me cringes at that memory.

“Don’t turn around…cuz you might see my cry…”

In 8th grade, I owned the 45 of “Farewell My Summer Love.” Years later, as an adult, I could not figure out why a song featuring a pubescent Michael Jackson would have been in heavy rotation on the radio when Michael was nearly 30-years-old. Wikipedia to the rescue: Turns out, the single appeared on an album of the same name which was released in 1984 as a “lost” MJ solo album. The release had originally been slated for a decade earlier.

Neil Armstrong who? Michael Jackson’s first moonwalk on the Motown 25 special had my friend Alicia and me screaming and crying on the phone until we were hoarse.

Things got sketchy for Michael and me after Thriller. I preferred Weird Al’s “I’m Fat” parody to anything on the Bad album. My crush was officially over.

Michael next popped on my music radar with”You are Not Alone.” Nice song. Too bad about that creepy video with Lisa Marie.

As Michael became less and less black-identified physically, I became less and less interested in his music. According to bigger fans than me, Michael’s vitiligo diagnosis is documented, so with all due respect, I’ll leave the issue of his pigmentation aside. That said, the extensive plastic surgery is fair game for criticism. Forget black or white. Michael ceased to look fully human, and his eccentricities eventually overshadowed his enormous talent. The persistent pedophilia charges didn’t help matters either.

I consider Michael’s surgeries a form of mutilation, the epitome of self-hatred. And he hates his dad too. The sketch comedy show In Living Color joked about Joe Jackson’s controlling ways, but according to some reports , Joe’s abuse drove Michael to plastic surgery to erase those facial features that connect him to his father. Maybe it’s not so much that Michael hates being black; maybe he hates being his father’s son.

By sad comparison, the DeBarge family, another talented, tormented clan was also terrorized by a domineering, violent father (allegedly). Remember when El was hyped to be the next Michael Jackson? Instead of plastic surgery, the DeBarges turned instead to substance abuse to ease the pain.

But back to Michael.

MJ reminds us that race is everything and nothing. Changes in his appearance aren’t to blame for how his star has fallen. He has his personal demons to thank for that. But race does matter in that he hasn’t changed his appearance randomly. He hasn’t had surgery to make his nose broader, his lips fuller, for example. By all appearances, literally, Michael Jackson doesn’t want to be look be black anymore. But this begs the questions: What does it mean to be black? And who gets to decide?

Instead of tackling big–and on some level, useless–questions like that, it’s easier to just say thanks for the memories, and for the music.

*Some names changed to protect my ears from hearing people fuss at me about their privacy.

Discover The Jackson Five!
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